Saturday, 11 October 2014

Farewell to Summer

Summer is long gone and I am a bit late with my summer blog this year, but now the weather has started to become more autumnal, it is worth looking back at the long hot summer we had this year. Not everyone may agree with that and may wonder where we were that was hot and dry for any length of time, but we have been remarkably lucky with the weather this year and everything we did we managed to make it between bursts of less favourable weather apart from the first day we were on holiday.  For a short time we had a huge thunderstorm and some hailstones that were the biggest I have ever seen in Great Britain, but after that, the weather was really good.

A huge hailstone, starting to melt
This summer it was the turn for the American side of the family to come visit. In order to accommodate everyone, we hired a holiday home in the Cotswold Water Park not far from Cirencester. Although this is right on our doorstep, it provided us with enough accommodation for all of us and is a central point from where our family could explore the Cotswolds. Not that we are new to the Cotswolds, but both The Son (TS) and The Daughter’s (TD’s) families do not often get to see this part of the world, since fleeing the nest and making their own way in the world and both had married someone who did not come from this part of the world at all. The place we stayed at is on a large gated estate full of private houses that are either the holiday homes of the individual owners or places for short term hire for people like us who want to spend some time there. None of the houses were used as permanent homes since the estate is not classed as a residential site, but a leisure area.

The place we hired was a three story house with a large open plan ground floor overlooking one of the small lakes within the water park.

 However, due to the reeds and bushes that surround the lake, the view of the lake is only visible from the upper floors.

Pretty soon we were reminded that we were close to water because every time a window was opened, we soon found a number of Damsel flies, which somehow had easily found their way in, but now finding it impossible to get out again. The grandchildren spent some time helping them out, but with little overall success.
 Damsel flies are very much like small blue dragon flies, but their wings are not quite the same, which is one way of identifying them.

From the Cotswold Water Park we made several forays into the surrounding towns and villages and also a couple of trips into London, via the nearest railway station. It is easily thirty years since I last attempted to drive into London, long before congestion charges and other restrictions, because traffic approaching London make the journey difficult, besides the difficulty of parking once there, so rail or coach travel has been my preference for some time . Because there is so much to see in London, we could not fit in everything each person wanted to see into a single trip, so we split up into two groups. The first group for people, who wanted to include Madame Tussauds on their trip and the second for those who wanted to include the Imperial War Museum . These were arranged for different days, so whilst those not going had a quiet day in the Water Park, the other took the train into London. The Better Half (TBH) and I joined in the second day since TBH particularly wanted to visit the Imperial War Museum’s First World War Centenary exhibition in the morning and then go on to the British Museum, to see the more famous pieces there.

As an aside, a family rumour claims that the waxwork figure of Madame Tussauds, the founder of the waxworks, is wearing a bonnet made by my great great grandma who was a milliner and did work for the waxworks.

I do not know if this is true. Even if it was true once, the present day waxwork figure would be unlikely to still have same bonnet. My great grandmother was born a couple of years before Madame Tussauds’ death and her mother, my great great grandmother certainly was a milliner, who like Madame Tussauds came from France around the same time, so it is possible.

Kemble station, devoid of trains
Our trip to London was not straight forward. When we arrived at Kemble Station, and after I had bought an all-day ticket for the car park, we were told there was no train. There had been a signal failure and we could either wait an unspecified time for a bus to arrive that had been summoned by Great Western to take passengers on to nearby Swindon Station, or forgo our parking fee and drive ourselves to Swindon to catch a train there. Since the bus could be anything in the order of thirty minutes before it could get to Kemble, let alone on to Swindon, we decided it would be sensible to drive ourselves. Of course, the parking fee for Swindon is about four times that of Kemble, and we never did get our money back from Kemble Station, there was not enough time to deal with that if we were to get to London before the museums closed. Owing to the train not passing Kemble and other local stations before Swindon, the train we caught was virtually empty and we were able to occupy some reserved seats, since the people who booked them had been unable to catch the train and so could not claim their seats.
 On arrival at Paddington, we discovered that the London Cross-rail project work had closed a number of Tube stations, including the Bakerloo line entrance at Paddington. This required a long  walk along underground walkways to find the alternative entrance and we opted to leave the station and walk on to Edgware Road above ground, which is no great distance from Paddington and under the circumstances considerably less crowded than going via the underground tunnels. Once safely on the Bakerloo Line train, we soon arrived at Lambeth North and made our way to the museum. At the museum entrance, we were greeted by museum staff handing out timed tickets for the WWI gallery. The place was heaving and they were controlling how many people went in to that section of the museum at any one time. It did not seem to very effective because you could barely move when we finally got in. The changes to the main gallery, we all agreed, were not an improvement and the WWI display when we got into it was not quite as good as we had been led to expect. The whole exhibition seemed to be mostly based around the Western Front, with little about any other theatres of war from that ‘World’ war. Since TBH’s Grandfather died in Mesopotamia and is buried in a grave just outside Baghdad, we were disappointed to find very little on that aspect of the war other than a very small section on Gallipoli, with nothing very much about the rest of the Middle Eastern campaigns.

