It’s a jungle out there. Living in a secure property on a comfortable middle class estate in a quiet Derbyshire town, it’s easy to forget the dangers of gun and knife crime. But only if you throw your television, radio, mobile phone and laptop out into the street, and lock yourself away from modern Britain. The news media revels in crime stories, even in the festive season, so its no surprise that the recent murders of Elle Edwards (shot in a pub in Wallasey on Christmas Eve) and Cody Fisher (stabbed in a Birmingham nightclub on Boxing Day) got massive coverage.
Don’t get me wrong, it could be much worse. The murder rate per 100,000 people in the US is more than four times that in the UK (2018, extrapolated from data quoted in the World Population Review). Maybe that reflects, in part, the fact that in this country there is no constitutional right to bear arms (of course, we have no written constitution at all, but that’s another story altogether!) Our laws surrounding the carrying of weapons are strict, and I for one am enormously grateful for that.
But the law isn’t much of a deterrent or an obstacle to those who don’t respect it in the first place. There’s no shortage of weapons to be had in this country, so long as you know where to look. We urgently need to get them off our streets. With this in mind, Greater Manchester Police have committed to an ongoing amnesty project. It seeks to encourage holders of such weapons to surrender them voluntarily.
Some of the weapons collected have been used to create an anti-violence monument for the city. The monument takes the form of a giant bee, and is made out of literally hundreds of knives and firearms surrendered during the “Forever Amnesty” project. The artwork visited a local town near us a few weeks ago, so Mrs P and I popped along to where it was parked up to take a look.
The artists behind the Bee Monument are from the British Ironworks Centre, where the stunning Knife Angel was also created. It’s hard not to find the Monument both enormously impressive and seriously alarming. On the one hand it is magically eye-catching, bristling with glinting knives and glowing with well-oiled firearms. But on the other hand, I would never have believed there were so many deadly weapons in Manchester…which I guess shows just how innocent I am! And I wonder how many more are still out there, primed and ready for use by people with malice in their minds?
The Bee Monument is a splendid sculpture which does a decent job in raising awareness about the scale of the problem. But maybe, also, it’s a symbol of hope, showing that – with commitment and creativity – objects so profoundly ugly as weapons of death can be re-cast into a thing of beauty.
While Brits will know it only too well, overseas readers may be unaware that – due to the knock-on effects of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine – the UK is in the middle of an energy crisis. Prices have gone through the roof, and we are warned that energy rationing, through a rolling programme of power cuts, is a real possibility if there is a prolonged cold snap later this winter.
Everyone is being urged to be energy aware, and to cut down on power consumption if at all possible. But you’d never know that there was any problem at all, if you were basing your opinion on the Festival of Lights and Lanterns at Yorkshire Wildlife Park (YWP).
As I’ve written before, I have some reservations about keeping wild creatures in captivity (don’t we all?), but YWP seems OK. The animals are plainly well cared for, with plenty of space to roam. Importantly, the Park supports a number of conservation initiatives to breed highly endangered species in captivity, and seeks to educate visitors about their plight. But conservation costs money, so managers are happy to embrace initiatives that will attract paying members of the public through the gates. And what better way, at this festive time of year, than to flood the place with countless coloured lights?
We went to last year’s Festival of Lights and Lanterns, and had a great evening. It’s not the most obvious way to celebrate Christmas, but it worked for me and countless others too. Giant, glowing coloured lanterns were distributed throughout the Park, representing some of the critters living there, including polar bears, tigers, giraffes and okapi, and a few others that just wouldn’t feel quite at home, such as whales! There were even a few dinosaurs, poignant reminders of the world we have lost.
The regular critters – tigers, giraffes and the like – were back in force for this winter’s Festival. It was good to see these old friends, and also pleasing to note that last year’s favourites had been recycled and not simply trashed. But the big change, for the 2022/23 season, was in the population of dinosaurs, which seems to have exploded over the last few months!
And don’t the visitors love them, T-Rex and Triceratops, and all their brutish buddies? Children looked on in awe, and adults lapped it up too, a welcome opportunity to escape – if only for an hour or two – the stresses and strains of life in the UK at the end of 2022. Just for a short while it was possible to forget the energy crisis, and bathe irresponsibly in the light of a thousand colourful lanterns. But spare a thought, if you will, for YWP’s Director of Finance…he may be in for a few sleepless night when the Park’s next electricity bill arrives!
It’s been a tough year. While catching Covid was the worst thing that happened to us personally in 2022, from a national and international perspective it’s been unrelentingly grim. In a year in which the UK lost its queen after 70 years on the throne, political turmoil and financial crisis have stalked the land, the National Health Service is in meltdown, social care is collapsing and many folk can no longer afford to heat their homes or buy enough food to feed their families. Misery rules, OK! And overseas, events in the Ukraine reinforce the sense of instability and imminent jeopardy.
