i do like to be beside the seaside …

                    Nothing like a few days by the sea to blow away the cobwebs.

Charmouth is easily one of my favourite beaches. Though, having said that, I’ve only ever visited in the winter months when, despite the steady stream of fossil-hunters and dog walkers, it’s probably much quieter than it is during the summer holidays.

The weather forecast for the weekend was terrible and the clouds looked pretty forbidding at times, but the rain held off and we managed to spend both Friday and Saturday by the sea – three hardy souls actually swam. Naked. Not me, though.

Lyme Regis for wave-hopping and crashing about on the shingle…

               … and Charmouth for fossils and chips – but not together.

Our lunch on the beach at Charmouth was one of the best picnics I’ve ever had: loads of buttered slices of bread from home which were then stuffed with chips from the cafe.

Incidentally, the cafe, which is run from an unpromising-looking large, green Portakabin-shipping container type affair, produces the best tea imaginable: hot and strong and served in large china mugs which they let you take with you while you search for ammonites and trilobites. Delicious hot chocolate too, according to the children.

And then back to base, where fortunately there was a large boot room  …

This is just the tip of the weekend’s footwear iceberg, which comprised walking boots, trainers, slippers, daps*, clogs, crocs etc. I could go on, but it’s enough to say that there were seventeen of us in all (toddlers to forty-somethings) and the weather was uncertain.

I am now dealing with a different sort of iceberg – a damp, muddy, gritty heap of clothes.

* Daps – Bristolian / West country term for plimsolls.

phew!

Life seems to have gone up a gear over the last week. The lovely James came to stay last Wednesday and over the course of three days (with a break in the middle because James went off to a wedding in Devon) we managed whistle-stop tours of two spa towns -

Bath …

and Cheltenham …

ticked off three house recces and took some supplementary shots for a shoot we did earlier in the year. All very satisfying. Or at least that’s how it felt until I remembered that half term starts tomorrow and the house is a tip and the cupboards are bare.

PS Laura’s loo is on George Clarke’s Amazing Spaces, Channel 4 this evening at 8pm

yeo valley organic garden

So the soil arrived late on Monday afternoon, on the third attempt. The sack is currently upside down in the road, and I am hoping that it won’t rain too heavily between now and Saturday, which is when I’ll be able to start shifting it down to the garden. I couldn’t bear it if it was all washed away down the hill by a river of rainwater. Mustn’t think about it. Better to think about how the bottom of the garden will look when the soil is in and I have replanted everything I had to dig up to make way for the new beds and pond.

And with that in mind, I’ve been looking through the photographs I took three weeks ago when I visited The Yeo Valley Organic Garden (links to their site here and here) on their last open day of this year (next year’s season is a little longer, with visits from April 25th to October 29th). The two image above are from the cutting garden which I imagine is all but over now, though the beds filled with dahlias and cleome were still looking strong.

Although I love seeing gardens in high summer, I find I learn more from visits made when gardens are just waking up or heading into decline – spring and late autumn. It’s easier to spot the plants that might help hold my garden together during the lean months when most of the stars of summer are dormant or dying.

At Yeo Valley Organic Garden I was particularly struck by the huge drifts of echinops and verbena bonariensis, which were threaded through with lower growing grasses such as stipa tenuissima and ribbons of sedum and echinacea.

              Now all I have to do is work out how to make it work on a far tinier plot…

I’d really love to visit this garden again during the winter; I imagine that it will still look stunning. It’s a shame that this isn’t an option, though I expect low visitor numbers at that time of year make it impractical. I must add that as well as the gravel garden and the cutting garden there is a large meadow, which looked completely magical even on an overcast day, a formal garden – the bronze garden – with a large pond, and much else besides. Oh and a lovely, lovely restaurant selling the most delicious cakes.

balloons

Yesterday evening saw the second of six mass ascents for the balloons participating in the 34th Bristol International Balloon Fiesta (there are three early morning flights and three evening flights, with night glows on the evenings in between). It is an incredible spectacle, made more exciting by the fact that you never really know until the last moment whether or not it will happen – poor weather conditions have conspired against the event in the past. But yesterday was warm and still and very clear. Perfect.

In the past we have been able to watch the balloons glide by from the comfort of our garden, but yesterday we realised that what little wind there was would carry the balloons up and away towards Weston. Luckily, Brandon Hill, one of the best vantage points in the city, is not so very far away. So we packed a picnic and raced off, making it just in time.

Once the balloons had floated off into the sunset it was time for the obligatory downhill roll

                                                    and modelling cherry earrings.

swinging in the rain

This weekend’s incredibly muddy walk: Abbot’s Pool, just along from Leigh Woods.

