Category Archives: North Norfolk

The Lure of Wild Swimming

I’m delighted to announce that my new pamphlet (or chapbook as my American friends call it), The Saltwater Diaries, will be coming out in September.  The collection explores my relationship with the sea, formed over the last five decades and more, and features poems mostly written since moving to a house which is a seven-minute-walk from the sea.  Many of the poems mention swimming and, as it’s the season for sea swimming (well, for me, anyway, not being quite as hardy as some I know who swim all year round!) I thought it would be a good time to reflect on the joys of wild swimming.

First, a confession.  I didn’t learn to swim until I was twenty five.  Why, so late?  Oh, where do I start….?  My father was a boatbuilder and spent most of his life on or by the river, but he never learnt to swim, maybe a throwback to the days when sailors considered it unlucky as, if you fell into the water, it would prolong your death.  They wanted the sea to take them quickly and cleanly.

Water is one of my earliest memories as we lived in Broadstairs when I was very young.  I have a strong memory of burying a grandparent in the sand but can’t recall any details.  Perhaps this is a false memory – isn’t it what everyone is supposed to do at the seaside?  One of my favourite recent films, starring the superb Billy Connolly, is What We Did on our Holiday.  It’s a hilarious and touching tale of the effect warring parents can have on their children and Billy Connolly’s character is indeed buried by his grandchildren at one point.

Film Review: What We Did On Our Holiday, aka, British Kids Say the Darndest Things – We Minored in Film

I remember nearly drowning in a public swimming pool when I was tiny, and being hauled out by the lifeguard and resuscitated.  My mother said she wouldn’t take me swimming again as I’d shown her up.  I loved my pink towelling bikini even if I had nowhere to take it.

School swimming lessons didn’t really teach me anything except how to dodge the floats thrown at my head by our sadistic PE teacher, Mr Fernside – it made a change from chalk…

I could swim perfectly well with armbands out of my depth so I probably could swim without knowing it.  Bizarrely, I loved the smell of chlorine and that strange echoing atmosphere of swimming pools, even the wet chaos of the changing rooms where you could never get completely dry however much talcum powder you shook over yourself and everyone else.

Not being able to swim was never an issue.  I spent a year in Israel in the 1980s and whenever a chance arose I would be pootling in water and under waterfalls, sometimes up to my neck, sometimes led into deeper water by kindly friends holding my hands as if I were an overgrown child.  Surprisingly, I wasn’t particularly frightened of water despite my lack of ability.  I’ve swum in the Dead Sea twice, once from the Israeli side and once from the Jordanian side, once knowing how to swim, and once not. It doesn’t really matter in the Dead Sea, it’s so ridiculously buoyant that the only issue is how to get vertical again and get out!

Amazon.com: Wee Blue Coo Vintage Photography Man Dead Sea Umbrella Book Jordan Palestine Unframed Wall Art Print Poster Home Decor Premium: Home & Kitchen

Then, at the age of twenty-five, Chris and I went to Greece and he had me swimming with relative confidence on the first day.  Since then I’ve never really stopped, instantly developing a hunger for wild water and lap-swimming in any kind of indoor or outdoor pool.  I particularly love lidos and often swim in the wonderful Hampton lido.  On my bucket list is a swim in the Ladies Bathing Pond at Highgate/Kenwood.

Hampstead Heath

One of my favourite poetry books from the last decade is Elisabeth-Jane Burnett’s Swims, a haunting, experimental long poem that flows and intrigues.  There’s a review here:

http://www.pennedinthemargins.co.uk/index.php/2017/08/swims/

I so want to be by the poet’s side as she slips into the water and explores it.

Another ideal swimming companion would have been Roger Deakin, whose book, Waterlog, is a classic.  There’s a lovely documentary which was repeated on TV recently where Alice Robert’s follows in his footsteps and enjoys some fabulous wild swimming, including underground cavern swimming which looks incredibly scary.  She also discusses the differences between swimming in a wetsuit, a costume and skinny dipping.  I’ve only skinny dipped once in a water-hole in Arizona where you were made to feel very odd if you tried to cover up – kind of a hippy dip I guess as we were on a Green Tortoise holiday which seemed to mostly be run by people who’d come to San Francisco with flowers in their hair…  You can see the Alice Roberts documentary here:

https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00t9r28

Sadly, Roger Deakin died in 2006, so no more accounts of his watery exploits.  I love the fact that the University of East Anglia archive contains a pair of his speedos.  There’s a great obituary of Deakin here, a real celebration of a life very well lived:

https://www.independent.co.uk/news/obituaries/roger-deakin-412989.html

He seems such a quintessential English eccentric, swimming in his own moat every day and breaking the rules to trespass on private stretches of river in true entitled style.  He describes his attitude beautifully here:

Most of us live in a world where more and more things are signposted, labelled, and officially ‘interpreted’. There is something about all this that is turning the reality of things into virtual reality. It is the reason why walking, cycling and swimming will always be subversive activities. They allow us to regain a sense of what is old and wild in these islands, by getting off the beaten track and breaking free of the official version of things.”

The Swimmer Burt Lancaster 24x36 Poster Bare Chested full length in back yard at Amazon's Entertainment Collectibles Store

In Waterlog, Deakin’s inspiration for swimming around as much of the UK as he can is John Cheever’s brilliant short story The Swimmer, immortalised in the 1968 film of the same name where Burt Lancaster (above) spends the whole film clad in a rather snazzy pair of belted black swimming trunks.  It’s an extraordinary story which I often use in my masterclasses.  You can read it here:

https://warwick.ac.uk/fac/arts/english/currentstudents/undergraduate/20cusliterature/syllabus2014-15/cheever_the_swimmer.pdf

So, what is it about wild swimming?  It feels elemental, adventurous, invigorating (it’s rarely warm!), primeval – yes, primeval is the best word – getting back to our human source – losing our ability to walk and discovering our watery roots.  We spend the first nine months of our consciousness floating in fluid so perhaps the need to be in water is part of our psyche.  Deakin clearly believes this too:

“When you swim, you feel your body for what it mostly is – water – and it begins to move with the water around it. No wonder we feel such sympathy for beached whales; we are beached ourselves at birth. To swim is to experience how it was before we were born.”

Wild Swimming Brothers 🏊 on Twitter: "For a geothermal swim like nowhere else on earth visit the Víti Crater in Askja, Iceland #iceland #wildswimming https://t.co/OydxBFV71s"

Most memorable swims?  There have been so many.  One of the most striking from a scenic point of view was swimming in the Viti crater at Askja in Iceland (above).  In fact, all the swims I did in Iceland were memorable.  The Viti crater is like swimming in thick, warm, turquoise soup.  The Blue Lagoon (below) feels as if you are swimming in some kind of weird dystopian experiment.  Swimming in Icelandic rivers  means you have to be ready for the unexpected as the river can switch from freezing to very hot in just a few yards due to geothermal activity.

Acquisition offers put $286m value on Icelandic geothermal spa Blue Lagoon | Think GeoEnergy - Geothermal Energy News

I’ve enjoyed white water experiences in many countries, the most memorable being white water swimming down a river in Turkey towards the sea.  Not really swimming, more lying on your back in a life-jacket and pushing off as if you are on a giant, wild flume.

While trekking in the Amazon rainforest on a bird-watching trip our group took a boat across a tributary of the Amazon (don’t be fooled by the word “tributary” – they are pretty wide!).  We discovered on our return that another group had taken the boat back, we could see it clearly and tantalisingly moored on the opposite bank.  We were stranded.  Some of us decided to swim across and help the guide bring the boat back to “rescue” the group, a mission we accomplished with panache.  It was only afterwards we were told that the piranha native to the river will only consume human flesh if it is already dead and dying…

Blog- Detail page | Hotel Sternen Oerlikon

Switzerland is one of my favourite places to swim.  There’s a lovely outdoor wooden swimming pool on Lake Zurich, the Seebad Utoquai.  It dates from Edwardian times, as you can see from the picture above, and has a timeless elegance.  You can tell if you have swum to the middle of the lake if you see the twin spires of the Grossműnster become one.   I’ve also got a soft spot for the River Limmat which runs through Zurich – it’s such an odd feeling to be swimming through a city and watching city business carry on as normal from such a lowly perspective! I remember walking alongside the Rhine to the Tinguely Museum in Basel and seeing commuters swim to work with their waterproof floatbags containing their workgear.

In fresh water, I love seeing swans go by, unconcerned, as I quietly tread water; clearly you are not a threat when only your head is above water. I’ve been lucky enough to have great crested grebes carrying their young on their backs pass very close to me.  When I swim from my local Norfolk beach I have the privilege of seeing terns dive, cormorants doing a flypast, and even the occasional skimming swallow.

