Sunday, July 20, 2014

England in the Spring


Saturday, April 26 - Wednesday, April 30

After a crowded but uneventful flight we arrived at Heathrow, flying in over red roofs and the always surprising amount of green space left in the tightly-packed little island that is Great Britain.

Our hotel, The President, was part of our flight package. A sprawling 7-storey building, it seemed to be a favourite of tour groups from all over Europe, with a vast cafeteria-like dining hall that felt more like a youth hostel than a hotel. However, our room, although basic, was quiet and pleasant enough with a view onto an attractive street just off Russell Square.

The square, at the end of the street above, gave us our first sight of a magnificent English oak.

The park was understandably popular with students from the nearby university, no doubt exhausted from hours of intense study.
I liked the notice at one of the entry points, and thought we could use it in a few Vancouver green spaces.

  On our first foray into the crowded streets, we came to Selfridges, one of London's famous department stores, which was undergoing repairs to its facade and was covered in an elegant protective wrap.

One of the things I noticed in England generally was that there is still a custom of artistic window design, something sadly lacking in modern Vancouver. Despite the scaffolding, Selfridges was setting some fine examples (though hard to photograph because of reflections.)

Smaller shops were also doing their part.

Even in residential areas, despite a lack of garden space, many of the townhouses and restaurants had beautifully maintained flowerboxes,

...or at least some kind of floral adornment, wisteria being a popular choice.

No wonder London tops the polls as Europe's most visited city. For all that it's so big, crowded and smoggy, it has such style. And that's not counting all the cultural treasures and fine architecture to see as well.

Speaking of culture, we went to the Royal Opera House, a short walk from our hotel and managed to get seats in the "gods" for a ballet performance of Shakespeare's "The Winter's Tale", a joint British-Canadian production. No photos were allowed during the performance, but I did take a couple of the very grand theatre itself during an intermission.

Most of our time in London was spent in art galleries. First up, the National Gallery with its view of Nelson's column from the portico...

 ... being faced down by a more recent work of sculpture.

 Inside were grand rooms containing some of the world's most famous paintings...

... and some truly laughable "artspeak."


It was quite crowded, especially around works by the Impressionists, such as Van Gogh's yellow chair.
By contrast, the Courtauld Gallery, which charged an admission fee, was almost deserted, giving us more opportunity to enjoy the work on display. No photos allowed, but I didn't think they'd mind if I photographed a translation of an inscription that I particularly liked as a wish for a desirable life:

Apart from that, I had to be content with photographing the courtyard outside.

On other days we visited the Tate and the Tate Modern. The latter, housed in the old Battersea Power Station, demonstrated what an imaginative architect can do in adapting an existing building to a new use. The interior spaces were vast and spectacular.

It was a long walk to get there, along the Thames embankment past the Tower of London,

... an interesting contrast with the very recent skyscraper dubbed "The Shard" visible beyond the ancient stone walls.

We crossed Tower Bridge...

... and had a cloudy view across the river of the ghastly hodge-podge that is now the London skyline.

On a more cheerful note, we passed a group of kindergarten children all dressed as pirates, on their way to see Sir Francis Drake's ship, The Golden Hind, which was moored along the river.

I tried my hand at creating my own piece of modern art through a window in the Tate Modern.

We crossed back over the Thames at a different bridge to admire St. Paul's Cathedral from close at hand.

We passed the Houses of Parliament, where I took the obligatory photo of Big Ben,

...and Westminster Abbey, where I was amused by some of the gargoyles.

Even the design of seats along the Embankment was artistic and elegant

An impending tube strike the next day had us hurrying out on the train to Kew Gardens late in the afternoon. We arrived at the perfect time to see the bluebells in bloom,

...and many large and vibrant rhododendrons.

'Golden Eagle'

'Ilam Ming'

We strolled the long green corridors,

...meeting an occasional resident ...,

...and wandered through the magnificent glasshouses...

...with their eye-catching contents.

Zingiber spectabile

While we waited for the return train, we had a drink in the Station pub among English businessmen on their way home from work.

The following day, the strike took effect as threatened. Somewhat footsore from our earlier excursions and unable to travel by train, we boarded a double-decker bus, secured the front seat and sat happily watching the sights as we crawled our way towards Hyde Park.

I took the opportunity for a mirror shot.

The weather was better than the previous few days, and locals were out enjoying the sunshine on Hyde Park's spacious lawns.

In some of the trees, were, I think, bat boxes.

Returning after an early dinner to our hotel, we passed a corner pub where evening patrons had spilled out into the street, drinks in hand. So civilized compared with back home in Vancouver, where a scene like this might set a bad example to the kiddies and would not be permitted.

