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  • We are nature too

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    And like every other living thing we are putty in the hands of the changing seasons. Not an original thought, but one that struck me after bright sunshine followed several torpid weeks stuck indoors looking out at the freezing weather. A sunny morning and a brisk walk by the water and the sense of melatonin pumping from the pineal gland was almost palpable. Roll on the summer. I recalled seeing citizens of St Petersburg standing sunbathing by the water at the St Peter & Paul fortress, holding mirrors under their chins in order to soak up the maximum amount of sun.


    Also remembered was Hopper’s ‘Morning Sun’ (1952), seen last autumn at the Grand Palais in Paris. Light heals, or we hope it will. This blockbuster exhibition continues until 3 February. Work gathered from all over the globe and shows in a way that reproductions never can just what an innovator Hopper was – in choice of subject, use of light and handling of paint.

    Another mega show, this time at the Royal Academy, promises to be just as impressive, and crowded too. Monet’s immaculately posed portraits of the well-to-do once seemed to lack the glamour and life of Renoir and Monet’s sun-washed exteriors. But as the critics are pointing out, what impresses is the painter’s original use of black and the deft way he can create the tiniest detail with a smudge of paint. These details will only be apparent by visiting the exhibition itself.


  • Mysticism, singing and scones at Othona

    IMAG1497.jpgThere are leaping dolphins at Othona, and butterflies flying to the moon, too. These are wall decorations at a place by the sea near Bridport which is home to a community ‘rooted in a Christian heritage, open to a widening future’. They have been running the house as a retreat centre since 1965, after the community was founded at a centre in Essex. I stayed for a day’s ‘natural voice’ singing and an ‘open weekend’ of walks, talks and homemade food. And all for around £130.

    The previous owners of the building were a group of contemplatives known locally as ‘the white ladies.’ They did much of the building work. There is a simple stone chapel, basic rooms and more basic bathrooms, a well-stocked library, biodiverse gardens, and fine walking down to the sea below.

    IMAG1517.jpgWhy do people make the journey and what do people find here? The sound of the sea and views of the blue horizon from way past Lyme to back towards Portland Bill. A welcoming group of permanent residents sonorously named ‘the Core’ who keep the place running with a team of shorter term helpers who cook, clean and garden. Home grown food, birdsong and quiet contemplation.

    Reasons for being here seem to be varied. One of our teachers was a former monk and resident, at least two others have been part of some kind of religious community. One runs a Vanier l’Arche community in London, caring for adults with learning disabilities. A hard-pressed teacher had been visiting with her family for years. A recently widowed lady had been longing for a return visit. There were crafts people and landscape gardener, a wildlife teacher, a web designer and a young American Baha'i on a break from her theological studies. Typical weekend visitor: a woman in her 30s to 60s. A more disparate group joined us to sing barbershop tags, spirituals and more. Several defined themselves as pagan or ‘post-Christian’ and there was a turquoise-clad sufi who whirled as we sang a dhikr from her tradition.

    Visitors are allocated tasks including preparing vegetables and cleaning their rooms. A bell is rung for meetings in the chapel where the day is formally begun and ended.

    The library holds titles on radical religion, Rumi and chicken soup, works by Chatwin, Maupin, Spong, Dawkins and Dave Andrews, and a copy of Iris Murdoch’s ‘The nice and the good’, which makes much of a disparate people living together in disharmony.

    othona,dorsetSo what is there of Murdoch’s ‘good’ at Othona? Certainly a quiet and unpretentious warmth and acceptance for all kinds of diversity. A lot of laughter. A searching in many directions, from Enneagrams to mindfulness via TS Elliot and country walks. A warm and restful simplicity, away from the usual pressures including  all the buzzing media that seem so essential but that waste so much time.

    I dreamt of St Paul and went on a circular walk to the lovely warm sandstone church at Burton Bradstock where I was coaxed into the middle of Sunday service by the hymn ‘Lord of the dance’. The sermon, delivered in a gentle Dorset burr by a long-term incumbent on first name terms with all but one of his tiny congregation, quoted the uncompromising apostle and his injunctions to read scripture.