Today, as I write, it’s rainy and blustery, which doesn’t always stop me swimming, but I’ve just checked the surf report and there are 8 foot waves predicted.  Last week I trod on a weever fish in bare feet (not pleasant and not the first time either!) so I’m trying to be a more sensible wild swimmer – my list of rules so far is quite short but will no doubt increase with time:  wear surf shoes, check the surf height, don’t float and daydream and realise that you are farther from the shore than you should be etc

And the last, rather poetic, word has to go to the inimitable Roger Deakin:

Swimming is a rite of passage, a crossing of boundaries: the line of the shore, the bank of the river, the edge of the pool, the surface itself. When you enter the water, something like metamorphosis happens. Leaving behind the land, you go through the looking-glass surface and enter a new world, in which survival, not ambition or desire, is the dominant aim.”

 

With Love from Lockdown

Is anyone else finding this stage of lockdown the hardest, the most uncertain and the most stressful? I’m probably going to stay with the former stages for a bit longer in a hopefully safe summer hibernation in quiet and lovely East Runton.  I am privileged to be able to do this and totally recognise that so many others do not have this choice.

Lockdown has been a positive experience from the micro point of view but extremely disturbing from the macro point of view.  The what-ifs and uncertainty, the heart plummet and increased heart rate with every newsfeed scroll and perusal of the weekend papers.

So, in this blog I’m going to focus on the micro and  the positive and share some of my lockdown experiences.  I hope you will all do so too in the comments section of the blog page!

Lockdown Highlights

  • Sunsets over the sea. We try to watch these a couple of times a week – they are always different – sometimes watercolour, sometimes oil, sometimes the sun hides behind angry monochrome.  One of the things which hasn’t improved over lockdown is our photographic skills, but this one’s my favourite so far.

 

  • Beach walks. Foam on the beach liked whipped cream from churned algal blooms; terns diving like tiny missiles; the changing texture of the sand underfoot and the thought that these were once part of much bigger rocks and stones, that we are treading on particles of pre-history; the occasional paddle with underlying thoughts of when the sea will be warm enough for me to attempt my first swim of the year; Cromer Pier as the light changes.

 

  • Local walks inland – we’ve seen the lambs grow from bouncy Easter newbies to plump-bottomed teenagers. The pygmy goats are still pregnant, as is the dun coloured donkey – come on girls, we want babies!

  • I’ve been enjoying a friend’s on-line diary/blog which he kept every day for at least 12 weeks to record impressions of pre-lockdown and lockdown. I didn’t realise that the Mass Observation project, which started in 1937 and continued into the 1960s, had been revived.  They’ve been recording the observations of ordinary people since 1981 and are particularly interested in responses to the Covid-19 pandemic.  The original project consisted of questionnaires and diaries kept by 500 volunteers, one of which was Housewife 49, Nella Last.  Her diaries have been published and were immortalised on TV with Victoria Wood in the role of Nella.  It feels an important time to record experiences, this is history in the making.  If you are interested in sending your observations go to http://www.massobs.org.uk/write-for-us/covid-19  for more information.
  • Cycle rides – we are gradually going a little bit further every time. When we lived in Norwich I clocked up around 100 miles a week cycling to work, into the city to meet friends and to the stables where the horse I owned for around 10 years would be impatiently waiting for his hack around Keswick Mill.  Some weekends we would cycle for around 70 miles for pleasure.  Then there was a 12 year gap where, once we relocated to West Norfolk, we tended to walk rather than cycle.  Now, we’re back!  We’ve cycled to Mundesley and back via the Quiet Lanes (Mundesley, sadly, always looks closed, lockdown or not), then another trip to Cley where we sat on the beach and watched cormorants and avocets fly past as we ate our sandwiches.  This week was the big one – all the way to Waxham.  As we hit the beach we could see a row of curious grey seal heads, like black periscopes, all turning to watch the spectacle of humans sitting and walking and paddling.  Waxham’s sands are punctuated by old style groynes and rocks and, as we clambered over each one, the same scene greeted us until we hit the jackpot – hundreds of seals, all different ages, basking on the beach, their low moaning calls muffled by the noisy waves.
  • New murals appearing in Cromer and Sheringham – lockdown art is a big thing from rainbows to chalk drawings on the seawalls.  Here’s my favourite.  Einstein on the Beach!
  • Chris’s harmonica lessons. I thought this might drive me slightly crazy but it’s actually been really endearing to hear his dedication to the cause.  The other day a shiny new harmonica arrived in the post with the all important 10 holes (he’d been struggling with an inappropriate 12 apparently).  His impression of a 1930s American goods train is slowly taking shape…
  • Chris’s 1960s viewfinder found in the loft of his childhood home and languishing in our own loft until very recently. We ration ourselves to a set of slides a day.  The commercial slides all seem to have been compiled in the 1950s and early 1960s: a very jingoistic set of Tarzan slides, bizarrely out of order Munsters and Mary Poppins.  There are also endless slides of Greece, Italy, Berlin – all very unprofessional with garish colour, people in the way and dodgy composition (yes, these are commercial slides you actually bought back in the day!).  It’s been totally engaging and an insight into what now seems a very innocent age of travel and entertainment.Vintage 1950's-1960's Sawyers 3-D 3-Dimension Viewer Model E ...
  • Poetry Events. Normally I have to limit myself due to time and travel but not now!  Every Monday night I “go” to an open mic poetry event in Paris.  It used to be held in the basement of Le Chat Noir but is now hosted by organiser David Barnes from his balcony near Père Lachaise.  It was once called Spoken Word but is now called Spoken World – the poets come from all over the USA as well as Paris, Berlin, Edinburgh and East Runton!  The Norwich Stanza group (peer poetry feedback) I belong to is now happening via Zoom (no more worrying about missing the last train home!) and I’ve joined another Stanza group in South Kensington.  I’ve been to lots of poetry launches and open mic events in London and next week I’m going to the launch of Katrina Naomi’s new collection, Wild Persistence, hosted by her Welsh-based publisher, Seren.  One of my favourite events was Jenny Pagdin’s Lockdown Stage which brought together a host of Norwich poets and two talented London guests too, you can still hear the readings via this YouTube link https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g32XN9tlcwo  Martin Figura and Helen Ivory are regularly hosting some great poetry readings from lockdown in The Butchery.  All this without shelling out for a single train fare.  The downside is that I’ve bought rather a lot of new poetry books, no, wait, that’s an upside!
  • I’m just writing my 20th new poem since lockdown although my creative energy is starting to flag a wee bit. There have been a lot of articles in the press about how productive Shakespeare and Milton were when they were, respectively, locked out of London and theatreland due to the Plague, or in prison.  My life hasn’t been quite so extreme.  I’ve very much enjoyed having time to curl up on the sofa in our garden room (more like a ramshackle conservatory-cum-lean-to, but we aspire…) and write.  The title of this blog With Love from Lockdown is also the title of the first poem I wrote after lockdown.  I was delighted when it was accepted for the Poetry for an Infected World, Postcards from Malthusia project by the two poets who run New Boots and Pantisocracies where you can find a series of interesting poetry projects. Go here to see the poems: https://newbootsandpantisocracies.wordpress.com/  I’ve always been interested in 18th century economist Thomas Malthus’s ideas.  His theory that if a species becomes too dominant then nature will find its way of redressing the balance seems to have considerable relevance today.  He’s known as the Gloomy Philospher but looks unfailingly chirpy in the portraits I’ve seen of him:

Thomas Malthus on Population

  • I’ve loved catching up with friends via Zoom, Skype and phone calls. So much more time to do this – I feel much more connected to my gang! It’s been wonderful to connect with friends in Europe and London friends who have, in the past, had such busy diaries it’s been like trying to find a tricky bit of sky on a giant jigsaw for a get-together.  Another upside is that I’m more technologically literate than I used to be, but that’s not difficult to achieve as I was a pretty low-level user before lockdown!
  • More time to read has been a real boon. I’ve got through piles of hitherto unread books and have been particularly enjoying exploring American poets including Ada Limon (The Carrying, Dead Bright Things), Mary Ruefle (My Private Property), Danez Smith (Homie).  Heidi Williamson’s superb Return by Minor Road is out officially this month (one of the many books delayed by the Coronavirus).  I love, respect and admire this book.  Heidi is a great friend and she has put her heart and soul and so much else into this collection which explores the primary school shooting at Dunblane where she was living at the time.  It’s so sensitively written.  An intensely profound meditation on love and loss.  If you do buy any poetry books during this period then do try to get them directly from the publishers as they are really struggling with no bookshops open to sell their authors’ work and the only launches possible are on digital platforms with no bookstalls…  Heidi’s is available from Bloodaxe  https://www.bloodaxebooks.com/ecs/search/  My latest read has been the bizarre and wholly wonderful Alice B Toklas Cookbook which describes all the recipes Alice would cook for her lifelong partner, Gertrude Stein.  They lived together from 1908 when Alice arrived in Paris, a refugee from the San Francisco earthquake, and were together until Gertrude’s death in 1946.  My favourite moment is where Alice serves a dish to Picasso and is told it would be more suitable for Matisse! I love this picture of them, they look really conventional but were completely groundbreaking in so many ways.

