Tuesday, 29 June 2010

Lazy, Hazy, Mazey Days of Summer – two approaches to revitalising town life in the 21st century ...

A Celtic revival and a transition community .. both rekindling their towns – Penzance at the far end of Cornwall, while Totnes is to be found in the beautiful rolling countryside of Devon by the River Dart on its way to Dartmouth and the Naval Dockyard, which can be used as an alternative tourist route west into Cornwall.

Penzance, the railway terminus to the west arrived in 1852, has long been the jumping off point for the colony of artists who fled the towns to paint “En Plein Air” as the movement, also in Paris and California, became known. Artists longing for their freedom – to be expressive, while at the same time revelling in the light fantastic of the changing coastal landscapes of Newlyn and St Ives.

Sir Humphry Davy statue (of miner’s lamp fame) overlooking the Golowan festivities

The artists brought their families and friends – more creative peoples adding to the local talent already in situ – providing arts and crafts that were so desperately needed in a place that was so far away from the immediacy of modern life.

Totnes, residing as it does in an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, is a thriving centre for music, art, theatre and natural health .. and is known as a place where one can live a bohemian lifestyle.

So two towns .. but do they have different approaches to their futures? .. Totnes already well established with its twice-weekly market offering antiques, musical instruments, second-hand books, handmade clothing from around the world and local organically produced products – was declared the capital of new age chic by Time magazine in 2007.

Fishing Cottages, Lamorna Valley, Penwith Peninsula, by John Noble Barlow (1861 – 1917)

Let’s start with the westerly town, Penzance, in the area known as Penwith (Penwyth is Cornish for extremity) where my mother used to live and where we went on holiday when we were children .. so well known and loved by us.

A revival of the Gol Jowan Festival (Cornish for ‘Feast of John’) in mid June is revitalising an old tradition and is one of the biggest annual celebrations of local identity held in the UK. The Golowan Festival, as it is known, brings together artists, musicians, storytellers and poets as it is also home to a large number of creative Cornish people, who have been attracted by the beautiful seascapes and rugged coastline.

Gol Jowan Festival looking back up the hill in Market Jew (Cornish for Thursday Market) Street, Penzance towards the Sir Humphry Davy statue

Feasts and celebrations of festivals were an accustomed part of life through the centuries, which had been recorded in journals on Penwith over five hundred years ago .. the feast at the Quay being no exception .. a few of the chief attractions in the early 1800s were the large quantities of strawberries for sale, the going out for a short sailing cruise in the fishing boats, and the children having gathered and garlanded flowers, threading their way through the streets bringing light and cheer everywhere they went .. in a mazey fashion.

The public-houses at the quay remained open all night – and you can guess what happened .. in the closing years of the 19th century the authorities shut it down, describing it as ‘a rowdy outdated superstition’. Mazey Day, part of the midsummer celebrations involving the working communities in the town, took its name from the “mazey dance” .. in Cornish dialect mazed or mazey means confusion, topsy turvy, everything upside down.

Golowan has been revived since the early 1990s – continuing the tradition, where if people feel isolated and away from ‘up country’ they make their own entertainment, which now brings in a mix of 130,000 people ranging from the creative artists, locals and interested visitors.

Totnes on the other hand has looked forward – its artistic and creative community is set to stay and the town has adopted an idea brought over from Ireland by Rob Hopkins, originally a teacher overseeing a permaculture project at Kinsale College. Permaculture is an approach to designing human settlements and agricultural systems that mimic the relationships found in natural ecologies.

Totnes: The Eastgate over the High Street in 1983

The term “transition town” is now applied and is a community project equipping communities for the dual challenges of climate change and peak oil. Two students took the concept presenting it to Kinsale Town Council, resulting in the historic decision by Councillors to adopt the plan and work towards energy independence.

The initiative has spread quickly, as there are now over 300 communities around the world – in the UK, Ireland, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the US, Italy and Chile .. while the term ‘Transition Town’ has morphed into Transition Initiatives to reflect the range and type of communities involved .. e.g. villages (Kinsale), suburbs (Portobello, Edinburgh), through council districts (Penwith – whose main town is Penzance), to towns (Nelson in NZ), cities (Los Angeles) and city boroughs (Brixton, London).

The main aim of the project generally is to raise awareness of sustainable living and build local ecological resilience in the near future. Communities are encouraged to seek out methods for reducing energy usage as well as reducing their reliance on long supply chains that are totally dependent on fossil fuels for essential items. Food is a key area, and instead of food miles the talk is of “food feet”!

Community Gardens to grow food, business waste exchange, a repair shop .. rather than throw items away. While the focus and aims remain the same, the methods used to achieve these vary.

Totnes has introduced its own local currency, the Totnes Pound, which is redeemable in local shops and businesses, keeping the ‘dollar’ in the town, while supporting those local firms; there’s a garden share scheme promoting local and season produce.

