Saturday, 28 June 2008

The Hill

This post is about one of my favourite places - Waden Hill at Avebury. This is the view from half way up the hill looking towards the ever enigmatic Silbury. My picture (taken a couple of days ago) doesn't convey the wind in my hair as I walked; nor have I captured the small downland butterflies that fluttered up from the grasses as I passed by; or the solitary song of the skylark.

For convenience I live and work in a town, so places like Waden Hill are very precious to me. I am forever grateful that I can take a bus ride and within a short time be in the heart of Wiltshire's downland. Waden Hill is the place I go to refresh mind and spirit, where I feel at one with the landscape and the elements. There is almost always a fresh breeze up there which blows away the mental cobwebs of everyday living.

I have recently become re-acquainted with the English poet, John Masefield who was born on 1st June 1878 and was one of life's wanderers, having gone to sea on a windjammer at the age of 15. He became Poet Laureate in 1930 and spent the last 28 years of his life in Abingdon, Berkshire where he died on 12th May 1967. He was famous for writing very long poems so here is just the last two verses of his reflective poem, The Hill.

Is it heedless?
Is it heartless, or unjudging, or forgetful, or immune?
Do we apprehend its nature, can we comprehend its power,
We, as mortal as the sparrow, as fading as the flower,
And as changing as the Moon?

Let them answer
Who reply to every question, as befits an iron time.
I can only see the valley with a million grass-blades blowing
And a hill with clouds above it whither many larks are going
Singing paeans as they climb.

(Also this evocative piece of music)

Thursday, 26 June 2008

Midsummer Wildflowers at Avebury

Purple milk vetch - on West Kennet Long Barrow

Oxeye daisies and clover in the meadow going towards West Kennet Long Barrow

Poppies - looking towards Swallowhead Spring

Meadow Crane's-bill

This morning I set off earlier than usual for my mid-summer 'pilgrimage' to the Avebury downland. Arriving just before 9.00am, I headed towards the Winterbourne path via the National Trust car park - it was the first time I had ever seen it completely empty. Nature had reclaimed it overnight and it was now a warren with rabbits breakfasting in the morning sunlight.
My feet knew the way well and, as it was still quite early, I had the great privilege of experiencing peaceful solitude as I walked with just the gentle breeze moving through the grasses. A skylark here, a swallow there, crows lazing on the fence-posts. The Winterbourne was still flowing though very shallow which is extremely unusual at this time of year; this morning there were a couple of duck families who speedily swam away on spotting me. My destination was West Kennet Long Barrow though I made a small detour at Waden Hill and walked to the top through the waist high heathery coloured grasses. Butterflies rose up as I passed by and I spotted a Marbled White (quite rare, I believe). I stood for a while, taking in the land/sky-scape. Silbury was looking green and peaceful again after a traumatic year of difficult conservation work, a tractor busy harvesting the hay in the meadow.
It was such a pleasure to walk over to West Kennet Long Barrow in warm wind - a field of ripening barley on one side and a meadow of wild flowers and grasses on the other. At WKLB I again stood awhile in the warm sunshine, gently resting against the largest stone. A lone swallow swooped and dived, I could hear, though not see, a skylark nearby.
I will take the warm breeze, the clouds, the grasses and wild flowers with me until my next visit - which will be different again as the flowers disappear and the harvest ripens.
Wonderful! Just wonderful!

Sunday, 22 June 2008

The Rose and the Wind

The Rose and the Wind

The Rose:
When think you comes the Wind,
The Wind that kisses me and is so kind?
Lo! how the Lily sleeps! her sleep is light;
Would I were like the Lily, pale and white!
Will the Wind come?

The Beech:
Perchance for you too soon.
The Rose:
If not, how could I live until the noon?
What,think you, Beech-tree, makes the Wind delay?
Why comes he not at the breaking of the day?
The Beech:
Hush child, and like the Lily, go to sleep.
The Rose:
You know I cannot.
The Beech:
Nay then, do not weep. (After a pause)
Your lover comes, be happy now, O Rose!
He softly through my bending branches goes.
Soon he shall come and you shall feel his kiss.
The Rose:
Already my flushed heart grows faint with bliss,
Love, I have longed for you through all the night.
The Wind:
And I to kiss your petals warm and bright.
The Rose:
Laugh round me, Love, and kiss me; all is well.
Nay, have no fear, the Lily will not tell.