Legendary Lovers: Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas

  • T’ai Chi, qi gong, meditation and yoga. I used to do these so regularly but other things gradually pushed them into a minor role.  During lockdown I’ve been doing a combination of these practices on a more or less daily basis, with a bit of Pilates thrown in to try and strengthen by ever pesky wrists (weak thanks to a bout of tenosynovitis in my twenties).
  • I’ve learnt how to cut my own fringe!
  • Recipes – new and old – one of my best re-discoveries is the joy of cornbread and how much better the accompanying spicy chilli is with the addition of a bar of very dark chocolate.  It takes me back to my travels in Mexico, but that’s another story…

Summertime and the living is quirky…

 
There’s so much to celebrate in the UK in the summer and I feel particularly lucky to be living in North Norfolk.  Last night, strolling down to the beach to watch the sunset an excited family from Cambridge were taking photos of a seal lazily floating on its back.  Earlier in the year we did an extraordinary walk from Sea Palling to Great Yarmouth along the beach all the way.

Image result for seals at horsey gap 2019

As you get closer to Horsey Gap you start to see seals.  We were quite chuffed at seeing ten lying on the tideline until we realised that the strange rock formations up ahead were also seals, packed liked sardines, hundreds of them, heaving themselves into and out of the sea, hissing, barking and emitting such appalling smells in their constant state of fish-fuelled excitement that by the time we approached Winterton we had to desperately seek refuge on the path running behind the dunes.

Friday mornings I walk along the beach with my yoga mat for a 7am yoga class on the pier.  If you look closely in the photo below you can see me doing a dodgy tree pose on the far right-hand side.

On my way to yoga yesterday, as I went past the cliff slopes where the Bagot goats spend the summer keeping the vegetation in order, I witnessed quite a bit of goat argy bargy as horns clashed and kids bleated.  They are a lovely sight and Delilah Bagot, the spokesgoat, is getting quite a lot of media attention and even has her own facebook page:

https://www.facebook.com/delilah.bagot.1

We’ve had peregrines nesting on Cromer Church tower this year – all three chicks fledged recently and it’s now a common sight to see crowds looking up with state-of-the-art binoculars and scopes.  I’ve been going to the NWT nature reserve at Cley Marshes more often now I live at this end of the coast and was rewarded recently by the sound of a booming bittern.  I’ve always wanted to hear this and it certainly lived up to expectations.  It absolutely does sound like someone blowing across the top of a milk-bottle!  What a great mating call!

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A few weekends ago I was in Leeds with fellow poet Heidi Williamson for the UK’s first ever Prose Poetry Symposium.  It was such an energising event and included the launch of the Valley Press Anthology of Prose Poetry which I’m very proud to be in as it includes so many fabulous poets.  On the Sunday morning we had time for an amble through Leeds and came across a Kitty Café.  I’ve never been a great fan of Hello Kitty and was bemused that my usually very sensible friend was bouncing up and down like a six-year-old.  When Heidi could finally speak again she explained that the café was not a vehicle for a Japanese animation, but for a cat rescue organisation.  You pay a fee to go in, find a comfy place to sit, order your food, and then realise that the whole café is full of scratching posts, hammocks, ledges, catnip toys, catflaps and is actually a temporary home to thirty-three cats and kittens!

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Back in Norfolk and yet another trip to Great Yarmouth, a place I’ve become very fond of over the years.  It’s a fascinating mix of history, quirkiness, urban grit and the great British seaside in all its Kiss-Me-Quick glory.  We decided to forego the End of the Pier show in Cromer this summer and experience the Yarmouth Hippodrome Summer Spectacular instead.  The Hippodrome was built by George Gilbert in 1903.  It’s Britain’s only surviving circus building and one of only four in the world to have a water feature.  Charlie Chaplin and Harry Houdini performed there, Lillie Langtry sang there and Lloyd George held political rallies there.  In wartime it was used as a military shooting range.  Peter Jay (of Peter Jay and the Jaywalkers) bought the building, alongside others in Great Yarmouth, in the 1970s and restored the water feature in 1981 (the wooden floor of the circus sinks dramatically to reveal a circular water tank and spouting fountains…)

Image result for hippodrome great yarmouth building

I loved the fact that all the young women selling candyfloss and programmes and showing you to your seat transform into the circus dancers in the first half and the syncopated swimming troupe in the second.  The guy with the American accent selling popcorn turned out to be one of the extraordinarily athletic Chicago All Stars.  In the interval performers from all over the world put on their black crew gear and help to erect the scaffold for the aerial display.  It’s a real team effort!

After the show we went backstage to the Circus Museum where many of the performers were milling around, relaxing on sofas, although the Finnish trapeze artist seemed happy to spend her free time walking up and down a fellow acrobat’s back as he lay supine.  The Circus Museum features some of Peter Jay’s equipment and tour posters as well as a hoard of memorabilia which was found just lying around when Jay bought the building, including a programme, printed on silk, for the first ever show at the Hippodrome.  Some of the memorabilia is stored in the old stables where the animals were kept.

Another Great Yarmouth gem worth visiting is the Lydia Eva, the last steam drifter in the world.  You’ll find her on the South Quay.  She was the last boat to be built at the King’s Lynn Slipway Co in West Lynn as the local shipbuilders were on strike.  Named after owner Harry Eastick’s daughter, the boat was launched in June 1930 and has been lovingly restored.  If you want to know more about the Great Yarmouth herring industry then the Time and Tide Museum is the place to go – leave time for a visit to the Silver Darlings Café!

Image result for the lydia eva great yarmouth

Summer wouldn’t be summer without a reading list and I’ve been revisiting the classics this year, inspired by visits to two wonderful writers’ houses during our week’s holiday in Hastings.  First stop was Lamb House in Rye where Henry James lived from 1897 until 1914.  He wrote many of his most famous works here, including my particular favourite, The Turn of the Screw.  If you look closely at the photo on the left you might see a shadowy figure doing a little light haunting…  Joan Aitken’s book The Haunting of Lamb House is a supernatural tale featuring both Henry James and his friend friend E F Benson who lived there from 1914 onwards and who also wrote ghost stories.  Benson’s celebrated Mapp and Lucia stories are set in “Tilling” which was modelled on Rye.  Mapp and Lucia’s home, “Mallards” is, of course, Lamb House.  Rumer Godden, one of my favourite writers when I was a child, lived there from 1967 to 1974.  Her book, A Kindle of Kittens, is set in Rye.  I particularly adored Miss Happiness and Miss Flower, the story of two Japanese dolls and how their new owner, Nona, a homesick little girl, decides to build them a Japanese house.  I’m sure  my love of all things Japanese stems from learning, along with Nona, what the dolls might like to be surrounded with to lessen their homesickness.

Image result for miss happiness and miss flower

Our second writer’s residence was Monk’s House, Virginia and Leonard Woolf’s country retreat in Rodmell.  We walked along the banks of the Ouse from Lewes to Rodmell and it was hard not to imagine Virginia, on that fateful day in 1941, setting off from the house and walking into the Ouse, pockets full of stones.

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The house is utterly charming and the Woolfs clearly thought so too, despite the lack of home comforts.  Leonard said that he thought their daily life was closer to Chaucer’s than that of modern man!  Woolf was writing her seminal feminist essay A Room of One’s Own as her bedroom was being built at Monk’s House.  It had no internal links to the main house and was full of artworks by her sister, Vanessa Bell, and her niece, Angelica Garnett.

In the garden is the Writing Lodge, where Virginia wrote many of her novels and articles, even sleeping there on fine summer nights.  The house was a magnet for the Bloomsbury Group with T S Eliot, Maynard Keynes, E M Forster, Duncan Grant and many others spending time here and dubbing it Bloomsbury on Sea!

 

As well as revisiting some of the books in my classics collection I’ve also set myself a project which I’m calling The Paris Project.  I’m trying to read every book I can with the word Paris in the title.  I’ve come across some great ones so far.  I would recommend The Paris Wife by Paula McLain which is about how Hadley Richardson (the first of Hemingway’s four wives) and Ernest Hemingway adapt to life in Paris as impoverished Americans in the 1920s.  If you like a bit of time travelling then pick up futurist adventure Paris Adrift by E J Swift – a really intriguing read.  One Evening in Paris by Nicolas Barreau is a wee bit farfetched but it’s set around a cinema and is a bit of a paean to all those romantic city-obsessed Woody Allen films so you can forgive its foibles!

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And, of course, I’ve been reading plenty of poetry books – there have been so many good ones recently.  I’ve particularly enjoyed Witch by Rebecca Tamas, Threat by Julia Webb, The Perseverance by Raymond Antrobus, Everyone Knows I am a Haunting by Shivanee Ramlochan, Deaf Republic by Ilya Kaminsky, and King of a Rainy Country by Matthew Sweeney.  The last is particularly close to my heart.  Matthew and his partner, fellow poet Mary Noonan, were in Paris at the same time as me in 2016 and staying very close by.  This collection of prose poems was Matthew’s response to Baudelaire’s Le Spleen de Paris.  It’s a magical read but also a sad one as Matthew died soon after completing it.

So, look out for the quirky, wherever you are, it’s what makes life interesting.  I’ll leave you with a final image from a shop in Great Yarmouth which was in the process of closing down…

 

The Write Place!