To get around tourists and locals can make use of the two Rickshaws imported from India, to be taken up the hill before leisurely strolling down past the shops and restaurants, which will provide the sustainable recycled fuel oil .. the running cost of each rickshaw is £2.80 ($4.2) per week .. so if you visit Totnes – please eat more chips!!

Totnes Rickshaws

With the number of participative communities growing at such a fast rate there has been the inclusion of the global financial crisis as a third aspect beside peak oil and climate change – but a more long term perspective is developing through the Transition Network websites and interchange of ideas.

So Penzance with its ancient Feast of Gol Jowan revival is in keeping with its District Council’s adoption of the transition initiative so fully embraced by Totnes, some 85 miles to the east.

The River Dart, Devon

With the United Nations’ Year of Biodiversity as the subject of my previous post .. this post has distinctly captured that essence, as well as adding a few ideas .. a local town pound, the tuk tuk or rickshaw to get around, community gardens ... bohemian lifestyles meet 21st century needs.

Dear Mr Postman .. my mother’s hearing has still not returned .. which makes life very tricky – but she is watching a little of the tennis. Apparently she talked constantly on Saturday night .. her brain is still fully working .. everyone’s told me! She talks to Hardwick her comforter dog, who is a special pal to her.

Hilary Melton-Butcher
Positive Letters Inspirational Stories

Tuesday, 22 June 2010

Nature in Balance ... and the Dark-Bellied Dew Lover!

This year seems to have been the year of the natural world, particularly here in Britain, where we have great institutions, good newspapers and the BBC who combine to bring us up-to-date stories of how our local worlds are being affected.

We have had various surveys starting with the Great British Garden Bird Watch in January, then recently the Natural History Museum had a moth, bat and bee survey, and then there’s Natural England’s Wild Day Out at Your Local Wildlife Site .. where the public, especially the children, can see displays, meet the birds, small mammals, insects and reptiles and understand more of the world they inhabit – so many children believe meat, fish, fruit and vegetables come straight from the supermarket .. a pretty sad thought isn’t it?

Constable's "Dedham Vale" of 1828

The United Nations announced 2010 as the Year of Biodiversity – so around the world too we’re all being encouraged to learn more about our natural environment, urging us to protect as much as we can.

We can do so much in our gardens, our locality, when we are away on holiday .. and we need to remember that everything we do affects everything else in this life. The dust under our feet is swept to other localities or lands, across rivers and oceans; the pollution we spread will drift high into the air, or drip slowly through the earth into the waterways and seas.

We are being encouraged to provide links for wildlife, not just preserve pockets of a reserve here or there, odd meadows, splodges of woodlands, tiny copses, but to provide green corridors from one habitat to another. Rivers and canals, those trade highways of the past, can now be a ‘motorway’ wildlife haven .. river banks abounding with wild flowers, damp and boggy patches, feeder rivulets or bournes from the local catchment areas .. attracting birds, insects, amphibians, reptiles and invertebrates.

Tributaries (light blue) and major settlements on and near the River Severn (bold blue). (The country boundary in black, with the estuary and coastline marked out in bolder black)

Invertebrates - did you know this group includes 95% of all animal species – the other 5% include us, fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds and other mammals? This surprised me. We all know of this particular invertebrate that has been the subject of much research - the Drosophila Melanogaster – the common fruit fly.

This fly has an amazing name apart from being a model organism used in many scientific evolutionary studies because they are easy to take care of, breed quickly and lay many eggs ... in Greek its Linnaean name means .. “Dark-Bellied Dew Lover” – well I had to let you know?! I’m sure you, like me, will look upon the common fruit fly somewhat differently now?!

The Dark-Bellied Dew Lover .. the common fruit fly

Back to nature in balance .. we need to save not just nature reserves, but vast areas of the world in which a wild future is still possible ... conservation works – but only if we want it to. We humans are the dominant force – we can kill or we can cure.

Dedham Vale painted by John Constable in 1828 is a good example .. the landscape looks much as it did then .. the river is the key focus for the valley, its course defined by bank side trees and wet meadows. It supports a variety of riparian (river) habitats.

The valley and Stour River provide a functioning floodplain, good water quality with its water meadows and recreational use, whilst retaining an unspoilt character and healthy ecosystem for the native flora and fauna.

A common toad - bufo bufo - in its boggy habitat

The United Nation’s International Year of Biodiversity asks that through a global alliance, which has to be ratified by all countries, binding their citizens to join together, to protect life on earth – as biodiversity is life ... it is our life.

The global benefits are enormous .. we save species, that saves or creates jobs, people are protected and local economies are boosted alleviating poverty. Scientific studies are understanding the ways nature has adapted – bringing benefits to bear for us .. better insulation, better water repelling properties, medical advances; we are being reminded of the spiritual and cultural value of biodiversity at the heart of so many human societies.

We know so little of this wonderful world, this earth of ours .. only about 10% of life is known – it is estimated that another 90% remains to be discovered: however more species are disappearing every day, up to 130, which in terms of the natural extinction rate is 1,000 times higher – a frightening thought.