There is a large lake, a smaller pool and several little water falls, but best of all a very high tyre swing. This is the one walk the girls are always up for, come rain or shine.

a shaggy dog story

A year ago today we drove to Wales to collect Sybil. She was tiny and incredibly
sweet and, as far as the girls were concerned, it was love at first sight.

Although I found her comic appearance endearing, I admit it took me a little longer to feel that I loved her – Joe even longer still. But one year on, she’s very much part of the family. She is also very naughty. So far she’s eaten shoes, attacked my bulbs repeatedly, gnawed a pat of butter, wounded countless Sylvanians and destroyed four dog beds.

As you can see, each one is diligently eviscerated and it’s pretty exhausting work.

Of course digging is what terriers love to do, and Cairn Terriers are no exception.

going, going, gone!

This hasn’t been a great year for balloon spotting. Usually, by mid-summer, we’ve spent many an evening watching balloons glide across sky, sometimes directly overhead, on their way from Ashton Court to Bath. But not this year. According to the man from Bristol Balloons, the weather has been against them and the wind direction all wrong, so that the flights were going too close to the airport.

But in the past two weeks the balloon sightings have been closer to their normal levels for August (seven on Friday evening, presumably balloonists gearing up for next weekend’s fiesta). So last Wednesday we took the dog and the children up to Ashton Court for an early evening walk, in the hope of a balloon sighting. We were in luck.

It’s an extraordinary thing watching a balloon take off. First there is a lot of faffing around as acres of fabric are unfurled across the ground. Then the bottom of the balloon is held open and hot air blasted inside so that it gradually inflates. The whole process looks impossible: the fabric ripples and collapses, rises up and deflates again. Then suddenly the balloon is full – has ballooned, even – and the basket, which until this point has been lying on its side, is righted, and you register how very tiny it is and how it looks exactly like an old laundry basket. With holes in. Windows apparently, but holes nonetheless. Next there is frantic shouting from the balloon gang, ropes held tight, and spectators told to move back and passengers to step forward.

And finally, silence. It was a thrilling and magical sight watching the balloon gently rise from the ground. And then I caught a child’s voice calling out “bye bye mummy!” which I found heart-wrenching – pathetic, I know.

Anyway, time for me to post my farewells too. We are off to France today and I should really be packing, but I can’t seem to find the enthusiasm for it despite my mounting excitement at the prospect of sun, sea, and delicious cheese …

which brings me to my final, and entirely unrelated photograph – unrelated to the balloons that is. In the general pre-holiday tidying up I realised that I hadn’t got round to posting a decent photograph of the cheese dish that in our house serves as a butter dish. Here it is. I bought it a couple of years ago for £2 on the Gloucester Road where charity shops outnumber all other forms of shop, including estate agents. Apparently the Gloucester Road has more independent traders than any other high street in Europe.

And with that startling fact I’ll say good bye.

blaise castle

One of the many things I love about Bristol is its size. Although nearly five years since we moved to the city it still surprises me that I can zip from north to south, or east to west, in a matter of minutes, and the countryside beyond the city in only a few minutes more. Back in London a trip to see a friend on the other side of town could easily take over an hour – if you drove for an hour in Bristol you’d be in Wales, or Dorset, or Bath, or Weston-Super-Mare.

The consequent ease with which a spur of the moment outing to Ashton Court, Blaise Castle Estate, Tyntesfield, Snuff Mills, Leigh Woods or the Downs can be arranged never ceases to amaze me; and feels nothing short of miraculous during the long summer holidays – which from this end, do look very L O N G indeed.

Today we went to Blaise Castle and met up with friends for a picnic. The castle itself is a folly built in 1766 and restored in the 1980s. There are regular open days throughout the year, but somehow our trips never seem to coincide. Not that this matters as there is so much to do: a fantastic children’s play area; Blaise Castle Mansion, which is now a museum with a large collection of toys including some wonderful dolls’ houses; and over 600 acres of woodland to explore. Maps of the various walks can be downloaded here.

On a baking hot day, Blaise is the perfect place for a picnic in the sunshine followed by a walk in the cool of the woods. And reluctant walkers are usually persuaded by the promise of a real, if pocket-size, castle at the halfway point – or at least ours were.

finished

School is over for this year. And what a relief it is to have a six week break from my life as a human sheep dog: herding reluctant children up the hill to school each morning, and herding grumpy ones back down again at the end of the day.

Today, the first day of the holidays, still involved herding children though, but this time two dogs were doing all the leg work. My friend Nicky and I took our children and dogs geocaching. We ambled along at a leisurely pace in the light drizzle that characterises the British summer, whilst the children walked twice the distance, skittering back and forth between us and the dogs. Armed with an iPhone and accompanied by our team of enthusiastic helpers we began to feel the first stirrings of happy nerdiness. We felt that the purchase of many-pocketed anoraks might only be days away – ones with special places for keeping maps visible but dry.