 
So, first of all apologies for the radio silence… my only excuse being that I didn’t realise how exhausting it would be to have two books out at once!  Do please, persuade all your friends to buy copies of Lumière and In the Kingdom of Shadows – poets are expected to do their own publicity/marketing to a certain extent and it’s hard to self-promote constantly (visions of people hiding behind pillars…)

I’ve been thinking a lot about good places to write recently.  Writers’ Forum magazine have regular features on successful writers and their writing spaces, most of them are large, rather impersonal offices so I guess being a poet and having only short pieces of writing to rest on my knee means that I seek inspiration very much out of my office space (which I associate with my freelance creative writing and film studies business).  My places to write often feature watery views and my second pamphlet, The Saltwater Diaries, (due out at the end of the year) was  mostly written during the transition period when we moved from King’s Lynn to East Runton, from an urban to a seaside environment.  I’m clearly not the only one to find watery places inspirational…

My oldest friend and I are celebrating the fact that we’ve known each other for fifty years, since our first year at Junior School, and we are trying to do lots of lovely things to commemorate the occasion.  At the beginning of April we went to Devon for a week and one of my favourite outings was a double dose of National Trust properties.

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First stop was Coleton Fishacre which Rupert and Lady Dorothy D’Oyly Carte built, partly on the proceeds of the D’Oyly Carte family’s success with the Gilbert and Sullivan operas.   A beautiful and inspirational place, the house is a 1920s masterpiece with grounds meandering down steep cliffs to Pudcombe Cove.  Guests would excitedly consult the tide times the butler would indicate on the special hall clock every morning.  An evening swim in the tidal pool at the cove would be punctuated by a bell rung from the house to call people back up for pre-dinner cocktails.  I don’t know if Gilbert and Sullivan ever wrote anything there, or even visited, but it would be an idyllic place to write.  So many nooks and crannies, trees bursting with blossom, a brook running through the grounds, sea views from every room…

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The interior evokes the jazz age with art deco touches.  We were particularly taken with the cigarette cases full of sobranie cigarettes and the rather wonderful cocktail shakers as well as this superb cocktail cabinet.

Cocktail cabinet

We made do with a bottle of Espresso Martini from Lidl and some cocktail glasses from a charity shop in Babbacombe, accompanied by a re-run of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd featuring the inimitable David Suchet as twirly-moustached Poirot.  Why Poirot and not a CD of Gilbert and Sullivan?  Because our second property was Agatha Christie’s beloved Greenway overlooking the River Dart.

Agatha Christie and her family sat outside of their holiday home Greenway

This property was such a contrast to Coleton Fishacre where each room is set up as if an extremely tidy person has just left it, there might be a tennis racket in the corner, a beautiful nightgown on the bed or a vintage book open on the side table.  Agatha Christie’s house was the polar opposite,  full of the clutter of two avid collectors, cabinets of china and silver, walls full of prints and artefacts from Max Mallowan and Agatha’s archaeological trips abroad which inspired Murder on the Orient Express and Death on the Nile.  A big, beautiful, rambling house and certainly full of interest, but the fact which most suprised and fascinated me was that Agatha Christie would have a pot of Devonshire clotted cream at her side to dip into as she wrote and, as a teetotaller, instead of having wine with her dinner, she would sip double cream.  Apparently she also tried desperately to become a smoker as this was such a popular pastime, but never quite got into the habit!  I’m rather partial to a scone with jam and clotted cream, but I can’t imagine seeking inspiration to quite the extent Agatha did!

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The Library at Greenway features an unexpected treasure, a frieze painted during World War Two by Lt Marshall Lee, a member of the US. Coast Guard stationed at the house in the run up to the D Day landings. The commander wrote to Agatha offering to have the fresco painted out when the house was returned to the family, but she hurriedly wrote back that it would be a historical memorial which she would be delighted to keep.  It’s a beautifully executed account of particular moments in the war and it’s good to see what amounts to classy graffiti preserved in such a grand house!   When the house was  first requisitioned it was  used to house child evacuees.  It must have been extraordinary to be surrounded by such natural beauty when you had come from an urban home, for the grounds at Greenway are stunning and even contain a pet cemetery for Agatha’s beloved dogs.  You can walk down to the boathouse where Dead Man’s Folly was set and admire the wide and beautiful River Dart with stunning views of Kingswear.  I’m sure Agatha wrote more fluently and concocted even better mysteries thanks to Greenway.  This beautiful Georgian property continues to inspire with regular writer-in-residence programmes (the current is J R Carpenter).  This year the Trust is highlighting the curiosities in Max and Agatha’s collection and providing a writing prompt for a chosen object each month  – so pens out everyone!

https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/greenway/features/greenways-cabinet-of-curiosities

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So here I am, back home in East Runton and although I’m not fixated on double or clotted cream I have to admit that both my favourite places to write locally do involve food… I’m not averse to popping down to the beach with my notebook and sitting on a rock listening to the waves, or strolling up the beach to watch the sun go down, but there’s nothing like a cup of coffee at the Rocket House Café in Cromer, practically on the beach and with fabulous views of the Pier.  I’ve written countless first drafts there and polished quite a few later drafts too.  On a warm day I like the Reef Stop café on the promenade going towards Cromer. Noisy and full of hot, tongue-lolling over-excited dogs, it’s a great place to have a cheese toastie and absorb everything going on.  It’s always a wee bit breezier on the beach than inland so juggling napkin, notebook, pen and toastie in the wind can be a challenge!

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I do have an inspirational place which isn’t by the water.  I occasionally teach for Gaynor Clements at her gorgeous farmhouse in Elsworth which is the home of the Cambridge Writing Retreat.  I usually go up the night before and stay in Gaynor’s charming shepherd’s hut.  I always manage to do a bit of focused writing to get myself in the mood for the next day’s teaching, which takes place in the cosy farmhouse kitchen.  Go here for details of Gaynor’s tutors and courses: https://www.cambridgewritingretreat.com/samplemenu

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I’m a huge fan of the Aldeburgh Poetry Festival which takes place every November and means this small Suffolk coastal town is swamped with crowds of poets – all friendly, open and eager to learn from each other’s performances and readings.  I must admit I haven’t yet written a successful poem in Aldeburgh, I’m always far too distracted.  I’ve been to some great workshops – last year I was lucky enough to go to both Jean Sprackland and Pascale Petit but, despite excellent tuition, over-excitement is not good for a poet’s brain (not this one anyway!) – too many new people to chat to and far too many brilliant poetry books to buy!  Poet Paul Stephenson curates the weekends expertly.  In 2018 my highlights were hearing Meryl Pugh read; having a go at translating a poem from Greek to English with Claire Pollard and Kostya Tsolakis; and last but not least in a weekend packed full of great events, the Queer Studio reading with Mary Jean Chan, Richard Scott, Alice Hiller, Danne Jobin, Swithun Cooper and Caleb Parkin.   I was involved in a really interesting session organised by Ambit Editor Bryony Bax and Fenland Reed editor Elisabeth Sennitt Clough in which we discussed the thorny issue of submissions and gender.

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Between readings it’s good to clear some headspace by stomping along the shingle beach in the wind to Maggie Hamblin’s beautiful, and controversial, 12 foot high scallop shell sculpture in honour of Benjamin Britten.  I’ve already booked my accommodation for this year’s festival and can’t wait to see the programme, watch this space as 8-10 November 2019 gets closer!

https://www.poetryinaldeburgh.org/

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As well as running regular writing workshops on all genres, I’ve also started offering mini writing retreats upstairs at Carberry’s Café in Norwich (Wensum Street).    This sitting in cafés mularkey by yourself is all very well, but it’s very difficult to motivate yourself effectively for a sustained period of time.  These mini writing retreats quite special days as, although they are untutored, the fact that I am present seems to wield an invisible discipline and help people to keep going.  We usually start with a bit of focusing and mindfulness before each participant moves to their own spacious table with views down the pretty street from a huge picture window.  The café staff will bring any drinks or food you want and run a tab for you so you don’t even have to disturb your writing with such mundanities as getting your purse out until the end of the day.  I organise a prompts table full of objects, articles, books and ideas just in case anyone gets stuck.  I’m there all day for advice sessions and generally get to see everyone twice.  The first time I did this the atmosphere was extraordinarily concentrated, one poet tidied up twelve drafts and created a new poem!

Now, to return to Agatha Christie – not only did she have a predilection for cream, she also ate apples in the bath while envisioning her murder mysteries… but she clearly isn’t the only writer with strange habits.  Charles Dickens always slept facing north, he believed it helped his creativity.  John Steinbeck needed two dozen perfectly sharpened pencils on his desk.  Virginia Woolf wrote like a painter, standing up and stepping back to get a different perspective on her writing,  while James Joyce preferred to lie on his stomach.   William Faulkner, predictably, would drink whiskey while writing.  Lewis Carroll wrote in purple ink.   Dan Brown finds hanging upside down helps him write… So do you have any strange writing habits?  I don’t think I do.  I’m more of a Gertrude Stein kind of girl, writing anywhere I can while the world goes on around me, but perhaps that’s strange in and of itself!

