There’s not much I can add to what has already been documented and enthused over about the place we visited last weekend on a celebratory city break. And anyway, as I’m feeling inordinately lazy and undisciplined at the moment, I thought a few snaps might suffice.

Well, snaps and  some quotations I’ve come across from various people that I reckon sum it up pretty well.

It’s definitely somewhere to visit at least once in a lifetime: it’s magical, surprising, expensive and indulgent. If you go, enjoy to the full.

Fino ad allora…

 

“In the winter, imageVenice is like an abandoned theatre. The play is finished, but the echoes remain.”

(Arbit Blatas, sculptor and painter) 

 

 

image

“If you read a lot, nothing is as great as you’ve imagined. Venice is — Venice is better.”

(Fran Lebowitz, author)

 

 

 

 

 

 “Venice is like eating an entire box of chocolate liqueurs in one go.”

(Truman Capote, author)

image

(…or even this wonderful asparagus, seen at the Rialto market).

image

“Though there are some disagreeable things in Venice there is nothing so disagreeable as the visitors.”  (Henry James, author)

image

“Streets flooded. Please advise.”
(Robert Benchley,
 journalist and humourist)

image

image

image

image

The Grand Canal

image

And of course, a selection of Venetian glass beads

So when will you be booking your tickets?

We had reason to visit Horsham in West Sussex this weekend, a not too distant town, on a drop off mission and en route to somewhere else. Imagine how interested I was then that, quite by coincidence, I happened to read in the Times last Friday that Horsham is one of the happiest places to live in Britain. According to property experts. Well, what do they know?

Driving round the ring road nose to tail certainly doesn’t provide one with an immediate impression of happiness. Soulless buildings, a multitude of insurance head-offices with minimal corporate planting of unsuitable tropical greenery in dreary brick-built window boxes only serve to highlight how out of place such architecture is in a West Sussex market town. At least, that’s how the property experts market it: a Market Town. I wonder what constitutes a market town these days – a yokel in a white smock shepherding a herd of swine across a local stream with waddling geese in their wake, a loaded hay-wain in the background?  (I didn’t see any of those). Or a few barrels of cider and a cheese stall, displayed on straw to make it look rustically authentic?  Horsham would appear to favour the latter. (The fruit and veg stall we swiftly passed was selling Spanish strawberries and asparagus from Peru. But I’m getting ahead of myself here).

Eventually we arrived at a multi-story car park. Which was sporting a new ticketless parking system called Smart Park.

Oh, Horsham is nothing if not cutting edge. The technological advances pounced on by the local district council here knows no bounds.

image

apologies for the poor quality – snapped quickly on my phone…

 

A camera photographs your number plate on entry and then all you have to do after a successful (or not) morning’s shopping, on your return to the car park, is remember your registration number. Because to release your car from this concrete hell hole you must tap your number into a machine, pay your dues and then, when you get to the exit barrier in your vehicle, your car will be automatically recognised and you’ll be let through. Allegedly.

 

In practise, it was utter chaos. In front of the only two machines were two snaking queues of glazed-eyed shoppers wearily waiting to key in their numbers behind other shoppers who had clearly forgotten theirs. They appeared as discombobulated as would-be apocalypse survivors, nervously jingling their change while mouthing a series of numbers and letters as if their lives depended on it.

When we eventually got back to our car we then had to wait in a jolting line of other vehicles attempting to make it through the barrier. One driver several cars ahead of us left his vehicle and remonstrated loudly with a young chap wearing a ‘happy to help’ high-viz jacket. Well, at least he was trying to promote happiness. I can’t imagine his feeling of well being will last long though, with constant verbal abuse from frustrated car drivers.

I counted four of these high-viz-happy-to-help attendants. How can that be cost effective? Surely one person, employed to replace a ticket roll and empty the machine, is a cheaper option than four people required to placate angry shoppers. Not to mention the cameras at bumper level that have been installed and connected to the state of the art machines that are causing all the angst amongst Horsham’s happy crowd.

Now, before any Horshamites take umbrage I’d like to make it clear that I have nothing against Horsham. I’m not criticising the place: it’s a perfectly nice town. It has all the shops you’d expect plus plenty of cafes and eateries. There is a bandstand around which several market stalls sell a range of produce. The buildings are a mix of old, not so old and new. I just don’t like their parking system. (Or the ring road but then to be fair, most places have one of those).  I’d still like to know what makes it a happier place to live than say, Guildford, which seems to me to be a reasonably happy place to be. Let’s just hope our Borough Council doesn’t adopt this Smart Park idea. Happiness could plummet over night.

