Fantastic Mr. Fox


A fine red fox. Wikimedia Commons.

There I was, in the middle of the morning, chatting on the ‘phone and idly staring out of the window, across the lawn and the newly-bare winter trees.

A fox appeared.  He walked under the mulberry tree, across the grass, and disappeared into the undergrowth some distance away.  He was magnificent. As large as a labrador, with a sleek tawny-red coat, he was very fine as he strolled the full length of the garden, some small item of prey wedged between his jaws.

He was so very different from the urban foxes we see when we go to stay with my son and his family in London.  After dark, we enjoy peeping through the curtains, watching them as they prowl up and down the street and stop to examine that unfamiliar car – ours.   Compared with our country fox, these urban types are small, with duller coats that are ochre-red, rather mangy and bald in places.  But look at what they eat.  Our fellow will have feasted on a plentiful diet of rabbits and pheasants.  Town fox investigates dustbins and fast-food litter, looking for the remains of a greasy, salty fried chicken meal, or a few crusts of pizza.  He won’t starve, but he’ll be pretty ill-nourished.


An urban fox. Wikimedia Commons.

We always enjoy our glimpses of those town foxes in London.  But how much more excited I was yesterday when I saw the beast who, unhurried,  stepped regally past.

And no.  I haven’t got a photo of him.  I’d have had to leave the window and miss those few special moments.

Life of Brian

BrianNovember2015 001

Meet Brian.

I don’t really do dogs.  There.  I’ve just lost more than half my readership, just like that.

It’s not that I don’t like them though.  I can think of few greater pleasures than a tramp over the hills on a cold and frosty morning with a cheerful dog bounding ahead, truffling around the undergrowth and enjoying all the sights and sounds and experiences of a fresh new day.

It’s just that hell can be not other people, but other people’s dogs.  You know the sort.  The ones that leap up and knock you sideways, muddying your nice clean jumper in the process.  They’re the ones whose owners smile indulgently. ‘He’s just being friendly’, they explain. These are the very dogs that may also try to lick your face.   Then there are the ones that are left alone and bark, bark, bark, as the dog-next-door in France did.  Or the ones that bare their teeth and frighten me half to death.  Or the smelly ones.

I think there’s a pattern here.  It’s not the dogs. It’s the owners.  And I seem to have raised three children who apparently think much the same as I do on the dog question.

And then, the other week, Daughter Number One announced they’d decided to get a dog.  Not just any dog.  But a puppy.  One that would  become a big (ish) dog. An active dog. A feisty dog. A dalmatian.  Ellie’s is a family of two busy working adults and ten-year-old twin sons with the sort of after-school schedule for which you need a very large calendar, and a smart phone that reminds you at frequent intervals who has to be where when, with whom, and wearing what kind of kit.

They did their research.  They chose and visited a breeder and looked at a litter of ten newly-born pups.  And they chose Brian.  He’s been living with them for ten days now.  This week, we went to stay,  and we met him.

We’re converted.  I’ve never in all my life been greeted with such enthusiasm as I was by Brian when I turned up in the kitchen the other morning to get some breakfast.  Look at this wagging tail.  I remind myself he’d probably have greeted a burglar with equal joy …. but still.

BrianNovember2015 009

Brian’s so pleased to see everyone in the morning.

He’s charmed us all.  But he’s not going to get away with simply being charming.  Right from day one, training began.  No leaping up on furniture.  No leaping up at people.  No shoe-savaging.  He learned immediately to ‘sit’ on command, and Alex’s first party trick was to teach him to shake a paw.  We’re all busy keeping him entertained in these slightly restrictive weeks when he can’t go out and about because he hasn’t had all his jabs yet.  But everyday pleasures are enough for this young chap.  There’s a garden to explore.  Rotting leaves and springy grass. Rustling dried-up autumn plants.  Tantalising glimpses of birds.  Misty-moisty autumn smells.  And there’s a whole tick-box in the training manual to worry about.  Checklist: he must meet a baby (no), children of various ages (tick), the elderly (tick), someone in glasses (tick), someone bearded (no), someone in uniform (no), and so on, and so on.