Are we downhearted? Well, to be honest, from time to time I am! But one of the things that has brought me a degree of comfort and solace in the dark times has been the company of cats. Two cats in particular, Milky Bar and his buddy Malteser.
Regular readers of this blog will know that although Mrs P and I have no cat of our own, Milky Bar and Malteser, who live somewhere on our street, regard our garden as part of their territory. And Malteser also lays claim to our house, although he graciously allows us to continue living here so long as we allow him access whenever he feels the need!
We see Milky Bar most days in summer, but rather less often at this time of year. He’s a beautiful chap, although getting on a bit in years and growing stouter around the tummy. His hobby is snoozing, and he’s pleased to indulge in it at every opportunity. He regularly beds down in a nest he has built for himself under an azalea bush, but when he craves sun rather than shade he stretches out on the little wooden bridge that crosses the narrowest part of our garden pond. Here he can soak up the rays while keeping one eye open to watch out for dragonflies, which he’ll catch and eat if the fancy takes him.
Milky Bar is an aloof and somewhat cautious cat, but clearly trusts us to respect his personal space. Occasionally he will approach, softly miaowing and offering himself up to be stroked But mostly he keeps his distance, happily observing what is going on all around him. He watches with interest whenever he sees me doing the gardening (or is he in shock? I don’t do much gardening!), and allows me to approach within inches of him without stirring. We enjoy one another’s company, both understanding that there are boundaries between us that must be respected.
Of course there are times when I wish Milky Bar were more affectionate, more gratuitously friendly. But that’s not his style, and his mere presence in the garden is always enough to raise my spirits.
Malteser, however, is altogether more forward. He visits every day, and is normally to be found waiting outside the door when I go downstairs to make an early morning cup of tea at around 6:30am. I open up, and he dashes in. We greet one another in the time-honoured fashion, but pretty soon he gets on with business, sitting himself down in the kitchen and waiting to be fed.
The cat treats we buy are called Pawsome Pockets, “crunchy pillow treats with a soft centre.” Available in beef, chicken and salmon flavours, Pawsome Pockets are evidently very tasty, and Malteser loves them. But his meal is invariably interrupted by Mrs P, who comes downstairs to join us. Malteser breaks off and strides across the kitchen, greeting her with loud purrs and fond nuzzling. Mrs P takes over feeding duties, and the purring gets even louder. Malteser’s in heaven, and Mrs P looks pretty damned happy with life too!
When his breakfast treat is over, Malteser throws himself on to the kitchen floor, rolling on his back and inviting me to rub his belly and fondle his ears. I’m happy to oblige. As soon as I’ve done my duty he dashes upstairs to the Study. We follow, and spend the next 10 minutes entertaining him, playing “chase the ball” or “pounce on the piece of paper.” By this time his purrs are so loud that the windows almost rattle in sympathy.
And then suddenly, and for no obvious reason, he evidently decides that enough is enough. He trots downstairs and waits beside the door to be let out. We are in no doubt that within a few minutes he will be visiting another of our neighbours, demanding attention and treats from them too. He’s that sort of cat.
Malteser may return two or three time during the day, for treats, belly rubs, playtime and lots of attention. Sometimes he simply uses us as a convenient short cut, entering by the back door them marching immediately through the house to the front door, where he demands to be let out again. And we, being desperate to please him, do just that.
While he is with us, Malteser brightens up our lives. So thank you, Malteser, and Milky Bar too, for making a difficult year a little less difficult. And come again guys, as often as you like, in 2023: the company of cats will always be welcome here.
And while we’re on subject of thanks, I’d also like to thank anyone out there who ever reads or comments on this blog. Your continuing interest has certainly helped keep my spirits up throughout this miserable year. How can I ever thank you? I don’t think you’d like Pawsome Pockets, and I guess it would be inappropriate – and maybe a bit creepy – to offer you a belly rub, but it’s my absolute pleasure to wish you a Merry Christmas, and Happy & Healthy New Year. Have a great time, guys!
Kedleston Hall is yet another of our local stately homes that gets dressed up for Christmas, so one morning a couple of weeks ago we decided to check out its latest festive makeover. Poor Kedleston, Derbyshire’s forgotten treasure, is forever in the shadow of the local legend that is Chatsworth House. However, in my view anyway, the place is a seriously under-appreciated masterpiece that’s worth visiting at any time of the year, not just at Christmas.
Chatsworth, ancestral home of the Dukes of Devonshire, has a national profile and is beloved by locals and tourists alike. And very fine it is too, if bling is your thing. I like Chatsworth well enough, of course, but if given the choice I’d prefer to potter around Kedleston any day.
Kedleston Hall is an 18th century Palladian and Neoclassical wonder. To build it, local bigwig landowner Nathaniel Curzon, 1st Baron Scarsdale(1726-1804) flattened an entire village of the same name, thus ensuring that he wouldn’t have to endure unwanted encounters with the local peasantry while wandering his estate.