 

 

 

The Easter break has arrived, the work-related course is finished, my completed portfolio with every T crossed and every I dotted is winging its way to be moderated.  The pressure of homework has lifted and I’m feeling a little sense of freedom, unlike my students who should be furiously revising for their forthcoming exams. Time to roam with camera in hand and appreciate some local sites while the sun’s out and the wind is blowing.

Rather than use the busy A3 road when I drive to Guildford, I take a shorter, more rural route which was probably the old original way, weaving as it does from the village of Compton up to the Hogs Back. It’s called Down Lane but as I’m approaching it from the bottom end, so to speak, I always go up Down Lane which never fails to amuse me. I’m easily pleased.

However, there is something rather special about Down Lane. A local treasure nestles here amongst the Surrey Hills, surrounded by fields and partially hidden by high hedges. I drive by frequently, have visited several times and marvelled but I’ve never taken pictures until now. This place should be shared, after all.

image

Built from local red brick and completed in 1904, The Watts Chapel is approached from a lych gate along a twisty, uphill cobblestone path sheltered by giant yew trees. It’s an unusual, almost incongruous building, in a village where so many of the houses date back some five hundred years. Drawing nearer it is apparent that this little chapel is a testament to Art Nouveau and the Arts and Crafts Movement.

image

It was the brainchild of Mary Seton Watts, wife of the Victorian painter George Frederic Watts (more about him later) who designed and decorated the chapel with the help of around seventy eager Compton villagers: a true and very early community art project.

image

image

Detail of brick work on the arch above the oak door

The outside is adorned with intricate stylised brick work, each finished by a local hand, probably an attendee at one of Mary’s Thursday evening pottery classes. The faces on the stone work are all different; the feeling that this was a collaborative effort is reinforced. Either side of the main entrance are two curved stone benches in Art Nouveau style, the mossy patina only enhancing their design.

image

But it is inside the small circular chapel where the extent of Mary’s mission can be fully appreciated. I’d defy anyone not to gasp as the full impact of her vision comes into view as light floods in through the tall narrow windows throwing rainbow beams across the heavily decorated walls.

image

It is here that Mary has brought together angels of darkness and light, heaven and earth intertwined by the tree of life with its roots at the bottom and the branches curling ever skyward to embrace the angels nearest to heaven.

image

image

The centre of the ceiling with four angels pointing heavenwards

Many of the floral decorations around the mid rail were created by children under Mary’s guidance; her tree was fashioned from chicken wire and covered in plaster then painted in the same vibrant jewel colours that we can see today.

image

The altar carries an inscription and dedication from Mary to the people of Compton. Today the chapel is used for funerals – there is a lone bell reserved for such an occasion. The tolling of the iron bell…

image

Outside in the cemetery, the chapel is surrounded by gravestones old and new, some of which follow the Arts and Crafts design. George and Mary Watts are buried here, in front of the magnificent Cloisters. A simple gravestone marks the place.

image

The Cloisters

image

The gravestone of George and Mary Watts. He died in 1904 just as the chapel was completed; Mary died in 1938.

 

image

Detail of iron gateway to the Cloisters

image

Headstone in typical Art Nouveau style

image

Arts and Crafts headstone among spring flowers

 

Mary and George Watts had settled in a house, Limnerslease, just across the hill from the chapel in the early 1880’s. George Watts was already an established Victorian painter so he was able to fund the building of the chapel for the village of Compton by selling commissioned portraits.  He opened his own gallery – The Watts Gallery (as it is known today) – in Down Lane to display his paintings. Mary concentrated on her pottery – she had been a student at the Slade school of Art and was already forging her own style before she met George.

The gallery, which was recently the subject of complete restoration thanks to some lottery funding, is a testament to George’s prolific output as a painter. He was heralded in his lifetime but was never part of any one particular group or movement. His paintings are typical of the period – stern looking portraits, Italianate landscapes and dead animals. Not my particular cup of tea but definitely worth a look.