By following various clues and coordinates we found a mosaic -

and a pet cemetery -

But no “camouflaged box the size of three 35mm film cases.” Three hours later the helpers started to mutiny. Cries of “mum this is getting quite boring now”, and “are we ever going home?” rang through the air. All thoughts of Gortex anoraks were quickly forgotten and our quest abandoned in favour of digging up treasure of another sort down at the allotment.

The joy of turning over a clod of earth to reveal a pale gold potato never diminishes; today it was enhanced by our earlier failure. The potato bed is empty now, though there are no doubt a few spuds lodging there still – the children may be energetic potato diggers, but they are not very systematic.

So school is finished, the potato bed is finished, and last night two nice knitting projects were finished as well, though both still need a little finishing, which is what I’ll do now.

Both hat and spotty bag are from Jane Brocket’s book The Gentle Art of Knitting, which has kept me happily occupied during recent revision avoidance, passport office loitering and other moments when the merry-go-round that is the end of term has slowed for a moment or two.

And just a final thought on geocaching: though our first geocache was an abject failure, it was good fun, totally free and kept everyone entertained for several hours. Nicky and I have vowed to do it again, but with a compass and a slightly better understanding of what the various bits of orienteering lingo actually mean.

damien, mary, beryl and jane

Is there a better way to make the provinces feel really provincial I wonder, than to install a vast, tired, old work by an artist whose star is fading? A month ago Damien Hirst’s Charity was hoisted onto the balcony at the front of the RWA amidst great trumpet-blowing and excitement from the exhibition organisers (or at least that’s how it seems from their literature), and a weary yawn from the rest of Bristol.

Charity, in all her 22-foot-high, painted bronze glory is certainly very photogenic, but as to her significance as a work of art, I must admit that the museum’s analysis set my teeth on edge. Apparently Hirst was inspired to create this copy of the Spastics Society collection box in order to highlight the erosion of society’s values. Just typing that made me feel inordinately tired and grumpy, but I’m afraid it gets worse: the RWA helpfully tells us that “looking across at the Victoria Rooms’ regal statue of Edward VII, Charity subverts the celebration of nobility and the monarchs who began the age of charity, its towering wretchedness standing as a massive reproach, the scale of our refusal to acknowledge a failure in charity.” Really? Honestly I just cannot engage with this sort of pseudo-intellectual artspeak. It is utter nonsense. Charity is interesting because she’s huge and because you think to yourself, if I had the money Hirst has, what smallish thing would I get scaled-up and cast in bronze? Oh, and of course you can’t help having ungenerous thoughts about how much money Hirst has, or has not, donated to the Spastics Society.

Anyway, enough of the Hirst-bashing. If you are in Bristol do go the RWA, if only to see the tiny exhibition of Mary Fedden’s paintings, none of which I managed to photograph very well, so the picture below will have to do. The works have been gathered from private and public collections and date from the 1950s to the present day. Familiar themes are covered, the sea glimpsed through an open window, jugs on trays, small bunches of flowers and plates of fruit, but they are nevertheless exquisite. I bought one of the RWA’s new tickets, which allows repeat visits for the duration of the show, and have now been in several times (the downside of this system is that each time I visit I am reminded that the incompetent Jack Vettriano has a bigger room).

Fedden’s paintings are not showy and the narratives, if and when there are such things, are not shouted out at the viewer, we can take what we want from her works: she trusts our intellectual capabilities and appreciation. So too does the RWA in this instance, as there is no heavy analysis of her work, it is allowed to speak for itself. Though I did come away wanting to know more about Mary Fedden herself –  She is now in her 90s and still painting. An interview would have been a fascinating addition to the exhibition.

The interviews which play on a loop in a corner of the Beryl Cook exhibition at the Bristol Museum & Art Gallery, are a complete joy. She is revealed to be a witty, charming, thoughtful and articulate woman, and talks candidly about her life and her work. Her raucous laughter can be heard throughout the gallery and is the perfect accompaniment to the show.

I must admit that when I walked into the gallery it was purely because I’d taken the girls to the museum as something to do on strike day, when their school was shut. I knew Cook’s work from postcards and posters, but I don’t think I’d seen any paintings in the flesh, as it were. I certainly had no idea of the range and breadth of their subject matter. By the time I left my prejudices and misconceptions had been completely toppled, and I came away a fan. It is hard to resist works painted with such wit and gusto.

And talking of wit and gusto, on Saturday I met up with Jane, whose fabulous blog is never short of either. In fact it was Yarnstorm that inspired me to start blogging, so I feel enormously indebted to Jane, even more so now, as I owe her several pots of tea.

PS There is an interesting review of Mary Fedden and the other exhibitions at the RWA here. The Frinks along with Fedden’s work, make a visit to the RWA worthwhile, just wish there were more of both.