Behaviour like this was typical of men of his ilk at the time, and from a 21st century perspective is totally inexcusable. The only mitigation one might offer is that Curzon built a damned fine house on the land he so rapaciously reclaimed from his tenants, though I doubt that this was much of a comfort at the time to the poor people he made homeless.
Although the Curzon family still lives in part of the Hall, the property and surrounding parkland is now owned on behalf of the nation by the National Trust. Here’s what the Trust’s website has to say about Kedleston:
“Kedleston Hall is an extravagant temple to the arts designed by the architect Robert Adam…The house is framed by historic parkland and boasts opulent interiors intended to impress. Designed for lavish entertaining, Kedleston Hall displays an extensive collection of paintings, sculpture and original furnishings, reflecting both the tastes of its creators and their fascination with the classical world of the Roman Empire.”
Neo-classicism may not be to everyone’s taste, but it works for me, The elegance and sheer beauty of Robert Adam’s work is breath-taking, and while I was looking forward to a bit of Christmas cheer at Kedleston I was concerned that it might detract from the majesty of the Hall’s state rooms. But I need not have worried: the Christmas decorations were tastefully restrained, and the Adam’s interiors remained the stars of the show.
Entrance to the mansion is via the grand Marble Hall. With walls boasting multiple niches that display statues in the classical Roman style, and lined by 20 soaring, fluted alabaster columns topped with elaborate Corinthian capitals, the Marble Hall is clearly a statement piece. It is designed to overawe visitors, to advise them that they have entered the home of someone richer, more cultured, and more powerful than they can ever hope to be. Know your place! it proclaims.
Equally impressive is the Saloon, a circular room rising 62 feet (19m) to a grand glass skylight. It was designed as a sculpture gallery, the style being based on the temples of a Roman Forum. The modest Christmas tree at its centre did little to distract our attention the sheer elegance of the room’s design.
Clockwise fromTop left: The Library. Top right: Ante Room / Dressing Room. Bottom Right: The Saloon. Bottom Left: View through Ante Room / Dressing Room to the Christmas tree in the Saloon. Middle (bottom): The Dining Room. Middle (top): The Family Room
The other state rooms, including the Library, Drawing Room and the Dining Room, are equally impressive. And that’s the point. This place was built to impress, and it does just that. More than Chatsworth House, and more than just about every other stately home I’ve ever visited, it positively exudes the wow factor. I love Kedleston Hall just as much as I’m sure I would have disliked Nathaniel Curzon, the guy who commissioned this spectacular mansion…anyone with an ego that big must have been seriously bad news!
Chatsworth House, ancestral home of the Dukes of Devonshire, is one of England’s foremost stately homes. It’s run as a business, depending for its survival largely on the income it generates by welcoming paying members of the public to explore the stunning house and massive ornamental gardens. As with so many visitor attractions, the Christmas season is vitally important for the health of the enterprise. This is even more true in 2022, as Chatsworth seeks to recover from the damage inflicted upon the business by Covid.
And when we visited a couple of weeks ago visitors were out in force to experience this year’s Christmas extravaganza. Here’s what the website told us to expect:
Deep Midwinter: A Nordic Christmas at Chatsworth brings to life the Christmas folklore and traditions of the Arctic and Nordic regions through a series of themed roomscapes. Sculpted ‘ice’ walls, tranquil pine forests, lanterns, traditional Nordic Christmas decorations and foliage foraged from woodlands and hedgerows across the estate evoke the sights, sounds and scents of the natural world at wintertime…
Our Nordic theme continues into the garden with an enchanting Christmas light trail. Experience our ‘northern lights’ over the Canal Pond, let colour guide you along Broad Walk into a glade of glowing lights and, for the first time, see the Maze illuminated and filled with festive music.
Sounds great, doesn’t it? But sadly, it didn’t live up to expectations. In 2019, the last time we visited Chatsworth at Christmas, we were blown away by decorations on the theme of “a land far, far away.” This year, however, we were distinctly underwhelmed: the Nordic associations pretty much passed us by, and the decorations lacked impact. Worse still, we paid nearly £30 (USD 37) per head for the privilege.
Some grand stately homes in other parts of the country charge quite a bit more for their Christmas celebration – Blenheim Palace, for example – but, if recent television coverage is to be believed, they offer a lot more too. Clearly, £30 per head isn’t a fortune, but that’s not the point. The question is, does it represent value for money, particularly as we are currently in the midst of a nationwide “cost of living crisis”? I don’t think so.
Don’t get me wrong, our visit wasn’t a total waste of time. Parts of the garden lights trail were pretty good, while the best of the decorated rooms of the House were very well done. And if you’d never been to Chatsworth before the whole show probably made a good, although very crowded, introduction to the House’s splendours. But we know the place well and – based on what we saw in 2019, and what we paid for our tickets this time – we expected rather more. The photos I’ve used to illustrate this piece feature the highlights, but the majority of “the experience” was a lot more mundane.