BrianNovember2015 006

Project Exhaust-a-pup bears fruit.

Dog-training proper starts next week.  And then before long he’ll be a dog-teenager.  And then an adult, prepared to offer many years of companionship and pleasure to Ellie & Co. and who knows?  Maybe to us too.



St. Mary's Church, Studley Royal (Wikimedia Commons)

St. Mary’s Church, Studley Royal (Wikimedia Commons)

When I started out as a National Trust volunteer, when I began as an Information Assistant at St.Mary’s Church, Studley Royal, I didn’t expect to sort out a little mystery that’s continued to exercise my brain from time to time, ever since my first and only visit to India, 8 years ago.

Let’s begin there, back in 2007.  It was my first day, all by myself, after a night flight into Bangalore.  I was far too excited to sleep, and already over-stimulated by a city, busy since well before 6.00 a.m., alive with cows, horses, donkeys, sheep, chipmunks, dogs by the thousand, monkeys, parakeets, eagles …. and auto-rickshaws, always auto-rickshaws, and the unending sound of motorhorns constantly in use on every car and  lorry.  I’d already allowed an amiable rickshaw driver, who could doubtless see ‘arrived this morning’ tattooed across my forehead, to take me on a conducted tour of the city.  We served each other’s purpose.  I got a decent sit down and a running commentary in broken English on the city sights.  He was probably paid over the odds by a very appreciative customer who knew a decent bargain when she saw one.  When I left him, after a thoroughly entertaining morning,  I found myself wandering towards London Road.  And then Robinson Street.  Robinson Street?  Who could Mr. Robinson be?  I finally found out ….. the other week.  If only I’d wandered just a little further on that first day in Bangalore, I’d have been offered a clue.  I’d have found ‘Ripon Street’.

Fast forward to an early session at St. Mary’s Church, Studley Royal just a few months ago.  My fellow-volunteer Frances was taking some visitors round.  I tagged along, because Frances has an apparently bottomless fund of knowledge, and a way of engaging her willing listeners’ attention.  She’d already told them that the church was the design of a noted exponent of Gothic Revival architecture, William Burges.  She’d pointed out several examples of its inventive design, of its richly coloured decorative detail, of its religious symbolism.

Now she was telling us that it was commissioned in 1870 by the deeply religious Marchioness of Ripon, and her husband, the Marquess.  His full name and title was George Frederick Samuel Robinson, 1st Marquess of Ripon, 2nd Earl of Ripon.  She thought we might like to know his story.  She was right.

The Marquess of Ripon had an impeccable pedigree.  He was born in No. 10 Downing Street, and as an adult, served as an MP in various northern constituencies. Shortly after succeeding to the title of Earl of Ripon in 1859, he became first Undersecretary to India, and later Secretary of State for India.  From 1868 he was highly valuable in a variety of roles in William Gladstone’s government.

Then, in 1874, he converted to Roman Catholicism. His strong sense of duty prevented him from continuing to serve in government.  The Church of England (the Established Church) and state are linked in the United Kingdom.  He withdrew from public life.

However, in 1880, Gladstone persuaded him to take the post of Viceroy of India.  The Indians grew to honour him: the British rather less so.  Here’s why.

He expanded the powers of locally elected Indian governments, and liberalised internal administration.  He lowered the salt tax.  He gave local language newspapers the same freedoms as English ones, and enacted some improvements in labour conditions.  He allowed Indian judges the same rights as European ones when handling European defendants.  And he achieved all this in only four years.  No wonder Indians felt the least they could do was name a few roads after him.

George Frederick Samuel Robinson, 1st Marquess of Ripon (Wikimedia Commons)

George Frederick Samuel Robinson, 1st Marquess of Ripon (Wikimedia Commons)

He went on to serve in other capacities before becoming leader of the Liberals in the House of Lords, and died in Ripon in 1909.

So – thank you St. Mary’s, Studley Royal.  And thank you Frances, National Trust volunteer.  An eight year old mystery is solved.

