Travel

“Forever for Everyone” says the National Trust

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Visiting posh houses on Sunday afternoon was what we did when I was little, along with castles and ruined abbeys. Seeing where the monks sat in a line to move their bowels was great if you were a child but I never really got into all that furniture and porcelain. And you always saw it from behind a rope – no fun at all. In later years I didn’t take my own family to National Trust places very often as we had a dog that needed a lot of exercise so we spent any free time at weekends meeting her needs – and she wasn’t really into porcelain in a big way either. Only when the old Labrador died and our day jobs tapered down a bit did we get round to joining the Trust as members: this is what I guess the marketing people would call the “dead dog” marketing segment.

Two “fascinating facts” from the Trust’s website which I’m happy to share. Over 43% of the rainwater in England and Wales drains through a NT property, but fortunately not always the same one. And gravity was invented by Isaac Newton in Woolsthorpe, Lincolnshire in 1665 on what is now NT land.

Never one for half measures, as soon as I became a member of the Trust, I signed up with them as a volunteer — to serve on a committee on the grounds that you can never have enough committee meetings. I’m pleased to see that my recollection of old houses of the rich being saved for the nearly rich to savour is no longer the be all and end all of the Trust’s mission.

The name of Octavia Hill comes up on a regular basis as one of the Trust’s founders back in 1895. (Not enough people are christened Octavia these days, if you ask me.) As concise tributes go, it would be difficult to improve on these words from the website of her birthplace museum in Wisbech: “Octavia Hill (1838-1912) was a woman ahead of her time. An artist and a radical, she was a pioneer of affordable housing and can be seen as the founder of modern social work.” Which isn’t a bad way to be remembered.

This was not a woman, I’m inclined to think, who would have wanted me to peer at boring old porcelain from long range as some form of punishment for not eating up my peas at Sunday lunch. This was someone who clearly wanted me to have a good time, climbing trees, poking about in Victorian kitchens and dressing up as an undertaker’s mute. Now that’s worth conserving stuff for.

If you’re passing nearby, as Mrs Blog and I did recently, do visit Wisbech and the Octavia Hill house. You can’t but feel in awe of someone who broke free of the shackles traditionally imposed on Victorian women and made a difference.

From Wisbech to King’s Lynn and more fine buildings than you can shake a conservation area management plan at.  Very proud to display its Hanseatic League history, and with so many of its regeneration schemes financially supported by the European Regional Development Fund, the area voted heavily to Leave in the EU referendum….

And so to York where Mrs B has fellow clan members.

The Jorvik centre, interpreting the city’s Viking history through a Disney style ride, has reopened after severe flooding. Apparently these be-horned invaders were into mindfulness and just wanted to be left alone with their embroidery and tofu. Who knew?

I felt a profound bitterness at my parents that they hadn’t been able to bestow on their offspring a decent moniker like Mum and Dad Bloodaxe were able to pass on to their little Eric. Now that’s the kind of name badge you’d fancy picking up at a conference before heading for the twiglets.

There was still time to take in (again) the National Railway Museum. Awesome! But I’m reminded of the tendency for history to big up the achievements of those who write it. As a child I was taught that, along with killing or enslaving natives to make them (a) Christian, and (b) civilized, we could take pride that, in Mallard, we broke – and indeed still hold – the world speed record for a steam train. It’s only later that you discover that the record speed of 126 mph was attained for one second at which point the “big end” overheated and Mallard had to limp to Peterborough for repairs. But hey…

En route home from York we diverted to Isaac Newton’s old pad handily placed for the A1, or Great North Cart Track as old Isaac probably knew it. They still have the apple tree or, at least, its direct descendants so you can see if it still works. The kindly National Trust volunteer asked us if we had any questions to which Mrs Blog, not unreasonably, replied, “Does it work for cooking apples too?”  Bless.