    IMAG1509.jpgBack along the coast for roast lunch and and fossils and a river walk in Lyme Regis. In the evening a ‘One World Worship’ led by a Christian Aid trustee with a gift for primary school stye discussions on Ghandi, Aids and  assorted religious texts.

    I left Othona after a quiet morning reading with another trip to the sea where I found pebbles embedded with tiny fossils.

    Outside Winterbourne Abbas I picked wild garlic in a wood where a straggle-haired local directed me to a well-tended 4,000 year old stone circle that is he said connected with mysterious religious ritual: ‘they’re on a ley line and are supposed to be growing, but I’ve not seen it yet!’

    2012-05-07_14-30-37_HDR.jpgNineStones.jpgI resisted the temptations of Athelhampton and Kingston Lacy on the way home, but was most tempted by a garden opening at Charborough Park, home since Elizabethan times of the impressively named Plunkett-Ernle-Erle-Draxes. The estate boasts what is claimed to be one of the longest brick walls in England.


  • Gibbons, Tallis and poppadums with the Brahma Kumaris

    IMAG0161.jpgThis is Nuneham Park, the work of the enjoyably-named architect Stiff Leadbetter. The house has an additional wing by Smirke and decorations by 'Athenian' Stuart. Leadbetter was also responsible for Newton Park near Bath, as well as Taplow Court in Bucks, the UK headquarters of the Japanese lay-Buddhist order, SGI-International.

    The first Earl Harcourt, who was a favourite of George III, had Stuart build his 'temple' after finding the medieval church inconveniently marred the view of the pleasure grounds he commissioned from William Mason (and that were inevitably later elaborated by Capability Brown). He also destroyed the churchyard. The then rector complained of the site of the churchyard: 'He mows and rolls it at his pleasure'. The Earl also found the village of Nuneham Courtney inconvenient, so he demolished it and re-located it in what were undoubtedly better houses on the main Oxford Road.
    But the new grounds were good. Painted by a young Turner, they were admired by monarchs including Victoria, and used by Dodgson as a setting for Alice's adventures. 

    The Chapel is also very much in the best possible taste, with all manner of Italianate fitments including a statue of a pretty curtesying girl and a piteous monument to the first son of a later Earl, who is carved naturalistically as if in sleep, clutching pristine flowers forever. The chapel also contains funerary wreaths for Edward VII, some carpet left over from his funeral service, and any amount of baroque candle-powered lighting equipment, since the place became redundant long ago and was never connected to the electric supply.


    Earl Harcourt himself is not I think commemorated here, but was buried at Stanton Harcourt. The Estate he took so much pleasure in re-modelling claimed him in the end, since he drowned in a well there, after he attempted to rescue a favourite dog which had somehow fallen in.

    Just once a year there is a service in the chapel. This year it coincided with a national church music festival. Gibbons and Tallis and the choir of Dorchester Abbey provided the music. Sounds from long before the chapel took shape spilled out past the white plastic congregational seating and into the clear blue afternoon where the land falls away to the Thames and the English landscape seems to roll on forever.

    Afterwards we were entertained to tea in the house. I'd been promised vegetable samosas, but very happily ate miniature curved poppadums and scones and jam. Seated on elegant chairs on thick carpet and surrounded by immaculate gilt and plasterwork, the scent of the rose garden wafting in to us, we were served by white-clad, clear-eyed volunteers from the Brahma Kumaris, a worldwide 'spiritual university' which has made Nuneham Park its global retreat centre.

    This new religious system was founded in 1936 by a diamond dealer from what became Pakistan. Brahma Kumari means 'daughters of Brahma' and women make up most of the leadership of the movement. Rising before 4am to meditate open-eyed, followers are sexually abstinent strict vegetarians (who according to some) believe the world will end in 2036 (They revised the date when one they had chosen earlier passed uneventfully). Their meditation system is based on the 2nd cent. BC treatise of Patanjali, which also inspired Transcendental Meditation and your local yoga evening class.

    The 'Murli' is a collection of what are thought of as spiritual revelations, providing guidance on avoiding the unenlightened (including family and friends) and the cinema. I spoke to a Liverpudlian follower who had a quietly intense passion for the 'concentration' achieved through meditation by the leaders of the movement.