 

Paris in the Autumn – DADA, Punk and Pistachio Eclairs

 
It was strange to be back in Paris, not least because I’d had several months of clean sea air and was used to feeling constantly and rather pleasantly damp from a mixture of sea swimming and beach walking.  Just the day before I’d been swimming in the North Sea and now here I was on the steps of Sacre Coeur! (Below is a photo taken from the 8th floor of my air bnb building.)

One of my aims this time in Paris was to explore the live poetry/open mic scene a little more thoroughly.  I began by attending the launch of the latest issue of “Maintenant” a New York DADA magazine.  It was an extraordinary evening from start to finish, down in the basement of the Cave on rue Marcadet.   I’m a great fan of experimental poetry and pushing boundaries and could appreciate that a lot of what went on was doing exactly that.  The main joy of the evening, however,  was discovering new poets who had an innovative and exciting way with words while still remaining accessible, and who you are unlikely to come across on the page as they are largely performance poets.  Boni Joi, an American poet, gave a muscular, dramatic performance, full of the flavours of Europe.  The biggest discovery for me was Henrik Aeshna.  Glittering eyes, a feral presence and the feeling that anything could happen as he threw jets of whiskey around and pages of poetry across the stage, but amidst the posturing there were moments of pure poetic beauty.  I’ve got a bit of a soft spot for bad boys, you know, that Kurt Cobain, Pete Doherty, Sid Vicious kind of thing…

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Aeshna is described as  “the anti-prophet of SchizoPoP Manifesto.  Rebel, intense, provocateur; bastard, visionary vandal, anti-anti-hero with a thousand faces. Profane pirate of signs and Poltergeist poet of inspirational carpe diem. All and Nothing. Henrik Aeshna’s school notebook poems are radically innovative – a wild stream of words and sensations, an unstructured syntax flowing out of the musical mud and fierce effervescence of Free Jazz, Post-Punk, Avant-Garde & Experimental Cinema ( Stan Brakhage, Jack Smith, Shuji Terayama, Jonas Mekas, etc. ), photography and street art, Beat Poetry, Dada-Surrealism & Situationism, and finding echoes in the travel journals and raging notebooks of outlaw adventurers such as Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady, Rimbaud, Villon, Li Po & Basho, Artaud, William Burroughs & Arthur Cravan…” .  To read more of this astounding description of his work and some sample poems go to: https://tsunamibooks.jimdo.com/poets-in-english-2011-issue/henrik-aeshna/

Other artists banged the on-stage piano in a brutal manner, used post-its to simulate copulation and enacted a rather engaging play across the room.  The evening ended in true DADA style with the final artist rubbing sweets on his genitals (yes, really, pants down stuff).  There was a point, but probably not one to share…

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My next venture was long-standing open-mic night Spoken Word at Au Chat Noir, a typically grungey and grafittied bar in Belleville, the old working class district which is now, with Oberkampf, the height of hip.  Spoken Word describes itself as a home for “creatives and lost anglophones”.  The majority of open-micers are American and the flavour tends to be quite young, political, stream of consciousness style readings. The emphasis tends to be much more on performance than it is in the UK.  One of the featured artists was Jennifer Blowdryer, who used to head up a punk band in New York in the 70s.  She was great fun, belting out songs and reading an essay about Eva and Zsa Zsa Gabor from her new book.  The venue was an atmospheric basement space, with the calmest member of the audience by far being a short-eared rabbit who surveyed all that went on with a buddha-like tranquillity.  I read a couple of poems from Lumière to spread the word as it was thanks to my 2016 Arts Council funded residency in Paris that this pamphlet, a tribute to Paris’ cinematic heritage, came into being.

https://www.hedgehogpress.co.uk/product/sue-burge-lumiere-pre-order/

For my third and final exploration I went back to Culture Rapide, another grungey, graffitied bar in Belleville where I had read embryonic Lumière poems back in May 2016.  This meant I wasn’t heckled onto stage with cries of “Virgin! Virgin!” like other terrified newbies.  My slot followed Gertrude, a fabulous French transvestite who sang a song about working girls in Montmartre, resplendent in fishnets, beret and little black skirt.  And following me was the ubiquitous Jenny Blowdryer!   The featured act was Abdel Kader Wawi, aka 5919, a Lebanese calligraffiti artist.  The stage became an art studio as old film posters were stuck up and then covered with the most beautifully executed Arabic calligraphy of words suggested by the audience.  While he worked, two friends played guitar and sang, giving the performance a gypsyish/Moorish slant.

All three experiences were extraordinary and I felt privileged to have been a fleeting part of them.

I did, of course,  venture outside and went on long, sunlit walks on most days, sometimes clocking up around 10km in a go, but a further two highlights were both part of the thriving  cabaret scene in Paris.

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It was Paris fashion week and I decided the only way to properly celebrate this was to go along to the Folies Bergère and see Jean-Paul Gaulthier’s Fashion Freak Show – a cabaret spectacular which he had created to showcase his life in fashion, like peeking into his private diary.  Looking back, I don’t know how I managed to get a ticket as both Marion Cotillard and Paloma Faith were in the audience, along with other celebrities who I had no hope of identifying and a plethora of gorgeous men and women who all seemed to have modelled for J-P.  The show was fantastic, full-on dancing, electrifying music (chosen by Nile Rodgers), fashion shows featuring Gaulthier’s iconic confections and some brilliant projections including images of the young J-P watching Falbalas,  the 1945 film which was one of his earliest inspirations.  The film starred the gorgeous Micheline Presle as a woman seduced by a Parisian designer.  One of the highlights of the show for me was to see Presle in the huge on-stage projections, playing Gaulthier’s influential grandmother.  In one of those strange coincidences that makes life the colourful pageant that it is, I had a drink later in the week with my friend Juliette, who runs the fabulous Cine-Balade company and whose walks were hugely inspirational when it came to writing Lumière.  She had just interviewed Presle as she works for an organisation which restores old black and white films and one of Presle’s is hopefully slated for re-release.  Juliette had also worked with the team restoring Rue des Cascades which was one of the many films I managed to see while in Paris.  This 1964 classic is a little reminiscent of Les Quatre Cents Coups, very much seen from a child’s point of view and set in the Belleville/Menilmontant area.  It focuses on a boy’s reaction to his mother’s new boyfriend, who just happens to be black.

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The second cabaret experience, a visit to the Lapin Agile, is probably one of my all-time favourite Parisian experiences in the 40 years since I’ve been coming to the city.  You need to be able to understand French pretty well to really appreciate it, but just to go in and imbibe the atmosphere is worth the ticket price.  It’s a famous Montmartre cabaret dating from the 19th century.  It was bought by Aristide Bruant, comedian and cabaret singer, in the early 20th century to save it from demolition.  It became a favourite spot for struggling artists and writers including Utrillo, Picasso, Apollinaire and Modigliani.

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It also became famous for launching unknown musicians and singers on to greater things – singers like Georges Brassens and Claude Nougaro.  The evening starts with five or six singers and musicians around a table singing together, the songs are all French in origin and some date back to the fifteenth century.  Each musician has a solo turn, maybe with an accordion, a piano, a guitar.  There are songs by Piaf, Brassens, Bécaud and many more including Charles Aznavour, who, in his youth,  lived just below Montmartre in the 9th arrondissement and who died very recently at the age of 94.  The venue is dark, atmospheric, with old wooden tables and benches and paintings on every inch of wall space, including a copy of Picasso’s famous Au Lapin Agile.

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Paris, as well as staying the same in so many ways, is also changing rapidly.  The prevalence of street art is one of the most noticeable changes.  A great deal of tagging, but also, among the ordinary, the extraordinary:

 

 

 

 

 

And what about that eclair?  Well, I’m well-known for my predilection for réligieuse, those wonderful chocolate or coffee cream-filled choux pastry concoctions, but decided I should try something different as I wandered round the Batignolles area which seemed to have a delightful bakery on every corner.  Green is one of my favourite colours and the brightness of this pistachio eclair seemed to be calling to me.  It was one of those moments where, as a Frenchwoman I know says, “time stops on your tongue.

 

Yoga, Paddling and Poetry

 

Living in Cromer can have quite surreal aspects at times.  In May we had the plague of hairy caterpillars (oak precessionary moths).  These were all over the concrete prom and as their hairs are toxic there was a bit of a panic locally.  The plague also delayed the arrival of the Bagot Goats for their annual summer holiday.  The herd belongs to North Norfolk District Council and they come to graze on the Cliffside above the promenade.  They probably don’t know it, but they are carrying out an important role in habitat management.  Bagot goats are our oldest British breed, hardy, tame and fond of uplands.  This year there are 10 nannies and 9 kids and they are a sight to behold, although I have to say that most of the time they appear to be having a good rest on their sandy ledge.  Except on Fridays.  This is when I get up early to do Yoga on the Pier at 7am and the goats are usually already chomping away as I blear my way past.