The Rose:
'Twas dawn when you first came; and now the sun
Shines brightly, and the dews of dawn are done.
'Tis well you take me so in your embrace;
But lay back again into my place,
For I am worn, perhaps with bliss extreme.
The Wind:
Nay, you must wake, Love from this foolish dream.
The Rose:
'Tis you, Love, who seem changed; your laugh is loud;
And 'neath your stormy kiss my head is bowed.
O Love, O Wind, a space will you not spare?
The Wind:
Not while your petals are so soft and fair.
The Rose:
My buds are blind with leaves, they cannot see,-
O Love, O Wind, will you not pity me?


The Beech:
O Wind, a word with you before you pass;
What did you to the Rose that on the grass
Broken she lies and pale, who loved you so?
The Wind:
Roses must live and love, and winds must blow.

Philip Bourke Marston

Saturday, 21 June 2008

The Uffizi and Botticelli

La Primavera by Sandro Botticelli (1445 - 1510)
This beautiful allegorical painting shows a garden with the Three Graces garlanded with flowers and the springtime wind Zephyrus chasing after Flora. The winged Genie, on the right of the painting is generally thought to be Zephyrus who chased and possessed the nymph Chloris and then married her giving her the ability to germinate flowers. Near to Chloris is the smiling figure clothed in flowers representing the transformation of Chloris into Flora, the Latin goddess of Spring; the woman in the centre is possible Venus and this is her garden. Above is Cupid, the blindfolded god of love. Finally, the youth with the traveller's hat, sword and winged sandals is certainly Mercury, herald of love and perhaps an emblem of knowledge.

The Birth of Venus by Sandro Botticelli (1445 - 1510)
This painting was found with the Primavera in a villa at Castello, the former property of Lorenzo Pierfrancesco de'Medici who died in 1505. Like the Primavera this work is representative of the most serene and graceful phase of Botticelli's art, linked to the neo-Platonic atmosphere of the age: we are shown the fusion of Spirit and Matter; the harmonious marriage of Idea and Nature.

During my all too brief visit last week to Florence (Firenze) "City of Flowers" I managed to fit in a visit to the Uffizi Gallery. Uffizi means Offices and the building was indeed once Offices - it is the most beautiful building within as well as without with painted ceilings and rooms decorated with mother of pearl. Plus it has breathtaking views of Florence's river Arno and the many stone bridges which cross it.

There was much to see in the centre of Florence - amazing white marble statues and astonishingly beautiful buildings. However, if I had to choose a highlight it would be these two paintings by Sandro Botticelli which hang next each other in the Uffizi Gallery.

Puccini and Lucca

The rooftops of Lucca

Earlier this month I had the pleasure of seeing Giacomo Puccini's opera Madame Butterfly performed by the The Russian State Opera of Siberia at my local theatre , the Wyvern, in Swindon. It is not the first time I have seen it but it was immensely enjoyable none the less. A couple of days later I headed off for my much anticipated holiday in Italy, which was a first.

It was a wonderful experience. The tour took in Venice, Florence and Rome plus other places such as Bologna, Pisa, Lucca and Orvieto. Each had either an amazing cathedral (often marble) or an ornate church at its centre.

The town I have chosen to highlight is Lucca, the home of Puccini. In fact there is a Festival of Puccini taking place this year in Lucca to celebrate the 150th anniversary of his birth - 22nd December 1858.
Lucca was the most surprising and pleasurable place to visit. Being optional trip some of the group chose to return to our hotel base in Montecatini to relax for the afternoon. I am so glad I did not choose this option - the sun came out in Lucca. A beautiful medieval walled city, it was a pleasure to wander around, the cobbled streets had hardly any cars and people either walked or cycled. We encountered a classical guitarist on the wall walk (it is possible to walk the circumference of the city along the wide wall). The guitarist was playing Bach to concert hall standards; I bought a cd from him for just 8 euros and was pleased to find when I returned home, it was indeed brilliant.

