Friday, 30 April 2010

Garsington Will Live On

I was pleased to read this morning that Garsington Opera is to be rescued by the Getty family, who have stepped in to give it a new home.   The present owner of Garsington Manor, Rosalind Ingrams, had said that she no longer wanted to hold the month-long season at her Oxfordshire house, but now Mark Getty, son of Sir John Paul Getty, has offered his Wormsley Park estate near High Wycombe, from 2011, and the name Garsington Opera will be retained.

Garsington was one of the loveliest settings for English country house opera.   The house itself, originally built in Tudor times, has an interesting history (though that is another story).   The late Leonard Ingrams, the previous owner, and his wife Rosalind, founded the opera festival there in 1989, every year presenting a short summer season of first-class opera, often sung by up-and-coming young singers.   Some of the operas were lesser-known revivals, others joyous productions of well-loved works.

In the true tradition of English country house opera, guests in evening dress and black tie would set up their tables and drink champagne in the beautiful gardens before listening to the operas, which were staged on the terrace of the house in front of a temporary (but quite comfortable and covered) stand, and always introduced by Leonard Ingrams himself.   During the interval picnics would be consumed, as dusk fell over the yew hedges, statues and ornamental ponds.   Afterwards one might be lucky enough to be invited into the house for a final drink.

Garsington Opera had its problems:  the locals were not always supportive, objecting to the cars arriving and leaving, and the sound of the music.   They even resorted to using fly-mowers to drown the singers, and once hired a light aircraft to buzz the house while the opera was going on.   But on the whole, it was much-loved and the tickets were hugely sought-after and always sold out early.

I spent many happy evenings at Garsington, listening to wonderful music in a beautiful setting, and it is very good to know that it will not all be lost.  


Friday, 23 April 2010

St. George's Day and Shakespeare

Today, April 23rd, is St. George's Day, when we celebrate our patron saint (or not, as is sadly perhaps more often the case).   St. George was a 3rd century Roman soldier, martyred for refusing to deny his Christian faith.   His emblem, a red cross on a white background, was adopted by Richard the Lionheart, and he became patron saint of England in the 14th century.   It is traditional today to wear a red rose in one's buttonhole.

The Cross of St. George needs rescuing from football and the BNP.   It is a potent symbol of our nationhood and should be proudly flown, especially today.

But April 23rd is also the birthday of the greatest poet ever born, our own William Shakespeare.   We know that Shakespeare died on April 23rd, but regarding it as also his birthday is much less certain, and it is more of a tradition than a fact.   The English are lucky to "speak the tongue that Shakespeare spake" and to be able to read him in the original.   Think of all the people in the world who can't do that and must rely on translation!   How much they miss and how fortunate we are!

Wednesday, 21 April 2010

The Queen's Birthday

April 21st is the birthday of HM the Queen, who is 84 today.  

To my mind we are inexpressibly lucky to have the Queen as our Head of State.   She is a woman of utter integrity, who throughout her long reign has never put a foot wrong.   On her 21st birthday in 1947, when she was with her parents and sister on tour in South Africa, she made a famous speech, saying:  "I declare before you all that my whole life, whether it be long or short, shall be devoted to your service", and she has remained true to that promise for all the years between.

She has seen out many prime ministers, from Churchill to Brown (or you might say from the sublime to the ridiculous), and her wisdom and steadfastness have been of inestimable help to them all.

Her poise and dignity, her vast experience, her total discretion, her selfless dedication, her sweet smile and sense of humour, all go to make up someone whom in many ways we take for granted.   We should never take her for granted, but appreciate all she has done for us and realise how lucky we are to have her.

Happy birthday, Ma'am!

Tuesday, 20 April 2010

Be Proud of Being English!

I was sad to read the results of a recent survey that found the English to be the least patriotic people in Europe, at least in the sense that they did not know when St. George's Day is, and would not fly the Cross of St. George for fear of appearing racist, or politically incorrect.   Six percent said they were actually scared to fly the flag, and many were afraid that they would be told to take it down.  By whom? one might ask.   This amorphous fear of doing the wrong thing in someone's eyes and being judged, possibly attacked or even prosecuted, is eating away at the heart of England.   Can you imagine such a thing 50 years ago?   Englishmen were proud and independent then, not to be told what to do by an overpowering state.

This is a dreadful indictment of our society and what it has been reduced to.   The English have perhaps never felt the need to show overt patriotism:  just being English was enough, without making a great show of it.   Now, however, with the European Union doing its best to erode our sovereignty and reduce us to just another "zone" of Europe, with our own politicians working against us, and political correctness extending its dead hand ever further over our national life, it is becoming more and more important that we should hold on to our English identity.   The English ARE patriotic, but in the present climate they are afraid of being seen to be so.   Is that not a sad and terrible thing?