 The following morning we set out for Paddington Station to catch our train to Plymouth. We had booked in the "quiet carriage", where passengers can't use their cell phones during the journey.  A sensible rule for everyone's comfort.

Thursday, May 1 - Sunday, May 4

Plymouth is, of course, famous as the port from which Sir Francis Drake set out to vanquish the Spanish armada. He still stands on Plymouth Hoe gazing out to sea.

Around the base of his statue are various bas-reliefs with a naval theme.

We  had come mainly to visit our nephew and his wife who lived in the former naval yards, now converted into unique apartments.

In one of these buildings was the best bakery/cafe ever, with wonderful freshly made breads and local jams.

On Friday our nephew, Jeff, drove us on a tour of small, picturesque Devon towns.

On Saturday afternoon we walked through the East Stonehouse area to catch the Cremyll ferry to Mount Edgcumbe House and Gardens

Along the way, Jeff pointed out another unique but little-known feature of Plymouth: Durnford Street, where Sir Arthur Conan Doyle worked as a newly-qualified physician in 1882. Quotes from his Sherlock Holmes mysteries have been set into the sidewalks.

At Mount Edgecumbe I was impressed by the grand conservatory, where tables were set out for an afternoon wedding.

The garden and park surrounding the house had some unusual topiary effects...

...and a striking green man sculpture.

A tiny van was just one of a number of enterprises selling refreshments on what had turned out to be a hot afternoon.


Sunday, May 4 - Thursday, May 8

After a late breakfast at the bakery above, we picked up our rental car, a bright red Fiat 500...

...and set off on our own to explore more of Devon and Cornwall.
 We travelled through lush countryside...

...and picturesque towns.

We also stopped to enjoy several great estates and their beautifully maintained gardens. The first of these was the Lost Gardens of Heligan which I'd read about and wanted to see if ever we were in this part of the country. It was worth stopping for: we spent a considerable time wandering through the kitchen gardens...

...with their espaliered fruit trees...

 ...cold frames...

...potting sheds...

...rhubarb beds...

...and ferneries.

That still left some time to enjoy the more park-like areas ...

where magnificent rhododendrons were in full bloom.

Our return route took us through dappled woodland where we encountered another green figure, this time a sleeping lady.

In the following days we visited more pretty towns like Mousehole (pronounced mousle),

where we watched a group of classic car enthusiasts lining up their shiny steeds on the breakwater...

...and St Ives,

where we stayed the night in the Western Hotel.

We also visited a number of fine estates owned by the National Trust, like Trelissick,

which had a spectacular wisteria in bloom, but not much else of interest, as the house wasn't open to the public and the garden was more of a park.

...and Trengwainton, which was chiefly remarkable for the sloped beds in its kitchen garden.

More interesting both architecturally and for its gardens was Trerice, with an magnificent Elizabethan house and perennial borders,

and an espaliered white wisteria just coming into bloom on a mossy stone wall.

Best of all, though, was Llanhydrock...

...with its espaliered magnolia...
...and camellias,

...its parterres,


...and an interior reminiscent of "Downton Abbey".
I was especially impressed by a beautiful pair of etched-glass doors,

 ...and the kitchen with its marble counter for keeping butter and cheese cold by means an ingenious channel for cold water.


Friday, May 9 - Tuesday, May 13

Leaving Cornwall and heading north through Devon again towards Somerset and Wales, we followed a road sign to one more National Trust property. Knightshayes turned out to be another magnificent mansion,

...but is equally famous for its remarkable topiary, from simple forms like its castellated hedges... its famous fox and hounds scene.

Dogs seemed to be a popular theme.

We spent the night at Weston-super-Mare,  a slightly faded seaside resort still popular, we discovered, with busloads of retirees coming to its casino and beach.
We might have enjoyed it more without the gale that blew all the time we were there, making it unpleasant to be outside. Fortunately our hotel was very comfortable to be in and we had a good view of the pier and pavilion from our window (middle row, third from the right.)

When we left Weston-super-Mare, the wind had lessened to a breeze and the skies were sunny. We stopped to visit Tyntesfield, an imposing castellated Victorian pile, with formal gardens full of wallfowers.

Inevitably, there was another fine wisteria  in bloom.

There was also a fine conservatory,

..with some spectacular plants including a glossy, wine-dark pelargonium.

Continuing north along the coast, we encountered more blustery weather with intermittent showers that left a haze over the pretty countryside.

The winds were whipping up quite a surf along the shore, which was largely deserted...