 

Famous for being a bit rubbish

Reputations can be hard to establish. You don’t get to be the UK’s worst post-war PM like Theresa May (oh, ok, second worst) without a lot of determination. But other reputations  are acquired with ease. Eddie the Eagle became famous for ski-jumping without bothering to be good at it. The swimmer Eric Moussambani Malonga (“The Eel”) of Equatorial Guinea reached new heights (depths?) at the 2000 Olympics by completing his 100 metre freestyle heat in just shy of two minutes, or roughly a minute slower than anything other than Gondwanaland had managed before him.

It occurs to me that there are plenty of individuals and organisations out there whose reputations for particular products or performances are based on equally flimsy porridge. You will have your own list; this is mine.

Agatha Christie: may have been jolly good at, I don’t know, arm-wrestling or disappearing acts, but, Agatha, stay away from crime fiction. All that last chapter stuff when you produce brand new characters and scenarios out of the hat that we’ve never heard of to explain the inexplicable, come on! It’s like watching every episode of Death in Paradise, again and again and again…

Lynda La Plante: stick with the TV screenplays, Lynda, cos the books are clunky beyond belief. Like trying to read a Jeffrey Archer.

Starbucks: give up on the coffee – it’s just not you. Seriously, have you ever had a decent cup of coffee in a Starbucks?

Pret a Manger: ok provided you’re not looking for a sandwich. How can they be that dull? Fillings are supposed to be tasty for goodness’ sake.

Hershey: I have met people who claim they can eat Hershey bars but no non-Americans. How can they get chocolate so wrong?

Humous/hummus/hommous: no other words are needed.

Australians: sport? Really? Other than cricket, which?

Joe Allen: give up on the football, Joe. Try something you have an aptitude for. I could choose plenty of examples for this one – you’re just unlucky, Joe. Or a special case.

Boris Johnson: famous for what? Political acumen? Humour? Being an approximation of a trustworthy, half-decent human being? Nope, on all counts.

Virgin Holidays: hit the top of my “put them on hold, play them hugely irritating, ‘jolly holiday’ sounds for hours on end but, whatever you do, don’t answer the phone” list every time. “Your call is important to us – but not important enough for us to employ anybody to talk to you.” Customer care? Oh pleeeeze….

The Lord of the Rings films: Give me strength. Need a wee during the film? No need to press “pause”, you’ll miss nothing. They’ll be doing one of two things: marching across some landscape or it’ll be another fight to the death between people and things it’s impossible to care about. When you come back there’ll be some more marches and plenty more pointless scraps. Only the addition of a car chase could make it worse. If they feature the special effects in the trailers, you know it’ll be rubbish.

The King’s Singers: there used to be the Flying Pickets and a cappella singing was – briefly – fun. But sadly there’s also the King’s Singers, like dragging your finger nails down a blackboard.

Omid Djalili: the world’s unfunniest man in an admittedly crowded field? (Donald Trump has his own edgy “high risk” category). I’ve caught this bloke on numerous occasions on TV or radio and I always hope that humour will be along any minute. But it never happens. Is he a spoof?

The Nou Camp, Barcelona: it’s supposed to have “atmosphere”. I’ve been, for a vital, end of season Spanish championship decider. Trust me on this, it doesn’t. Unless you’re easily impressed by sweet unwrapping noises in a cinema and polite applause. If they built a roof it might help them.

White supremacists: if they’re so superior, how come they never win anything?

UK: once famous for showing the world how to do democracy. Now it’s too complicated for us and we’ve given up the pretence. Just leave us alone….

 

Apologies for the temporary absence of illustrations from this blog. There may well be a reason for this. Normal service will be resumed shortly.

 

 

 

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History

Magna Carta — fish weirs and so much more…

This blog does voluntary work for the National Trust for which it seeks no applause – the free biscuits are reward enough. Nobody in their right mind would wish to let me run amok on the nation’s heritage with a hammer or scythe – so they found me a committee to sit on. (One tenet I have held dear throughout my career is that you can simply never have enough committees, in the same way that there are just never enough town planners to go round).

