Tuesday, May 17, 2011

London weekend

Off to the Big Smoke for a spot of culture. We were very lucky - great friend Erin dog sat, and we were able to stay in our friends flat in Hoxton near Islington while they were away - very generous of them! A fantastic venue, right on the Regent's Canal, already a favourite place of ours. I'm astonished (though I shouldn't be) at the number of people on that canal. A constant stream of cyclists and joggers so you really have to walk single file to allow them all to pass without irritation (to us and them).

It's a 20 minute walk along the towpath to get to the Angel at Islington, so we became very familiar with this stretch of waterway. On Saturday we were heading in with the idea of brunch, but paused at one of the locks to watch a narrowboat coming in, then helped with their lines and the lock gates.

They were a retired couple from the Midlands who spend ten weeks every summer on the English canals. Chat chat chat like boating people do, then

'Would you like to come through the tunnel with us?'

The tunnel passes right under Islington High Street and I've written about it before - we were first on the Regent's Canal in 2009 and again in January this year. But we'd never been through it - in fact I've never been through any waterways tunnel before.

'Yes indeed,' we said, of course.

This is a tunnel through which, in the early, horse-drawn days of the canal, men 'legged' it through, lying on their backs to propel the boat. You can just see the light at the other end of it - half a mile away.

Half way along the tunnel
It was surprisingly airy in there - not as claustrophobic as I'd expected. But there were drips. Big fat drips into your hair and your eyes. We met a coot halfway along, scooting under Islington. Saves dodging the traffic. Coming out the other side felt like another world. 

Into the light

We fitted in a lot over the weekend. Two Tates for a start. I hadn't been to the Tate Modern before. The main exhibition was the Spanish (or I should say Catalan) surrealist painter MirĂ³. Each room in the exhibition covered a different stage of his life and career, from the early days when his paintings were largely of the farm he grew up on, through exile in France during the Civil War to the days of Franco. And finally post-Franco. It was a fabulous experience. I'd love to put a pic of his paintings here, but there will be copyright issues, so have a look here.

At the Tate Britain it was watercolours. Excellent curation - it brought you through from the 17th century via astonishingly accurate botanical paintings used as much as a scientific record as things of beauty, and into the modern day. Part of it was a series of educational displays on the development of watercolours showing the materials used, painboxes, brushes and so on. Right at the end of the exhibition was a hanging crumpled sheet of pink plasticky stuff made from Cellophane, watercolour, emulsion, acrylic paint, vaseline, glass, shampoo, hair gel, toothpaste and thread. This was by Karla Black and entitled 'Opportunities for Girls'.

I read all sorts of things into it, mainly based on the title. I thought of the fragility of opportunities for girls, that the pink represented the 'girliness' of what is available for them, that they are still pushed into 'women's work' in spite of feminism. And so on. Then I read what it said in the catalogue. It seems I was wrong. Not sure what the description meant, but it was somewhat less practical than my ideas.

Then there were the two sticks on the wall by Hayley Tompkins. They were painted and enamelled. Stuck on the wall. Small sticks, bent in the middle.

We fitted in a boat trip down to Woolwich - on a Thames Clipper water taxi. And the Chelsea Physic Garden, a little oasis next to the river, the oldest botanic garden in London and still used as a place of research. Fabulous tea and cake too.

And a play at the Almeida - A Delicate Balance by Edward Albee. Brilliant.

I think we're all cultured out for a while. At least until Listowel Writers Week. Just time to catch our breath.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Rare and Special

On Sunday we went to Birr Castle, not to see the telescope, though that was right beside us, nor to view the grounds, though we did that too. This was far more exciting. Birr Castle was hosting the annual Rare and Special Plants Fair, and I was fairly in heaven. I had a few euro in my pocket and twenty or more stalls filled with unusual plants on which to spend them.

Straight in to one near the starting gun and three plants bought in a three-for-one offer, all of which were definitely unusual. I have to say I was a bit giddy from all the choice, and struggling, as was everyone, with the gale blowing down the field. Tall plants were especially tricky.

Once I'd spent my money and the plants were being cared for in the plant creche (being taught the trick of settling into a new garden, perhaps) we had a look around. Joe wanted to visit the science rooms in the old stable block, and I could hardly refuse as he'd been so patient with the plant excitement. Plus it was a relief to be out of the wind for a while. There are photographs and explanations of the extraordinary job the Third Earl of Rosse made of constructing a giant telescope during the early 1840s. The 'Leviathan', as the telescope is called, was the largest of its kind for over 70 years. Lord Rosse was a complete enthusiast, spending hours working on it in his workshops at Birr Castle.