Cup Nest of a Common Blackbird

What can we do to protect and preserve, to help and conserve this natural biodiversity within our localities and at other times of our life when we are away or travelling? Remember everything interlinks .. we are one enormous system, sustained by many ecosystems, the welfare of humankind is dependent on the welfare of every known species, two million of them.

This web of life supports us – it nurtures us spiritually .. giving us peace in its tranquillity, its greatness, its power; earth feeds us with an enormous variety of fish, meat, game and crop life; the forests provide fuel and with mountains regulate our water supplies; while the oceans provide fish and help regulate the climate; while the air allows us to breathe and remain alive.

By working together locally – in our cities, towns and countryside we can make small differences and as we know, small ripples can lead to larger influences. Battle lines between conservationists and people have been going on for centuries .. but now we have one huge advantage we can communicate more easily – we can get our word across, through our actions, through our encouragement to preserve and protect.

The hedgehog, who hates being fenced in

Some ideas for conservation and bringing biodiversity back into our lives:

· Open up your garden, don’t wall it in ... so hedgehogs (above), who love snails, and small mammals can move around

· Plant hedging plants – native to your soils & let the leaves lie

· Leave some wild areas .. let the grass grow, plant wildflowers

· Make a pond, or create a damp spot – for dragon flies (left), damsel flies, frogs, toads and grass snakes

Dragon fly to the right

Honeysuckle - that nectar filled, scented plant

· Have a mixed and seasonal garden – different plants – bees like open heads allowing access to the nectar .. honeysuckle, clover, buddleia and lavender

· Specific plants attract specific insects – encouraging pollination; moths are vital prey for many bird and mammal species, including bats – they love buddleia, heather, sallow and

· Put up nesting boxes, bug homes, feeders and rain water ‘baths’ for birds, bats, insects,
butterflies, moths; a woodpile to attract beetles, centipedes, and snails ..

Watch the video to get the bigger picture: United Nations International Year of Biodiversity: video link; then play your part in as many ways as you can .... if we’re here to stay – we all need to play our part.

UN video: International Year of Biodiversity (it's 8 mins long - but well worth it)

Three of my posts that may be of interest:
Plants as Metal Gatherers
The Great Garden Stink and what the Victorians did about it
The Green Corridors of the Iron Curtain

Sara of A Sharing Connection – may have a better grasp on my posts – as she paid me a wonderful compliment.... by writing a post about me – how wonderful is that?! About A Blogger: History is my Story – thank you so much Sara .. it really is appreciated!

Sara’s blog shares photos, stories, ideas and then often poses a question asking us to connect with the world around us .. it’s a fun blog with some serious points - appropriate for this post on biodiversity.

Hi Everyone .. Janice Hunter's blog - Sharing The Journey - and her latest post included a TED video (18 mins) - but it is so worth while watching .. this post is about natural diversity - the TED talk is about human resources/diversity .. using our passions: "human communities depend on a diversity of talent, not a singular conception of our ability ...". We need to feed our spirit, our energy or our passion .. not endure this life and its work. Please pop over (after you've left a comment!) and have a listen .. enjoy - it is thought provoking ...

Dear Mr Postman .. at last the weather seems to be warming up .. the south coast quite often has a cooling wind – sometimes it’s a blessing – in the hot years! My mother has been sleeping a great deal, but when she’s awake she can at least hear .. but now she has a sore throat & I hope that is a not a precursor. I hope she’ll enjoy some of Wimbledon with me.

Hilary Melton-Butcher
Positive Letters Inspirational Stories

Tuesday, 15 June 2010

Ever Thought of a Map as an Encyclopedia?

Early world maps on clay tablets were known to exist drawn to reflect the depiction of the age, as shown in the Babylonian world maps .. even then they showed seven islands arranged around so as to form a seven-pointed star, with several cities, but the whole surrounded by a “bitter river” (Oceanus).

The ancient civilisations all produced pictures that today we would describe as maps, especially once they have been reconstructed, .. sometimes very complicated affairs reflecting the world as they knew it, and life as they predicted, their philosophy and mythology, but all the while incorporating the new ideas of their era.

Imago Mundi Babylonian map, the oldest known world map, 6th century BCE Babylonia

The Romans left us a plan of Rome and the first road map of the world (Itinerarium Scriptum) (literally written itinerary), which would make sense as their maps seem to have met the practical requirements of political administration and of military undertakings. The 13th C copy (an almost true reproduction of the original) is today known as the Tabula Peutingeriana is an itinerarium showing the cursus publicus – the public roads from Iberia in the West to India in the East - and is conserved in Vienna.
Part of Tabula Peutingeriana (Southern Italy centered) – an example of an Itinerarium Scriptum

Mappa Mundi is a general term used to describe medieval European maps of the world. Approximately 1,100 mappae mundi have survived. Ranging in size and complexity, of which some 900 are to be found illustrating manuscripts, with the remainder existing as stand-alone documents. The term ‘mappa mundi’ derives from the Medieval Latin words for ‘cloth or chart’ and of the world’.

