Therefore all seasons shall be sweet to thee,
Whether summer clothe the general earth
With greeness, or the redbreast sit and sing
Betwixt the tufts of snow on the bare branch
Of mossy apple-tree, while the nigh thatch
Smokes in the sun-thaw; whether the eave-drops fall
Heard only in the trances of the blast,
Or if the secret ministry of frost
Shall hang them up in silent icicles,
Quietly shining to the quiet Moon.

Monday, May 05, 2014

A Moorland Walk

This morning B Baggins and I tried a different walk though we were still on Blackamoor. A winding upward path eventually brought us to this cairn, I'm not sure exactly where we were but it might have been the top of Bole Hill - on the other hand it might not! Either way there was a wonderful view. I added another stone to the cairn and then carried on down the other side of the hill.

Eventually we came down onto the track that you can see in the photo and turned right walking up onto the moorland proper, it was obviously very boggy at the sides of the track and I wouldn't have cared to step off it! B Baggins was on a lead along here as there are a lot of ground nesting birds on the moors at this time of the year.

The track ahead...

...and to the left... the right...

...and looking back the way we've come. This is Totley Moor, a bleak place in winter or bad weather and dangerous too. In times past before the turnpike roads you needed a guide to cross these moors and many people met their deaths in snowstorms or by wandering off the tracks in mist and fog. This track carries on to Stony Ridge which was farther than I wanted to go so eventually we turned round and retraced our steps. There are lots of skylarks up here and I watched and listened as one rose so high in the sky that finally all I could see was a small black dot.

We reached a place where we turned off the main track and followed this little path round the side of the hill and into a friendlier looking scene where B Baggins was able to run free again for a while.

Once through the gate at the end of the track he had to go back on the lead as there were lots of sheep and lambs around.Even more exciting was this herd of red deer coming down off the high pasture. They were quite a distance off and this photo was taken with a 20x zoom.

We turned right and followed the drystone wall to another gate where we turned right again and followed the rough, stony track down to familiar territory where I heard a cuckoo calling. This is Lenny Hill where we walk most days, the little group of trees are special friends - a hawthorn, a young horse chestnut and a wild rose. What the horse chestnut is doing up here I have no idea, I think it must only have managed to survive because of the protection given to it by the hawthorn.

We turned right again and walked down Strawberry Lee Lane, halfway down B Baggins stopped at Lee Syke for a welcome drink and paddle, this little stream joins Blacka Dyke further down the hill and they in turn join Oldhay Brook which eventually joins with the Totley Brook to form the River Sheaf, one of Sheffield's five main rivers. Then it was home for breakfast at the end of a lovely walk that I shall definitely be doing again.

Thursday, May 01, 2014

Beltane - Bringing In The May

Today is Beltane, the first day of the Celtic summer and the celebration of the longer,warmer days and the fertility of the earth which is visible all around us. Beltane/May Day has been celebrated in English villages for centuries by the 'Bringing in of the May' which meant not only the month of May but also the beautiful white hawthorn or May blossom. This was gathered on May Eve and used to decorate the doors of all the houses in the village. The lovely blossoms were also made into garlands - this is the origin of the old nursery rhyme 'Here we go gathering Nuts in May'. The 'nuts' were knots of hawthorn blossom. There were boisterous games, feasts, bonfires and Maypole dancing and a great many other rather more private celebrations in the local woods which frequently resulted in an increase in the village population nine months later! All this frivolity came to a grinding halt in 1644 when Oliver Cromwell and his Puritan government - never ones for allowing people to have a good time if they could prevent it - banned maypoles and all the other May Day celebrations. Some of us in England may be thinking that there wouldn't be much May blossom to gather this morning but that is because in 1754 we lost 11 days when the Gregorian calendar was introduced and September 2nd was immediately followed by September 12th. May Day would originally have fallen on what is now May 12th when the May blossom would be in full bloom.

Beltane is one of the major fire festivals of the year and the ancient Celtic people released their cattle from winter confinement on this day and drove them between two great fires to purify them and they were then taken to their summer pastures.

As at Samhain the veil between the worlds is thin but rather than the spirits of the dead it is the fairy people who conduct their revels on May Eve. If you sit beneath a hawthorn tree on this night, you may hear the sound of bells as the Queen of the Faeries rides by on her snow white horse searching for mortals to lure away. Take care to hide your face for if she sees you then it may be you that she steals away and carries back to Tir Nan Og....

This is a beautiful and very ancient Gaelic poem dating back to at least the 10th century. The poet's name is lost in the mists of time but legend has it that it was the great Gaelic warrior king Finn McCuill who wrote it.

May, clad in cloth of gold,
Cometh this way;
The fluting of the blackbirds
Heralds the day.

The dust coloured cuckoo
Cries welcome O Queen!
For winter has vanished,
The thickets are green.

