Wednesday, 30 September 2009

Signor Fido

Returning for a moment to the subject of Stowe, the following is an inscription on the back of the Temple of Worthies, which is now sadly lost but recorded by several early visitors:
To the Memory
Signor Fido
an Italian of good Extraction
who came into England
not to bite us, like most of his Countrymen,
but to gain an honest Livelyhood.
He hunted not after Fame,
yet acquir'd it;
regardless of the Praise of his Friends,
but most sensible of their Love.
Tho' he liv'd amongst the Great,
he neither learnt nor flatter'd any Vice.
He was no Bigot,
Tho' he doubted none of the 39 Articles,
And if to follow Nature,
and to respect the Laws of Society
be Philosophy,
he was a perfect Philosopher;
a faithful Friend,
an agreeable Companion,
a loving Husband,
distinguish'd by a numerous Offspring,
all which he liv'd to see take good Courses.
In his old age he retir'd
to the House of a Clergyman in the Country,
where he finished his earthly Race
and died an Honour and an Example to the whole Species.
this stone is guiltless of Flattery;
for he to whom it is inscrib'd
was not a Man
but a

Tuesday, 29 September 2009

Something to Ponder

The Government is borrowing money at a rate of around £6,000 every second. That's something to think about when Gordon Brown delivers his speech. Last year, Gordon's conference speech lasted 58 minutes. If he speaks for as long this year, we'll have racked up about another £20 million of debt during the time he is speaking.

Monday, 28 September 2009


Last Saturday I was lucky enough to visit Stowe and its marvellous landscape gardens, seeing it all on a perfect afternoon of sunshine and early autumn colours. This magical place was created in the 18th century, as a sort of political and philosophical manifesto, by Viscount Cobham, member of a great Whig family and heir to the men whose opposition to the absolutist ambitions of the Stuarts had culminated in the Glorious Revolution of 1688. It later passed to the Grenville family and the Dukes of Buckingham
The vast honey-coloured house, built in the 1770s, now houses the well-known public school, whose pupils are fortunate enough to have the run of the place, but the gardens, more than 400 acres of lawns, lakes, temples, statues, grottoes, bridges, monuments, urns and rotundas, are owned by the National Trust.
Stowe: The Palladian Bridge
Perhaps no other 18th century garden can rival the number, scale and complex iconography of the buildings at Stowe, many of them by celebrated architects such as Vanbrugh and William Kent. The gardens are laid out as a picture of idealised nature, whose elements are grass, trees and water, with buildings carefully sited to give accents to the view and allow the wandering eye a resting place. But not only are they beautiful to look at, every building has a carefully thought-out meaning, which would have been apparent to 18th century visitors, if less to our way of thinking. Its Arcadian landscape has always attracted crowds of admiring visitors, from Alexander Pope to Queen Victoria, and though it would take many visits to see and understand it all, I can think of few better ways to pass a sunny Saturday afternoon.

Stowe: The Temple of Concord

Thursday, 24 September 2009

Turner & The Masters

A fascinating new exhibition, Turner & the Masters, has just opened at Tate Britain. It seems that Turner, one of the greatest of English painters, was extremely competitive and liked to pit his skills against those of the great masters from whom he drew his inspiration. For the first time these directly competing paintings have been hung side by side, mainly in pairs. The result is enthralling. In most cases Turner comes out very well against the likes of Rembrandt, Titian, Canaletto, Veronese, Claude Lorrain and Poussin, though it has to be admitted that he does not match up on every occasion.

Many of the paintings have been lent for the first time for many years from great collections in Washington, Madrid or Japan, and as well as following the theme of the show, it is a great pleasure to see these wonderful pictures here in the Tate.

A Rising Gale by Van de Velde

Turner's Version: The Bridgewater Sea Piece

A World Statesman?

I read with incredulous amazement that Gordon Brown has received an award as "World Statesman of the Year" from some American organisation. This bizarre award to someone who is arguably the worse prime minister we have ever had could not possibly have been given by anyone who knows his record. It must have been Buggins' turn. The trouble with giving him something like that is that it will only inflate his ego even further. Can anyone say why he should have received it? If so, please comment below and I will read it with interest.

Wednesday, 23 September 2009

Burberry Live

The 25th anniversary of London Fashion Week finished with a bang last night, with the much-anticipated Burberry show. The very English fashion house was showing in London for the first time for 18 years, and Christopher Bailey, their brilliant young designer, produced a series of pretty and feminine variations on the famous trench coat, once worn in the trenches of World War I. Christopher was born in Yorkshire and still spends as much time there as he can. The fashion show was shown live online, and judging by the excited comments coming in from all over the world, Burberry is as big a name in Hong Kong, Vancouver or Sydney as it is here After the show there was a party for 1,500 at Burberry's spanking new headquarters. As a company, they are among England's best ambassadors, and at the very top of the fashion tree.

