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.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

John William Waterhouse

I've just spent a couple of days in London and the main purpose of my visit was to see the exhibition of paintings by John William Waterhouse at The Royal Academy. As I walked round I scribbled notes on my free guide about my thoughts as I finally saw in reality some of the paintings I've only seen in books or online before. The picture above is 'Circe Offering The Cup to Ulysses' and is the one chosen for the cover of the guide and for the publicity posters. What struck me about this was the way Waterhouse caught the wonderful diaphanous quality of Circe's robe. All the photographs are taken from the web of course as no photography was allowed in the actual Exhibition. I have to tell you now that I know nothing about art or the techniques involved, I simply know what I like - an attitude that infuriates my two artist friends both of whom are talented painters!

Another painting of the sorceress Circe - a very rare chance to see this as its usual home is the Art Gallery of South Australia. The title is Circe Invidiosa and it shows her in the seclusion of a quiet grotto poisoning the water where the beautiful nymph Scylla goes to bathe. The poisoned waters turn her rival into a dreadful sea monster. I loved this because of the wonderful vibrant turquoise of the water which isn't as obvious in the photograph as it is in the actual painting.

Who would be
A mermaid fair,
Singing alone,
Combing her hair
Under the sea,
In a golden curl
With a comb of pearl,
On a throne?

The Mermaid was first shown at The Royal Academy Summer Exhibition in 1901 and Waterhouse was inspired by the poem of the same name by Alfred, Lord Tennyson. I loved this painting, he captures the sheen of the fishscales on her tail perfectly.

There were two paintings of The Lady of Shalott and this was my favourite of the two - "I am half sick of shadows said The Lady of Shalott" If you click on the quote it will take you to my post of the whole of Tennyson's beautiful poem.

Each year, as payment for the slaughter of Minos' son, the Athenians offered a tribute of youths and maidens to the Minotaur that dwelt in the Cretan labyrinth. Designed by Daedalus, the labyrinth was so large and complicated that nobody had ever escaped from it. Ariadne's father, Minos, the King of Crete, selected Theseus as part of the annual offering, but on his arrival at the island Ariadne fell in love with him and, not wanting to see him die, secretly gave him a spool of thread by which he could trace his way from the maze. Theseus slew the Minotaur and fled from Crete, carrying Ariadne away as his wife, but when they arrived at the island of Naxos the Olympic gods shrouded his mind with forgetfulness and he deserted her while she lay asleep.
That is the story behind this painting but what really attracted me were the two panthers which I think Waterhouse has captured beautifully. They are there because they are sacred to the god Bacchus who, in some versions of the legend, came to her rescue and made her his wife giving her a golden crown as a wedding gift. After her death he placed her golden crown in the heavens and turned it into the constellation still called Corona Borealis or the Northern Crown.

This was the painting that kept drawing me back, it is the largest of the works by John William Waterhouse and shows Mariamne, wife of King Herod, after she has been condemned to death for adultery. I found the figure of Mariamne so mesmerising that I hardly noticed the background and had to make a real effort to look at it.

Not all of Waterhouse's paintings were of beautiful women, this is one of his earliest works painted in 1876 and called 'After The Dance'. It shows a Roman interior with two children resting after their performance.

My final choice from the exhibits is this one 'Penelope and the Suitors' which was painted in 1912 towards the end of Waterhouse's life. Ulysses is believed to be dead by everyone but Penelope and she is being courted by many suitors, all obnoxious and none of whom she wants to marry. In order to delay the moment when she must choose among them, she starts weaving a shroud for her aged father-in-law Laertes saying that she will choose when it is done. When Ulysses finally returns home after twenty years she tells him how she deceived the suitors 'So then in the daytime I would weave the mighty web, and in the night unravel the same'.

There were a hundred paintings and drawings in the Exhibition and it was hard to choose my favourites, Waterhouse had an incredible talent for painting beautiful women and I was especially impressed by the way he painted their hair. I have shown just a handful from among the many beautiful paintings that I saw and it was hard to choose which to include and which to leave out. I did buy the full 'catalogue' so now I can look at them whenever I like. Why it is called a catalogue is beyond me, it is a large glossy book with over 200 pages and well worth the £18.95 that it cost me. I really enjoyed seeing these wonderful works of art and am glad I made the effort to go. It's made me want to look for other interesting exhibitions to visit in the future and I shall also make time for visits to the National Gallery and the Tate next time I'm in London.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Saving The Best Until Last - Part Two

This is Stinsford church where Thomas Hardy's father and grandfather came every Sunday to play their violin and cello as part of the church choir. Those of you who have read Tess of the D'Urbervilles and Under The Greenwood Tree will know this as Mellstock Church. Hardy himself was christened here and was a regular member of the congregation as a boy and young man.