Soon the trampling of cattle
where river runs low!
The long hair of the heather,
The canna like snow.

Wild waters are sleeping,
Foam of blossom is here;
Peace, save the panic
In the heart of the deer.

The wild bee is busy,
The ant honey spills,
The wandering kine
Are abroad on the hills.

The harp of the forest
Sounds low, sounds sweet;
Soft bloom on the heights;
On the loch, haze of heat.

The waterfall dreams;
Snipe, corncrakes, drum
By the pool where the talk
Of the rushes is come.

The swallow is swooping;
Song swings from each brae;
Rich harvest of mast falls;
The swamp shimmers gay.

Happy the heart of man,
Eager each maid;
Lovely the forest,
The wild plane, the green glade.

Truly winter is gone,
Come the time of delight,
The summer truce joyous,
May, blossom-white.

In the heart of the meadows
The lapwings are quiet;
A winding stream
Makes drowsy riot.

Race horses, sail, run,
Rejoice and be bold!
See, the shaft of the sun
Makes the water-flag gold.

Loud, clear, the blackcap;
The lark trills his voice
Hail May of delicate colours
tis May-Day - rejoice!

I originally posted this in 2009 so decided to give it another outing today as I don't have time to research a new post for Beltane. It's pouring with rain so not exactly the perfect May Day morning but hopefully things will be better on May 12th - Old May Day:)

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

The Shepherd's Calendar - April

Along each hedge and sprouting bush
   The singing birds are blest,
And linnet green and speckled thrush
   Prepare their mossy nest;
On the warm bed thy plains supply,
   The young lambs find repose,
And ’mid thy green hills basking lie
   Like spots of ling’ring snows.                                     

Thy open’d leaves and ripen’d buds
   The cuckoo makes his choice,
And shepherds in thy greening woods
   First hear his cheering voice:
And to thy ripen’d blooming bowers
   The nightingale belongs;
And, singing to thy parting hours,
   Keeps night awake with songs!

With thee the swallow dares to come,
   And cool his sultry wing;                                           
And, urged to seek his yearly home,
               Thy suns the martin bring.

There are several excerpts from John Clare's lovely poem ' The Shepherd's Calendar ' on my blog but there are still several months missing so here is another one for the collection. The photographs were taken in the last couple of days, the bluebell one isn't very good but it shows how wonderful they are this year. Gillfield Wood is only a short distance from where I live but not many people go there as the big draw locally for bluebells is Ecclesall Woods. A great many people locally don't even know that Gillfield Wood exists but the bluebells are actually even better here I think. They aren't quite in full bloom yet but in another few days they will be fantastic. Already their scent is drifting through the woodland accompanied by the the singing of the birds and the bleating of the lambs in the fields that run along the edges - it's a beautiful place to walk in the springtime.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

St George's Day

This royal throne of kings, this sceptr'd isle
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars
This other Eden, demi-paradise
This fortress built by Nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in a silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall,
Or as a moat defensive to a house,
Against the envy of less happier lands;
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England...

These marvellous, stirring words are taken from the play 'Richard II' by England's greatest playwright William Shakespeare.

Today is also the 450th anniversary of Shakespeare's birth in 1564. So those of us who are English have two good reasons to celebrate - Happy St George's Day!

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Oak Alley and Alligators

I thought I'd better finally finish the story of our trip to New Orleans! Life has been exceptionally busy recently and I just haven't had time to blog. For the last full day of our stay we booked a full day tour visiting two Plantation Houses and then spending the afternoon on a swamp boat looking for alligators. The tour bus picked us up at our hotel at 10am and we set off for our first stop at Oak Alley. We took the River Road out to Vacherie, it runs alongside the Mississipi River with the levy on one side and plantation houses on the other. Above is one of the houses we passed on the way, and it is exactly as I imagined a plantation house would look.I believe it's called Evergreen.

This is Oak Alley which gets its name from the wonderful avenue of Live Oak trees that leads up to the house - my photos of the avenue were rubbish so I have borrowed the one from the Oak Alley website.
The house was built in the Greek Revival style in 1837-1839 for Jacques Roman and was originally named Bon Sejour.The house  had several owners over the years but  by the 1920s it was very run down. In 1925 it was bought by Mr and Mrs Andrew Stewart who restored it to its original 19th century beauty.

The interior of the house has been furnished and decorated in the way it would have been between about 1820 and 1830. This is the parlour.

The dining room - the velvet covered affair over the dining table is a fan known as a shoo-fly which was operated by a young slave boy who sat on a chair in a corner of the room pulling on a strong cord.

This is the bedroom used by Josephine Stewart and remains as it was when she died in 1972, it's the only room not decorated and furnished in the style of the early 1800s.I believe that the portrait on the wall is of Josephine as a young woman.