So, Down Lane is more than just my shortcut into town – it conceals this beautiful legacy to the Arts and Crafts Movement as well as a gallery full of noted Victorian paintings.  Imagine my horror then, the last time I took this route, when confronted with these hideous carvings.

image

The residents of Down Lane have clearly let their association with the Watts’ go to their head. These hastily fashioned paintbrushes are, I presume, a nod to George. To me they look more like a left-over from one of those chainsaw competitions where tartan-shirted lumberjacks have to carve something recognisable within thirty seconds. And two more things about this irks me: part of an old hedge has had to be removed to make way for these monstrosities and the ghastly over-sized metal green sign is depicting Down Lane as anything BUT quiet. It looks monumentally busy, with children aimlessly wandering or cycling the middle of the road.

image

I‘m just off to make as much noise as possible and drive as recklessly as I can in the designated restriction free zone.

Happy Easter All!

If you live in Britain you can’t have failed to notice that the main topic, the front page headline grabber – both tabloid and broadsheet – and the top TV news story that has dominated our lives over the past few days is that of the spat between the BBC and one of its top presenters. We’ve been swamped with it.

I’m referring of course to Top Gear’s frontman, Jeremy Clarkson, who the BBC has suspended after he allegedly punched his producer at the end of a day’s filming in the north of England. As a result of this boorish behaviour the Beeb will fail to transmit this weekend’s show and it has pulled the rest of the series. The future of Top Gear hangs in the balance.

Apparently Clarkson, after arriving late at his expensive country house hotel stop over, threw a tantrum when he was offered a cheese platter as sustenance instead of something cooked because the chef had left for the evening. It sounds like an episode of Fawlty Towers, except, as it turns out for Clarkson, not very funny. According to co-host James May, (who wasn’t actually there) it was “just a bit of a dust up” – the kind of laddish behaviour we have come to expect from the Top Gear team.

And that’s just it. The whole ethos of BBC2’s most successful factual entertainment programme ever is based on three middle aged men behaving badly. Like yobbish school boys with Clarkson leading the charge in the playground. The programme has developed a winning prescriptive formula with the undoubtable chemistry between the presenters at its core. For its faithful followers, to contemplate Top Gear without Clarkson is akin to Morecambe without Wise. Love them or hate them, Clarkson, May and Hammond have become an institution.

The show has a reported global following of 350 million so we can begin to see the predicament in which the BBC now find themselves. The corporation, rather like Dr Frankenstein, has become a victim of its own creation. How will the powers that be handle this situation: will they back track and reinstate Boy Wonder or will it be deemed time for change and risk shelving their winning and very lucrative formula to save face? Not only that, can the Beeb be seen to be condoning violent conduct by an employee? What sort of message does that send out?

And is one person ever bigger than the brand? The BBC have actually been down this route before. Angus Deayton, the hugely popular host of ‘Have I Got News For You’ was sacked after alleged drug taking. The show went on without him. It took a while to accept a new face in the chair and it was years before Deayton appeared on our screens again – but the show went on.

So what about Clarkson? Is he likely to disappear into the ether without trace? No chance. He writes weekly columns for The Sun and The Sunday Times. He presents factual documentaries. He has his fingers in plenty of pies. According to press reports, his BBC contract is up for renewal within the next couple of months. If I wasn’t so cynical I might think that this whole scenario has been orchestrated by Jeremy himself to drum up more than a little publicity and gauge public opinion. Perhaps he and his co-hosts are planning a defection to a rival channel. With an online petition to reinstate Clarkson and an endorsement from the Prime Minister no less, I can’t imagine he’s losing much sleep.

Know your bacon

I wasn’t going to post anything this week, having been weighted down with homework – well, that’s my excuse, anyway – but I just have to share this latest outrage with you. We’ve just been for a quick beer and a sandwich at one of our locals. Settled down to enjoy half a Guinness and a filled toasted ciabatta (in a pub, I know – we’re nothing if not international around here), we couldn’t help but hear the altercation at a nearby table.

Two fellow diners were complaining to the landlady that their Brie and Pancetta ciabattas had meat in them. They whingingly explained that they were vegetarian. We halted our own conversation while we waited to hear the landlady’s response. She very sweetly explained that Pancetta is a little like bacon, didn’t they realise. The vegetarians said they didn’t and could they have the same but just with the Brie. The landlady asked if it would be okay to take the Pancetta out but they insisted on two fresh ones.

The landlady kindly obliged while we looked at each other, jaws dropped in amazement. Once we had recovered sufficiently, Husband (who would fall into the Basil Fawlty school of dealing with customers), made the point that because of the vegetarians ignorance, the Pub would be losing out. How fair is that?

When we paid our bill at the bar we told the landlady she’d been very generous and shared a moment of exasperated humour with her. What do you think – did she go beyond the call of duty? As a customer, should you check what something is on a menu before you order it? Particularly if you have restricted dietary requirements….glad I don’t work in hospitality.