It was always Hardy's wish to be buried at Stinsford among all the other members of his family. In the end his wishes, and those of his family, were ignored and his ashes are buried in Poet's Corner in Westminster Abbey - only his heart was removed and buried in this grave with his first wife Emma. I find it astounding that it was possible to override the wishes of both Thomas Hardy and his family, including his wife, in this way. Hardy's second wife, Florence, was buried in this grave when she died in 1937 and the graves on either side also contain members of the Hardy family.

The church itself was not really all that exciting, there has been a good deal of Victorian 'restoration' and although it is a pleasant enough little church the really interesting things such as the musician's gallery, where Hardy's father and grandfather sat to play for the services, have been removed. There is now a modern replacement gallery, nice enough but without the history. This is the stained glass memorial window which shows Hardy's favorite Old Testament story (I Kings, chapter XIX) in which Elijah, here robed in purple, listens to the "still small voice" which followed the tumult of wind, earthquake, and fire.

This is the cottage where Thomas Hardy was born and where he wrote Under The Greenwood Tree and Far From The Madding Crowd. It was built in 1800 by his great grandfather. When he was only 16 years old he wrote the following poem describing his home.


It faces west, and round the back and sides
High beeches, bending, hang a veil of boughs,
And sweep against the roof. Wild honeysucks
Climb on the walls, and seem to sprout a wish
(If we may fancy wish of trees and plants)
To overtop the apple trees hard-by.

Red roses, lilacs, variegated box
Are there in plenty, and such hardy flowers
As flourish best untrained. Adjoining these
Are herbs and esculents; and farther still
A field; then cottages with trees, and last
The distant hills and sky.

Behind, the scene is wilder. Heath and furze
Are everything that seems to grow and thrive
Upon the uneven ground. A stunted thorn
Stands here and there, indeed; and from a pit
An oak uprises, Springing from a seed
Dropped by some bird a hundred years ago.

In days bygone—
Long gone—my father’s mother, who is now
Blest with the blest, would take me out to walk.
At such a time I once inquired of her
How looked the spot when first she settled here.
The answer I remember. ‘Fifty years
Have passed since then, my child, and change has marked
The face of all things. Yonder garden-plots
And orchards were uncultivated slopes
O’ergrown with bramble bushes, furze and thorn:
That road a narrow path shut in by ferns,
Which, almost trees, obscured the passers-by.

Our house stood quite alone, and those tall firs
And beeches were not planted. Snakes and efts
Swarmed in the summer days, and nightly bats
Would fly about our bedrooms. Heathcroppers
Lived on the hills, and were our only friends;
So wild it was when we first settled here.’

The cottage is National Trust property and when I asked my usual question about taking photographs inside I expected the equally usual answer of 'No'. The friendly warden amazed me by saying that I could take as many as I liked! It was quite difficult to get good ones as the rooms are very small and there was lots of sun pouring in through the windows but I did the best I could:) I really liked the parlour with it's flagstone floor and lovely big inglenook fireplace though I would have wanted a nice big rag rug on it in the autumn and winter months!

Thomas Hardy had a brother,Henry,and two sisters, Mary and Kate and this is the room which the two girls used. Thomas was the eldest child and it was 5 years before his sister Mary arrived. Henry was 15 years younger than Thomas and Kate didn't arrive until Thomas was 19 so the two girls were 14 years apart and probably didn't actually share the room for very long. And I have to say that I doubt whether the bed was that close to the fireplace when the room was actually in use!

I was standing as far back as I could to take this photo so you can tell how small the rooms are. This is the where Hardy and his brother and sisters were born.

This is Thomas Hardy's bedroom, he wrote Under The Greenwood Tree and Far From The Madding Crowd in this room, he used to sit on the lovely deep window-seat or at an old table that was set beside it. There was no electric light of course, only oil lamps and candles so he would have needed the light from the window to work. From here there was an incredibly steep, narrow stair leading down to the ground floor. It was more like a ladder really and I went down it facing the steps as if I was on a boat.