After the house tour we had the opportunity to try the drink that is always associated with the Southern hospitality - a mint julep. It's made with bourbon, mint, sugar and water and we had the perfect place to sit and sip it - though to be honest neither Juliette nor I particularly liked it!

The darker side of the sugar plantations was of course that they used slave labour and above we see the slave quarters which lay at the back of the main house - something of a contrast to the luxury of the plantation owners lifestyle.

Life as a slave was decidedly spartan - these two photos show the two sides of the one room cabin. The Oak Alley plantation had 113 slaves including children in 1848 - 20 house slaves and 93 field slaves.

This is an original sugar kettle which was used to boil the extracted juice out of the sugar cane - apparently it went through four boilings each one in a smaller kettle than the previous one. Several of the old kettles are now used as planters.

Our next stop was the Laura Plantation house - a rare example of a Creole raised house - the house had a raised brick basement which not only helped when the Mississipi flooded but also helped to keep the house cool in the hot, sultry summers.

This was a much less grand house but it was also older dating back to 1805, it eventually stood at the centre of a sugar plantation of over 12000 acres. This is the dining room - much smaller and less opulent than Oak Alley. I have to say that our tour here was very rushed as we were apparently running late so our guide fairly sprinted round both the house and the grounds.

There were some interesting old household artefacts in the kitchen area but no time to really look at them. I liked this little display set out on an old wooden table.

Having to race round the outside areas was even more disappointing since it was really interesting and I would have loved to spend more time exploring. The photo shows one of the slave cabins - one family in each side. These were much more interesting than the ones at Oak Alley as the Oak Alley slave quarters are reconstructions whereas these are the original buildings which were still being lived in by workers until 1977.

This shows two of the slave cabins each of which had a small vegetable garden, a chicken house and/or a pig pen. Laura also had a slave infirmary so I think that perhaps the slaves here were less harshly treated than was generally the case.

The inside of one of the cabins - there were two rooms here rather than one.

There was a display of pre-Civil War photos of slaves from this plantation, again I would have liked longer to really look at these. However we had to leave for our lunch stop then on to our swamp tour. The less said about lunch the better, I will just say that I'm not used to eating at the sort of place we were taken to and judging from the faces of the others I don't think they were either!!

By the time we arrived at Manchac Swamp it had turned really cold - too cold for alligators unfortunately. The captain of our swamp boat told us that they excavate a depression in the ground and go into a period of dormancy when the temperature falls below a certain level.

The swamp is a surprisingly beautiful and tranquil place though - at least most of the time. It wasn't very tranquil just here - this graveyard is supposedly haunted! The story is that a Voodoo Queen named Julie Brown lived in the little town of Frenier on the shore of Lake Pontchartrain - the Manchac Swamp separates Lake Pontchartrain from Lake Maurepas. Apparently she used to sit on her front porch singing a song that went ' When I die I'm going to take the whole town with me'. Well, in 1915 she did die and as she was being buried a huge hurricane swept through destroying the town of Frenier and sweeping her coffin and the 50 mourners at her funeral into the Manchac Swamp. The graveyard you see in the photo is where they are all buried in mass graves and the victims still haunt the swamp. I'm glad I didn't know that when we set off!! If you click on the photo to enlarge it you'll see the rough wooden crosses that mark the graves.

Here is one of the only two alligators that we saw - the other was a baby lying on a log and by the time I spotted it we were past so I couldn't get a photo.

A primitive camp which I gather our captain often uses. Like all the captains in this company he is a Cajun and very familiar with and knowledgeable about the wildlife in the area.

This shows very clearly the 'knees' of the cypress trees that grow in the swamp - these help to buttress and stabilize the trees in the soft muddy soil of flood prone places. On the right is the ubiquitous Spanish Moss.

I must say that the swamp itself wasn't at all as I imagined - there is much more open water than I'd expected, I thought we'd be going down narrow channels and be hemmed in by the undergrowth but it isn't like that at all.

Finally the bit that Juliette was really looking forward to - we got to hold a baby alligator! George is 3 years old and will eventually be released back into the wild. He won't be fully adult until he's about 15 years old.

My turn to hold George:) By the way I had a warm sweater on under my flannel shirt, I needed it too! This was a nice way to end what was a really great holiday, the following afternoon we flew back to Savannah and stayed overnight before flying to Washington for our overnight flight back to London. I really hope that one day I shall be able to go back to the Deep South.