    A website for 'exiting' Brahma Kumaris denounces the movement for its practice of taking money from followers. Since the world is soon to end, you don't need dosh, and had better store up credit for the life to come instead. Suicides of former followers are discussed together with the Brahma Kumari habit of taking money from young girls as dowry, so that they are not 'dumped' on the order.

    As I drove back down the long drive to the new village of Nuneham Courtney, I passed a long line of sari-wearing Indian girls and their mothers. Full of tea and scones and the beauty of Nuneham Park I smiled broadly. None smiled back, and they seemed uncomfortable and apprehensive.

    A major free musical event next Saturday provides another opportunity to view the Park and to find out more about the Brahma Kumaris.

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  • By the lake

    The water lapping the shore when the light was perfect at about 6pm on Friday.

  • Underneath the arches...

    6335b84ea74844109d26163e6af1144c.jpg...there's an awful lot going on. Somebody should make a book about all the things to be found under London's 25 miles of railway arches. The arches are a natural home for wine vaults and fringe theatres. Dodgy car mechanics also thrive in the dark spaces  beneath curving Victorian brick, but you can get much more than your car serviced under the arches in Vauxhall, where dubious saunas cosy up to brightly lit cafés and DIY specialists.

    Last Sunday we had breakfast at the Café Madeira beneath the viaduct beside the Albert Embankment. I tucked into smoked salmon and scambled egg on foccacia - a bargain at £3.50. Everybody else seemed to be Portuguese. Respectable, decent, hat-wearing folk chatted convivially beneath big wall-mounted LCD screens. A bakery next door turns out dozens of reasonably-priced and tasty-looking Portuguese specialities. Further down the viaduct there's a gay gym, some clubs and several bars, all part of 'Voho' the Vauxhall 'gay village'.

    There's even art underneath the arches. Not far from the tourist disappointment that is the Lambeth Walk, the once grand Lambeth Ragged School has been sliced through by the railway. It was built by Henry Benjamin Hanbury Beaufoy FRS in 1851 as a memorial to his wife. Ragged Schools educated 'about 800 children' At the school's opening, Lord Ashley portentously declared that 'there is no reason whatever why Lambeth should not rescue itself from the present disgraceful opprobrium which attaches to it.'

    fdb2e5bbff708417ff3ab64f4c3c6c15.jpgAn art gallery called the Beaconsfield now occupies the one wing that remains of the school, hitting back at the railway by colonising the arch behind. Inside we heard Aura Satz's 'Glissolalia' - a weird and wonderful sound installation featuring disjointed barbershop singers, an endlessly sliding theremin, a musical saw and much else that echoed mysteriously round the high, empty former schoolroom.

    The gallery was founded with high-minded ambition of the kind the ragged school's founder would recognise. It aims to “fill a niche between the institution, the commercial and the ‘alternative’”.  It isn't exactly welcoming from the outside. In trepidation we pushed the buzzer beside a blank door set into a high wall - but the people inside couldn't have been nicer or more friendly.



    bc525c89c1e3dbce95a2ffa35f702c98.jpgThere was an unexpectedly warm welcome at nearby Southbank House too. You can't help being struck by the fabulous Victorian building in Black Prince Road, all ornamented terracotta and glazed tilework set into the window ledges. A frieze over the doorway is one clue to the office block's distinguished past. If you look up, some fading lettering spells out the name 'Doulton'. A smiling caretaker led us to a gallery of photos that tell the story of how John Doulton built a vast business at Lambeth starting from a £100 investment in 1815. The Doultons' fortune was first made in glazed earthenware sewer pipes which saved the city from epdiemics of disease. Doultons then went on to make the fine china that was much admired by Queen Victoria.


      All this and the Vauxhall City Farm too (where you can walk among floppy eared rabbits and chickens) just ten minutes walk from the Palace of Westminster. London never ceases to amaze.
  • Wren seen from a ziggurat


    A quick trip to London's Number 1 Poultry today. If you can get to the impressive roof garden there are stunning views that more than make up for the irksomely courageous whimsy of the controversial architecture.

