Tuesday 30 October 2012

Druids and ancient beeches

Druids and Celtic rites, highwaymen and secrets of World War II featured in the latest hike with my newly-joined walking group ...

Burnham Beeches is 540 acres of ancient woodland on the border of Buckinghamshire and Berkshire that was rescued from developers by the City of London.

These woods used to be vast, covering virtually the whole of the county of Buckinghamshire. Their history stretches the mind quite breathtakingly to way before Roman times. Below are the remains of a fort which has been dated to the late Bronze Age or early Iron Age (somewhere between the 8th and 5th century BC). What you can see  here is the remnants of a moat that surrounded it ...

Unfortunately much of the remains were damaged during World War II when Burnham Beeches was used as an army vehicle depot - a perfect hiding spot under cover of dense woods. Top secret, its existence was whispered about in local villages after schoolboys in search of adventure crept through barriers to spy on the hidden camp.

Its shining moment came when more than 10 000 army vehicles were marshalled and prepared here for the D-Day landings and driven out of these woods in convoy at night, headed for the coast.

The oldest living tree in Burnham Beeches is the 'Druid tree' - not a beech, but an oak - thought to be between 800 to 1000 years old. Its trunk is completely hollow, making it rather fragile - hence the protective fence ...

It was named (and pollarded) by the Victorians because the ancient Druids are said (by Pliny the Elder, who may or may not have got his facts straight on this - see here) to have considered oak trees sacred and danced around them in moonlit ceremonies.

In the Middle Ages the woods were a mad, bad and dangerous place, being inundated with highwaymen. Today, with Pinewood Studios located conveniently close by, they are a favourite location shoot for films, from early James Bond to Harry Potter. They've stood in as Camelot for First Knight, a generic ancient England for Ivanhoe, Irish woodland for The Crying Game, and of course Sherwood Forest for Robin Hood.

Our own merry band included hiking veteran border collie, aka Alpha lead dog, a trusty Beagle as her deputy, and a rather cute, pampered poodle who, if she felt a trifle silly being carried in a handbag for most of the walk, didn't show it ...

 Keep up, people ...

This hike was scheduled for a time of year (two weeks ago) when the woods are normally blazing with autumn colours - but as you can see, they were still overwhelmingly green, as the trees have turned very late this year.

On the trail leading out of the woods (with Princess Poodle still being carried) ...

we came back full circle through adjacent farmland

and ended, as English rambles must by tradition, with victuals at a local pub ... was it going to be the Blackwood Arms or the Jolly Woodman? 

Thursday 25 October 2012

A walk around Bloomsbury

Pop up from Russell Square station ...

and you're in the heart of Bloomsbury, home to many of London's universities and with a literary history of note.

Most of these pics were taken in and around Lamb's Conduit street, its unusual name acknowledging William Lambe who kindly paid for a water conduit to supply the area in 1577.

The Lamb pub dates from 1779 but has a fantastic Victorian interior. Charles Dickens used it as his local, and Ted Hughes courted Sylvia Plath here ...

The street is known for its collection of eccentric independent shopkeepers and establishments going back many years. Connock & Lockie have been 'bespoke tailors for ladies and gentlemen' since 1902 ...

Coram's fields at the end of the street is seven acres of pretty green woodland and public space ...

 a peaceful place in the middle of London to sit and watch the leaves fall ...

But I was headed for no. 59 Lambs Conduit street, Persephone Books ... independent publisher of "neglected novels, diaries, poetry ... mostly by women and mostly dating from the early to mid twentieth century" (owner Nicola Beauman describes herself as a 'gentler' kind of feminist). 

It's a uniquely English place - a tiny, cluttered, colourful space combining office and shop, crammed full of piles of books in trademark dove-grey covers, along with colourful flowers and vintage war-time posters, old desks and worn floorboards. 

I met blogger and writer Elizabeth Wix here (from About New York and aka mother to Buster, surely everyone's favourite rescued pooch) and at this tea-shop down the road, decorated prettily for Halloween, we spent hours talking over scones and tea ...