... except for an occasional fisherman...

... and a group of enthusiastic kite-surfers.

By the time we reached the walled town of Tenby on Friday the 9th, the sky was brightening. In the small harbour the tide was out and colourful boats lay marooned on the sand.

The following day, we reached another pretty town, St. David's. At the centre of the town is the old cathedral of St David, patron saint of Wales...

where I found this wounded knight asleep on his sarcophagus.

Much of the town is built in dark stone, giving it a grim appearance, especially on this cloudy, grey day.

But the townsfolk are cheerful and friendly, especially in The Bishop's, a popular pub in the town centre where we had an excellent lunch.
On Sunday, after continuing north through Aberystwyth to Aberdovey, we left the coast and skirted the edge of Snowdonia with its white-walled cottages in the lee of dark mountains.

We were heading for Welshpool, the nearest town to Powis Castle, a National Trust property I wanted to visit. We found it to be a attractive small town, although suffering a little from several empty storefronts along the main street. We stayed the night in the Royal Oak Inn, a 300-year-old former coaching inn, which was one of the best choices we made on the whole trip. For a very reasonable price we had a pleasant room and enjoyed both dinner and breakfast in their restaurant, manned by friendly and efficient staff.

Powis Castle

 Monday, May 12

The day was fine and warm as we set out for Powis Castle. It did not disappoint. From the castle itself, perched high on a series of terraces (including yet another wisteria)...

...with views across the valley floor, its famous sculpted hedges and beautiful gardens, it was a place to linger.

The "tumps"
Apple orchard

'Gloire de Dijon' rose

Even the resident peacock put on a show for us.

Of all the statues there, the one that appealed the most to me was not one of the shepherds or shepherdesses visible in the terrace photo above, but a muscular Hercules slaying the many-headed Hydra (one of his twelve tasks), with a backdrop of enormous hedge.


 Tuesday, May 13

After leaving Powis, we drove north once more to Llandudno on the northern shore of Wales. We had come to see the other famous garden in Wales, Bodnant, and it too was worth the journey. In fact, it was the most spectacular garden we saw on the trip, largely because our visit coincided with the blooming of hundreds of rhododendrons.
They are not one of my favourite plants, but I have to admit that seeing such mature specimens flowering in profusion in this historic setting was an amazing experience.

Although the house itself, adorned with, yes, a wisteria,  was attractive enough, was no match for the blaze of colour in the gardens.

Even the parterres were alive with colour.

However, there were also a number of more subdued compositions, appealing in their tranquillity. This reflecting pool for instance,


... and this white wisteria on a white trellis overlooking a white-walled building.
I thought this lichen- encrusted sphinx had a suitably questioning look.
 Among individual plants that attracted my attention were a Liriodendron in bloom,

... an unknown pink Enkianthus,

... and a Rhododendron espaliered against the wall of the house.
This is the first time I've seen this technique applied to this species, and it's very effective.

Wednesday, May 14 - Thursday, May 15

After Powis and Bodnant, everything else was bound to be a little less impressive. Even Caernarvon Castle proved disappointing, jammed as it is among the buildings of the town. Chirk Castle at least had some interesting topiary,

... while Hanbury Hall in Worcestershire had a newly-planted but delightful parterre, edged in golden boxwood.

and an equally formal kitchen garden.

Hidcote Manor, with its famed garden by plantsman Lawrence Johnston, should have been another highlight of our garden itinerary. I had seen it some15 years earlier, in June, and remembered being impressed. Perhaps this time it was still too early in the season for it to be at its best, but I found the cottage garden a random clutter, with all plants about the same height,

... and the famous red border seemed rather sparse.

However, the vistas were as impressive as ever,

and the tapestry hedge was in good trim.

On the croquet lawn, Michael impressed a few onlookers with his hand-eye cocordination. 


Thursday, May 15 - Sunday, May 18

Oxford was our final destination before flying home to Vancouver. We had lovely weather for our three days there.

There are so many beautiful buildings to admire with their turrets and spires, and an endless array of quaint and curious friezes and gargoyles.

 Heroic lawn-mowing was in evidence in all the colleges

Although it was suddenly midsummer hot ,and punting on the river on the river looked alluring, it was clearly an acquired skill. We preferred to watch the antics and near crashes of assorted students from the shade and safety of the bank.

I took a little time to wander through the Oxford botanic garden, which was pretty but not very exciting,

...except for this remarkable plant, Begonia masoniana (Iron Cross Begonia) in one of  the glasshouses.

 We spent our last night at Heathrow in the Ibis hotel, which was also not very exciting but adequate for an overnight stay.