The Saturday job at the chemist provided extra work throughout the holidays which in turn provided me with the cash required to clothe myself as a wannabe hippy in flared jeans and a selection of groovy cheesecloth tops and t-shirts. In a parallel life I was studying for ‘A’ levels, spending copious amounts of time in the art room, wading around in rivers on geography field work or having a wonderful time being properly introduced to Shakespeare by one Mr Herman Peschmann, a diminutive yet cantankerous German who resembled a shell-less tortoise. He had a slight problem pronouncing the word ‘three’ so we spent every lesson forgetting where we were in the text just to hear him repeat ‘Act Three; Scene Three’ which just happened to be on page thirty-three.  To our immature sixth-form minds this was hilarious but he got us through those exams and left us with a lifelong appreciation of the bard.

As if the pressures of the looming exams weren’t enough, we were subjected to our career interviews.  Remember those? You’d be ushered into a makeshift office the size of a broom cupboard (come to think of it, it was the broom cupboard) where an earnestly whiskered elderly woman with bad breath wearing a beige home knitted cable cardigan and flat sandals shuffled a few pamphlets and talked about secretarial college. Or the army.

In days of yore it wasn’t the natural progression to opt for three years at some ivy clad institution slogging your way through every optic in the student union bar and then take a gap year funded by your cash flashing parents – it was still perfectly acceptable to go out to work – and what’s more, there were actual jobs available for those with an inherent  work ethic but fewer theoretical credentials.

With the naivety of youth and a head swimming with implausibly grand ideas of becoming the next Mary Quant, buyer for Harrods or Sunday supplement editor-in-chief I settled in front of Miss Careers-Advice who suggested sweetly that as I had no intention of further education I should definitely think about becoming a secretary. After my dreary filing experience at the bookshop any notion of admin filled me with horror.  I didn’t like to tell her that I didn’t want to BE a secretary, I intended to HAVE one. I left that broom cupboard with a handful of her leaflets and deposited them swiftly into the nearest bin.

I began to panic a bit when several friends suddenly decided that they wanted to be teachers and signed up for various universities. Perhaps I ought to look for something beyond the sixth form, if only to keep the adults in my life from asking what I’d be doing post exams. I trawled through volumes of college prospectuses and finally found what appeared to be a course tailor-made to my lofty, fast-track ambitions. A one year diploma in periodical journalism (an academic year of course means September to June – things were looking better by the minute) at the London College of Fashion in Central London. Marvellous! All my boxes ticked and a year swanning around Oxford Circus: what more could a girl ask for.

I applied, was interviewed and turned up on my first day where I quickly realised that this was going to be the longest year of my life. My fellow course mates, most of whom owned a Chanel handbag, seemed to be treating this as a state-funded finishing school opportunity – a respectable interlude between exclusive boarding school and getting married to a City banker then heading off to the Shires to produce multiple offspring. However, I happily discovered a couple of kindred spirits – one of whom transferred to St Martin’s art college after the first term – leaving me and Val to endure and make the most of whatever came our way.

I have to admit that we probably didn’t embrace our time there quite as we should. We spent considerable time in the nearby Phoenix pub bemoaning our fate over half a Shandy before being dragged unwillingly around all the London fashion shows by Miss Jackson who in her time had been a Fleet Street fashionista but was by now retired and well past her sell-by date. While most of our peers were swooning at the sight of the editor of Vogue in the front row and possibly waiting to prostrate themselves in front of her, Val and I were frantically writing our reports and working out the quickest way back to Oxford Circus to be the first in line for cheese on toast in the canteen before the dreaded evening sessions began. These sessions involved learning a version of shorthand (T-line) which I never got to grips with (smacked of admin) and which I failed dismally.  Then there were the cosmetic science lessons where all I can remember is producing my own hand cream using something called Isopropyle. A word that for some reason has stuck in my memory all these years but which I’ve never had cause to use. The only useful journalistic training we gained was a block of six weeks taken at the London College of Printing. Based at the Elephant and Castle – a less than salubrious area of south London which came as a shock to the haute couture brigade who I don’t think had ever ventured across the Thames, this was where we learned from working journalists about editing, deadlines, printing and the reality of working on a daily paper.  We created our own dummy newspapers, selected stories, set up interviews, had our work rejected. It was fast, fun and furious and Val and I loved it which made returning to the fluffy world of fashion even harder but at least we knew where we didn’t want to work come the summer.