Parking can be difficult in London.  
Well you may have guessed, it is really one of the exhibits in the main gallery. Once we had struggled through the crowded museum and seen all we wanted to see, or just got fed up with fighting through the crowds there, we headed off to the British Museum via Tottenham Court Road station and into familiar territory for me. I once had an aunt who ran a dance school in Bloomsbury Street and the British Museum is just around the corner from there. As a child, on days when we visited my aunt there, the grownups would want to chat and whilst they were talking we were often sent off to the museum to keep us out of mischief. Kids were allowed out on their own in those days, even in London.
Tottenham Court Road was a later haunt of mine during the sixties and seventies, because that was the best place for hobbyists to obtain components for building electronic equipment. Many of the major suppliers like Henry’s Radio and so on had shops in Tottenham Court Road. The surviving shops have long since moved out of London due to the excessive cost of maintaining a business inside the M25.

In the British Museum, I found it rather different from my childhood memories. To be honest, from time to time although I lived in West London and I often worked in and around central London, I have never been back to that museum since I was a child. The addition of a large circular Millennium structure in the centre of the main entrance was a surprise, I had not been aware of that project. This took up a huge amount of space, limiting the exhibition to the galleries around the central square. For a building in central London, it must be costly in terms of unused square footage. Since all commercial buildings in London pay through the nose for every square inch of floor space, this seemed to me a bit of a waste.
So far I have failed to mention the weather we were experiencing that day. It seems that we had picked one of the hottest days of the year to visit London, which has its own climate anyway, one that is generally a few degrees warmer than the rest of the country. On looking at her smartphone, a by now rather hot, Daughter in Law (DIL) discovered to her relief that the British museum has one of the best air conditioned interiors of the London museums and public galleries, so we were a bit disappointed to find it was steaming hot inside and the only thing resembling air conditioning was a swivel fan stood by one of the archways between galleries. We looked at some of the larger exhibits whilst I wondered where all the smaller ones that I remembered had gone. I recall rows and rows of small items from Roman times plus exquisite carvings from the Egyptian section that always fascinated me as a child because they were so well made. To my mind they were so much better than they had any right to be, they should have been crude and badly made since they were ages old. Ancient people should have been primitive, all my children’s literature showed hairy savages in animal skin loin cloths waving clubs, so their perfection always astounded my childish mind. Although I found a very small display, I could not find the rows and rows that had fascinated me so as a child. I assume that the museum changes the exhibits around from time to time and they must have a store somewhere to keep all those things they do not have room to display, but as far as I could see, they had made the museum seem empty. Compared to the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, where there are masses of interesting items crowded together on the displays, which gives you the chance to discover new treasures every time you visit, in many ways, although it exhibits some incredibly important objects, the BM was a lot less interesting than the Pitt Rivers Museum. This is not to say that we found the BM completely uninteresting, we were able to see the Elgin Marbles and the Rosetta Stone and many other things that I had never appreciated as a child, so it was worth a visit, despite the heat.

Part of the Elgin Marbles in the BM. Many more are in a museum in Holland.

An awe inspiring piece of work.  Carved so perfectly and polished to a smooth finish.  It must have taken forever.
The journey back to our Cotswold base was uneventful, having been able to catch the train in which we had reserved our seats, but although the tickets said Kemble and the train went right through, we had to get off at Swindon because our car was still there.