A book in folio, in one sheet, is a book, the sheets of which have been folded once only, so that each sheet makes two leaves; hence a book of large size could be produced: several such folded conjugate pair of leaves were inserted inside another to produce the sections or gatherings, which were then sewn together to form the final book, a famous folio of that era is the Gutenberg Bible (1455). The Latin for leaf is ‘folio’

Developing a brand can be about your passion, which is then expressed in the title you choose and that definitely occurred in this publishing niche – The Folio Society. It was conceived after the war to produce ‘a poor man’s fine edition’ – a well-designed, printed and bound book to which the common man could aspire.

Since then it has produced a number of ‘Folio Fine Editions’, subsequently introducing a series of deluxe, limited edition publications at substantially higher prices, often facsimiles published in conjunction with The British Library. Their latest idea is a new letterpress limited-edition of Shakespeare’s plays .. and this where the Hereford Mappa Mundi comes in.
This map is an example of a Mappa Mundi in "La Fleur des Histoires". 1459-1463

I quote from an article “Bound for Posterity” in The Telegraph in 2007, when the Folio Society was celebrating its 60th year: “Each book – the carefully selected typeface, acid-free paper, the stitching of signatures, the stunning design of the case and then the printing itself – is produced to a standard and not to a price.

And yet the value remains quite extraordinary. No other commercial publisher could ever dream of producing books approaching such a level of quality unless the selling price were to be in hundreds of pounds. ‘I always say that if there is money, it is to be put into even better production,’ says Lord Gavron (the present owner of the organisation), ‘and not set aside as profit.’”

This is where the Folio Society and the Hereford Mappa Mundi, “that early map of the world” come together – the year 1,300 meeting today’s 2010 – where digital technology has been used to peel away the years' of wear and tear and discolouration to create a restored reproduction, as near to the most authentic version possible.

The trustees of Hereford Cathedral, where the original Mappa Mundi resides, collaborated with the British Library and the Folio Society in producing only 1,000 facsimile copies of this wonderful masterpiece.

The Folio Society's numbered copy will be displayed in all its glory beside the original in Hereford Cathedral for future generations to see – what an amazing exhibition to visit: to be able to see on the one hand the original that is seven hundred years old and the reproducion reflecting its original gilding, the blue pigment for the rivers, the green of the oceans, the red for the Red Sea!, as well as the clarity of the map as originally seen by pilgrims, nobles, philosophers and clergymen all those years ago.
The original Hereford Mappa Mundi - to be found in Hereford Cathedral: ca 1300.

So, at last, I come to the Mappa Mundi itself – one of the largest and most elaborate maps in Europe. The map, worked on vellum, embodies all The Middle Ages’ fundamental beliefs about the shape and nature of the world, which is drawn centred on Jerusalem; according to the old convention east is to the top. It is a bestiary, a psalter, a Bible, a history of the world and collection of travellers’ tales rolled into one – displayed for all to see on a carved oak triptych.

It is a way of looking into the mind of the medieval age as it brings together so much – a compendium, an encyclopaedia of its day – all the glories, known and unknown, painstakingly put down on a single sheet of calf skin (five feet x four feet) – a cornucopia of mixed unfathomable messages. The Victorians could not get to grips with it – it did not fit their delineated world!

However with a great deal of dedication and translation of the ancient texts, language and symbols have been unfurled for us to better understand this incredibly comprehensive saga of life to that point in time. A way of understanding the world from the centre out – the pin prick in Jerusalem used to mark out circles, sectors of the world, that the gifted craftsmen and artists could fill:

..... an artist to outline, another to define in ink and add colour, other artists to draw rivers, mountain ranges and the decorative foliage border. Finally, a professional limner added display lettering in gold in a beautiful Lombardic script. (Limner – Middle English .. Limnen – to illuminate a manuscript, with its roots in Latin – luminare – to illuminate, adorn).
Isn't the difference quite extraoardinary .. even on these small pictures?

This will be on my list of places to visit – to be able to see both Mappae Mundi in situ – to be able to look at the hundreds of inscriptions, the towns, the painted scenes and symbolic decorations .. to wonder at the rhinoceros, the unicorn, the skill of the Medieval peoples in devising this wonderful work of art.

How I would love to own one ... as the Folio Society offer comes with two Commentary Volumes, bound in buckram, blocked in gold foil with Merida endpapers and ribbon markers and illustrated throughout – what a wonderful present – anyone? Only £745 – it counts as four volumes .. well worth it for this very curious map of the world - don't you think!?

PS: They did mark Europe as Africa, and Africa as Europe .. but I guess that's 'easy to do' if you're just a scribe copying: and have no knowledge of the world.
Here's a link to the video podcast showing some more of the detail - it's only 4 minutes & really does give you a better flavour than perhaps I've expressed here .. if you're interested have a quick break?!
Dear Mr Postman – Things are definitely easier now that my mother can hear again and is taking a bit more interest and is cheerful. We’ve watched the tennis final at Queen’s Club at the weekend and today we saw the Queen driven down the Ascot Mile at the start of the Royal Ascot Horse Races being held this week. I have to say though .. I wish it would warm up!