Tuesday, 22 September 2009

Richmond Park

Richmond Park, 2,500 acres of it, lies on the edge of London, but once you are there you might be 100 miles away. There are several car parks, which always seem to be fairly full, but after two minutes' walking you can find yourself alone with the trees, and can walk for an hour without seeing a single soul - just deer, squirrels, rabbits, jays, and of course, the famous green parakeets, who flash noisily through the ancient trees. The park is full of ancient trees, great woods of oak and sweet chestnut. To walk through these woods with the sunlight dappling through the leaves and the deer moving quietly around you, is utterly refreshing and calming . There are wide open spaces, where skylarks nest, or which are covered with seas of bracken. Sometimes you see antlers rising magnificently above the bracken, or turning a corner come face to face with a hind and her fawn. The deer are red, or fallow, and graze in large herds across the park. They have been there since 1515, and the park is known to have been a royal park in the 13th century. At the highest point is the famous view of St. Paul's, which you can see through a ride cut arrow-straight through a wood. At the very end, filling the gap completely, is the familiar dome, 12 miles away. Just now the bracken is beginning to turn and the green seas are patched with brown and gold. The deer will soon start their rut and primeval bellowings will sound from the depths of the woods. I like to think of the park at night, when everyone has gone home and the gates are shut, the foxes and the owls come out and the night is filled with strange rustlings.

Monday, 21 September 2009

More on Europe

It seems that the Czechs may come to our rescue over the so-called Lisbon Treaty. A group of Czech Eurosceptics are mounting a legal challenge to their country's ratification of the treaty, which could last months and possibly until next summer, which would be after our General Election. So even if Ireland votes Yes, the Czechs could delay matters long enough for the UK to have a referendum (which we are clearly not going to get under this government, in spite of its promises). If David Cameron fulfils his promise of a referendum after the Conservatives return to power, before the treaty is ratified by the Czechs, the chances are we will vote No and scupper the whole thing. If the Czechs and the Irish both vote Yes before our election, and Cameron is forced to fulfil his promise, it risks becoming a vote on whether we should remain in the EU at all. 70% of people in this country want at least the chance to vote. Incidentally, President Sarkozy of France "exploded with rage" when he heard the news, and is threatening the Czechs with unspecified "consequences" - which illustrates how things work in the oh-so-democratic EU.

Saturday, 19 September 2009

A Kentish Barn

This beautiful hammerbeam roof in a barn in the grounds of Westenhanger Castle, near Hythe in Kent, has recently been restored. The barn was built around 1580, in the time of Elizabeth I, and its noble roof is worthy of a palace. The castle belongs to the Forge family, who acquired the barn in 2003 and have spent two-and-a-half years restoring it, with a grant from English Heritage. Both castle and barn are now open to the public. Such hammerbeam roofs are rare. They are among the glories of England, "utterly functional but of surpassing beauty" - just to stand beneath those ancient beams lifts the spirit and warms the heart.

Friday, 18 September 2009

Tube Map Update

I was clearly not the only person to be horrified at Transport for London's decision to remove the Thames from their new tube map. Boris Johnson, our doughty Mayor, returned from a trip to New York to find this fait accompli and immediately ordered that the river should be restored to the map, though this will probably not happen until December. His decision, though obviously reflecting his own thoughts, followed a storm of protest from all Londoners and not a few foreigners. Another example of a change simply not thought-through.

Thursday, 17 September 2009

A New Tube Map

I was horrified to read yesterday that Transport for London has redrawn the London Underground Map removing the Thames. This is supposed to make it "less complex". The tube map is a design classic from 1933 (by Harry Beck), admired and imitated all over the world as a model of clarity and information. Does removing the river really make it easier to follow? Does anyone think so? The zone boundaries have also been removed, just to make it even more helpful. To me this is a typically ill-thought out move, by people who probably don't have enough to do and spend their time make unnecessary changes, just for change's sake - always a mistake. Some things should not be touched.

Wednesday, 16 September 2009

The End of Summer

Here is a melancholy little poem about the end of summer and the death of love, by ex-poet laureate C. Day Lewis:


Now the peak of summer’s past, the sky is overcast
And the love we thought would last for an age seems deceit:
Paler is the guelder since the day we first beheld her
In blush beside the elder, drifting sweet, drifting sweet.

Oh quickly they fade – the sunny esplanade,
Speed-boats, wooden spades and the dunes where we’ve lain:
Others will be lying amid the sea-pinks, sighing
For love to be undying and they’ll sigh in vain.