    Peter Palumbo spent decades acquiring the site site piecemeal from 1958. His scheme to demolish the listed Mappin & Webb building and replace it with what Prince Charles called a 'giant glass stump' - a monumentally impressive bronze coloured steel and glass tower by Mies van der Rohe - was decisively thrown out in 1984.


    Palumbo's answer to his critics was to appoint RIBA medal-winner James Stirling to design a vigorously jokey post-modernist block.

    Stirling thought he had only a 50-50 chance of success. "I do regard this site as being very special, at this spider's web intersection surrounded by all those heroes like Lutyens and Hawksmoor and Dance. It's the quintessence of London."

    c747668cb81239ed04cbca0c94ca4cc0.jpg3631e743e2c45d3131851ceb816ea55f.jpgLike a stranded submarine decked out in pink stripes, the triangular building seems desperately to be sailing its giant conning tower up the slope towards the Mansion House. The stepped frontage ripples with fiddly bits. Triangles are punched out of the facade and theatrical games are played with circles and squares. The building has a bunker-like rear that currently accommodates a Wetherspoons.

    But it uses Portland stone and granite, and it contains echoes of the old buildings on site (if anyone remembers them) so it could hardly upset the purists, could it? Could it ever. Prince Charles demonstrated his familiarity with the latest technology when he said it looked like a 'broken 1930s wireless set'.

    Delayed by recession, the design was posthumously completed after Stirling died at the hands of an incompetent anaesthetist. Since then it has regularly won polls for both the best and worst building in London.

    ee3f9d233d68fdcdff2dd306f836a279.jpgWalk into the open rotunda at the centre of the development (with its irritating Dayglo coloured window casements) and take the lift to the Conran-run 'Coq d'Argent' roof garden restaurant and a whole new impression forms.

    Wisteria and hawthorn flourish. Fragrant box hedging leads to stunning views of the gherkin and Wren City churches from the glass ship's bridge, either side of the conning tower. Well worth a visit, especially on a Sunday when the people paid to keep rubber-neckers away from the rooftop are less likely to be on duty.




  • The Temple veil torn

    fe2ca5100806c5094d1384f1c1d9522a.jpgLondon's most ancient Inns of Court, the Inner and Middle Temples, are celebrating their 400th birthday. They are doing it by letting the hoi polloi in their hundreds tramp through their exclusive acres. One highlight was a talk by Lady Butler-Sloss, former President of the Family Division and some time Coroner to the Princess Diana Inquest. She dismissed the Home Office as hopelessly inefficient and the new Justice Ministry as a thoroughly bad idea which she hopes will be dismantled as soon as possible.

    Between the Embankment and Fleet Street lies a complex of buildings and gardens that together form a self-governing liberty, independent of the City of London. Oldest is the 12th century Round Church, built by the crusading knights templar to recall the circular church of the holy sepulchre in Jerusalem. Master of the Church Robin Griffith-Jones was fairly spell-binding in a 30 minute talk on the church's history. The Da Vinci Code got almost as short shrift as the knights templar, once King Philip IV of France decided to find them guilty of urinating on the cross and ritualised sodomy. Griffith-Jones conceded some sections of the order may have been guilty of these crimes, but the sin of the majority was to be part of a highly powerful organisation that acted as royal bankers - and refused Philip IV a loan.

    The buildings passed to the Knights Hospitalier and then in 1608 James granted them to the Inns of Court, on condition they maintain the church equally and that they educate and house legal students. The south side of the church is in the care of the Inner Temple, and the other is maintained by the Middle Temple - so that when rival organs were being tried out in 1682 an armed guard had to be maintained to prevent the Inner Temple sabotaging the victorious Middle Temple's instrument, and vice versa.

    Sir Walter Raleigh, Dickens, Attlee, Ghandhi and Nehru were all once members here. We visited the chambers of John Cherry QC and were shown the clerk's room and their impressive rolls of red tape (which are in fact pink). I expected Rumpole at any moment.