At the bottom of the stairs was the door into the kitchen with its brick floor. The original range has been blocked up but to the right of the fireplace is the old bread oven.

The lean-to at the side of the cottage with the old barrel being used as a water butt and handy for watering the vegetable garden. The cottage garden here is lovely and a couple of weeks after these photos were taken it would have been even better, there were so many plants almost ready to bloom. Like all cottage gardens it would be at its very best in mid to late June. I so enjoyed my visit, both cottage and garden were an absolute delight. I wish I'd had time to explore some of the surrounding woodland too, Thorncombe Wood is ancient woodland with nature trails and it has a Roman road running through it too. That will have to be for a future trip though- this time I wanted to go in search of Lawrence of Arabia.

I've known about Lawrence of Arabia for a long time of course but my first real encounter with his life was several years ago when I was in Jordan visiting various archaeological sites. We spent one of the days driving out into the desert in open top jeeps and visiting various places associated with T.E.Lawrence including the rock formation known as The Seven Pillars of Wisdom in Wadi Rum. Lawrence was a complicated and fascinating man and when I discovered that he had lived and was buried in Dorset I decided that I must see both his grave and his cottage.

Moreton Church where Lawrence's funeral service was held, it was attended by many famous people including Sir Winston and Lady Churchill and the poet Siegfried Sassoon. The church looks quite simple and ordinary from the outside but when you open the door and go in.......

...this is what you see, it's really beautiful inside and this photo doesn't do it justice. The church was hit by a bomb in WW2 (there was a US Army base at Moreton which was probably the actual target) and half of it was destroyed. After the war the church was rebuilt and they made a wonderful job of it.

The original stained glass windows were destroyed and they were replaced by plain glass which was etched by the artist Lawrence Whistler and I think they are the most beautiful windows I've ever seen. Do enlarge this so that you can see the detail. This was the only one where the light fell so that I could get a really good photo.

The main churchyard where Lawrence is buried is just across the road from the church but this is the original graveyard behind the church, what a wonderfully peaceful place to be laid to rest.

Clouds Hill, the cottage that Lawrence lived in from 1923 until his death in 1935. Another National Trust property now so we are back to 'no interior photography'. It was very interesting inside but even the Guide Book photos aren't up to much so you will have to take my word for it! Lawrence never actually lived here full time as he was a soldier and based at the nearby Bovington Camp. He used Clouds Hill as a place to write his books during his off duty times. The plan was to live here when his term of enlistment was up in 1935 but he was killed in a motorcycle accident a short time before this.

I think I stopped in Bere Regis so that I could look at the map, I turned off the main road and parked by the church and as the roads were busy with 'going home from work' traffic I decided I'd have a look round while I waited for it to quieten down a bit. It turned out that there was another Thomas Hardy connection here, Bere Regis was the manor of the Turberville family for over 500 years from the 13th to the 18th century and the family tombs are in the church. The inspiration for Hardy's novel Tess of the D'Urbervilles came from this powerful family which had eventually died out in the late 1700s.

The church itself was well worth seeing -and fortunately the verger, who arrived pretty much at the same time as I did to lock up, said he'd come back later so that I could look round. The photo shows the entrance to the church and above the porch door are two iron hooks with chains. These date to about 1600 and were attached to long poles and used to pull thatch from the cottage roofs in the face of an advancing fire. Fire was an ever present danger in an age when houses were built largely of wood with thatched roofs. Apparently there were several disastrous fires in the village and consequently there are very few really old buildings left here.

The interior of the church which dates originally from 1050 though there is little left from this period.

The really spectacular part of the church is the fabulous 15th century nave roof. It is made of oak with full length carved figures of the twelve apostles. There are various other carved heads and devices including a Tudor rose. These are all painted and gilded and it looks absolutely spectacular. It was the gift of Cardinal John Morton, Archbishop of Canterbury and Chancellor of the Exchequer to King Henry VII.

The font is 12th century and really beautifully carved. It's amazing that it has survived for around 900 years in such wonderful condition.

The wheeled parish bier isn't as old as some I've seen, it was acquired in 1898 to "ease the burden of funeral bearers, who, since the establishment of the cemetery in 1881, had been required to walk the whole distance to and from the church."