Hilary Melton-Butcher
Positive Letters Inspirational Stories

Friday, 11 June 2010

Flora and fauna of Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens – a simple sample ..

A gift to the nation of South Africa from Cecil Rhodes in 1895 – a completely unspoilt area of flowering plants, shrubs and trees on the eastern slopes of Table Mountain. What a treat – on this the damper side of the mountain - the property covering the eastern slopes from the bottom up to its highest point, Maclear’s Beacon.

These amazing slopes provide a range of habitat suited to a wide variety of plants. Kirstenbosch in 1913 was planned as a garden where the indigenous flora of Southern Africa would be collected, preserved, propagated and studied.

View roughly to the north from Kirstenbosch. The eastern faces of Table Mountain dominate the skyline. The rainfall on this side is much higher than on the other faces, hence the dense vegetation - see first picture

I can attest to this wonderful Garden, as when in Cape Town I have always visited and spent time enjoying the plants and herbal scents, the scenery of Table Mountain behind, with the views of Cape Town and its surrounds stretching out below – a magnificent setting.

Castle Rock, Cape Town from Kirstenbosch Gardens (with proteas in the foreground.

The wonderful collection made for the nation and as you can see the gardens are as beautiful today as they were 100 years ago. About 4,000 of the 18,000 species of plants of Southern Africa are cultivated in the garden, which covers 560 hectares. It is a garden for all seasons, but spring (September – November) is especially beautiful with its array of early flowers before the beating summer sun burns down.
Just a little more history – this wooded area (hence the bosch in the name) in 1660 was hedged off with wild almond and brambles to protect the perimeter of the Dutch colony, and was harvested for timber during the early days of Cape settlement. The ‘Kirsten’ part of the name is believed to be the surname of the manager of the land, JF Kirsten in the 1700s.

The fact it became a botanical garden was due to Henry Harold Pearson, a botanist from Cambridge University, who had been appointed in 1903 to the newly-created Chair of Botany at today’s University of Cape Town; he took a cart out from the sea-shore settlement to assess the area for its suitability – and thus it became the Kirstenbosch we know today.

LandsatImage over SRTM Elevation, showing the Cape Peninsula in the foreground.

Pearson in fact took on developing the gardens himself and lived there in difficult and reduced circumstances: the task confronting him was formidable .. the area was overgrown, populated by wild pigs, overrun with weeds and planted with orchards, left over from the early settlement. Money was tight and the budget was supplemented by the sale of firewood and acorns .. sounds like today?

He commenced work in the area of Kirstenbosch known as “The Dell”, planting cycads which are still there today. He died in 1916 from pneumonia and was buried in his beloved garden, and his epitaph is still there today and says: “If ye seek his monument, look around”.
Inflorescence of Protea Cynaroides (King Protea)

A befitting remembrance to a wonderful botanical garden, that has enthralled many visitors from around the world .. and no doubt might be garnering a few more enthusiastic supporters from the football tourists – do you think?

Or can I tempt you to enjoy a hike along one of the trails up and around Table Mountain - some of these lead of f the gardens, including Smuts’ Track, after the Prime Minister Jan Smuts who used this route regularly. On the slopes above the cultivated parts of the garden a contour path leads through forests to the south, or to the north taking the hiker past Rhodes Memorial and on to the slopes of Devil’s Peak and beyond. (see right)
Grevillea, rosmarinifolia

Fynbos, “fine bush” in Afrikaans, is the natural shrubland or heathland vegetation occurring in the small belt of the Western Cape of South Africa, mainly in the winter rainfall coastal and mountainous areas with a Mediterranean climate, which includes Table Mountain, and forms part of the enormously valuable Cape Floral Kingdom.

It is an incredibly rich area, of which over two thirds of the 9,000 fynbos species are endemic – this level of variety is comparable with tropical rainforests. Many different microclimates occur so the flora changes from west to east and varies with altitude up the hillsides away from the coast and according to the compass direction.

The wildlife includes a number of endemic bees, beetles, horseflies and ants, as well birds such as the Cape Sugarbird and Orange-breasted Sunbird. Many of these birds and insects are important and specific pollinators for the fynbos.

Male Cape Sugarbird

Traditional herbal remedies abound from the fynbos terrains, while our delving into our historical roots establish that the Greeks and Romans also followed similar traditions – which we continue today .. the aloe they used much as we do .. extensively as a herbal medicine, for both internal and external treatments; and now in our tea drinking of the rooibos or red bush tea, which contains high levels of antioxidants with low tannin levels, and is popular throughout the world.
Rooibos flowers
There are larger animals too, including the Cape antelopes of which the Klipspringer (right) is one – they are herbivores, eating rock plants – but the interesting thing is they never need to drink, since the succulents they subsist on provide them with enough water to survive. It is also known for its remarkable jumping ability and is able to leap to staggering heights of 25 feet, which is about 15 times its own height.