Maybe they had a limited budget in 2022, as a result of Covid’s impact on revenue streams? Or did they spread their resources too thinly, by having “an enchanting lights trail” in the gardens as well as decorating the House (in 2019, the Christmas extravaganza was limited just to the House, and didn’t extend into the gardens). But I can’t help worrying that Chatsworth’s trading on its name, making a calculated underinvestment in this seasonal attraction on the assumption that people will turn up anyway, just because it’s Chatsworth?
Top left: The Painted Hall. Top right: Another room, another group of trees, and a stray speaker playing Christmas music! Middle right: The Library. Bottom: The Chapel.The golden statue between the trees is by the notorious contemporary British sculptor Damien Hirst.
If so, I fear that may be a bit short-sighted, as there are plenty of other stately homes around here that also put on a show at Christmas. People who shared our disappointment with Chatsworth’s efforts this time may well choose next year to get their seasonal cheer somewhere else, somewhere offering the prospect of seeing more while paying less.
Hopefully, this is a one off, and Chatsworth will be back on form in time for Christmas 2023. Until this year they’ve had a good track record, so we’ll probably give them another chance. I’ll report back 12 months from now!
A few months ago, while we were spending a couple of days in Birmingham, we stumbled across a piece of public art that is as controversial as it is unusual. A Real Birmingham Family, by sculptor Gillian Wearing, depicts two local sisters – each single mothers, one of them heavily pregnant – with their two children. Cast in bronze, the sculpture was erected in Centenary Square, prominently positioned in front of the Library of Birmingham, in 2014. A storm’s been raging around it ever since.
Most of the figurative public art found in cities and towns across the UK features folk who might loosely described as representatives of ‘the great and the good‘, although, to be blunt, a number of them were neither great nor good, but simply had an effective PR machine behind them!
Representations of past and present royalty, politicians, war heroes, cultural and sporting icons, and sundry local bigwigs clutter our public footways. Their subjects are predominantly male and overwhelmingly White, and the statues seemingly yell “look at me, look at me, aren’t I important!” to anyone glancing in their direction. Diversity is in short supply, and the sculptures mostly seem detached from the realities of everyday life. So I’m left wondering, what about ordinary folk? Where are the statues depicting people like me and you? Don’t we count too? What about our lives?
Similar thoughts may have crossed the mind of managers at Birmingham’s Ikon Gallery of contemporary art in 2011, when they initiated a process to find a “real” Birmingham family to model for the sculpture. Nominations were invited, but what constitutes a “real” family was not specified. From the nominations received four families were shortlisted, with the eventual winners being selected by a panel of community, cultural and religious figures. Here’s what the curator of the Ikon Gallery had to say about the winners:
“Their story is compelling and says much about contemporary Birmingham. Two mixed-race sisters, both single-parents with happy, lively young boys, who identify themselves strongly with the city of their birth. The variety of nominations to ‘A Real Birmingham Family’ has shown us that while the traditional, nuclear family may no longer be the norm, the ties that bind us together are as strong as ever.”
It’s evident from Tulloch’s statement that A Real Birmingham Family is a million miles away from the typical statue found on the UK’s streets. They are not drawn from the dubious ranks of ‘the great and the good’. Rather, in the nicest possible way, the Jones sisters and their kids are just ordinary people, a loving family supporting one another and living the best lives they can, even though the path they have taken does not conform with long-standing societal norms. Surely this something worthy of celebration?
And yet the sculpture has drawn stinging criticism from some quarters because, as one commentator has claimed, it is “a sad betrayal of the traditional values that held great communities like Birmingham together…[and] a totem for extreme feminists who more and more argue that women don’t need men at all.”
Anyone who knows me will not be surprised to learn that I don’t see it that way!
If the artist’s intention was to propose that single parent arrangements are inevitably superior to traditional, nuclear family set-ups, then there might be cause for complaint. But surely that isn’t what Wearing’s work is telling us? What she seems to be saying is that while most of us – I suspect – have been raised in a nuclear family, alternative family models can also be successful. Her piece is a commentary, an observation of one way in which families can function effectively in the 21st century. Other options are also available!
I fully understand that this piece of public art may be uncomfortable for anyone wedded to tradition, for anyone who instinctively believes that the old ways are inevitably the best ways, or indeed the only acceptable ways. But by seeking to challenge careless stereotypes and preconceptions, Wearing is doing one the jobs that it is an artist’s duty to perform: she is making us reflect, making us debate, making us think critically about the world in which we live, even if the process is painful. Art’s not meant to be easy.
In some circles Birmingham, a city in the English Midlands just 50 miles / 80km from Platypus Towers, is referred to as The Venice of the North. Really? Venice, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is one of the premier jewels in Europe’s cultural crown, “an extraordinary architectural masterpiece in which even the smallest building contains works by some of the world’s greatest artists such as Giorgione, Titian, Tintoretto, Veronese and others.” Birmingham, however…
Although its origins are much older, Birmingham owes its prominent position to the Industrial Revolution. Central to the city’s growth was the production of metal-based goods. It became known as “the city of a thousand trades”, where a myriad of small workshops employed skilled craftsmen to manufacture high quality finished products. It was dynamic and prosperous, but it was no Venice!