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I’ve been doing yoga for over thirty years but this has to be the best class ever – doing downward dog and seeing the sea lap under the boards of the Pier is a unique experience!  I’m a great fan of paddling when it’s too cold to wild swim and sometimes just pop on my teva sandals and paddle to the class.  For as long as I can remember Chris and I have been popping to seaside places after work for a spot of paddling and ice-cream (these go together like fish and chips, bread and butter etc etc) usually Sheringham when we lived in Norwich as it was one of the few seaside towns to sell Ronaldo ice cream, and Hunstanton when we lived in King’s Lynn.  This week I paddled from East Runton to Cromer to a morning appointment and arrived sandy but refreshed.  Wet commuting is not unusual, I once did a day-trip to Basel to visit the Tinguely Museum and saw an extraordinary number of people swimming to work, or rather floating, letting the strong current take them downriver, office clothes firmly secured in inflatable drybags! During my time teaching in Switzerland I regularly swam in Lake Zurich, often morning and evening, to wake up and then wind down.  You always knew when you had swum to the middle of the Lake as two distinctive church towers suddenly merged into one, a little like an eclipse.  In the summer there’s a lovely ladies only pool on the River Limmat which turns into the Barfussbar (Barefoot Bar) once it gets dark.

In July we headed off to Ledbury for the Poetry Festival and some hillwalking.  It coincided with the first week of the heatwave and I found myself longing for cool coastal breezes. In search of respite we paddled in the Wye a couple of times, once just outside Hay-on-Wye and once in Hereford where I suddenly twigged why the town is situated there and why the water is so shallow (it’s all in the name!).

Elgar is associated with this area and it’s hard not to walk around without his wonderful music playing through your mind, especially as many of the friends he based Enigma Variations on lived in this area.  There’s even a statue by the River Wye commemorating Dan the Bulldog, who belonged to George Sinclair and inspired Elgar’s Variation on an Original Theme XI which tells the story of Dan falling into the River, paddling upstream to find an easy way out of the river and his triumphant bark as he reaches dry land!

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Sensory and Rye in Union Street provided us with much-needed third wave coffee (V60) and a delicious vegan lunch.   The unusual name comes from a part anagram of the name of the butcher’s shop originally on the premises (G Rowberry and Sons).

A choir were practising in Hereford Cathedral during our visit, their sublime voices filling the space and enhancing the discovery of Tom Denny’s extraordinary stained glass windows celebrating the life of Thomas Traherne, a contemporary of John Donne, and one of the metaphysical poets.  The detail and colours were unlike anything I’d seen before.

In pursuit of all things watery we did a Wells and Springs self-guided walk in the Malvern Hills.  The start point was one of my favourite and most unusually sited vegetarian cafes at St Ann’s Well.  It’s a steep climb but the reward of chocolate fudge cake is nothing if not motivating!  The drought was starting to have an impact,  with yellowing grass and bare patches on the hillsides, but underground there are a multitude of springs.  Malvern was very popular in the Victorian era when the health craze of “taking the waters” was at its peak.  The local water was bottled by Schweppes from 1851 until very recently.  Florence Nightingale, Lord Tennyson and Charles Darwin all took the waters and claimed considerable health benefits from this experience.  Wherever the springs emerge above ground you’ll find a small well, often built by philanthropists to ensure poorer people had a good supply of fresh water.  Below is the charming Westminster Bank Well just above West Malvern where, in St James’ churchyard lies the grave of M. Roget of Thesaurus fame.

You can drink from the wells in Great Malvern itself but the hillside wells often become contaminated so I resorted to soaking my baseball cap in each one we passed instead of drinking.  My hair and cap dried in minutes in the 30 degree heat.

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Tolkein and C S Lewis are strongly associated with Great Malvern.  They often came up from Oxford to walk in the Malvern Hills with their friend George Sayer, and would drink in the Unicorn Pub.  There are some gorgeous Victorian gas lamps in the town and the hills, often in quite incongruous places, and it’s believed that this is where C S Lewis got the idea for the lamp-post in Narnia where Lucy meets Mr Tumnus.  The hills are also thought to be the inspiration for aspects of Middle Earth and the landscape of Narnia.

I really enjoy films which explore the lives of writers and Shadowlands is a particular favourite.  Anthony Hopkins plays C S Lewis and Debra Winger plays Joy Davidson, the American poet he falls in love with.  Her death from cancer challenges his Christian faith and it’s a powerful and moving film.   The Happy Prince, which has just been released, explores fellow Irishman Oscar Wilde’s fall from grace and his days of exile in Paris.  Rupert Everett is superb as the ageing Oscar, as one critic put it, he was born to be Wilde!  I’m also fond of Zinnemann’s Julia with Jane Fonda as Lillian Hellman, Jason Robards as Dashiell Hammett and Winterton on the Norfolk coast standing in as Cape Cod.

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Ledbury Poetry Festival was a wonderful event to have on your doorstep as part of a walking holiday.  Ledbury is a very attractive market town and one of its many claims to fame is that John Masefield was born there – there’s still a firm of solicitors in town bearing that name.  Elizabeth Barrett-Browning lived just outside Ledbury so it certainly has poetic form!  The Festival takes place all over town; highlights were a storming performance by Hollie McNish, a superb reading by Sinead Morrissey, an insightful talk by Sarah Churchwell on Sylvia Plath and a brilliant analysis of Wallace Stevens by one of my poetry heroes, Mark Doty.  I attended two excellent workshops, one with Sinead Morrissey on the perils of abstraction and one with Kim Moore on hidden narratives.  Almost every shop window was festooned with poems and poetry books but of course Ledbury can’t compete with Hay-on-Wye which has a population of 1500 and over 30 independent bookshops!  So, what are your perfect holiday ingredients?  A simple combination of paddling, bookshops, specialist coffee, good walks and poetry certainly worked for me this time!

Think Liminally!

 

I’ve always been interested in the idea of liminal spaces, that strange place which exists, or non-exists, between other things.  It’s a concept I explore a great deal in my poetry.  It could be the moment between sleeping and waking.  It could be a whole film.  Brief Encounter appears to be mostly set in a liminal space.  Laura (Celia Johnson) and Alec (Trevor Howard) meet on a train station and much of the action takes place here, particularly in the waiting room – a classic liminal space.  Their love-affair is doomed from the start – a brief passionate interlude, unrealised and unconsummated as both protagonists are drawn back to their sober, dutiful lives.  There are angsty, canted angles when Laura is in danger of going too far (there’s a very film noir kiss in an underpass, shadowy and sinister) or when her state of mind is unbalanced almost to the point of suicide.  The film has been called the “Anna Karenina of the home counties” with one critic scathingly saying “make tea, not love”.  Audiences at the time were famously irritated with Alec and Laura’s inability to “get a room”!  If you ever get the chance to visit the Carnforth Station in Lancashire, where the film was shot, you are in for a treat. It houses an excellent heritage centre with, at its heart, a celebration of David Lean’s 1945 classic.  You can even have tea in the faithfully restored Refreshment Room which sports huge, rather intimidating tea urns.

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My favourite liminal space, however, is the pier.  It’s not sea, it’s not land.   As soon as you step onto a pier life feels full of possibilities and difference.  Southwold Pier is surely the most unusual you’ll ever encounter.

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I last visited in December when Southwold beach was shrouded for hours in a thick sea fret and the pier only came into view as we were almost at the steps.  As well as great shops and cafes, the pier is home to Tim Hunkin’s “Under the Pier Show”, a superb collection of unique, hand-built, wacky machines (there’s also an amazing clock halfway down the pier which comes to life on the hour).  In the “Mobility Masterclass” you have to get gran across a busy road with her zimmer frame.  There’s also the deeply satisfying “Whack the Banker”.  The most recent addition is “airbednbug” where a few coins activate a sort of live storyboard about persecuted bedbugs – it’s charming – a comic strip come to life.  My favourite moment is when the bedbugs realise they have to move and are leafing through brochures to choose their next hotel to infest – genius!

Is a pier a truly liminal space?  A liminal space is one of transition and you could say that piers are really ends in themselves although in the past they probably fulfilled a clearer liminal role as some the first pleasure piers were where you would while away your time as you waited for a steamboat or ferry.  One of the earliest pleasure piers was Ryde Pier, built in 1813. There were working piers too, of course, (and still are today), like Wigan,  where passengers and cargo were loaded and unloaded.

If you’re a film buff like me then probably your first thought at the mention of piers was Brighton Rock.  There’s a great article at the link below

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/travel/artsandculture/8273771/Brighton-Rock-stepping-into-the-black-and-white-world-of-Pinkie-and-Rose.html

about a Brighton Rock walk given by Julian Clapp.  The 1948 version of Graham Greene’s book stars Richard Attenborough as baby-faced evil personified, giving a stunning performance as Pinkie.  The film was an immediate sensation and also deeply disturbing for an audience reeling from the horrors of the Second World War, with some critics believing the film shouldn’t be shown.  Violence in films was always a concern, with those in control believing that it could have an adverse effect on the suggestible, mostly working class, cinema audiences.  Brighton Pier, of course, takes centre stage, with its ghost train, fortune tellers and the “make a record of your voice” booth, used to such great and poignant effect at the end of the film.  You can watch the clip below:

Many people who feel the 1948 version is the definitive one were not too keen on the 2010 remake with Sam Riley as the psychopathic Pinkie, and the reliably superb Andrea Riseborough as Rose, but I quite like remakes.  It’s always interesting to see how a new version of a classic addresses its audience.