Be proud of being English!   You have drawn first prize in the lottery of life.

St. George's Day is on Friday, 23rd April.

Monday, 19 April 2010

The EU Strikes Again

There is a new EU directive which bans methyl bromide, an insecticide used to treat willow.   It is alleged that this damages the ozone layer.

As we all know, English willow is used to make cricket bats, and the cricket bat industry has no other means of treating the wood.   The industry, which has a turnover of £10 million a year, could be bankrupted within three months.

Another example of how we benefit from membership of the EU!

Wednesday, 14 April 2010

The Medieval & Renaissance Galleries at the V & A

A week or two ago I went to see the new medieval and Renaissance galleries at the V & A.   These were opened last December, after a major refurbishment, and they are stunning.   The V & A has a fantastic collection and much of it is world famous.   The objects on display in the early galleries are unbelievable for their beauty and the skill of the craftsmen who made them: delicate carvings of ivory, enamel so fine that it is translucent (the Mérode Cup), embroideries of silk and silver, bronzes, marbles, superb carvings of wood and stone, illuminated manuscrips - it is hard to know where to look first, and indeed one needs much more than one visit to see everything.

One of the most amazing and beautiful creations is the above miracle of the mediaeval goldsmith's art, the Cologne Tabernacle, decorated with enamel and ivory figures and one of only two such objects in the world.   An enamelled casket, showing the murder of Thomas a' Becket, was made to hold his relics only 20 years after he was murdered.   Then there is the Gloucester Candlestick, made for Gloucester Cathedral at the beginning of the 12th century, covered with tiny gilt metal figures of men and monsters, and again virtually unique.
The galleries themselves are excellently restored and a pleasure to wander round in.   My only minor criticism would be that the captions are very small, rather hard to read and in some cases almost impossible to find.

Upstairs there are world-renowned Renaissance statues by such artists as Donatello and Giambologna.   I didn't have time to explore properly, but I will definitely be going back.

Sunday, 11 April 2010

The Story of Sprig

Many congratulations to Don't Push It for his Grand National win on Saturday, and to Tony McCoy, winning at last after 15 rides in the race.

In 1927 the Grand National was won by a horse called Sprig.   Sprig (by Marco out of Spry) was bred in Herefordshire by my husband's great-uncle, Dick Partridge.   Capt. Partridge had always intended to ride his horse in the Grand National, but sadly he was killed in 1918, with just weeks to go before the end of the war.   His mother decided to fulfil her son's dream and sent Sprig to leading trainer Tom Leader.   He proved very successful over both hurdles and jumps, and after two unsuccessful runs in the big race, finally won in 1927, ridden by his trainer's son, Ted, and carrying 12st. 4lb, more than any horse has won with since (or ever will, since top weights are now much less).

Apart from Sprig's win, the race was notable for two other reasons:  the King was present, and congratulated Mrs. Partridge, and it was the first time the race had been broadcast.   In the Golden Valley, Sprig's home in Herefordshire, people coming home from hunting that Saturday heard all the church bells in the valley ringing and knew that their local horse had won.

Mrs. Partridge and Sprig

Sprig eventually retired to Herefordshire and lived to a good old age.   When he died he was buried in one of the fields, but my mother-in-law decided to preserve some mementoes of him, so she had him dug up again and cut off his tail and his hooves - which we still have!

Saturday, 10 April 2010

The Abbotsbury Swannery

The Abbotsbury Swannery is a nesting colony of mute swans near Weymouth in Dorset.   Swans generally nest in isolated pairs and there are only a handful of known nesting colonies in the world.   Abbotsbury is the largest group of swans on earth.
What makes the Abbotsbury Swannery unique is that it is managed by man - and has been for at least 600 years. The first swan count at Abbotsbury was carried out in 1591, when there were 410 adults and 90 young swans.   The swans are not tame, and they do not have clipped wings, but visitors can walk safely through the heart of the nesting colony, to which the swans return, year after year, to mate and raise their young.

Usually at Abbotsbury there are about 150 pairs nesting at any one time.   This year, because of the cold winter, nesting and egg-laying are a few weeks later than usual.   The female swans, the pens, lay an egg a day for five or six days, with the male, or cob, standing guard over the nest.   The cygnets will hatch after about six weeks.  