On the north wall of the chancel is a lovely carved table tomb commemorating John Skerne who died in 1593. The three brasses depicting John, his wife Margaret and the family coat-of-arms. The lower photograph shows a detail of one of the brasses.

At this point I thought I'd better let the verger come and lock up though I'm sure there was alot more of interest to see. This was my last day in Dorset and definitely the best.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Saving The Best Until Last - Part One

The final day of my stay in Dorset started early again as I headed off to fulfil one of the ambitions mentioned in Winter Dreaming - the only one I've managed so far I'm afraid! I arrived to find the car park empty and the sun shining. Needless to say the photo above is not one I've taken myself but an aerial photo is the only way you can really see what Maiden Castle looks like. I came up the little white track on the right of the photo and entered on the western side then walked all round the perimeter. The 'War Cemetery' that I mention later in this post lies directly opposite on the eastern side. I know it looks as though I don't know east from west but it's just that the photo is taken from the northern side:) Clicking on all the photos to enlarge them will make it much easier to see detail.

Maiden Castle is yet another of the many Iron Age hillforts in Dorset and it commands spectacular views over the surrounding countryside. The walk round the perimeter is about 2 miles and, as with Hambledon Hill, I had it entirely to myself most of the way. It was a marvellous experience, wonderful scenery, 6000 years of history around me and the constant sound of skylarks singing overhead, not just one or two but dozens of them.

English Heritage, who own the site, do an excellent job with their information boards, there are just a small number of them and they are dicreetly placed and very informative. This one gives an impression of life here as it would have been 2000 years ago.

I love this photo which shows the ramparts beautifully, these were built 2000 years ago and, as at Hambledon Hill, the only tools that were used were antler picks, wooden spades and shovels made from animal shoulder blades.

This is the information board which describes the 'War Cemetery' better than I can. There is little to see now apart from a large hollow, I scrambled down the bank from the fort to look at the actual site...

...but this is all that there is to be seen as I stand in the area where the burials were found and look up to the eastern entrance to the hillfort. This definitely needs enlarging to make any sense.

This newly shorn and beautifully clean sheep came to see what I was up to in her territory.

This is all that remains of the Romano-British temple that was built on Maiden Castle built in the late 4th century AD.

The information board gives an artist's impression of how the temple would have looked. I find the various artist's impressions on these boards very helpful, even though I know a certain amount about Roman temples it's still hard to visualize one from an outline of stones in the ground.

It's really difficult to give a real impression of the height of these ramparts, I thought the pathway and the line of steps leading down the opposite embankment might help to give an idea of just how massive these earthworks are.

Just to the side of the hillfort is this Bronze Age round barrow, it has stood in this place for about three and a half thousand years respected by each passing culture through the centuries. After a very enjoyable couple of hours I made my way back to the car park meeting hordes of people on their way up, the car park was absolutely full by this time and I was, once again, glad that I'd made the effort to get there early. My next destination was Stinsford church where Thomas Hardy's heart is buried but this will be in Part Two.

Thursday, July 09, 2009


The evening comes, the fields are still.
The tinkle of the thirsty rill,
Unheard all day, ascends again;
Deserted is the half-mown plain,
Silent the swaths! the ringing wain,
The mower`s cry, the dog`s alarms,
All housed within the sleeping farms!

The business of the day is done,
The last-left haymaker is gone.
And from the thyme upon the height,
And from the elder-blossom white
And pale dog-roses in the hedge,
And from the mint-plant in the sedge,
In puffs of balm the night-air blows
The perfume which the day forgoes.

And on the pure horizon far,
See, pulsing with the first-born star,
The liquid sky above the hill!
The evening comes, the fields are still.

By Matthew Arnold

Saturday, July 04, 2009

Hambledon Hill

On my third day in Dorset the weather was decidedly better and I decided to go out early and climb Hambledon Hill which is very close to Iwerne Minster. Not only is Hambledon Hill an Iron Age hillfort of international importance but it is also a National Nature Reserve which is home to a wonderful array of wild flowers, grasses, butterflies,insects and birds. The photograph above shows the impressive ramparts of the Iron Age fortifications.

I started by climbing a path through a woodland area and came across this rather impressive bracket fungus on one of the trees.