 During the rest of the two weeks we spent in the Water park, we toured around the local area and visited several places.  One of these was Bourton on the Water, with the shallow Windrush River passing through the centre and its reiterative model village.

This model cottage reminded me of the illustrations in the Little Grey Rabbit books my sister used to have. They always had a drawing of her house inside the front and back covers
Little Grey Rabbit's cottage as illustrated by Margaret Tempest, stories by Alison Uttley

A fossilised car found in the model village.  It may have been painted once, when the model village was new.
 Whilst we were there, we also visited the Dragonfly Maze, which entertained the children and most of the adults by containing a puzzle that you have to solve as you find your way around. Once you have made it to the centre of the maze, there is a small building containing a glass case with a toad in the centre. If you have solved the puzzle correctly, you have a set of instructions on how to get the toad to open its mouth and reveal the dragonfly. The grandchildren were given a paper answer sheet each and a pencil as we came in and they had to write the clues down as they found them, although some of them are a puzzle too, so you have to guess the right word from the clues. Once you have them all written down in the proper order, it made up a sentence which gives the sequence of actions needed to open the toad’s mouth. Unfortunately my camera battery ran out just as the kids had managed to reveal the dragonfly, so I was unable to take its picture.

The toad inside its glass case with its mouth closed
On leaving the maze you hand in your answer sheets and the kids got a small prize for getting all the clues right.

On another trip, we went to Oxford and wandered around the older parts of town. I first went to Oxford when I was a very small child and was fascinated by the bridges there, but for many years I did not know where these fabulous places were, until I met my first wife, who was born in Oxford.  Although she did not live there any more, I had to pass through Oxford to reach her home and we visited Oxford together from time to time. I then re-discovered the bridges from my childhood.  In those days, you could drive right through the middle of Oxford and out the other side on the A420, but during the 70s, the road was blocked to through traffic and now it is very nearly pointless trying to drive into the centre of town, so we used the park and ride service to get into town.

One of the bridges that so facinated me as a child
The dreaming spires
I can never go to Oxford without visiting Blackwells bookshop, it being one of the most impressive places and has such a wide range of books that you must surely find something of interest to you. The shop front is small but the interior is on many floors and stretched back a long way, particularly the basement floor.  I bought a couple of classics I had never read and a couple of popular science books.  One on the life and work of Richard Feynman and another on the search for the Higgs Boson.
Bibliotheca  Bodliana
Whilst on the subject of books, we also visited the Bodleian Library, something I had always meant to do, but have never gotten around to.
The interior was really spledndid and the glass in the windows, gave a ripple effect showing it was not modern glass.
The main library is still in use and the guide had to whisper, but being a little mutt and jeff, I was hard pressed to hear what he said and on mentioning this I was invited to stand closer to him, which did not help a great deal, so I did not follow the history too well, 

 Outside the Bodleian, there was an open air theatre set up ready for a performance of Shakespeare that evening.

I thought that the ranks of  chairs produced an interesting pattern with their legs dwindiling into the distance
Close to the Water Park is the ancient Roman town now known as Cirenceter, or Siren to the locals. When my two boys were young and conkers were an important part of their lives, we would go to Cirencester Park and collect conkers from the tree lined avenue which stretches off into the distance as a grand entrance to the main estate. In Cirencester we went with the family to the Corinium Museum where, as well as the normal exhibits of Roman, Celtic and medieval objects, they have produced a number of full sized tableaux representing everyday life in Roman and Celtic Britain. One of these is a Roman cavalryman on a full sized model of a horse. Near the beginning there are three Celtic figures, a man a woman and a boy. I am unsure what this is supposed to represent, because the boy is threatening the man with a spear and the woman is admonishing the child. Unfortunately my imagination immediately captioned this scene with; ‘It’s all right son, this is Uncle Badvoc, he is going to live with us now daddy has gone.’

Further in, there is a Roman family scene with a group of people sitting around in a typical Roman sitting room. They are all sitting looking towards one corner of the room with the exception of one person who is standing. They all look pretty glum and in my imagined caption for this scene she is saying; ‘By the Gods Claudius, someone has stolen the TV!’