Wednesday, 7 April 2010

The Night They Invented Champagne

It can't, of course, be called champagne, since by law that word can only be used for the French stuff, but in fact England makes excellent sparkling wine, quite the equal of all but the very best champagne.   There are 400 vineyards in England, mostly in Sussex, where soil and climate conditions compare well with Champagne across the Channel, and the same varieties of grape are also used to make the wine.

The really interesting thing is that although we have all been taught that champagne was "invented" by Dom Pérignon in Épernay, the méthode champenoise was in fact first described and documented by an Englishman, Christopher Merret (1615-1695), in a paper presented to the Royal Society in 1662 .   The owners of the multi-award-winning Ridgeview estate in Sussex are trying to establish his name as a generic term for English sparkling wine, as in "Let's have a glass of Merret".

I am looking forward to a glass of Merret on May 7th!

Tuesday, 6 April 2010

At Last!

As I write, Gordon Brown has just returned from Buckingham Palace, where he asked the Queen for a dissolution of Parliament, and a General Election has been called for May 6th.   At last - at last! - we have the chance to turn out this appalling government and get rid of the man who for 13 long years has blighted the country, either as Chancellor or Prime Minister.  Together with Tony Blair, who is equally to blame, he has brought the country to the edge of the abyss, and a further Labour term would undoubtedly bring us to ignominious destruction.

The economy is important indeed, but there are other things that are even more important.    When we look around at the devastation Blair and Brown have wrought, the crime, violence and drunkenness on our streets, the gangs and ghettos, our failed schools and dumbed down universities, the state of the NHS, the police who have to spend their time filling in forms and persecuting motorists but fail to solve 90% of burglaries and seem totally to have lost the confidence and goodwill of the public, the ludicrous Health & Safety regulations (emanating of course from Brussels) and the equally ghastly political correctness (not only absurd but dangerous), the thousands living on benefits and refusing to work, the pensioners struggling to make ends meet while the gap between rich and poor grows ever wider, the army unable to fight properly for lack of men and equipment, the decline of family life and the huge number of teenage single mothers, the mean, deliberate destruction of country life, the lying, manipulation and sheer incompetence, the billions that pour out of the country into the coffers of the undemocratic, profligate, despotic, corrupt, deceitful EU, which makes 80% of our laws, in which we have no say whatsoever – all, all the result of their policies, we realise how desperately important this election is - as David Cameron has said this morning, the most important for a generation.

We do now have the chance to make a change, and I am confident that with the common sense of the English people we will vote to make that change.

Saturday, 3 April 2010

The Boat Race

This very English annual event takes place this afternoon on a stretch of the Thames between Putney and Mortlake, as it has done nearly every year since Cambridge first challenged Oxford in 1829 (with the exception of the two world wars).   So far Cambridge have won 79 times and Oxford 75, with one dead heat.   The course is 4 miles and 374 yards long, and is rowed upstream on an incoming tide.  

Cambridge win in 2007

It is estimated that 250,000 people will be watching from the river banks, and of course millions more on television, most of them fervently supporting one side or the other whether they have any connection or not.

There have been all sorts of dramas in the Boat Race's long history - collisions, mutinies, sinkings, collapses from exhaustion, injuries, family legends.   Nowadays the crews tend to be large American post-graduate students, but in the old days they were all genuine undergraduates and to get a rowing Blue was the height of any young oarsman's ambition.   Boat Race Night was a favourite theme of P. G. Wodehouse, when the young Bertie Wooster and his chums would celebrate a little too freely, knock a policeman's helmet off and earn themselves a night in the cooler and an appearance before the beak in the morning.

Good luck to both crews this afternoon.   I am an Oxford supporter (my father got his degree there in the 1920s) and I expect all my family to be so too.   Come on Oxford!

Thursday, 1 April 2010

Maundy Thursday

Today is Maundy Thursday, one of the holiest days in the Church calendar.   Today is remembered the Last Supper and the first Eucharist, the night before the Crucifixion.   It marks the beginning of the end of Lent, the day before Good Friday and the start of the Easter weekend.

Maundy Thursday is the name used in England for what is sometimes called Holy Thursday, particularly by the Catholic Church.   Today the Queen will give the Royal Maundy to deserving old people, one man and one woman for each year of the sovereign's age, a custom dating back to King Edward I in the 13th century, and possibly even earlier.   The coins are specially minted and distributed in red and white purses.   Until the death of King James II the monarch would also wash the feet of the selected poor, echoing Christ's actions with the Apostles on the night before His death.   The service takes place in a different church each year in England and Wales:  today it will be in Derby Cathedral.

The word "Maundy" probably derives from the Latin mandatum, from the verb "to give".   The term is only used in England (not Ireland or Scotland) and is one of our oldest and most faithfully observed rituals.