Just to give you an overview of the site and help you get your bearings, I came up the path next to the P marked on the left and then turned right to begin my climb and when I reached the top I walked to the southern end and then turned and walked down the centre of the hillfort from south to north and eventually back to my original starting point. Clicking on any of the photos will enlarge them so that you can see more detail.

I approached from the west side of the hill which is about 470 feet high so is quite a steep climb. Rather than go straight up I started walking round and gradually climbing as I went. The thin chalk grassland was awash with flowers, I am making no firm statements about the one above but I think it's yellow rattle. As I climbed steadily up and round I was lucky enough to have two seperate sightings of a red kite, a bird I've never seen before. Both flew up right in front of me so I had a really good view of them, they were gone before I could photograph them though.

I'm even less sure what this is but have decided that it might be a milkwort of some sort.

People were occupying this site long before the Iron Age, this is part of a Neolithic causewayed enclosure which dates back over 5000 years to between 2900BC and 2600BC.

More wild flowers - the Early Purple Orchid

I think this is Horseshoe Vetch but am open to correction - if it is it is the food plant of two rare and beautiful butterflies - the adonis blue and the chalkhill blue both of which are found on Hambledon Hill.

These two photos are taken from the web - I only wish I'd had the privilege of seeing these beautiful butterflies myself. The chalkhill blue is on the left and the adonis blue is on the right.

This is another milkwort - chalk milkwort I think. There are several kinds of milkwort and telling them apart isn't easy.

This is a long barrow, a Neolithic burial chamber, it lies at the highest point of Hambledon Hill and is 230ft long. I am standing at the narrow southern end about to walk up and over the top.

Looking out over the village of Childe Okeford and showing clearly the steep ramparts that were built using only picks made from deer antlers, wooden spades and shovels made from animal shoulder blades. Can you imagine the effort involved in making something like this using only these tools? These people must have been both physically fit and mentally strong to have the vision and staying power to build on this scale. The area enclosed by the ramparts is about 30 acres!

A somewhat hazy view over the lovely Blackmore Vale, still a lot of cloud around but it was warm and dry and I was willing to settle for that.

I'd arranged to meet up with friends in Sherborne in the afternoon but as I drove along the road from Childe Okeford ( I love this name!) I passed a layby that I thought might be the access to Hod Hill, another Iron Age fort practically next door to Hambledon Hill. I turned the car and went back to check and I was right so I decided I still had time to go and explore.

Hod Hill is the largest Iron Age hillfort in Dorset and was home to the Durotriges, the Celtic tribe who occupied this area of Britain. Around 43AD it was attacked and taken by the Roman Legio ll Augusta commanded by Vespasian who later in his career became Roman Emperor. The photo shows part of the double bank and ditch defenses - it's quite a steep climb getting up there. It was unusual for a hillfort to be re-used by the Romans but in this case they built an auxiliary military camp in the north west corner. On the ground I could see the lumps and bumps where it had been but there was nothing that would really show up in a photograph. If you click on the previous photo there is an artist's impression of the Roman fort which has been excavated so they do know exactly what was there - apparently 600 legionaries and 250 cavalry were garrisoned here.

I walked all round the perimeter but even though it is larger than Hambledon Hill it doesn't compare for either beauty or atmosphere, it was a pleasant enough walk but nothing more. It did have its interesting moments though. Click on the photo - can you hear the conversation? 'Hey boys, look over there! Who's that? Let's go and check her out!'

They all came ambling over, curious as cows always are. There was no threat but they all started trudging along behind me so finally I turned round, held up my hand like a policeman and said 'Halt' and to my utter amazement they did. 'Okay, what now?' enquires the leader of the herd. I explained that I had nothing interesting for them to eat and that I was really pretty boring so there was no point in them following me.

There was obviously some discussion and then they decided that actually I was a bit of a disappointment on the entertainment front and, with a little encouragement, they turned aside and wandered off again. They really were as close as they look in the middle photo,I'm not using any zoom - actually they all posed rather nicely I thought:)

Like Hambledon Hill, Hod Hill is rich in wild flowers and butterflies, this is wild mignonette which I thought was very pretty, I've never seen it before.

This is a very ordinary sight, a field thick with buttercups which I walked through on my way back to the car. Buttercups may be common but seen en masse like this they are really beautiful. I went on my way to Sherborne well satisfied with my morning, it was full of historical and botanical interest, I'd had a good deal of exercise and I'd had both places virtually to myself to drift and dream to my heart's content.