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Thursday, 23 March 2017

Is spring coming earlier?

Yesterday, two days after the equinox, the gardens of Waddesdon Manor in Buckinghamshire were glowing with spring flowers – daffodils and bluebell-like scilla dancing under the trees.
But looking through photos taken on a previous visit, I found a similar scene taken on April 20 2013. Slightly different angle, same tree, same flowers - much later. A sign of climate change?
In any case, it means there’s a lot to see and enjoy in the grounds right now. The Daffodil Valley (above) is clothed in yellow, while the formal bedding is looking spectacular.
And if you walk down to the Stables, you’ll find a new attraction, the Treaterie. Here are homemade crepes and waffles, cakes, pastries, macarons and fudge, and artisan ice cream made by Elizabeth Prior of Oliphant and Pomeroy (who, on its opening day, confessed to having been up at dawn, preparing the mix for the salted caramel ice cream).
Other flavours include some from the Waddesdon archives, which may well have been enjoyed by Queen Victoria and the future Edward VII when they were entertained by the manor’s original owner, Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild.
Waddesdon Manor is a National Trust property some 6 miles from Aylesbury. There is now a free shuttle bus that picks visitors up once a day from Aylesbury Vale Parkway station. It links with the 9.57am train from London Marylebone and returns at 4.15 for the 4.43 train Wed – Fri. Saturdays, Sundays and Bank Holidays it leaves at 4.45pm for the 5.13pm train. 2017 exhibitions include Glorious Years (highly decorated 17th c French calendars and almanacs), now on; Power and Portraiture (featuring Elizabeth 1) and Creatures and Creations are both open from June 7.

Tuesday, 21 March 2017

Spring blossom in London

 The park at Swiss Cottage has been transformed into a dancing sea of blossom.
     So beautiful, yet transient - an icy wind is already turning the petals into confetti.
Although the park is in the middle of a city, it reminded me of this Van Gogh painting, done in Arles more than 120 years ago. But I suspect the weather there might have been warmer.

Monday, 13 March 2017

Walking the Lea Valley 7 - Enfield Lock to Cheshunt

It’s not often that the remains of a ruined building are given a 4-star rating in a guidebook, but in the case of Waltham Abbey – all that's left of a once-great Augustinian monastery – it's more than justified. As our walking group passed through the heavy west doors, what we saw (above) prompted a collective gasp of wonder.
We gazed in awe at the huge Norman columns, the magnificent stained glass windows by pre-Raphaelite artist Edward Burne-Jones, the intricately carved reredos and the elaborate painted ceiling covered with signs of the zodiac – a recreation of Peterborough cathedral's medieval roof.
It was all the more stunning for being so unexpected.
The tower at the entrance (Tudor) is undistinguished, patched and restored, and giving no hint of the treasures within.
Our walk had started at Enfield Lock station, crossing the Turkey Brook, and heading north along the Lea Navigation, where we saw this egret.
Quite a few boats have gathered under the M25 - not the most peaceful of moorings.
From there it was only a few minutes heading east along a busy high street till we reached the Abbey, which still dominates the town centre.

Waltham’s first church was built in the 6th c and became a place of pilgrimage when a stone crucifix was brought there from Somerset. Several centuries later, King Harold went to pray at the shrine and was cured of a serious illness. In gratitude he built a new church and after his defeat at the Battle of Hastings in 1066 was brought back for burial. What stands today dates from the Norman conquest. Henry II founded the abbey as a penance for the murder of Thomas Becket and trebled the establishment's size, but with the dissolution of the monasteries under Henry VIII it was reduced again to just the Norman nave, which serves as the parish church.

A useful leaflet guided us round some of the building’s highlights, including the elaborate Denny tomb (above)  and a graphic 15th c Doom mural of the Day of Judgement,  rediscovered during restoration work in the 19th c.

Harold’s burial-place is unclear, but there’s a memorial stone outside the east end of the church. Lunch was calling, so there was a change of scene as we headed for the White Water Centre in the Lee Valley Country Park (that's their spelling).

This was built to host the canoe slalom events of the 2012 Olympics, and opened by Princess Anne in 2010. Today you can visit it and go white-water rafting, canoeing and paddle-boarding – or just take in the action. We watched while members of a group, clad in wet suits, jumped into the water and were ‘rescued’ – presumably part of a training course.