Comparisons with Venice are woefully wide of the mark, except in one particular regard: canals. Venice is a city of canals, and Birmingham too has a web of waterways dating from the 18th and 19th centuries. These were excavated to bring in the raw materials needed by local workshops, and to carry away the finished goods they produced to markets throughout the country.
Pretty soon, Birmingham was at the heart of the national canal network. The city thrived, and the nation’s canals bustled with activity. But the development of railways in the mid-19th century heralded a change in fortunes for the canal network locally and nationally. Rail transport – and later, transport by road – proved quicker and therefore cheaper than the carriage of materials and goods by water. Birmingham’s canal network declined, and by 1980 all commercial traffic had stopped.
Once the lifeblood of the city, Birmingham’s canals morphed into fetid rubbish dumps and the warehouses lining them became neglected eyesores, derelict and anachronistic. They served no real purpose, and it’s easy to imagine that some bright spark might have thought it would be a good idea to fill in the waterways and bulldoze the associated buildings.
But fortunately, the City Council recognised that if they were sensitively restored, Birmingham’s canals could help drive the city’s regeneration. Work began in the late 1980s, and when we visited a few months ago we were able to see how this far-sighted vision has been put into practice.
Gas Street Basin is the hub of the city’s canal network, located in what is today the heart of Birmingham’s cosmopolitan nightlife and shopping districts. Here we walked along towpaths lined with vibrant cafés, bars, restaurants and modern buildings, and were also pleased to spot some fine examples of historic canal architecture. Several narrowboats were moored in the basin, adding to the area’s quaint charm.
As we continued our stroll along the towpath, past modern developments that included the International Conference Centre, the National Indoor Arena and the National Sea Life Centre, we encountered plenty of pedestrians and dog-walkers, and some cyclists and joggers too. All were taking the opportunity to get some fresh air, away from the noise and mayhem of the frantic city centre streets.
Gas Street Basin
Meanwhile, colourful narrowboats chugged slowly along the waterways, offering holidaymakers and tourists an unexpected perspective on what is known as the UK’s “second city” (after London, of course!).
Along the way we stopped off for a drink at one of Birmingham’s most distinctive historic buildings. The Roundhouse was built in 1874 as a giant stable complex where 50 horses that worked on the canal could be housed. The need for the facility is long-gone (none of the narrowboats now using the canals are drawn by horses), and for some time the future of the building was in doubt.
However, creative minds have come up with a way forward: now run by a charitable trust, the Roundhouse has been repurposed as a visitor centre, café, display space and offices. It also acts “as a launchpad to explore Birmingham’s brilliant stories and place…[offering] canal-based kayaking, city walking tours, [and] boat trips.”
As we enjoyed our mochas there was time to reflect on what a good job the city authorities have done in revitalising Birmingham’s canal network and infrastructure. While Birmingham is clearly nothing like Venice, the canals give the city a distinctive character that reflects its unique heritage. A canal network dating back over two hundred years could have become a serious burden to the city and its people in the 21st century, but visionary, enterprising developments have turned it into a genuine asset. Well done, Birmingham, I salute you!
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Postscript: Venice of the North
Birmingham is not the only place that has been labelled the Venice of the North. Other nominees include Saint Petersburg (Russia); Amsterdam (Netherlands); Giethoorn (Netherlands); Bruges (Belgium); Stockholm (Sweden); Copenhagen (Denmark); and Alesund (Norway). To which I can only say, get a grip, guys. Each of these places has its own merits, and should stand or fall by those merits rather resorting to spurious comparisons with another, very different place!
Abbeydale Industrial Hamlet, which is located close to Sheffield in the northern English county of Yorkshire, is one of the most complete early manufacturing sites in the world. From 1697 to 1933, scythes and other edged tools were made there. In its heyday this was a place of intense activity, where generations of skilled and unskilled people spent their entire working lives. Furnaces belched out heat and smoke, while forges and grindstones powered by four waterwheels – fed by the nearby River Sheaf – were used to pound and sculpt the steel into shape.
At its peak, in the middle of the 19th century, Abbeydale produced thousands of high-quality edged tools every year. The scythes made by its workforce were an essential tool of farm labourers, used to clear the land and harvest the crops grown on it. Many of the scythes were sold in the UK, while others were exported to the far-flung corners of the British Empire, including Australia, India and Canada.
Early in the 20th century the demand for hand tools began to fall as mechanised alternatives became available. The Abbeydale works finally closed in 1933. Restoration of the site began in 1960, and the Abbeydale Industial Hamlet Museum opened ten years later.