Just to round off with another jumper – the endemic Arum Frog. They have bright orange feet and can change their colour to camouflage themselves. Their natural watery habitat in this Mediterranean shrubby vegetation is under serious threat .. and a reminder to us all that we need to protect our flora and fauna.

Hyperolius horstockii – Arum frog

As you can see they tend to hide at the bottom of Arum lilies waiting to catch pollinating insects and are threatened as the lily flowers are picked to be sold. Arum lilies, native to South Africa, are now naturalised in Australia (and classified as a toxic weed and pest!), while in the States and the UK we have a number of cultivars used as ornamentals.

A wonderful rich and diverse part of the world – which can so easily be totally destroyed or parts lost forever – if we do not protect it, but which Kirstenbosch stands guardian over, and I hope the many visitors to South Africa at this time, take some time out to enjoy the scenery and take in and absorb the wonders of this Cape Floral Kingdom.

Dear Mr Postman – we seem to be in quiet times .. my mother enjoys the tennis if it is on and she is awake .. but as she still can’t and I have a feeling this will not come back & there is nothing more we can do to help, I will have to use my creative abilities to find new ways to at least give her something different to see and thus think about – as I cannot read or talk to her, nor can she read.

Hilary Melton-Butcher
Positive Letters Inspirational Stories

Monday, 7 June 2010

Food, Food, Glorious Food ... What could possibly go wrong ...?

Twenty four of our finest up and coming chefs, from eight regions of the UK have battled it out to cook at a celebratory feast for one hundred people at the Assembly Rooms in Bath, sourcing their ingredients from local producers near to other National Trust estates.

The chosen four were selected for their expertise, standard of cooking, their selection and use of locally sourced produce that truly reflected a magnificent feast fit for our future King. The heats began, winners were selected from each region, then pitted against each other in a cook off – with the judges holding sway over the ultimate choice of menu & thus chef selection. Nothing could be left to chance .. or could it .. it is 2010 ...
Kenny Atkinson(North West), Tom Kerridge(London and South East), Lisa Allen (North East) and Niall McKenna(Northern Ireland).
The Banqueting Hall, Assembly Rooms, Bath

National Trust properties ... castles, estates, halls and houses .. were selected as the ‘home base’ for respective chefs to find new producers and source local ingredients from the grounds, or the vicinity. A daunting task – finding new first class suppliers .. but to the chefs’ surprise there are lots of wonderful farmers, vegetable, herb and fruit suppliers, game keepers, fishermen - all determined to keep our food heritage alive.

The Prince of Wales was going to preside as President of the National Trust, but more importantly as the nation’s long-time advocate of local and seasonal food, over the banquet. A hundred of the nation’s men and women who toil to put the finest local British produce on the map were to be the guests of honour, intermingled with veteran chefs and dignitaries.
HRH The Prince of Wales has spent 30 years transforming the grounds of Highgrove into what have been acknowledged as some of the most inspired and innovative gardens in the UK. His Royal Highness’s strict adherence to organic and sustainable methods has helped create gardens which are both magical and intriguing while being environmentally sound; encouraging both plants and wildlife to thrive.

Would we have asparagus crowns, crayfish scotch eggs, wild brown trout with wood scented wild sorrel, crowns of lamb roast, wild trout, roast beef, rose scented cheesecake with crystallised rose petals .. or to to cheer the cockles of your heart .. haslet (pig’s ear & other ogans – an old fashioned recipe not wasting anything!) and – and – and wonders of wonders lamb’s testicles .. these scored first place, but the chef did not get through – phew?! Apparently they tasted wonderful.

The Prince of Wales was briefed on who the chefs would be with their chosen dishes, remarking on the huge renaissance in British local produce and the desire not to lose any of our native breeds, or precious resources to be found in the hedgerows, in ancient orchards and woodlands, which the BBC with this programme is encouraging us all to use local ingredients and support our suppliers.

The Prince was very interested in the resulting menu commenting on the fact that the rabbit was wild, mackerel and gooseberries were a traditional ancient mix and he remembers as a child going fishing for them, Aylesbury duck an interesting choice, and finally that honey was being used in the dessert – remembering that Barbara Cartland used to say ‘a spoonful of honey a day keeps you warm and loveable’!

The Assembly Rooms in Bath with its imposing Banqueting Hall were chosen to host the event. Built in 1771 they were at the heart of fashionable Georgian Society and described as ‘the most noble and elegant of any in the kingdom’, which still applies to today, as the perfect venue fit for a Royal Banquet.

Cooking in a new kitchen, as the chefs had encountered in the heats, with different equipment, no control over temperatures of the fridges, freezers and ovens – mix ups occurring – meant on occasions frozen foods rather than chilled, burnt pans, or ovens too low ... the joys of being a chef!