The Horniman Museum

I’ve loved the Horniman Museum since I was a small child. We would make the long and slightly awkward bus journey there from our home in Victoria, over the Thames at Vauxhall Bridge, through dingy Brixton and elegant and well-heeled Dulwich to spend the day at this special place.

I can’t remember those visits in detail really. I’ve got memories of awe-inspiring and crowded cabinets of strange birds and unfamiliar animals, collected and stuffed many years before: of colourful displays of traditional costumes and artefacts from Africa.  Somewhere or another I probably still have the odd sepia-and-white postcard, bought as a souvenir of our day out.

And now it’s set to be a go-to destination for new grandson William.  He too will be able to enjoy the bus journey there and back, and a Grand Day Out, as we all did last Sunday.

The museum is so much more than I remember from those days in the 1950s.  Those collections – and more – are still there.  They’re still arranged, particularly the Natural History collection, with a nod to the days when simply everything was displayed, all the better to fascinate you.  There’s that wonderful walrus, stuffed by a Victorian taxidermist who hadn’t had the benefit of watching David Attenborough’s wildlife programmes.  He filled out the creature full to bursting, not a wrinkle in sight.  Everyone loves him.

Horniman Walrus

One very generously stuffed walrus.

But the African Worlds gallery reflects more modern ideas of interpretation.  You’ll find, alongside objects from traditional African cultures, more modern artefacts from countries strongly influenced by the African populations that arrived there during the years of slavery, such as Brazil and Trinidad.

Surely that aquarium wasn’t there 50 years ago?  And all those wonderful things happening in the gardens – I can’t even remember any gardens.  I can’t remember the spectacular views across London.  Even if I could, I wouldn’t remember this view.  Look.

London skyline

London skyline. If you try really hard, you can find St. Paul’s Cathedral.

I’m sure there wasn’t an Animal Walk.  This is where William got the chance to come face to face with an extremely short-legged goat, a large and very industrious white rabbit, a couple of hens and an alpaca.  Now there are flower beds showing plants that give us dyes for cloth.  There’s an exciting space full of – are they sculptures?  No, we can all go and make music there, strumming, pounding, plucking, experimenting.  And so much more …. so much more.  I’d happily go and explore this wonderful outdoor and indoor site every time we go and visit… and I know William will want to come too, when he’s old enough to have an opinion.



‘Even in 1215 London was an independent sort of a place: rich, well-connected and hard to govern. With nearly 15,000 residents it was already the largest city north of the Alps. Its merchants were organising a mediæval commune to protect themselves against pillaging barons and a taxing King, and its diverse trading population had strong connections to Europe and Scandinavia.

Meanwhile, bad King John was in trouble. He was retreating in France, running out of money and losing control of his Barons. Discontent was turning into open revolt and the King was very short of allies.

In 1215 the King was persuaded to issue a Royal Charter that allowed the City of London to elect its own Mayor. We presume that he gave his blessing to the commune in order to keep the City on his side, but there was an important condition. Every year the newly elected Mayor must leave the safety of the City, travel upriver to the small town of Westminster and swear loyalty to the Crown. The Lord Mayor has now made that journey for 800 years, despite plagues and fires and countless wars and pledged his (and her) loyalty to 34 kings and queens of England.’

That’s a quotation from the official site of the Lord Mayor’s Show.  This is not so much a show as a procession that over the centuries recognised the Lord Mayor of London as one of the most powerful men in the country. This may no longer be the case, but in its day the procession was one of the greatest spectacles in the country, worth a mention by the likes of Shakespeare and Samuel Pepys.  It’s still the occasion when the new Lord Mayor travels in a splendid coach which, were it to be built today, might cost some £2,000,000 to build.

Lord Mayor's coach

The new Lord Mayor bravely sticks his head out into the pouring rain to wave at the crowds.

You’ll see city businesses, Livery companies, charities, the armed forces, police, Londoners from every walk of life, marching or on floats reminding us of the complex and varied history of the City of London, a small square mile area at the centre of the now enormous wider city, which is some 607 square miles in area.  London has its own Mayor, an elected politician (currently Boris Johnson): please don’t confuse the two offices!