It’s hurrah for each night we have spent our love so lightly
And never dreamed there might be no more to spend at all.
It’s goodbye to every lover who thinks he’ll live in clover
All his life, for noon is over soon and night-dews fall.

If I could keep you there with the berries in your hair
And your lacy fingers fair as the may, sweet may,
I’d have no heart to do it, for to stay love is to rue it
And the harder we pursue it, the faster it’s away.

Tuesday, 15 September 2009

Britain's Ancient Trees

It is estimated that between 70-80% of Europe's ancient trees may be in Britain - a surprising statistic. Two British charities are currently working to identify every single one. The National Trust, Britain's conservation charity, has signed on to a five-year census of ancient trees organized by a sister charity, the Woodland Trust. It seems there is more at stake than just the trees. According to the Woodland Trust, they are mini-ecosystems in their own right, and if we lose these trees, then Great Britain will also lose a lot of its indigenous species.
An English oak can live for 900 years - the saying is "300 years growing, 300 years living, 300 years dying". Britain's most ancient tree, a yew, could be 3,000 years old. These beautiful giants are the last remnants of the forests which once covered all Europe.

Monday, 14 September 2009

The European Constitution (aka the Lisbon Treaty)

In a couple of weeks' time Ireland will be voting again whether or not to accept the Lisbon Treaty, which (as we all know) is the European Constitution, which was rejected by France and the Netherlands and relabelled in an attempt to fool us into believing that it is not the same thing. It is, of course, the same: there will be a President of Europe (and horror of horrors, it might be Tony Blair), additional powers for the European Commission, the European Parliament and the European Court of Justic, and the removal of a number of national vetoes. It is a further and very significant step in the transfer of our independence and sovereignty to an outside power, unwieldy, spendthrift, corrupt and largely unelected. The Irish, who sensibly voted No the first time, have been bullied into another referendum in the hope that this time they might give the "right" answer. That remains to be seen, though it seems the chances are they will vote Yes. In this country, although a large majority of us want one, we have been denied a referendum by our Labour rulers, and the position of the Conservatives is not entirely clear. In any case, it might all be done and dusted by the time they come to power next year (if, as most of us hope, that happens). So in fact it boils down to our entire future depending on Ireland. There could hardly be anything less democratic than the way our union with Europe has been foisted upon us, throughout its sorry history. It seems that there is nothing we can do but protest as loudly as we can. We have certainly never been able to vote.

Friday, 11 September 2009

The Oldest Peal of Bells in the World

Ipswich is hearing for the first time for more than twenty years the peal of the bells of the Church of St. Lawrence, the oldest peal of bells on earth. The five bells were cast in the mid-15th century, and rang for hundreds of years until the church tower became unstable. Now, after a £80,000 restoration, they are ringing again. The bells are completely intact, have never cracked and have only had to be slightly cleaned inside. They still have their original clappers and sound as mellow and beautiful as they did when Cardinal Wolsey, who was born nearby, was young.

Thursday, 10 September 2009

The English According to Jeremy Paxman

"Once upon a time the English knew who they were. There was such a ready list of adjectives to hand. They were polite, unexcitable, reserved and had hot-water bottles instead of a sex life: how they reproduced was one of the mysteries of the western world. They were doers rather than thinkers, writers rather than painters, gardeners rather than cooks. They were class-bound, hidebound and incapable of expressing their emotions. They did their duty. Fortitude bordering on the incomprehensible was a byword: "I have lost my leg, by God!", exclaimed Lord Uxbridge, as shells exploded all over the battlefield. "By God, you have!" replied the Duke of Wellington. A soldier lying mortally wounded in a flooded trench on the Somme was, so the myth went, likely to say only that he "mustn't grumble". Their most prized possession was a sense of honour*. They were steadfast and trustworthy. The word of an English gentleman was as good as a bond sealed in blood." From The English by Jeremy Paxman * To this I would add "a sense of humour".

Tuesday, 8 September 2009

A Small Piece of Good News

It was reported earlier this week that the bittern, a rare and shy bird which inhabits English wetlands, is at last on the increase. The bittern, hunted almost to extinction in the late 19thC, made a return in the early 20thC, but numbers were very low, with just 11 males left in 1997.
Now, thanks to a conservation programme by Natural England, their reed-bed habitats are being restored, with new ones created, mostly in East Anglia and Lancashire, and there are estimated to be about 82 calling males in 43 different sites.
Natural England are very optimistic that the bittern's characteristic and famous booming call will no longer be a thing of the past, but will be heard again once again in all its glory.