    The Middle Temple hall has a stunning hammer beam roof begun in 1562 which is 'perhaps the finest example of an Elizabethan Hall in the country'. This is where Twelfth Night was first performed in 1602. Unlike the Temple Church and Inner Temple Hall, the blitz left it relatively unscathed, thanks to fire watchers on constant duty with buckets of sand and brushes to push incendiaries off the roof.

    Though it is modern, the hall of the Inner Temple matches the style of the 18th century structures around it. In the Parliament Chamber, one of the country's most senior former judges spoke about the judiciary and the Inns of Court. There was something surreal about the ease with which we took our seats in this establishment holy of holies. Lady Butler-Sloss must be legal royalty, since she has the clipped accent of the Windsors - but she was far from standoffish. She praised the collegiate structure of the Inns of Court and the tradition of dining and partying together which means judiciary mix equally with barristers and their pupils.

    Perhaps because she had noticed that, unusually, she knew few members of her audience, she became mildly indiscreet at question time. The European Courts were championed for their ability to 'trump' the Government and the new Justice Ministry, which attempts to administer courts, prisons and the probation service, was trashed along with the 'hopeless' Home Office. We were told the Mohamed Al Fayed had employed a total of 60 lawyers to work on the Princess Diana Inquest.

    For the fascinating surroundings and the warmth of our welcome, an entirely satisfying visit. 

  • Walking away the past on Dartmoor

    4f0befed01ba6c68904076a87ee8b763.jpgThe three of us are walking on Dartmoor on a dull day in early September. We climb up from Burrator Reservoir, with its moss covered boulders and lichen covered trees, to a spot high on the bare moor where we picnic beside Crazy Well Pool.

    249e642156492e48a1cb7d7411c64854.jpgThe local legend says that the icy water is bottomless and that an attempt to plumb it once caused the loss of not only all the bell ropes of the local church (they had had been knotted together) but also of the church bell.

    Edward II's favourite Piers Gaveston is said to have concealed himself there: "Where lags the witch? / she willed me wait / Beside this mere at daybreak hour, / When mingling in the distance safe/ The forms of cloud and tor. She comes not yet; tis a wild place - / The turf is dank, the air is cold; / Sweeter I ween on kingly dais, / To kiss the circling gold;" (from a 19th century poem by the Revd John Johns). They also say that early in the 20th century a young soldier drowned in the Pool and that it whispers the name of the next person from the parish to die. No wonder that under a grey sky, the water looks uninviting, almost viscous, only faintly rippled by a strongish breeze.

    One of us remembers other times on Dartmoor. He’d taken countless parties of schoolchildren on this exact route. Once they'd been stalked for an hour or more by squaddies, playing a stealthy game of peekaboo behind the trees, always just out of sight behind them, until they’d revealed themselves at this very spot.

    Beyond the lake we walk along a fast running leat (or stream). The map shows it improbably following the hill's contour lines. This is part of a scheme started by Sir Francis Drake to provide Plymouth with drinking water. Channelled and embanked, the leat rushes down to an aquaduct before the water is directed through a pine wood to feed the reservoir in the flooded valley below.

    cdb528c56218b4cd6642e90ca8df27a0.jpgThe walk back breaks away from the stream and follows a roughly paved track through forest. There is a clearing where the River Meavy races over granite and limestone boulders beneath the ancient Leather Tor Bridge. Two massive slabs of granite form the bridge’s central pier, and like other clapper bridges, the whole structure is held together by its own weight. Roughly shaped boulders, some now locked together with iron staples, make a parapet. Where once there was a ford, there is a wide expanse of shallow water beside the bridge.

    As the afternoon light fades, the ex-teacher sits and remembers his last time at the bridge. Listening to the water rushing and gurgling, wrapping itself round the stones, it is almost as if he hears the children’s voices again. High cries as the kids dash across the bridge and down to sandy spot ideal for paddling. They’d been told not to go in the water – and of course they had. For the briefest of moments, the early evening’s uncertain light is transformed into bright sunshine, a dozen or more children seem to climb excitedly over the old stones of the bridge, calling to their friends in the water below.

    d465a6fe2c1d06c729f6591cf7de2330.jpgIn a draw somewhere, other photos record the scene: the children happily playing and the staff, freed of their charges, chatting in the sunshine. But now there is a faint chill in the air, and it is time to drive home.