The food at the centre’s cafe was plentiful and quickly served, but sadly the terrace, which has a view over the park, was closed. Then we started along a path across the southern-most section of the 1000-acre park, which would eventually take us to Cheshunt and a train home.

We passed a strange concrete structure, covered with graffiti, that turned out to be one of the few remaining WWII Bofors anti-aircraft gun platforms and is now a scheduled monument. It was hard to imagine that this area, now so peaceful, was once part of the Outer London Anti-Tank Line, built to protect London from invasion. Today, the revitalisation of the valley - part of the Olympic legacy -has created a wildlife haven and the Regional Park Authority has produced several very informative booklets which detail what can be seen and where.
Walking along the towpath, we passed dozens of  inquisitive swans and geese, while coots were noisily making themselves heard out on the water.
It would be worth coming back in the summer when there are many more birds and we could follow the 2-mile orchid discovery trail. A park map even shows a dragonfly sanctuary – half the UK species are found there. But for now, we'll be continuing our exploration of the Lea Valley.

Friday, 17 February 2017

Can this orchid be saved?

Last October I was given a beautiful Orchidaceae Dendrobium, which flowered profusely for weeks.  When the spike finally finished, I cut it off and watched in delight as another one appeared from the base. It reached about 10cm, then, while I was away for a few days (during which time the weather was extremely cold and the central heating was off at night) the single leaf turned black at the base and collapsed. (I cut it off immediately after taking the photo.)  Now what seems to be another spike has started to appear, and I'm anxious it doesn't share the same fate. I can't find any obvious cause apart from the temperature, and when I spoke to a very helpful Baby Bio representative she recommended some intensive tlc. So the dendrobium is being cosseted with a drip-feed bottle of Baby Bio Orchid food, and their new Feed and Mist, which covers the plant in an extremely fine spray. Fingers crossed this does the trick, and I will post an update.

Saturday, 11 February 2017

Walking the Lea Valley 6: In the footsteps of Lawrence of Arabia?

We were not expecting to come across T.E. Lawrence when we embarked on the latest leg of our Lea Valley walk - from Chingford to Enfield lock - on a grey February morning. The muddy tracks through Epping Forest were about as far from the scorching sands of Arabia as it is possible to get. But when we reached our first stop – the Meridian obelisk at the top of Pole Hill – there was a memorial plaque. It recalls how the 18 acres of surrounding land "...was once owned by T.E. Lawrence, the famous soldier, writer and scholar. It was here that he originally intended to erect a house with his friend Vyvyan Richards in which to print fine books including his classic 'Seven Pillars of Wisdom'. This never came to pass although until 1922, Richards lived here in a hut called Cloisters.”
Lawrence seems to have continued to consider settling there – in 1923 he wrote to a friend: “It’s my ambition to live there and read again.” In the end, though, he sold the property to the Conservators of Epping Forest for exactly what he had paid for it – £3,500. Cloisters was removed to the Conservators' Yard at Loughton, where it remains as a storeroom for forestry equipment.
Today, the plaque is the only remaining sign of his occupation, and the view, which takes in City landmarks such as the Gherkin and the Shard, is altered beyond recognition.
The obelisk itself is of pink granite, and was erected in 1824 on the Greenwich Meridian  "to indicate the direction of true north from the transit telescope of the Royal Observatory". The Greenwich Meridian was changed in 1850, which meant zero longitude now passes 19 feet to the east of the pillar, so a second, smaller one – in fact an Ordnance Survey trig point – now stands in the correct spot. The name, Pole Hill, has nothing to do with poles: the land once belonged to St Paul's Cathedral, and the name is a corruption of this.
After this high point, the walk was a mixture of forest, farms and river valley. We slithered down the hill, picked our way through squelchy mud at the bottom, and then began climbing Yardley Hill. Suddenly the sun came out, and the morning was transformed.
Looking west, we could see the reservoirs (hidden behind protective banks on our previous rambles along the Lea) and look across to Enfield and the suburbs beyond. At the crest of the hill, the path suddenly flattened out, and we found ourselves at Gilwell Park, the home of the Scout movement in the UK.  In the late Middle Ages, the area was a farm, then grew into a wealthy estate. It later fell into disrepair and was bought in 1919 to provide camping for London Scouts and training for Scouters. Today the amenities include a swimming pool, rifle range, climbing wall, zip wire, archery field and a sensory trail. There’s also a canoeing lake, formed out of a bomb crater created in a WW2 air raid.
The imposing gates were carved in 1927 by Don Potter, who had joined the scouts as a Wolf Cub and later became the first leader of the 1st Gilwell Park Troop. The Gilwell symbol of an axe and log sits on the top of the gates, with crouching leopards below.
Our route then took us along Daws Hill, where some snowdrops were peeking up through the fallen leaves beside the road.
At the bottom we turned right and headed north along Sewardstone Rd, which runs parallel to the Lea. The name derives from Seward’s ton (farmstead) and there’s a possibility there was an Iron Age settlement here – in the 19th century, when the reservoirs were being constructed, the remains of a dugout oak canoe, knives and arrowheads were found. Today, the area is home to a string of horticultural nurseries and farms.
Though some former farm buildings have been become desirable residential properties, the area is still rural enough for motorists to queue patiently behind a pony and exercise cart.
 A very welcome lunch awaited us at the Plough, which we were delighted to discover has been a McMullen pub since 1917 – we has seen the McMullen’s brewery in Hertford on an earlier walk.
Then it was off to the Sewardstone Marsh nature reserve where a flock of Canada geese were braving the water.
More ponies, shaggy in their winter coats, were peacefully grazing nearby.
The path meandered through the marsh, past the Swan and Pike pool, and eventually joined the Lea Navigation.
Then we reached the main road, and made a dash for the bus that would take us and our muddy boots to the train station at Enfield Lock. As we boarded, I just managed to snatch a photo of the Victorian cottages – once built for workers at the former Royal Small Arms Factory – that line the waterway there.