This week, said committee met at Runnymede which had not enjoyed the benefit of this blog’s presence since its school days. I have always regarded Runnymede and Magna Carta much as I do the “Oracle at Delphi” or the Roman forum. These are places, I felt when young, best left to the imagination and a sense of wonder. Once visited, I feared that I might recall the condition of the toilets or the price of a bag of crisps rather than their rightful place in the global pantheon of awe.

I am something of a convert, let it be said, to the National Trust, which owns and tends much of Runnymede. Perhaps I was taken round too many “improving” Trust properties in my youth and encouraged to admire too many cabinets of glass or porcelain or dark, depressing portraits of ugly children, but my main impression of the organisation was of something worthy but hardly radical. I am now far more conscious of the achievements and aspirations of its founders, notably Octavia Hill, a leading social reformer with a major commitment to public housing and access to green, open spaces. Which makes it all the more appropriate that the Trust has, in recent years, “reinvented itself” – a bit like Madonna, then? – by developing ambitious programmes to encourage multi-generational, multi-ethnic enjoyment, not only of its own properties but also of buildings and land in which it holds no formal, legal interest. Opening up the Big Brother house in London may not have endeared it to some of its old stagers – nor indeed to Ann Widdecombe – but it certainly generated publicity, nearly all of it highly positive.

So, Magna Carta.

In the words of Sellar and Yeatman (“1066 and All That”), the Great Charter “was therefore the chief cause of democracy in England, and thus a Good Thing for everyone (except the Common People)”. Perhaps it’s a bit like the Post Office, or Clare Balding – you know it’s right to tick the “like this” box but you can’t remember why.

Let me help you a little with the intricacies of its contents in case they may have slipped your mind.

I’m happy to give my full backing, should it be required, to Clause 23 of the Charter, that “no town or person should be forced to build a bridge across a river” – at least, not if they’re just on an unpaid internship and it’s the only available alternative to shelf stacking at Tesco. Clause 33, “requiring the removal of all fish weirs”, was clearly long overdue and we really should indicate our profound regret that it has now been repealed. Clause 54 established in law that “no man may be imprisoned on the testimony of a woman except on the death of her husband”: I make no comment on this, I merely report the facts. As regards Clause 56 “relating to disseised Welshmen”, I have absolutely no idea.

Next year will mark the 800th anniversary of the signing of the Charter and plans are, as you may imagine, afoot to mark the occasion – safe in the knowledge that, in this instance, we won’t be outbid by Russia or Qatar for the right to host the big party. My only concern at this stage is that enterprising locals should not, as per the Olympics, be prevented from getting in on the act. I haven’t checked whether Pizza Express, no doubt “Official Pizza Partners for the Magna Carta”, have secured monopoly rights for the sale of all dough based products within 1,000 chains of Magna Carta Island, but I fear the worst. Freedoms? What freedoms?

What those of us fortunate enough to live in Lewes do know is that within 50 years after the barons forced King John to sign the thing, the Crown was back to doing what it did best in the days before they got to unveil plaques in ball bearing factories and appear on It’s a Knockout. That is, they had torn up the Charter and returned to business as usual, fish weirs or no fish weirs. It took Simon de Montfort, “very notable as being the only good Baron in history” (thank you, Sellars and Yeatman), and the Battle of Lewes, 1264, to reclaim the high ground – both literal and metaphorical. It seems to me that (a) we have not as a society moved particularly quickly since then in achieving all we might in terms of the sharing of wealth and power, and (b) Lewes has usually been, and remains, a tad on the nonconformist side. With 2014 marking the 750th anniversary of our very own Battle of Lewes, the bonfire boys are no doubt out there gathering kindling as we speak.

 

Footnote, of no relevance to anything really, but I sometimes suspect that I’m turning into my father:

  1. I’ve taken to getting down to the shops extremely early before the parking spaces disappear and the queues build up at the tills in Waitrose. Indeed, it seems, before the shops actually open.
  2. I’ve started asking “So when does the tune actually start?”
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