  • Cashing up in the attic

    7625eb2c6c48a8599c0f09ef59f6f9a6.jpg"My mother always said never trust a man with matching belt and shoes" - so said winsomely entertaining TV presenter Angus Purden of my outfit when I was persuaded to take part in the filming of an episode of one of the BBC's most popular day time shows, 'Cash in the Attic'.

    What sounded like fun was actually an object lesson in just how painstaking and exhausting it is building up just 45 minutes of broadcast material. It was also proof of the voracious appetite of the media for material. Two days filming, each 12 hours long. Since they only had two cameras, every set-up had to be recorded repeatedly and ritualistically from every angle: 'wides', 'singles' and close-ups, plus a trademark out-of-focus holding shot with a vase in the foreground. Words that once seemed spontaneous rapidly became inane.

    Barbara's mother died last year leaving her and her brother with a huge inheritance tax bill. The family house lies deep in the woods in Nettlebed in rural Oxfordshire. A beautiful and magical place, with pheasants in the garden, red kites calling overhead, and an antiquated kitchen with an indicator board once used by servants. A green baize door separates the kitchen from the dining room and the house is filled with family treasures, many from turn-of-the-century Vienna. I remembered Christmases year ago when real candles twinkled on a huge tree and we played Scrabble in front of a blazing log fire.

    The camera caught Angus as he twirled in Barbara's mother's kimono and we obligingly acted out surprise on discovering him. Barbara's ferocious dog Foxy performed as we walked in long-shot through the woods. After the crew finally left, ornate lights that had been on the wall when the house was bought almost half a century ago were taken down forever and we polished up for the auction a fine silver Viennese Secession coffee service that had languished in a cupboard for years.

    The auction itself was filmed weeks later in Cirencester. Understandably perhaps, Barbara needed to smoke something calming between shots. I chatted coyly to Angela Ripon. Two sets of lots were being filmed for two separate programmes and we kept being called in (like obedient circus animals) to mime delight or dismay according to the prices achieved. Barbara rushed to ask purchasers where the lots were ending up. The kimonos went eastwards. Angus told me about his escapades in New York and said he was more interested in our chat (and in one of the porters) than the filming.

    Transmission was today. I expected it to be in July. Some extraordinary impulse made me email the production company about transmission the very moment the broadcast began. Within an hour I'd had calls from friends of daytime TV watchers and a website thread had started discussing my appearance. And tomorrow yet another unlikely group of participants will have their Warholian 15 minutes.

    In spite of the £4,380 proceeds from the auction – just a tiny part of the tax due - Barbara and her brother's house in Nettlebed must be sold. Its contents will be dispersed forever. Somehow, Mr De Mille, I don't think I'll ever be ready for my close-up.


  • Au naturel for the WNBR


    What else to do on a balmy Saturday afternoon but cycle stitchless for six miles in central London as one of the thousands of cyclists that took part in London's fourth ever World Naked Bike Ride?

    Campaigning for a better deal for cyclists, against the global grip of polluting oil and for something called 'body freedom' the ride's slogan was 'go as bare as you dare'. Stripping in Hyde Park on a humid afternoon among lots of other already naked people was actually quite easy. A kind of party atmosphere, with lots of 'nice' chat of the kind you have in Waitrose supermarket on a Saturday afternoon. Riders of all ages and races, but more men than women, some body painted, others in wigs and quite a few with slogans painted on them. 'Carbon natural', 'Less gas more ass', several angels' wings, skaters, recumbent cyclists, rickshaws and at least one unicycle.


    medium_DSC00163.JPGBikes festooned with greenery ridden by very green men, two red men and even one fluorescent. Full-on exhibitionists wearing beads and blowing whistles, environmentalists, topless housewives and even some bashful families; whistles and horns and bells and on every street lines of amused and bemused onlookers: delighted smiles from people on buses and everybody taking photos. Vulnerability and strength, part of a group together doing something out of the ordinary.