(My pics of Bloomsbury were happy-snapped with my little digital camera and then, as you can see, played around with for special effects - vintage looks for a vintage area)

Sunday 7 October 2012

Rambles in the countryside (and a small rant)

De zomer zit in het slop ... is possibly my favourite Dutch expression; 'summer is in the doldrums' is not nearly as expressive or alliterative. It applies pretty well to most days of the British summer, but now that we've progressed from mere slop to fully bewolkt en koud, I feel it's the perfect time to pull on one's hiking boots and venture into the English countryside.

A change in my working life has enabled me to finally join a hiking group whose inviting emails describing country trails have been entering my inbox for a couple of years.

This one started and ended in Hedgerley - a village and ancient parish tucked away in a tangle of fields and copses in south Buckinghamshire - not far, as you can see from the map pin, from Wooburn and the slightly frightening sounding Cookham & Burnham. You've got to love quirky English place names (how about Ugglebarnby, Crinkley Bottom, Steeple Bumpstead or Giggleswick).

But I'm also learning the clues they give to who lived where and when: 'ley' is an old Anglo-Saxon word for a clearing in a wood, and so Hedgerley was originally Hycga's clearing (though no-one seems to know anymore who Hycga was). This little settlement, like the whole county of Buckinghamshire, was once part of the kingdom of Mercia, in the Anglo-Saxon heptarchy. 

There's a village street of red brick cottages, some of which have not changed much since the 16th century. In Roman times, Hedgerley was an important centre for pottery, and later on it became famous for brick-making - in kilns supplied by nearby clay pits.

Today, it's possibly better known for multiple grisly murders, as one of the locations for Midsomer Murders, from which we have learned that quaint English villages invariably harbour dark secrets and serial killers.

In awe of those who seemed to know their way through woods and open fields, I followed the  band of walkers and progressively dirtier dogs ...

Gaiters and hiking boots were the way to go for some, wellies for the English traditionalists - whatever gets you through the mud and over the stiles.

The fields in this area are called 'sea fields', because in spring they're covered with bluebells and look like a sea when the wind blows across them.

A few hours later we'd returned full circle to Hedgerley for a look round the parish church of St Mary the Virgin that tops the village ...

poking around graveyards being a favourite thing of mine to do 

before lunch called, at the village pub ...

and look, there was Postman Pat - 

As a footnote: for those who don't know him, slightly simple-minded but adorable Postman Pat, delivering mail come rain, snow or sunshine in his dinky little red van to the residents of Greendale, was a loved character for a generation of tiny tots (including my own) and the Royal Mail's best advertisement ... until 2000 that is, when they dumped their sponsorship of the show, saying that Postman Pat "no longer fitted in with their corporate image"! Shame on the Royal Mail! 
I believe in his new life our favourite postman now works for some fictional, anodyne 'Special Delivery Service' and has a fleet of vehicles including a helicopter, but I cannot verify this personally, as I'm too outraged by the notion to go and check it out :) Here's the original, from 1981 ...

Tuesday 2 October 2012

October thoughts on a Paris summer

Since the cold and wet are upon us, and for no other reason, I have been playing with images from this summer one last time  

- these from Paris in June -

as a farewell to the season before I embrace the autumn, as I've been asked to do by kind and persuasive Marsha for an international blog posting (see here).

But why surrender just yet to the closing in of darkness on gloomy London days when you could be dreaming of Paris in the summer ... nursing a petit noir on a sunny pavement of a morning while watching the passers by ...

... moving on to a little kir or pastis at lunchtime, and a chilled Sancerre for the evening apero ... voilà, your chairs are ready and lined up for the entertainment of watching the passing parade

oh to be a flâneur in Paris ... Susan Sontag's 'voyeuristic stroller'. Though oops, this one below has crept in from Berlin - I just loved the range of intent expressions, of watchers and watched ...

You can see and be seen by beautiful people at Chez Julien on the bank of the Seine 

or take a bottle down to the river bank and stretch out on sun-warmed stone

(Vanessa Paradis can help you get the mood, though her sweet little ditty gets a bit repetitive, be warned)

Vanessa Paradis La seine.mp3
Found at bee mp3 search engine

On a quiet pedestrian bridge closed to traffic 

there's an accordionist on hand with saccharine music for lovers

a magician's dogs patiently wait their turn to entertain

and Notre Dame glows in late evening sunshine

I'll get to welcoming the autumn, just give me a moment longer ...

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