Sunday, February 09, 2014

Basin Street Blues

Wednesday was the day for our 4 hour Voodoo Walking Tour of New Orleans. We met our guide Tree by the Civil War cannon in the Washington Artillery Park overlooking Jackson Square. He turned out to be a brilliant guide with a deep knowledge of the history of New Orleans. Voodoo is an intrinsic part of this history, it came to New Orleans along with African slaves and also with exiles from Haiti. From 1719 to 1731, the majority of African captives came directly from what is now Benin, West Africa, bringing with them their cultural practices, languages, and religious beliefs which are rooted in spirit and ancestor worship. Their knowledge of herbs, poisons, and the ritual creation of charms and amulets, intended to protect oneself or harm others, became key elements of Louisiana Voodoo. The people from the area which is now Benin were called the Fon and their word for spirits is Vodoun.

We visited the Historic Voodoo Museum which was founded by Charles Massicot Gandolfo in 1972. His fascination with Voodoo was inspired by the stories told to him by his grandmother who claimed that her great grandfather had been raised in New Orleans by a Voodoo Queen.

The African influence is very obvious in these carved wooden figures.

I confess that I found the interior of the Museum both fascinating and unsettling. This Voodoo altar has both Roman Catholic and Voodoo aspects - the beads that are draped everywhere as offerings are Mardi Gras beads.

A sequinned banner which is symbolic of Baron Samedi and Maman Brigitte, two Haitian Voodoo Loa or spirits who are connected with death.

Congo Square is in the vicinity of the area once used by the Houmas Indians, before the arrival of the French colonists, to celebrate their corn harvest. It is most famous however for being the place where the slaves and free people of colour gathered on Sundays to dance,drum,socialize and generally have a good time. It also served as a market place for these people and the slaves could sell goods and crafts here. This enabled many of them to eventually save enough money to buy their freedom.The French and Spanish slave owners had a much more relaxed attitude to their slaves than the British/United States owners did and they were allowed to keep their own beliefs and customs rather than being forced to convert to Christianity. Congo Square lies in the Tremé district of New Orleans just north of the French Quarter. To reach it you have to cross Rampart Street which is divided into North Rampart Street(which divides the Tremé and French Quarter districts)and South Rampart Street. The jazz classic South Rampart Street Parade was named after a real place!

Tree showed us examples of the different styles of architecture in New Orleans. This simple house is on Dumaine Street and is one of the oldest in New Orleans. It was built in 1788/89 in the French Colonial style. The family would live on the upper floor which would be safe from flooding and the wide balcony gave protection from both sun and rain.

Right next door stands this more typical Creole style house.

To the right is the home of the slave owner and his family, to the left across the courtyard are the slave quarters. I think they've now been converted to apartments and wouldn't have looked quite so smart when the slaves lived there!

Our walk then took us down towards Basin St and the St Louis Cemetery No 1 which is the oldest cemetery still in existence in New Orleans. The first burials there were in the late 1700s and all the vaults are above ground. This is because it was built on a swamp and has always been vulnerable to flooding. It is incredibly small, claustrophobic and decrepit as these photos show. Attempts are now being made to preserve and restore it but it will be a long and extremely expensive project.This site gives more information about both the cemetery and the organization that is working to preserve this and other old cemeteries in New Orleans. The famous Voodoo Queen Marie Laveau is supposedly buried here, we saw her tomb but there seems to be some doubt as to whether she's actually in there! For some reason I didn't take any photos in the cemetery so I've had to borrow a couple from the internet. I had a new camera and had problems with it throughout the trip hence so many poor photos.

Our last port of call was the former Southern Railway Station on Basin Street which is now a Visitor Centre. I've borrowed the black and white photo from the internet to show how it looked in the early years of the 20th century. This was the area of New Orleans where jazz first flourished. Jelly Roll Morton and many other famous jazz musicians began their careers in the clubs and bars around here. It was also the red light district of New Orleans for many years! Here's the great Ella Fitzgerald singing Basin Street Blues

By the time the tour finished it was mid afternoon so we decided to walk slowly back towards Jackson Square exploring some more of the French Quarter as we went. This is Royal Street one of the oldest streets in New Orleans dating back to the French Colonial period. We spent quite a while wandering along here, it's full of lovely antique shops and art galleries as well as being beautiful in itself with all the gorgeous Creole architecture.

Many of the old Creole buildings have the most beautiful wrought ironwork balconies. This is a section of the Upper Pontalba Building on Jackson Square. You can also see one of the old gas lamps which are all over the French Quarter, I believe they are still lit by gas rather than being converted to electricity.

The statue of General Andrew Jackson stands in the centre of the square which bears his name. As I mentioned in an earlier post he was the General who defeated the British at the Battle of New Orleans in 1815. He later became the seventh President of the United States serving from 1829 to 1837.

Finally another look at Royal Street. If you enlarge the photo you will see on the wall to the right the sign showing its name in Spanish - Calle Real. And have you spotted the Mardi Gras beads hanging over the gas lamp? From here we headed back to the hotel to put our feet up for an hour before getting ready for another night out on the town again:)