The Museum comprises a range of preserved buildings arranged around a grassed courtyard. The doors to these buildings are invitingly open, and in some of them the visitor can learn about the process for making a scythe. There were several distinct elements, starting with the making of blister steel. This would then be converted into crucible steel, which was later forged into blades. Finally, the blades would be sharpened on large grindstones, and then chemically treated to prevent rust.
The workshop buildings boast various tools and pieces of machinery, some modest in size, others large and imposing, all unfamiliar and vaguely threatening to this impractical 21st century Platypus Man. Who knew that making an item apparently so basic as a steel blade could be quite so complicated?
Another door off the courtyard leads us into a worker’s cottage, immaculately dressed to give a glimpse of life in the mid-19th century. Somewhat grander, and set out as it might have been towards the end of the 19th century, is the Master’s House. There is also a Counting House, dressed as it might have been in the 1920s, the office where the works foreman and his clerk carried out administrative tasks essential to the running of the enterprise.
Abbeydale is a fascinating, informative place to visit, offering glimpses of a way of life that feels very alien today. But I can’t help thinking it’s a somewhat sanitised account of how it was “back in the day”. Although on special occasions some of the machinery is still operated by volunteers, during our visit it lay silent. Surely, Abbeydale was never silent? And what about the heat of the furnaces, and the stink and the smoke and the filth, all of which were part and parcel of everyday life when this place was in business? None of this was evident or even hinted at when we were there.
And the neatly grassed courtyard that sits at the heart of Abbeydale looks totally incongruous. Grassy green lawns in the middle of a chaotic industrial 19th century industrial site? I don’t think so! Clearly the courtyard, as well as the tools, bits of machinery and buildings lovingly preserved on site, tell only half the story.
There must be at least a hundred reasons why it would not be possible or desirable, nor even legal, to faithfully recreate the realities of the day-to-day life of Abbeydale in its prime. That’s OK, the Museum still serves an important purpose as a learning aid for young and old alike. But we must never allow excellent museums like this – and for sure, Abbeydale is an excellent museum – to tempt us into becoming nostalgic for the world we have lost.
Today, Abbeydale looks quaint. It’s well ordered, clean, immaculately presented and eerily attractive. It seems like a rewarding and comfortable place to earn a daily wage, and to live. But have no doubt, life was a living hell for the people who once worked there, engaged in hard and dangerous manual labour every day while earning a pittance. Never forget this, please, if you ever get the chance to visit Abbeydale, or any similar industrial or living history museum. Exhibits like these tell the truth, but never the whole truth.
The histories of the US and the UK are closely intertwined. Some might call it a love/hate relationship, but in truth it’s characterised primarily by confusion. I mean, why do the Brits drive on the wrong side of the road? And why can’t Americans learn to spell like the English? These are good questions, and hark back to the misunderstandings that arose during the Second World War when US troops based in the UK prior to D-Day were widely resented for being “overpaid, over-sexed and over here.”
In a noble, but in all likelihood doomed attempt to bridge the great divide, the University of Evansville (Indiana) delivers an immersive British Studies course out of the architecturally splendid Harlaxton Manor, which lies deep in the verdant countryside of the county of Lincolnshire. The Harlaxton College website describes the course in these terms:
British Studies is a Harlaxton signature program, taught by British professors. It is a multidisciplinary program comprising two course options unified by a focus on the issues, historical and contemporary, and cultural trends, that both create and dislocate a sense of national identity in modern Britain.
It must be a brain-frying experience for young students from the US to spend two semesters based in a building as extraordinary as Harlaxton Manor, but I hope they don’t think it’s in any way indicative of the way real Brits live, or have ever lived. Harlaxton is a fairy tale, simply one man’s breath-taking fantasy cast in stone, courtesy of the vast wealth at his disposal.
A potted history of Harlaxton Manor
The man responsible for Harlaxton Manor was one Gregory Gregory (1786–1854). That’s not the name he was born with, but he adopted it anyway, suggesting to me that he was at least one card short of a full deck.
Gregory evidently came from a wealthy family. He inherited the land on which the Manor now sits, as well as an earlier Harlaxton Manor House dating from the 14th century. He was rolling in money – his inheritance included holdings in various canal and railway companies, as well as a number of coal mines.
So what does a man do when he has more money than good sense? What he does is to let the manor house he has inherited go to rack and ruin, and commission in its place perhaps the most extravagant English country house of the 19th century.
Gregory spent much of the 1820s attached to various British embassies overseas, although exactly what he was up to isn’t clear. But what is known is that during his time away from the UK he spent a fortune buying up works of art. He clearly had a burning passion for European art and architecture, and the money to indulge his obsession.
On returning to his native land Gregory wanted somewhere appropriately palatial to display his acquisitions, and thus was the Harlaxton Manor project conceived. He also had a grand vision, to fuse Elizabethan and Jacobean architectural styles with Baroque, and he hired some of the finest architects of the early 19th century to help him achieve it.