Tom had only ever cooked one or two banquets .. so suddenly cooking for one hundred was a little daunting ... the size of the kitchens and spoon bemused him ... had arrived first on preparation day as his dish was the most complicated. His ducks arrived at the same time .. so he was happy.

Later in the day the other chefs arrived ... where were the rabbits, the mackerels and the strawberries? The rabbit loins arrived .. and to Lisa’s delight they were the right size. Kenny was onto the fish supplier – the North Sea was still extremely cold, so the mackerel were still in southern waters keeping warm ... however the fish supplier had decided he had to drive down to Cornwall to source the mackerel .. but they were still elusive. The clock was ticking.

As for Niall, from Northern Ireland, the strawberries had hardly started pollinating .. so he had to ring round and find strawberries in the Bath area ... and then leave the kitchen to make sure the flavour matched up. I really felt for Kenny and Niall .. not an easy thing to have to deal with – as their reputations were on the line & the feast had to be fit for a future King.
Richard Waller's Aylesbury Duck Farm

Kenny only got his mackerel the day of the banquet .. and they were smaller, which meant he needed to rethink his cooking method. So those northerly winds bringing us that volcanic ash, which I’ve been complaining about as it’s been bitterly cold, meant that Mother Nature was ruling the waves and the strawberries!

For the first time one of our winners was a woman – so that is excellent news, and Lisa (north west England) was first up with her “wild rabbit and leek turnover, with piccalilli”; – wild rabbits caught by the gamekeeper from one of the National Trust’s estates, the salad and herb suppliers seeing their produce from the north served up;

Kenny (north east region) had found an old recipe for “line caught mackerel with gooseberries” – something I remember from my childhood; that enterprising fisherman who saved Kenny’s bacon (mackerel really!), the gooseberry supplier who said she didn’t like gooseberries but relished Kenny’s old fashioned recipe, which also had gooseberry jelly;

then we had Tom (London and south east) serving “Aylesbury Duckling in two ways” .. slow cooked sliced breasts, potted leg, with thrice-cooked duck-fat chips, served with a jug of gravy, topped off with peas, little gems, and pea shoots; the Aylesbury Ducks are reared in an apple orchard, surrounded by bluebells and hawthorn, in amongst an ancient beech wood: a family owned business since 1775

followed by Niall from Northern Ireland presenting “Poached rhubarb with strawberry jelly, yellow man and lavender ice cream” – yellow man is a traditional sponge toffee (above) (‘honeycomb’ or ‘sea foam’ in the US .. funny name?), ... which that delicious rich delicate lavender ice cream, having been coated with the crushed yellow man, was then placed inside cylindrical caramel tuiles.

The whole event represented the pillars of British cooking – but neither the Prince, suppliers nor producers knew of or could have imagined the challenges the chefs had in the kitchens .. all appeared to go smoothly and everyone waxed lyrical over their dishes .. as I would – my mouth waters with eager anticipation .. but only a cup of coffee is about due!
Montisfont Priory(1201) has beautiful kitchen gardens

The suppliers had all really stretched themselves to provide the produce ... against the odds in 2010 ... the chefs had worked wonders with local ingredients, and after competing against each other had worked together as a team to honour the guests with this scintillating dinner.

Celebrations were complete with a few glasses of English sparkling wine and the satisfaction of knowing that our British way of life is striving to retain its food culture through sustainability and deliverability, by our budding chefs being so creative with the seasonal and local produce available.

The recipes from all the series can be found here ... enjoy! Pictures are elusive!

Dear Mr Postman .. I enjoyed seeing our traditional recipes brought to life with new twists and my mother, who was an excellent cook, would have loved to talk about this too – but we cannot as her hearing is still not back. We were practically self-sufficient from the garden when I was growing up .. so this series brought back lots of memories.

We did watch the two Paris Open tennis finals .. which gave her something different to focus on & on Sunday she knew what was happening – her brain is ‘complete’ .. just challenging she can’t hear & she won’t repeat what she’s said .. in fact wanted to write! – but it’s one word at a time ... but I can’t read that either .. and she won’t say the word ... an “impossibly frustrating” situation ... I just laugh it away... best thing to do ...

Hilary Melton-Butcher
Positive Letters Inspirational Stories

Thursday, 3 June 2010

Volcanic palette, translucent jet streams, passion-fruit paintings ...

Every thought about a volcano giving us a paint box? Bright colours - fiery red, scarlet mineral, vivid orange, incandescent yellows, gloomy greys, rich night azures, cerulean blues, violets, jade .. the palettes used by the artists of two hundred years ago.

Today the Icelandic volcano is giving us grey dusty ash, enveloping parts of Iceland, but my walls here seem to have a light layer – do I need to give them a gentle dust down .. I’ve never thought about dusting my walls before – have you?!

However .. some lucky, or unlucky folk depending on the wait time at the airports, have been given a fiery bonfire show of bright hot orange lava, huge white, silver or near white sparks erupting out of the dark depths below, as their plane took them on an excursion near the volcano, but around the ash cloud.