Aside from my irreverent take on their displays, they have packed a lot of interesting material into a relatively small space and a number of interactive displays and puzzles for children. Amongst the medieval section are some small stone carvings of faces which once adorned a church and one is a portrait of the then pope and this particular face is amazingly realistic.

Cirencester has a large number of eateries for such a small town and we were able to eat there one or two days during our holiday. Living nearby, Cirencester is familiar to me and TBH and we occasionally shop there, so we knew where to find the best places, but did not take advantage of our local knowledge since we were travelling around and only went there a couple of times. One place we did eat at is an (allegedly) American Diner style burger bar who do some passably good burgers. Whilst we were there I commented to one of the staff that having the word 'Toilet' on the door to the loos, was out of character and they should be labelled Rest Room if they want to be more authentic. Recently TBH and I were amused to find that the sign had been changed and now reads Rest Room. One thing that is a bit of a hoot, to coin a phrase, is the sign over the bar, right next to a display of the different milk shakes available advertising Hooters. Hooters are, of course, a thoroughly respectable chain to go to for a meal if you like your waitress to be very feminine and to serve you in a very skimpy uniform. It goes one step further than the Bunny club and seemed a bit odd to be advertised alongside children’s milk shakes.

In common with a lot of British towns, Cirencester has a small antiques gallery, which has several rooms on two floors full of cabinets and alcoves containing everything collectable from bric a brac to ancient Roman and other even older antiquities. Several members of the family and myself love this kind of place and can spend hours looking through the stuff there and in my case, wishing I could afford some of the wonderful stuff you find, whilst at the same time wondering where on earth I would put it, if I did buy that large Victorian mercury barometer, or the beautifully carved gigantic chest and so on. During our fortnight’s holiday, my birthday was due and I was asked what I would like for a present and in the really old stuff display was a Luristan copper arrowhead about 3,000 years old, a little before my time, but small enough to fit into a crowded house and I liked it a lot, so the family clubbed together and bought it for me. I was delighted. These things are not rare and so are not hugely expensive, but it was nice of them to buy it for me and it now on the wall of my study.

Another outing was to Stratford upon Avon, the home of The Bard and we visited the grave of his nibs whilst there, something I had not done before.

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A few days into the holiday I had broken my best pair of glasses by sitting on them and they were just about held together by a loop of copper wire and some superglue. Stratford is where our optician is, and so whilst there TBH and I booked an appointment to have our eyes tested. The weather was still doing us proud and so TBH and I wandered around the town, whilst the family visited some of Shakespeare’s houses. We did not bother with most of them, being familiar with these from frequent visits. In Stratford, there is another of those antiques arcades and I spent a little while looking, but did not buy anything this time.

Pretty soon, it was coming to the end of the fortnight and we had to pack up everything and TBH had to take TS and his family to Heathrow and say goodbye for another year. TD and family were going to stay with us at our house for another two nights, so that firstly TSIL could visit his eldest son and his family down towards Portsmouth. They would then be returning to us so that we could all celebrate their wedding anniversary, a date that is hard for me to forget, since it was the same date as my mother’s birthday. After the meal, they stopped overnight and then they had to wend their way back to Cumbria and we were left alone once more.


  1. I should think you were glad of a rest and the peace and quiet, after all that, snafu! But what a wonderful time must have been had by all. And I always appreciate your continuing sense of humour, in spite of the heat and the many traveling challenges. I especially love your interpretation of the two Roman scenes...seems like they should be entered in a contest somewhere - would be sure to win first prize! Once again, thanks for allowing us to join you all on your travels and adventures...delightful!!

  2. You have been to MANY interesting places that I would have liked to have gone -- the Bodleian Library for one. I have always loved the British Museum/library. I could have spent days there -- except it was always so HOT. Do they really have a good air conditioning system? Ah well, probably won't get back there again now. We went to Bourton-on-the Water when Kay joined our church bus tour in 2007. Lovely place but too commercialized for my taste. I loved the little grey rabbit books. I always begged for them for Christmas, but I mostly remember the Christmas I didn't get one. I was very disappointed! We were living in Finchley at the time so it must have been about or before 1944, I think before Kay was born. We were in Yorkshire by the winter of 46/47.

    Enjoyed reading about all your travels. Good to hear from you too.