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Richard Attenborough renewed his connection with piers by directing the iconic anti-war film Oh What A Lovely War! in 1966.  The archetypal Smith family’s experience of the First World War is played out through a series of elaborate tableaux staged mostly on Brighton’s West Pier.  It begins with General Haig selling the family entrance tickets to the “show”.  At one point, officers zoom down a helter skelter, the perfect metaphor for their heedless and naive decisions.

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Hunstanton Pier, or the lack of it, has been a bone of contention in this West Norfolk town for some time.  The pier was destroyed by storms in 1978 and the little which remained was more or less destroyed by fire in 2002 and subsequently removed.  Before its sad demise, the pier was immortalised in an Ealing comedy from 1956 Barnacle Bill, starring Alec Guinness.  Guinness plays a sea captain with seasickness who buys up the old pier and turns it into a non-moving cruise ship, a shipshape vessel which will never go to sea – so we are very much back to the strangeness of liminal spaces.   The success of the pier and its new role is very much to the chagrin of the local council who want to demolish it and modernise the promenade (plus ça change…)

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As a child, I had an aunt who lived in Hastings whom I used to visit so I have vague memories of the old pier which was destroyed by a fire in 2010.  It has just been rebuilt and looks stunning, I can’t wait to visit this stunningly modern new space which was named the UK’s best new building last year.

Image result for cromer pierNow I’m resident in East Runton and just down the road from Cromer, this, of course, is my new favourite pier.  It’s one of only five UK piers with a working theatre and I’m very much looking forward to booking my ticket for the End of the Pier show!  The pier itself has had a long and rich history with records of a structure going back as far as the fourteenth century.  At night it’s lit up in a magical way and acts as my beacon when I walk along the beach to Cromer on dark evenings.

Image result for in love with alma coganThe pier was the location for “In love with Alma Cogan” directed by Tony Britten.  Much of the action took place in the Pavilion Theatre and the plot revolved round Theatre Manager Norman’s resistance to a more commercial show.  Norman was played by Roger Lloyd Pack and the film was one of his last appearances on screen.  Lloyd Pack was well loved locally, he’d fallen in love with the area in the 1970s after acting in Joseph Losey’s The Go Between  alongside Alan Bates and Julie Christie and, as a result, owned a house locally.

 

So, my advice to you all is to have a liminal moment.  Stand and contemplate life in one of the places in-between – a stairwell, a waiting room, an airport – these are places where reality feels somewhat altered, places which only exist as a means of getting somewhere else or as a resting place.  Best of all, go and stand on a pier and enjoy not having to find your sealegs, experience the feeling of walking on water.  Buy chips, have a cup of tea, get your fortune told, admire amazing starling murmurations from Brighton’s ruined West Pier or at Aberystwyth.  A place of creative pause and contemplation.

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Small Pleasures

 

Life in East Runton is so different to anywhere else I’ve lived.  It’s just outside Cromer and is very much connected to the big, wide world by bus and rail, but a lot of the time it seems utterly apart, bubble-wrapped in a rather engaging time-warp.

On Christmas Day we decided to pop down to the beach before dinner.  At high tide we were regularly seeing a seal on the beach.  We were pretty sure it was the same one each time.  He (or maybe she, we haven’t quite got the hang of this yet…) had the same laid back attitude when people and dogs approached and a rather nonchalant way of arranging his  flippers which made him look as if he were personally greeting each passer-by.  We named  him Runty, not political incorrectness at all but merely alluding to his appearance on the beaches of East and West Runton.  On one memorable occasion I nearly fell over him on the pitch dark beach as we walked back from the cinema one evening.  So, we thought we’d check whether he’d made a Christmas visit to “our” beach.  As soon as we came out of our front door we could hear a brass band playing carols and there, on the Lower Common, was a five-piece brass band which played all the classics for around forty minutes.  They were three generations of the same family raising money for Parkinsons Disease.  The whole village turned out, there were hugs and kisses and Christmas greetings and children who’d decided to stay in the warm calling out of top-floor windows.  It all felt very cosy and Miss Marple, hopefully without the murders!  Another of my favourite screen depictions of a village is Bramley End in Cavalcanti’s thought-provoking 1942 film for Ealing Studios Went the Day Well.  Based on Graham Greene’s short story The Lieutentant Died Last, this was a propaganda film designed to alert the country about the dangers of being complacent about the possibility of invasion.  In the film, the villagers of Bramley End are far too trusting and are overrun by Nazi paratroopers posing as an English battalion.  There’s a cast of much-loved 1940s actors – Leslie Banks, Thora Hird (in her first major role), Harry Fowler, Mervyn Johns, Valerie Taylor, Patricia Hayes, Basil Sydney…  The village (actually the very pretty Turville in Buckinghamshire) is shown as an English rural idyll, depicting very successfully what we were fighting to preserve.

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All this makes me think of John Betjeman.  For me he is the quintessential poet of Britishness, probably because of his delightfully tongue-in-cheek take on xenophobia in his poem “In Westminster Abbey” with those immortal lines:

Think of what our Nation stands for,
Books from Boots’ and country lanes,
Free speech, free passes, class distinction,
Democracy and proper drains.

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On Boxing Day we set forth along the beach to Cromer Pier to catch the traditional Boxing Day swim.  Again, a lovely atmosphere with the whole town out in force.  We continued to Overstrand for a festive drink at The Sea Marge.  This is a gorgeous hotel, largely Arts and Crafts in style,  in a former Edwardian mansion house, once owned by Sir Edgar and Lady Speyer, great friends of the Churchills.  Winston and Clementine were holidaying here with their children just before the outbreak of the First World War and it was from here that Winston Churchill made the call to mobilise the fleet before hurrying back to London.  The house was one of the first in the area to have a telephone line. Edgar Speyer was an American-born financier with German heritage and, of course, at this time there was great suspicion of those of German descent.  The Speyers were ostracised locally and accused of disloyalty and treachery.  One of the accusations was that Speyer had been signalling to German submarines from the clifftop gardens of The Sea Marge.  The Speyers left the country in 1916, never to return.  Today the Grade II listed building has a very friendly bar where muddy boots are acceptable and you can play traditional bar games such as Shut the Box and cribbage at your table as you sample the local beers.  I’m very much looking forward to seeing Gary Oldman depicting Churchill’s role in the Second World War in The Darkest Hour which is out this week.

A highlight of the village week is the arrival of the Fish and Chip van in East Runton.  This sturdy red van appears at 6pm every Wednesday, ably commandeered by Paul who knows everyone’s location in the village, name and, more importantly, food order!

 

New Year’s Day was very different for us this year.  Normally it’s an anti-climax after all the sparkliness of Christmas but this year, at 5pm, we stood on the beach with the tide coming in and waves lapping at our wellies to watch the spectacular fireworks at the end of Cromer Pier.  There were thousands of people packed on the beach and the clifftop promenades, a wonderful communal way to bring in the New and say goodbye to the Old.   We let our salty wellies dry in the warmth and comfort of the Regal Movieplex in Cromer, watching The Greatest Showman.  Musicals aren’t usually my favourite genre but this was such a heartwarming, feelgood film,  impossible to dislike and a suitably vibrant and colourful follow-up to the fireworks.

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I don’t make New Year Resolutions, having decided at a young age that they only lead to disappointment in both oneself and the world.  Living in such a lovely rural and seaside area with great walks literally from our front door has made me live more for the moment and to relish them all, which seems as good a princile as any to take forward in 2018.

 

 

 

 

Merry and Bright!

 

I’ll confess right from the start of this blogpost that yes, I adore Christmas and everything about it, but particularly Christmas films and books and bracing walks by the sea.

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A few years after we’d moved to King’s Lynn we went to the fantastic Old Boathouse Café in Hunstanton for breakfast on Christmas Eve, but were distracted by something big and fishy-looking on the beach.  It turned out to be an extremely dead sperm whale.  It was quite young, so not as large as it might have been, but still an awesome sight.  I felt very privileged to be able to get so close to one of these creatures and he appears occasionally in my poetry, which is getting increasingly fishy and salty as we settle in to our new coastal home!

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I hope you have all discovered Candlestick Press www.candlestickpress.co.uk and their wonderful series of slim pamphlets, mostly poetry, which can be sent instead of a card.  There are a number of Christmassy ones including an annual series The Twelve Poems of Christmas, now in its eighth volume.  One of my favourite pamphlets is Gillian Clarke’s The Christmas Wren, a beautiful re-interpretation of A Child’s Christmas in Wales.  There’s a Welsh language version too!  Also worth checking out is John Lewis-Stempel’s The Wood in Winter – a transcendent piece of nature writing about the life of a wood in bleak midwinter. There’s nothing nicer than curling up under a fleecy throw with a glass of mulled wine and candles and reading Christmas poetry, preferably aloud.  Throw in a beautifully illustrated version of Robert Frost’s Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening and I’m in Christmas heaven.