Venice (Venezia) was everything I dreamt it to be; Florence (Firenze) is culture and beauty, I will definitely go back; Pisa was dispiriting as something of a tourist trap; Rome (Roma), overwhelming with its size and the heat but the ancient parts we walked around were breathtaking - a combination of modern city built around Roman ruins, temples, bridges and colonnades.
It was Lucca set in the beautiful Tuscan countryside that stole my heart.

Tuesday, 10 June 2008

Summer Solstice

Summer Solstice - around 21st June
image copyright: Karen Cater, Hedington Fair
The Summer Solstice is the time of longest daylight when the Sun reaches the apex of its yearly cycle. This triumph of its power is also the start of its decline, as the year changes from waxing to waning.
Many megalithic monuments, including the iconic Stonehenge are aligned to the Midsummmer sunrise. People of all ages gather at these places to observe the sunrise and celebrate the Solstice in a joyful manner. At Stonehenge, the Sun rises in alignment with the avenue - this is the processional route of the Sun, known as Alban Heruin - the Light of the Shore.
In the name of the bee
And of the butterfly
And of the breeze
(Emily Dickinson 1830 -1886)

Thursday, 5 June 2008

Bramble blossom (Rubus)

Rubus fruticosus
Rubus, meaning red is the Latin name of the plant.

With the unwise cutting down of hedges in recent years, wild blackberries are much less common than they used to be.

The Blackberry takes the tenth place in the ancient Ogham calendar and represents the letter M (Muin), its 28 day cycle being 2nd - 29th September. Blackberries are best gathered during their September calendar month as they start to spoil after that date. In folk-lore they are said to belong the 'devil' after St Michael's Day on September 29th. This is also the traditional date of Lucifer's fall from heaven.

This date also traditionally marked the end of the harvest. Blackberries make excellent jam and summer fruit deserts. Blackberry cordial is recommended for sore throats. The blossom pictured here, is loved by bees and at this time of year the brambles are covered in delicate pollen laden flowers.

Twilight Calm

Illustration by Florence Harrison
Twilight Calm
a poem by Christina Rossetti
Oh pleasant eventide!
Clouds on the western side
Grow gray and grayer hiding the warm sun:
The bees and birds, their happy labour done.
Seek their close nests and bide.
Screened in the leafy wood
The stock -doves sit and brood:
The very squirrel leaps from bough to bough
But lazily; pauses; and settles now
Where once he stored his food.
One by one the flowers close,
Lily and dewy rose
Shutting their tender petals from the moon:
The grasshoppers are still; but not so soon
Are still the noisy crows.
The dormouse sqats and eats
Choice little dainty bits
Beneath the spreading roots of a broad lime;
Nibbling his fill he stops from time to time
And listens where he sits.
From far the lowings come
Of cattle driven home:
From farther still the wind brings fitfully
The vast continual murmur of he sea,
Now loud, now almost dumb.
The gnats whirl in the air,
The evening gnats; and there
The owl opes broad his eyes and wings to sail
For prey; the bat wakes; the shell-less snail
Comes forth clammy and bare.
Hark! that's the nightingale,
Telling the self-same tale
Her song told when this ancient earth was young:
So echoes answered when her song was sung
In the first wooded vale.
We call it love and pain,
The passion of her strain;
And yet we little understand or know.
Why should it rather not be joy that so
Throbs in each throbbing vein?
In separate herds the deer
Lie; here the bucks, and here
The does, and by its mother sleeps the fawn:
Through all the hours of the night until the dawn
They sleep, forgetting fear.
The hare sleeps where it lies,
With wary half-closed eyes;
The cock has ceased to crow, the hen to cluck:
Only the fox is out, some heedless duck
Or chicken to surprise.
Remote, each single star
Comes out, till there they are
All shining brightly. How the dews fall damp!
While close at hand the glow-worm lights her lamp,
Or twinkles from afar.
But evening now is done
As much as if the sun
Day-giving had arisen in the East:
For night has come; and the great calm has ceased,
The quiet sands have run.
Christina Rossetti was an unmarried Victorian poet - sister of Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Suffering from bouts of depression and devoutly religious, she focused her writing on devotional and children's poetry. Born Dec 1830 - died aged 64 in December 1894.