We were in London for a couple of days.  Son Tom was singing in a concert with his Choral Society on Saturday evening, and for the rest of the weekend, the five of us, including four-month old William, became tourists.  Four month old babies have a habit of imposing their own daily rhythms on the day, so we didn’t arrive for the start of the procession, or in time to secure a very good vantage point.  But there were highlights, the last of which was the appearance of the Lord Mayor himself in that magnificent coach, accompanied by halberdiers in their ancient uniforms.  Before that we’d seen horseguards, and representatives of some of the great Livery Companies.  These were ancient trade and craft guilds.  They existed all over Europe as Trading Standards organisations, as trade unions, as philanthropic organisations helping members in times of sickness and infirmity, but those remaining in London are unique in their survival, number and diversity.

These days we are charmed by the names of the more ancient Guilds: the Watermen and Lightermen; the Tallow Chandlers; the Spectacle Makers; the Painter-Stainers, the Merchant Taylors: we saw none of those, though they still exist. More recent additions are the Air Pilots, the Environmental Cleaners and so on, and we saw representatives of the Guild of Human Resources Practitioners and of the World Traders.  What would Dick Whittington, the 14th century rags-to-riches thrice times Lord Mayor of London, more commonly these days seen in Pantomime have made of them, I wonder?

Old and new A

The City of London old and new, seen through the windows of Leon, a natural fast-food restaurant.

I love the City of London.  Despite its being home to the Tower of London, to some 4 dozen Wren churches including St Paul’s and a host of other sites; despite its wonderful street names (‘Hanging Sword Alley’, ‘Gutter Lane’, ‘Wardrobe Terrace’), it’s a surprisingly people-free zone at the weekend.  I love the dissonant notes as delicate, ancient buidings and churches butt up against stark modern constructions.  I love it that these modern flights of fancy in glass and steel are obliged to squeeze themselves into street patterns established in the middle ages, and unchanged even after London’s famous Great Fire of 1666.  There’s a surprise around every corner.

Old and new

New city, old city.

And afterwards, a stroll along the Thames, to see more evidence of London old, London new.

St. Paul's

St. Paul’s Cathedral, and a few cranes.


I was out walking near Ripon this morning. For once it’s not raining – and it has been, more often than not, for days and days. But the river, viewed on a gusty but mild Autumnal morning, offered proof of all that recent rain. The Ure raged and surged at the bridges. Every bank had been breached, and trees were paddling in several feet of water. Impromptu lakes formed in fields and too-close-for-comfort to urban streets. Riverside paths, usually solid affairs of beaten earth, were slick and slippery with sludge: or worse, deeply hidden under soft ribbons of oozy mud. How very like an English November, I thought.

But then I remembered a November in France, only two years ago. It made our current Autumn weather look rather OK, especially as it’s unseasonably mild: 16 degrees today. Nobody’s talking about snow …… yet.

Originally posted on From Pyrenees to Pennines:

Bridge over the River Touyre Bridge over the River Touyre

I think we’ve had enough.  When I last posted  – three days ago – we’d already had a week of rain.  It’s barely stopped since.  During the night, we can hear dull thudding as the roof tiles take another sodden pounding.  We get up in the morning, raise the shutters, and immediately the rain batters the windows.  Going for the breakfast loaf, usually a good way to begin the day, seems unattractive.  We make a comforting pan of porridge instead.  And so the day wears on.  We go out when we have to, but there’s no pleasure to be had in scurrying down the street, heads down, coats spattered by any passing car.  And I don’t know when we’ll ever have a country walk again.  The fields are waterlogged, the paths sticky and slippery with thick deep mud.

This was the River Touyre this morning…

View original 112 more words

A job worth doing ….

Walk round the grounds of Studley Royal, and this will be your first sighting of Fountains Abbey.

Walk round the grounds of Studley Royal, and this will be your first sighting of Fountains Abbey.