If you’re looking for that perfect last-minute gift for someone who loves reading, I’ve discovered a new literary gift website, Bookishly, https://www.bookishly.co.uk/collections  They have the most beautiful gift packages, such as their limited edition festive gift box, A Christmas Carol Book Crate.   I’m rather taken with the idea of A Blind Date with a Book, where you get a surprise vintage book, beautifully wrapped, or The Coffee and Book Club subscription which gives you  a monthly vintage book and bag of coffee.  There’s a tea equivalent, Classics and cuppa, which sounds great too.

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So, given my predilection for all things Christmassy, it’s no wonder I’m completely entranced by Christmas lights.  The North Norfolk coast abounds in pretty villages with classy lights.  Holt is a must with the wonderful Bakers and Larner (a sort of Fortnum and Mason equivalent, but cuter) looking truly magical.  The fine city of Norwich is full of glittery snowflakes hanging from trees, and also has a Tunnel of Light… I love the idea of bringing light to the darkest time of the year: candles, fairylights, fires.  Perhaps we should all start celebrating St Lucia’s day on the 13th December as they do in Sweden.  Lucy was a young Christian girl, martyred for her faith.  She would bring food to the catacombs for persecuted Christians in hiding, wearing a garland of candles so she had both hands free to carry more food.  I once had a poem published in fab webzine Ink, Sweat and Tears http://www.inksweatandtears.co.uk/ which explored various ideas of light, including this festival:

The Chandelier Competition

 What would you use to bring light into our lives?

Candles? Crystal? Mirrors?  Sparklers?

Fireflies? Solar Trickery?

Your entries, boxed and bubble-wrapped,

must reach us by midday of the winter equinox.

 

Last year’s winner is a hard act to follow;

an intricate weaving of glow-worms,

darkness and moonlight;

a perfect equilibrium of chiaroscuro.

 

This creation lasted one night only –

the glow-worms devoured

both light and shade.

They lay, plump and dim in the dawnlight

like toothless vampires.

 

This year’s judges are our most northerly neighbours :

Icelanders, Greenlanders, Swedes and Orcadians.

They have all signed waivers

after the Danes’ scandalous looting

of last year’s runners up.

 

First prize this year is a month

in the southern hemisphere.

The darkness is coming.

Light a candle to Santa Lucia

and try your luck.

 

Image result for its a wonderful lifeI do, of course, spend quite a bit of time watching Christmas films.  I’m sure we all enjoy creating our own traditions at Christmas and for us Christmas Day can’t start until we’ve watched  It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) late on Christmas Eve.  I always cry at the end, even after multiple viewings.  James Stewart as George Bailey, in debt and trouble through no fault of his own, wants to die.  Clarence, the angel who’s trying to get his wings, rescues him by showing him what life would be like if there were no George Bailey.  It’s really a re-telling of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, with Mr Potter as the evil banker – the bad side of Scrooge, and George Bailey as the benign banker who Scrooge later becomes.  Clarence is all the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future wrapped into one as he shows George the impact he has had on everyone.  The film has to be watched in conjunction with my favourite version of  A Christmas Carol, the 1951 version with Alistair Sim as a fabulously histrionic Scrooge, although The  Muppet Christmas Carol is a close second!  Paddington, voiced by the inimitable Ben Whishaw, is fast becoming a Christmas favourite.  I’ve been very interested in the discussions in the press discussing Paddington 2 and referencing Paddington as our outlet for Brexit frustration.  He is the classic immigrant and the various attitudes of the community towards him reflect our somewhat divided nation at the moment.

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I very much enjoy cooking at Christmas.  As a vegan/vegetarian household our food is non-traditional and features lots of salads and tasty nut roasts baked in pastry with lashings of red wine sauce and copious amounts of roast potatoes.  It’s always interesting to try something different at Christmas and my first Christmas abroad was in Israel on a kibbutz near Afula.  All the volunteers were given a day off and we had a feast featuring food from all over the world outside in the sunshine where I discovered the delights of Dutch apple cake which I still adore today.  The most unusual setting I’ve experienced was in the Rajasthani desert.  We were on a camel trek and our rather meagre Christmas feast was hijacked by three very suspicious-looking men who appeared out of nowhere heading for the Pakistan border.  Our guide nonchalantly explained later that they were heroin smugglers which explained why he was so  eager to give most of our food away.  Another year we had Christmas Day in Cochin where every Indian we saw wished us a Happy Christmas, to the extent, at times, of honking and shouting their greetings from cars.  We walked past window displays of Santas astride cotton wool snow and went to a Kathakali  (Indian dance) show, complete with a very memorable make-up demonstration which lasted longer than the actual performance.  Earlier that day I had been able to pander to my usual geekiness by visiting the synagogue with the beautiful blue cantonese tiles which Salman Rushdie describes in The Moor’s Last Sigh.

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So, wherever you are in the world, and however you feel about the festive period, be warm, safe and happy!

 

Poet By The Sea

 

Image result for east runtonAs you can see from the heading, I’ll be blogging under a new name from now on to celebrate our move from King’s Lynn to East Runton, a little village just outside Cromer near to where the late, great John Hurt lived.  I’ve already started writing more sea related poetry than usual so it looks as if it could be an inspirational step in the right direction and there are lots of great cafes to explore locally!

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At the moment, I’m obsessed with Jane Austen.  It’s 200 years since she died of what might, according to experts’ analysis of her detailed letters, have been Addison’s Disease.   I love her wit and the way she exposes all that’s wrong with the middle-class Regency world.  I’ve been watching the 1999 version of Mansfield Park with Frances O’Connor as Fanny Price and Jonny Lee Miller as Edmund Bertram and, somewhat surprisingly, Harold Pinter as Sir Thomas!  I’m interested in the the way Austen hints at parallels between the patriarchal oppression of women and the concept of slavery and all its moral dilemmas.  Fanny and Edmund object to slavery and reference Thomas Clarkson and the abolitionist movement, but they are both living thanks to its proceeds.  Fanny is the poor relation and Austen talks of the slavery of poverty, of which she was very much aware.  Edmund is the younger son who will have to make his own way in the world to a certain extent.  They are both dependent on Sir Thomas, the slaveowner, for their livelihood and happiness.  Austen’s stories brim with intelligence and, although it has been said that if she were alive and writing today her work would be classed as “chick lit” in that her main frame of reference is always The Marriage Plot, I feel that she does so much more in her writing than mere plotting and characterisation.  As P D James put it, “Mills and Boon written by a genius!”

Image result for bride and prejudiceI’m rather partial to modern cinematic adaptations of Jane Austen and Alicia Silverstone as a high-school Valley Girl version of Emma is one of my favourites, followed closely by Gurinder Chadha’s brilliantly cheesy Bollywood Bride and Prejudice.   I often find myself, just as Emily Blunt’s character does in The Jane Austen Book Club, asking What Would Jane do?

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And yet another reason for me to love Austen at the moment, there’s even a connection to Cromer!  The town was at the forefront of the burgeoning interest in seaside tourism and began life as a Regency bathing resort.  In Emma, Mr Woodhouse says,

 “You should have gone to Cromer, my dear, if you went anywhere.  Perry was a week at Cromer once, and he holds it to be the best of all the sea-bathing places. A fine open sea, he says, and very pure air. And, by what I understand, you might have had lodgings there quite away from the sea – a quarter of a mile off – very comfortable…”

Image result for winchester rain janeIn May this year I visited Winchester, paid my respects at Jane’s gravestone in the cathedral and absorbed the atmosphere of this pretty town where she lived out her last few months.  “I see more distinctly through the rain,” Jane once wrote and, with this in mind, there’s a wonderful trail through the town called Rain Jane.  If it rains, quotes from her novels magically appear on the pavements and disappear as the rain evaporates.

Image result for janes table chawtonI also visited the village of Chawton, where, in the cottage which is now the Jane Austen’s House Museum.  Here, Jane, her mother and beloved sister Cassandra finally had a place they could call their own, albeit briefly.  I stood reverently before the table where she wrote, trying not to be too angry at the tiny space she had to let her imagination run riot with the intricacies of hatching, matching and dispatching.  This anger led to my only Austen inspired poem, the imaginatively titled Jane’s Table!

If you do find yourself in this part of Hampshire, then the Sculpture Park in Churt is well worth a visit.  It’s really a giant open air exhibition showcasing around 800 pieces of work from approximately 300 different artists.  This means it’s also well worth revisiting as the pieces are all for sale and change constantly.  It’s set in ten acres of woodland and heathland with some quite steep parts at times as it’s set in a natural valley.  There are three lakes fed by natural springs which provide a stunning backdrop for some of the artwork.

https://www.thesculpturepark.com/

And once you’ve had your fill of art, pop over to Bel and the Dragon opposite the entrance for refreshments!  It’s a lovely country inn/boutique hotel, beautifully decorated, and all the rooms are named after Jane Austen characters!

Finally, for all you writers out there, the wonderful Jack Milgram has been in touch with his latest infographic 28 Boring Words and What to Use Instead.  Jane would have loved this, what a great rescource!

https://custom-writing.org/assignment-writing-services#boring-words