Monday, 16 January 2017

Walking the Lea Valley 5: Tottenham Hale to Ponders End

A walk along the Lea Valley offers many glimpses of the area’s industrial past. But I was unprepared for the sight of two traditional powder barges, the Renaissance and the Judith, moored at Hale Wharf. They floated there, brown sails furled, looking as if they’d just unloaded a cargo of gunpowder and were awaiting further instructions. But I later discovered that not was all as it seemed. The two barges are reproductions, based on the design of the last of these sailing barges, the Lady of the Lea, built in 1931. They were commissioned by British Waterways as part of an ongoing regeneration plan for the area. And while their exteriors are traditional, below decks they apparently offer modern commercial space for anyone who fancies a memorable home for a business.
Regeneration is the buzz word along the Lea - the barges will soon be surrounded by up to 500 new homes. We saw more evidence of this when we started our walk at Tottenham Hale. Almost the first building we came across was this colourful apartment block, on a site where once stood the Gestetner duplication machine factory, opened in 1906 and until the 1970s employing around 6000 people.
The Lea at this point runs alongside a series of reservoirs, which provide 10% of London’s water. They’re surrounded by high banks where sheep graze peacefully.

Despite the icy January weather, there were plenty of birds about, perhaps hoping for scraps from the few canal boats that were still occupied.

This heron, sheltering among the bushes, had its plumage fluffed up to keep warm.

Further along was a flock of geese.

We paused at Pickett’s Lock, named after some early inhabitants, the Picot or Pickett family, who were descended from one Picot de Marisco (of the marsh), who lived locally in the 13th century. In 2015 it was temporarily renamed Alfie’s Lock in honour of former lock keeper Alfie Saggs. The new name is still in evidence and a sign outside the lock-keeper’s cottage reads Alf Saggs, Best Man on the Lea.

Further along, an information sign told us the river is so healthy these days that otters live there. Well, we did keep our eyes open, but they probably saw us first.

We passed the Lee Valley Athletics Centre, opened in 2007, and could just make out some hardy souls enjoying a round of golf on the neighbouring course.
 Our walk ended with a  very welcome lunch at the Harvester, housed in what started life back in 1899 as the Ponders End pumping station. The name, Ponders End, is another one that goes back a long way. A John Ponder is mentioned in a decument of 1372 and the surname is believed to mean a keeper of, or dweller by, a fish-pond or mill-pond. There’s been a mill here since at least the late 16th century and possibly as far back as the time of the Domesday Book (1086). The mill came under the control of George Reynolds Wright in 1870 and today Wright’s Flour Mill is Enfield’s oldest working industrial building.

Our final stop was by the entrance to the mill, to admire this charming Georgian lodge which may once have housed the miller.Lovely to see it still seems to be lived in.