The Leviathan was the second major telescope he built, and with it he was able to discover the spiral nature of some of the galaxies. People came from all over the world to use this astonishing piece of engineering. The telescope was used until the Earl's death in 1867, after which it fell into disrepair, but in the 1990s the Seventh Earl of Rosse began the job of restoration. And there it is today, looking magnificent, and somewhat improbable sitting like a cannon between its tall protective walls.

After the telescope stuff we walked around the formal gardens where there's a 'hornbeam cloister' and some complicated designs with box hedging, then on into the woodland, across the river on a stone bridge where we found a giant tree, recently cut. It was one of those vast North American types which make you dizzy when you look up into them. A few were still standing and I had a shivery Jack and the Beanstalk moment. The felled tree would keep you in firewood for years. Back along the river walk to the lake where a crowd of ducks were having a bit of a spat. It's that time of year. Marital stuff.

My courtyard is full of beauties now, waiting to be planted out.  A reorganisation of the garden might be required. And perhaps a spot of lawn stealing.

Joe's purchase was these toadstools made from Birr Castle timber. I think they're gorgeous. Seats to put in the far ends of the garden to perch on and admire the view and the flowers.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Back on the water

Just back from a week in Cavan/Fermanagh, most of which was spent on the boat. The first couple of days had Joe in overalls with a nasty noisy sanding machine and face mask. I managed to avoid this unpleasant activity through various means, but am hugely appreciative of Joe doing it. Then, once the decks were (partly) sanded and painted, off we went into the north.

Parkland at Crom Castle
We took a circuitous route to begin with, stopping for the first night at Crom Castle which is something we always seem to do. It's such a delicious place to stay, and we often meet people we know, or people we get to know. It was barbecue time too, and for once we timed it well - we frequently buy the wherewithall for the barbecue but for various reasons end up eating it the following day. Buying stuff when on a boat isn't straightforward. For example on the Erne you have the choice of Belturbet (way off down a river) in the south or Enniskillen in the middle. Beyond Enniskillen is Kesh, or way way off in Donegal is Belleek. But to get to either of these you have to trust to the winds. The broad lough is not for the fainthearted, and once down it you may not get back without broken crockery and spirit.

Rhododendrons at Crom (bad pic sorry)
There were less boats out than we'd expected for a weekend in which Friday and Monday were bank holidays - two bank holidays in the north as this was the weekend of the Royal Wedding. I think the boaters had all gone abroad having taken the middle three days of the week as holiday. Or perhaps they decided to stay at home to watch the wedding, and were so overwhelmed by the emotion they had to spend the rest of the weekend recovering.

The hotel at Knockninny
Many people watched it on their boats. The people in the cottages at Crom had it on - they were so engrossed they didn't notice us peering through their windows. We had to wait until the newspapers the next day to see what The Dress was like. But first, showers and dinner at Knockninny where, I'm sad to report, we ended up drinking brandies in the bar until too late. We nearly got away with a Relatively Low Alcohol Evening, as Marshall the landlord was away and the waitress, although efficient, did not provide for conversation, and there seemed to be no chatty guests. But our downfall came with the arrival of Gail. She was the sort of landlady who somehow gets people talking and, in our sad case, drinking brandy.

Winter Solstice at Knockninny

The young fellow we eventually got talking to had arrived with his young lady as we were eating, both carrying smart clothes on hangers. A short while later they came down for dinner. Then there he was on his own drinking beer. Not very romantic, I thought. Had they had a row? Was he a selfish bastard who would drink beer in the bar because he always did that on Friday night? But no! The mystery was resolved. His fair lady was applying the fake tan for the wedding they were attending on the following day, and he had been banished because, his girlfriend told him, of the fumes. Sounded like a tall story to me.

First bat scare of the year. There I was in the conservatory typing away, Joe in the barn (converted I must emphasise) adjoining. Out he rushed, exclaiming wildly.
'Oh my god there's a bat'
The Bat Expulsion Procedure was immediately put in place. Joe vacated the premises, I closed the door on him, opened appropriate doors and windows in the barn, sat in with the bat watching it circle until it eventually found the way out, had the discussion Where Did It Get In. They can wriggle through the tiniest of spaces so we never find out.