Is Gregory’s Harlaxton Manor a bold, imaginative and ground-breaking masterpiece, or simply an act of narcissistic self-indulgence by a wealthy man possessed of a somewhat delusional mind? Well, I guess the jury’s out on that one. But he was clearly making a statement, something along the lines of I’m so wealthy I can afford whatever I damned well like. Live with it! Modesty, subtlety and restraint were evidently not Gregory Gregory’s strong points.
For what it’s worth – and I confess to knowing nothing much about architecture! – for me the design lacks coherence and perhaps a degree of good taste. Opulence in excess can be oppressive, and jumbles of monumental, bright and shiny stuff are not necessarily beautiful. Sometimes less is more, but Gregory Gregory would never settle for less when he could show off his wealth and status by having (a lot) more.
Having said that, Harlaxton has the wow factor and don’t we all need a bit of wow in our lives sometimes? But I wouldn’t want to live there, even if you paid me!
Work started on Harlaxton Manor in 1832 and ended with Gregory’s demise in 1854. After his death it passed through several owners. During the First World War, the grounds were used to train soldiers in trench warfare, and during the Second World War the Manor was requisitioned and used as the officers’ mess for nearby RAF Harlaxton. Three years after the war ended, the then owner Mrs Violet Van der Elst (inventor of the world’s first brush-less shaving cream!) sold Harlaxton to the Society of Jesus (Jesuits).
The Jesuits’ intention was to use the Manor as a novice centre, where recruits new to the faith would be housed and honed. But things did not go as planned. The anticipated number of 200 novices on site proved wildly optimistic, and when numbers dropped to around 50 the Jesuits decided to cut their losses.
Harlaxton reprieved: the Americans save the day
In 1965, the Jesuits leased the Manor to California’s Stanford University, making it the first American university campus in the UK. Stanford remained at Harlaxton for four years, before moving their “Stanford in Britain” programme to another, less provincial part of the country. It was at this point that the University of Evansville stepped in, leasing the Manor from the Jesuits and opening its international study centre there in 1971. Sixteen years later, in 1987, the University acquired outright ownership and quickly set about making it their own.
Today, during the regular academic year, Harlaxton College hosts over 300 students from the University of Evansville and various other US colleges and universities. During each summer around 1,000 further people attend summer schools, short courses and conferences, and a few lucky couples (loaded with cash, I imagine!) even get married there. Once or twice a year the College holds an open day when locals, and travellers from further afield like Mrs P and I, can visit and gaze in bewildered awe at Gregory Gregory’s architectural excesses.
Harlaxton was buzzing with visitors when we visited earlier this summer, our last trip out before succumbing to Covid. Everyone having a whale of a time. The open day was, as you would expect, impeccably organised and the hosts – all proudly sporting their college shirts – were unfailingly polite.
At one point I fell into easy conversation with one of the Harlaxton crew, a young intern from Charlotte, North Carolina, pointing out to her that the signage directing visitors to the toilets referred to them as “restrooms.” I explained to my new friend that this twee euphemism is a North American confection, and would never, ever be encountered in a genuinely British public building.
Harlaxton Manor may be an extravagantly over-the-top British building nestled deep in the English countryside, but the signage, politeness and organisational polish on show that afternoon made it absolutely plain that we were on US soil. And it felt good!
British Studies? Good luck with that, guys!
My academic life ended many decades ago, but I can’t help but be intrigued by Harlaxton College’s British Studies course. What are they telling those poor American kids about us? Is any of it true? And who is to say what is true, anyway, in these days of division, disharmony and unprecedented change?
The College website proclaims (boasts?) that the course is taught by “British professors.” That sounds like a good thing, but being British and bright doesn’t mean you necessarily fully understand Britishness…my passport proves I’m British and my Cambridge University degree suggests I’m quite bright, but have I totally nailed the essence of Britishness? No, probably not. Maybe I should sign up for the course!
But if I did take the course, I’d appreciate some foreign perspectives on Britishness as well those of the – doubtlessly estimable – “British professors.” Maybe we Brits are just too close to the subject to fully understand what’s going on here.
To its credit, Harlaxton offers a “Meet a Family Experience”, enabling students to get to know some ordinary Brits. In this way they are able to get up close and personal with aspects of British life that might be challenging to convey in erudite College lectures. If we lived closer than a two-hour drive from Harlaxton I’d be tempted to sign up, and then bore some poor unsuspecting youngster rigid with my limited, flawed insights on being British in 2022. I might even try to explain to him – or her – the rules of cricket, but only if I were feeling particularly mischievous.
I’m glad our American cousins, in the guise of the University of Evansville, stepped in to help save Harlaxton Manor, which, for all its architectural excesses, deserves to be saved. I’m also glad that the University is using the Manor as a base to increase mutual understanding between our two great nations. God knows, we both need all the friends we can get right now, don’t we?