And, as the saying goes, nothing is ever wasted. As the end of the summer term approached, job vacancies trickled in to our tutor at the college. We were encouraged to go for as many interviews as we could. While the Edina and Patsy’s of this world held out for a position on one of the glossies some of us decided to have a bash at anything. So it came to pass that a position presented itself in the press office of the John Lewis Partnership, based at their flagship store a block away from Oxford Circus. I went along for an interview, they liked me; I liked them. It was settled. I said goodbye to the chemist’s forever. I was going to be a partner.

Oh, and by the way, for anyone who has ever thought that the characters of Edina and Patsy in the sitcom ‘Absolutely Fabulous’ are way too over the top, please let me reassure you that they aren’t. I have known people exactly like them – I only wish it had been me and not Jennifer Saunders who had created them. Here’s a hilarious reminder:

 

You’d be forgiven for imagining that the bookshop experience put me off reading for life but some things are so far entrenched as to be unthinkable. In fact, the thought once crossed my fifteen-year-old mind to rescue countless titles from the grasp of those two hideous old witches and re-house them on some friendly shelves where they would be loved and appreciated.

I used never to throw or give books away: I let them accumulate – from Enid Blyton to the Metaphysical Poets I hoarded books of all varieties for years, rearranging them often and repeating the dusting ritual begun at Crooks Books.

I tend not to amass many these days – I pass them on to friends and colleagues, the charity bookshop or simply leave them on a train or plane. Only books that I may conceivably read again remain, on a small shelf in my kitchen.

I belong to a small book group. We get together every six weeks or so, in a different pub each time (who knew there were so many within a few miles of home) and we take turns in choosing a title to read to discuss at our next meeting. We’re very informal but it provides a challenge to read something that perhaps I wouldn’t otherwise have chosen. However, I make sure that I also have a title of my choice on hand to read straight after finishing the group one.

So what is my preferred reading material? How do I go about choosing a book? I’m not sure I’d know how to classify my choice given that I don’t go for Sci-Fi or Fantasy, Chick-Lit or Aga Sagas, Thrillers or Historical Fiction. I’m not partial to Mystery, Romance or Crime, either. Is there anything left? Most definitely. I’m never short of reading material – sometimes I feel a bit overwhelmed at the height of my reading pile – so how do I choose?

I start off by having a good mooch around a decent bookshop. I have to say that a large Waterstones is perfectly adequate. I even have a loyalty card which accrues points and every so often – yippee – I have enough for a ‘free’ book.

I’m drawn to a beautiful cover, obviously. Good design coupled with a tactile matt finish can set me reaching for my credit card without even turning a page. I’m kidding, of course. Once seduced by the visuals I check out the title – anything slightly odd, quirky or off-beat ensures that I turn to the first page to examine the writing style.  Then, if I’m suitably gripped, I’ll turn to a random page halfway through. This is usually enough to help me decide whether to part with my cash. I used to always read the last page too – happily I’ve trained myself not to do this now. (Nevertheless, I do like last lines of novels and often remember them which is probably why, when I write a story myself, I work out the ending and write to that).

It is with caution that I recommend books – I’m happy to divulge an enjoyed read and then discuss it but I don’t like to provide a resume or write an appreciation or otherwise – I’ll leave that to the reviewers. Now, this might sound mad but I only ever read reviews once I’ve read the book because I like to make up my own mind about what I read and then find out what the literati might think. I have a few favourite authors I seek out and I like to read debut novels, as long as they fit my other criteria. I’m always interested in what friends and colleagues read and why they’ve liked the book or not although it won’t necessarily sway me to follow suit.

 If you’re curious, here are a few books that I’ve read and enjoyed in the last few months although I wouldn’t dream of presuming that you might enjoy them too.

We’re All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

The Hare with Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal

The Shock of the Fall by Nathan Filer

Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey

The Testament of Mary by Colm Tóibin

The Care of Wooden Floors by Will Wiles

The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey

City of Women by David Gillham

And here are a few that I’ve loathed:

The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

Exif_JPEG_PICTURE

I’m currently reading The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell (the jury’s still out but it’s looking promising) and on my reading pile is H for Hawk by Helen Macdonald (lovely cover) and The Fault In Our Stars by John Green.

So, in the week that news has filtered through of Harper Lee’s ‘lost’ manuscript (should that be Hype-r Lee?) I’m wondering what’s on your bookshelf and how you decided it should be there.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 284 other followers