Iceland Volcano: Lava Explodes from Ice Cap - c/o National Geographic

Or, how was the jet stream observed and logged? Those powerful currents affecting us which race at the edge of our known universe .. but what of the winds rushing around other galaxies, ... there must be higher systems of wind interlinking with our jet stream.

The colours of the planets and the night sky – the pastel pinks and orange shades of Jupiter, or the pale yellows and beiges of Saturn, our own Moon when its creamy orb sits low in the sky, or the red, orange, blue and yellow of the stars above.

Pink-Red Hibiscus rosa-sinensis

Colours have always affected us .. sun yellow for life, green for hope, purple for dignity, white for purity .. we’ve used them depict events, to dye our clothes, to paint our faces from time immemorial .. while in recent times we can see the effect these volcanic clouds have on our earthly colours.

When the huge strato-volcano”Tambora “erupted in 1815 it sent pulverised ash high into the atmosphere, which darkened, cooled and polluted the earth, giving us consequences ranging from the dire – a lowering of temperatures that caused frosts in Italy in June, and snows in Virginia in July – as of 2010 .. what’s different? to spectral sunrises and sunsets.

30 years earlier in 1783 the Icelandic Laki had erupted for eight continuous months causing mayhem across Europe and America – deaths of thousands, frosts in June, acid rains over forests, skin lesions in children, crops famines and the death of millions of cattle and could well have been a contributing factor to the outbreak of the French Revolution from the resulting hardship of these conditions.

Incandescent Yellow of Rudbeckia “Prairie Sun” : c/o Mobot.org

These changes were being noted including the beginning of the unusual atmospheric phenomena, recorded in a letter of June 1783 to Sir Joseph Banks, then President of The Royal Society. Krakatoa’s immediate aftermath was a year’s worth of awe-inspiring evening beauty – sunsets of purple, passion-fruit and salmon that had artists around the world trying desperately to capture what they managed to see in the fleeting moments before dark.

William Ascroft (or Ashcroft) one hundred years later (1883) recorded five hundred water colours that he painted, one every ten minutes like a human-film camera, from his Thames-side flat. These skylines, after Krakatoa, show the amber glows with crepuscular rays from the ash hidden setting sun – if you can look at the link .. the skies appear to show aeroplane vapour trails .. which we know cannot be true.

William Ashcroft painting “On the Banks of the River Thames” in London, November 26, 1883 - c/o feww.wordpress.com - volcano watch

Following the Tamboran eruption in 1815, Byron wrote the gloomiest of poems “Darkness” (“Morn came and went, And came, And brought no day, And men forgot their passions in the dread, Of this their desolation ...”) describing ‘this year (1816) without a summer’; Mary Shelley, it is said, became so fed up with the rain while visiting Byron in Geneva that she followed suit and wrote her exceptionally gloomy novel Frankenstein, published 1st January 1818.

Turner’s: Chichester Canal’s vivid colours may have been influenced by the eruption of Mount Tambora in 1815.

J M W Turner however saw the better side of the eruption as can be seen in his wonderful colourful atmospheric paintings of that time, Munch painting a decade later remembering the vivid lurid colours wrote about his painting “The Scream” and how it came to be:

I was walking down the road with two friends when the sun set; suddenly, the sky turned as red as blood. I stopped and leaned against the fence, feeling unspeakably tired. Tongues of fire and blood stretched over the bluish black fjord. My friends went on walking, while I lagged behind, shivering with fear. Then I heard the enormous, infinite scream of nature.

Munch remembering the vivid lurid colours he painted in his "The Scream"

Those fire rainbow colours that were etched in the skies around the world allowed another great discovery to be made .. the equatorial smoke screen. Because the sunsets were seen to girdle the earth, an atmospheric scientist in Hawaii mapped these high altitude winds – that no-one until the 1880s knew existed: these air currents, this ‘equatorial smoke screen’, ultimately became known as the jet stream, which is somewhat ironic as today it takes Icelandic dust over Britain and Europe and ultimately around the world.

Reflected glory of reflected light gave us hues unknown to this latitude .. to delight our senses giving us an inkling of the lustrous surfaces of a distant peeping jade plant, dark blue, a rosea bellflower, dragon wing red .. colours those artistic pioneers and explorers could describe in paint or words.

I hope the new volcano will slowly subside into sleep and we can return to our normal lives with our earthly hues, without the ash altering our existence below .. so we won’t see those extraordinary sights giving rise to true artistic licence for a volcanic palette, but I’m happy to know of the fiery hues without having to see them through rose coloured ash clouds.

Dear Mr Postman – at last summer seems to have arrived for a few days at least, we have the cold wind from the sea – which keeps us in check .. but the sun is glorious, and the sky is blue – my mother sleeps ... and all is quiet and peaceful. Happy days!

Hilary Melton-Butcher
Positive Letters Inspirational Stories