But I fear that, however hard Harlaxton tries, the mysteries of British driving and American spelling will be with us all for some time to come!
This should have been the summer of the new normal, when we finally put the pandemic behind us, got on with life and had some fun (ah yes, fun, I remember that…I had some once!) Only it hasn’t worked out like that. Describing the last few weeks as “the lost summer” may sound melodramatic, but although there have been a few highlights – the Burning Man sculpture trail, for example, and our visit to Pensthorpe Natural Park – overall I’m left with a nagging sense of regret for what might have been.
Wardrobe woes last for weeks
The project to replace our bulky freestanding wardrobe and sundry other old, tired pieces of furniture with a suite of new fitted units in a splendidly redecorated bedroom should have taken just five or six days. In the event it ended up taking five weeks. Five miserable weeks during which we camped out in the spare bedroom with our clothes and various other possessions scattered chaotically throughout the rest of the house! Five tedious weeks when we waited at home expectantly, day after day, hoping something would happen, only to find nothing ever did.
Don’t get me wrong. Now that the job is complete we’re pleased with our new bedroom. It looks great, and we’re pleased we had it done. But although the destination has proved agreeable, the journey was an unmitigated nightmare. Never again!
Hot! Hot! Hot! Temperature records tumble
Once the bedroom project was done we were determined to get out and about, to escape into the local countryside and relax a bit. But it didn’t turn out that way, courtesy of climate change. There are those who claim climate change is fake news, the invention of mad scientists or duplicitous politicians. Now, some scientists may be mad and many politicians are clearly duplicitous, but here’s the thing guys: climate change is real, as we were reminded to our cost a few weeks ago.
Pretty much immediately after the bedroom was finally fixed, climate change flexed its muscles and the UK was hit by an unprecedented heatwave. Records tumbled like the walls of Jericho, and we spent our days indoors, hiding from the sun and emerging only late in the evening to water the tomatoes and the beans. Mrs P and I are not built for hot weather, and having fun was out of the question. Our ambitions extended no further than desperately trying to stay cool.
What a waste, but on the other hand what was the alternative?
The final straw – Covid catches up with us at last!
All things must pass, and so it was that eventually the torrid temperatures gave way to something less unbearable. At last, an opportunity to escape the house! Just a few days after the heatwave broke, Mrs P spent a morning at a craft workshop, indulging in a hobby that has been an important part of her retirement. Unfortunately, one of her fellow crafters must have been suffering from Covid, and a couple of days later so was Mrs P. And just 48 hours after, I was showing all the symptoms too!
Ever since the pandemic started we’d been cautious, behaved responsibly and avoided unnecessary risks. Mr and Mrs Platypus are also known as Mr and Mrs Sensible. Boring we may be, but the aim was always to stay healthy and enjoy the benefits that good health brings.
Of course it could have been worse, much worse. We have lived to tell the tale, after all. And, thankfully, we’ve now tested clear and are feeling quite a lot better. Although we’re not yet firing on all cylinders, there’s no indication so far that “long Covid” has got its claws into us. But it was bad enough while it lasted, which was nearly two weeks. Two weeks of wearying, aching, cough-crazy self-isolation, confined to Platypus Towers when we should have been out enjoying ourselves.
Worst of all, probably, was the impact on our sense of taste and smell. It wasn’t that we were unable to taste anything at all, but rather that everything tasted wrong and a lot of it tasted horrible. Mrs P and I both enjoy cooking, and during our two weeks with Covid we had plenty of time to devote to culinary endeavours. But what would have been the point, given that everything we prepared tasted like an unfortunate accident in a badly-run food warehouse?
Realistically, I suppose it was inevitable Covid would catch up with us in the end. That, after all, is the nature of a pandemic – the disease is everywhere and one day your luck runs out, however careful you may be. And I suppose we should be grateful: in the two years since Covid first hit the variants of the virus have become less serious, and the vaccinations we have had may also have helped reduce the severity of our symptoms.
The good news is that, finally, Covid is behind us. We’re doing our best to make up for lost time, but the last few months still feel like the lost summer.
* * * * *
Postscript, 10 August: I drafted this post a few days ago in a spirit of hope and expectation, immediately after we tested clear of Covid. Since then, however, a second horrible heatwave has descended upon this sizzling nation, and once again we are stuck indoors, hiding from the sun.
And we both continue, in our different ways, to feel below par, not seriously sick but definitely a trifle unwell. Maybe it’s the heat, or maybe it’s the after-effects of Covid. Or a combination of the two? Who knows? But whatever the cause, I’d like to put on record here that I’ve had enough. Roll on, winter!
Update, 16 August: Well, at least the heatwave is beginning to lose its venom, but an official drought has been declared in this – and many other – parts of the country. Our rivers and reservoirs are running dry, and the measly amount of rain that’s fallen in the past 24 hours won’t even begin to sort out the problem. This is a summer I’d dearly like to forget, but sadly I don’t think that will happen any time soon. Woe is me!