Monday, 7 September 2009

A Shining Symbol of Real Power

Anyone who has not yet done so should read Boris Johnson's brilliantly written article in today's Daily Telegraph. Boris has been to Brussels to visit the European Parliament and draws a vivid contrast between the glittering glass towers, the confident young MEPs with their vast salaries and huge expenses claims, the real sense of power that emanates from its walls, and the sad, provincial, emasculated halls of Westminster, where our MPs, bruised from the expenses scandal, cower beneath the whips, wondering what they can do to justify their existence. For it is a fact that there is very little they can do. The balance of power has shifted and the laws of this country are no longer determined by Parliament at Westminster. We have no defence against the vested interests of certain European governments, intent on damaging (for instance) UK financial services, on which we depend so much for our prosperity. We have no means of changing or improving the amendments that Euro-MPs will make to the crucial directives which are in the pipeline. Our elected MPs are powerless, our Parliament an irrelevance, and once the so-called Treaty of Lisbon (in reality the European Constitution) is signed, we might as well not bother.

Friday, 4 September 2009

Further Condemnation of the Hunting Act

This is an extract from the Countryside Alliance's weekly newsletter: This week, Clarissa Dickson Wright and Sir Mark Prescott faced a private prosecution by animal rights group IFAW in relation to two year old hare coursing charges. The judge accepted a guilty plea from the pair in their absence having heard a case earlier this summer against Yorkshire farmers Peter Easterby and John Shaw involving the same incidents. Like the pair before them, Clarissa and Sir Mark were also granted an absolute discharge and, despite all the money IFAW had spent bringing the case, the Judge awarded them no costs whatsoever, commenting that there were "complexities within the Hunting Act which made the administration of it a little difficult," and "everybody in this case has had extreme difficulty trying to wrestle what exactly Parliament meant in the 2004 Hunting Act". All four of the people involved in the case believed their actions were legal. Even the Judge had difficulty clarifying what the law meant. She was also extremely critical of IFAW and questioned why they had brought charges against Sir Mark and Miss Dickson Wright, but not against their own employees, who had paid to enter the Greyhound Field Trialling event and were therefore (under the terms of the Hunting Act) also clearly guilty of "attending" a hare coursing event. This pointless prosecution is further illustration of why the Hunting Act must be repealed.

Thursday, 3 September 2009

September 3rd 1939

Here is a poem for today, the 70th anniversary of our declaration of war against Germany. The English War Dorothy L. Sayers Praise God, now, for an English war – The grey tide and the sullen coast, The menace of the urgent hour, The single island, like a tower, Ringed with an angry host. This is the war that England knows, When all the world holds but one man – King Philip of the galleons, Louis, whose light outshone the sun’s, The conquering Corsican. When Europe, like a prison door, Clangs; and the swift, enfranchised sea Runs narrower than a village brook; And men who love us not, yet look To us for liberty; When no allies are left, no help To count upon from alien hands, No waverers remain to woo, No more advice to listen to, And only England stands. This is the war we always knew, When every county keeps her own, When Kent stands sentry in the lane And Fenland guards her dyke and drain, Cornwall, her cliffs of stone; When from the Cinque Ports and the Wight, From Plymouth Sound and Bristol Town, There comes a noise that breaks our sleep, Of the deep calling to the deep Where the ships go up and down. And near and far across the world Hold open wide the water-gates, And all the tall adventurers come Homeward to England, and Drake’s drum Is beaten through the Straits. This is the war that we have known And fought in every hundred years, Our sword, upon the last, steep path, Forged by the hammer of our wrath On the anvil of our fears. Send us, O God, the will and power To do as we have done before; The men that ride the sea and air Are the same men their fathers were To fight the English war. And send, O God, an English peace – Some sense, some decency, perhaps Some justice, too, if we are able, With no sly jackals round our table, Cringing for blood-stained scraps; No dangerous dreams of wishful men Whose homes are safe, who never feel The flying death that swoops and stuns, The kisses of the curtseying guns Slavering their street with steel; No dream, Lord God, but vigilance, That we may keep, by might and main, Inviolate seas, inviolate skies – But if another tyrant rise, Then we shall fight again.

Tuesday, 1 September 2009

Immigration & Electricity

The population of the UK increased by 408,000 last year and is likely to increase by 9,000,000 over the next twenty years. Most of this will be absorbed by England. Although this is not entirely because of the number of immigrants arriving, the fact is that a significant portion is due to the higher birth rate of women who were born abroad and have settled here. Britain's population is growing at three times the rate recorded in the 1980s. Now we are told that within a few years there will not be enough electricity to go round (something of which Christopher Booker has been warning us for ages). The Labour government has dithered and dallied and has not put the plans in place which will keep our lights on in the future, and power cuts look inevitable. To me this is a sign that our infrastructure simply cannot support the numbers we are allowing to settle here. Demands for electricity, gas, hospitals, schools, housing and so on are obviously going to increase as the population grows. We are a small island, no longer rich - we just can't do it!