    A great roar in Picadilly Circus, much easy chatting on the way, (and bizarrely no saddle soreness), a surreal feeling riding past the cenotaph in Whitehall and the unexpected comedy of seeing a naked cyclist use a cashpoint. There was an ineffable daftness about it that just made me want to grin and grin.

    Riding back under the Wellington Arch there was another great cheer, cycles waved in the air in triumph and a desperate need for a nice cup of tea.medium_DSC00170.JPG


  • Sunday in the park

    medium_PICT0323.2.jpgSunday morning and a grass snake slithered across the sill of my garden office. Barefoot and with my exit blocked, I thought the idea was it would slither off if I made a noise - but it didn't (and was obviously sunbathing). When I ejected it with a steel ruler it did a quite convincing cobra impression, complete with hissy fit and the discharge of some very malodorous urine. It also did a convincing job of stopping me leaving. Deep down I have ocker roots. I rapidly re-located them and turfed the blighter out of my way...

    medium_DSC00139.JPGGreenwich Park was a mass of sunbathers. The Ranger's House contains medieval and Renaissance art from the collection of nineteenth century De Beers diamond millionaire Sir Julius Wernher. I was pleased to see he had a herpetological eye - collecting a fine majolica plate decorated with a writhing serpent. Then on to the Royal Observatory and a wonderful prospect of Greenwich Hospital, the dome, the gherkin and the canary.

    medium_DSC00152.JPGDown the slope to the Queen's House - Inigo Jones' pioneering Palladian building of 1617. The chapel and Sir Christopher Wren's painted hall at Greenwich Hospital provided a suitably baroque contrast. Then a peek at the charred remains of the Cutty Sark before taking the tube to Canning Town to get Schmeissed.

    Beneath a buzzing overhead power line and wedged between the DLR and Bow Creek is an East End institution called the Docklands Steam Baths. A place where men can be men and are not afraid of slapping each other all over with a raffia mop covered in soap suds. They also practise something called vernik treatment - which is being beaten with leafy twigs - but that wasn't available as some Russians had left their twigs on the sauna heater that morning and it had caught fire.

    I had a thoroughly good time drifting off in the steam rooms of different temperatures. People of all ages and backgrounds. One well-spoken gent asked me about 'Sunday in the Park with George'. I enjoyed chatting to a friendly Albanian whose grandfather had the great misfortune to be killed by Communists because he worked for King Zog. A retired chap with a whole body tan asked me to soap him and then gave me the Schmeiss treatment. A surreal experience, head totally covered by a towel, lying in a hot steam room, being thwocked by a giant yellow mop - but very relaxing. Afterwards I helped myself to fruit and was offered tea and cake. A very friendly bunch and not at all fazed by having someone from not exactly down their way in their midst. Apparently you can even get a very reasonable curry there made to your exact specifications. I think I'll go back.

  • Waited on royally

    A fine Sunday afternoon in June which we were making the most of by cycling in Windsor Great Park to Saville Gardens. The day before had been Her Majesty the Queen’s 80th birthday, and the mood in her home town seemed particularly happy. Sunlight slanted through the trees as we pedalled up the gentle rise that leads from the town towards the Cumberland Lodge crossroads. Conditions were ideal for cyling: scarcely a breeze, the narrow roadways free of traffic aside from a few other cyclists and walkers.

    I was the first to the crossroads, getting there just as a dark coloured Daimler drew up at the turning to my right. We were due to go straight ahead, so I waited for the Daimler to give an indication which way it was heading. The driver was lost beneath a pale blue hat of the kind usually only seen on matronly women at weddings. Whilst the Daimler’s driver dithered I thought how small she must be to fit in the car complete with hat.

    For what seemed a minute or more the Daimler waited. Even on a fine day, this indecision was becoming irritating. Just as I thought of making hand signals of a kind not promoted by the Highway Code – or at the very least shouting something about old bats being unable to make up their minds – the car pulled into our turning and I saw that the driver was in fact the Queen.

    Protocol and tempers were preserved and we went on separate ways without further difficulty: can I please have my invitation to the garden party now?