A few months ago, I got a job.  Not for the pin-money, because I’m not paid a penny.  But I’m richly rewarded.  I signed up to be a volunteer for the National Trust, at the property nearest our home, Fountains Abbey and Studley Royal.  Cistercian Abbey, Georgian water garden and mediaeval deer park…. no wonder it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Since we moved to Ripon, we’d loved spending time there, so I got to wondering….what would it be like to volunteer there?  What could I do?  What might be involved?

The answer turned out to be…almost anything you want  There are dozens of different roles, from gardening to guiding.  You could drive the mini-bus or form part of the archaeological monitoring team.  You could work in the shop, or in the admissions areas. Badged up, you could wander the grounds, being alert to the needs of visitors who’d like a potted history lesson  or to find their way to the toilets.  You could work in the wildlife team, helping look after and monitor all those ancient trees, or the herds of deer.  You could turn to when there’s a special event, and put out chairs.  And you’re quite entitled, over the years, to change your mind and try something else.

I for instance, started out as a visitor assistant at the Victorian High Gothic Church of Saint Mary’s in Studley Royal Park.  It’s a real masterpiece of Victorian architect William Burges, but it turned out not to be ‘me’.  I admire the building hugely, but it doesn’t involve me at an emotional level as the ruined abbey does.  So I quit.  No hard feelings

Looking across at St.Mary's from the Deer Park.

Looking across at St.Mary’s from the Deer Park.

But I shan’t be quitting the Learning Team.  Our bread-and-butter is sharing a Day In the Life of a Monk with schoolchildren.  The children dress up in monk-style habits, and tour the site getting in touch with the brothers’ silent and family-free routines, led by one of the team.  We examine the roofless, windowless Abbey and try to picture the church back in its prime. We imagine the vast space, illuminated only by candles, as the monks worshipped there eight times a day, from 2.00 a.m. onwards.  We visit the refectory where the monks dined, in silence, once a day. Did those monks eat meat?  What about potatoes?  No?  Why not?  We visit the Warming Room and imagine having just four baths a year, shaving our tonsures with oyster shells.  We discuss bloodletting.  We talk about all the daily routines.  Maybe the children remember only a few of the facts later, But we hope they are moved by these atmospheric ruins, and return later with their families.

Fountains Abbey.

Fountains Abbey.

They might come though, to experience the natural environment of the grounds: they might go pond dipping, or on a walk where they try to use all their senses by listening, touching , seeing, smelling and so on.  Or make mosaics based on what they’ve observed.  Or go den-building in the woods.  They’re as sure of a grand day out as are the volunteers in the team.

I’ve ended up doing all sorts of stuff I’d never have thought of attempting.  Car park attendant on Bank Holidays?  I didn’t think so.  But it turns out to be fun togging up in a hi-viz jacket, barking out radio messages on the walkie-talkie system, getting in touch with your inner traffic cop, and generally being a welcome face to visitors as you help them manouevre themselves into the busy car park.

And some things are quite simply, a privilege.  I wish you could have joined me on Sunday evening.  After dark, the site was opened to less mobile visitors.  For one night only, cars were welcome on site, to be driven s-l-o-w-l-y past the floodlit Abbey buildings.  The evening was cold, misty, moody, atmospheric.  Night birds swirled above the trees, dampness dripped from the trees, and monks could clearly be heard from within the abbey, chanting their plainsong (a recording, actually, but none the worse for that).  I talked to some of the visitors, often very elderly, as their cars and drivers made their stately way through the grounds.  Their appreciation of the staff and volunteers who were there helping the evening to go smoothly, though nice to hear, was quite unnecessary.  I wouldn’t have missed this experience for anything.  A special evening indeed.

And there are other perks.  A couple of times a year there’s a ‘works outing’, when volunteers can take a trip to properties in other parts of the country. Here’s one.  There are winter lectures for those who want them, to widen and deepen their knowledge of the history of the place  There are times to socialise – a barbecue, a quiz night, meals.  We’re very well supported, properly trained, and appreciated by the regular paid staff.  I look forward to every single thing I do as a volunteer at Fountains Abbey and Studley Royal.  I feel very lucky.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 109 other followers