Remembrance Sunday

Back of hotel

Following last week’s exciting trip to Spain, I had a marvellously luxurious weekend at the local Tewkesbury Park Hotel to celebrate a family birthday.  All of this travel and excitement is experimental for me as I have been a bit housebound over the last few years for various reasons.

While some of our group played golf and some had spa treatments or relaxed, I went for a stroll around the grounds with my camera.  Being set high on a hill there are amazing views, towards the Malvern Hills, Brecon Beacons, River Severn and Tewkesbury itself.

 

There is so much to see in Tewkesbury with its medieval buildings and alleys, and two powerful rivers, the Severn and the Avon, that meet there.  There is always lots of activity around the river, whether it be pleasure-boating or fishing.  Occasionally of course the rivers flood the town, but the locals are so used to it that they are very well prepared and cope brilliantly.

 

At the heart of the town is Tewkesbury Abbey.  There is so much history surrounding this abbey that it is worth visiting over and over again.  I used to take school groups there when I was teaching, or foreign visitors when I was involved in Global Footsteps.

There is also a fascinating history in the hotel site too.  I am one of those people who has to find out as much as I can about everywhere I go, so I started to delve.  I was thrilled to discover that recorded history goes back to when the park was enclosed between 1185 and 1187.  The park covered 200 acres then and was stocked with deer.  By the late 14th century here was a large medieval timber and stone manor house on the site, which was called Tewkesbury Lodge.  By 1540 records taken after the dissolution of the Monasteries showed that the deer park covered 80 acres with the rest being agricultural.  There are no records of deer at the park after that.

The original manor house was at times owned by the crown or by the abbey as well as private individuals including the Clare family who used it as a hunting lodge.

kneeling knight

 

But, one of the most fascinating owners for me was Edward, Baron Le Despenser, who died in his 30’s in 1375.  He has a beautiful monument known as ‘The Kneeling Knight’, in Tewkesbury Abbey, which I have often admired.  It seems unusual for a knight to be depicted kneeling above a chapel.

 

At some point the medieval house was demolished, and the present building was built in the 18th century by the Wall family.   The last private owner was Violet Sargeaunt who lived there from 1933 until her death in 1973.  Finally, a superb golf course was developed, which opened in 1976 and the hotel prospered alongside it.

I walked down to the heart-wrenching field that lies at the foot of the hotel’s driveway.  It is called Bloody Meadow and it recalls The Battle of Tewkesbury which brought to an end the Wars of the Roses between the house of York (white rose symbol) and the house of Lancaster (red rose symbol).  The Yorkist King Edward 1V was victorious, while Edward, Prince of Wales, son of Henry V1 and last Lancastrian heir to the throne, was killed, aged just 17.  His burial place lies in Tewkesbury Abbey with a Latin inscription which translates as,

“Here lies Edward, Prince of Wales, cruelly slain whilst but a youth, Anno Domine 1471, May fourth. Alas the savagery of men. Thou art the soul light of thy Mother, and the last hope of thy race.”

Grave of Edward, the Lancastrian Prince of Wales

Also in Tewkesbury Abbey high up on the ceiling there is a spectacular carving which shows the badge of Edward 1V, the ‘sunne in splendour’.   It is admirable on the one hand that both winner and loser are remembered in the Abbey, but I find it rather gloating that the massive ‘sunne in splendour’ dominates the roofspace and ‘lords it’ forever over the poor defeated young prince.

medieval sunne in splendour

At the entrance to the ‘Bloody Meadow’, a commemorative plaque on the fence reads,

The field has been called the bloody meadow for more than 500 years, and tradition says that it is the meadow where so many were taken and slain.  This is possibly where Edward, Prince of Wales, met his death.  Other Lancastrians killed in the field almost certainly in the rout, include the Earl of Devonshire, The Marquis of Dorset and Sir William Rous.

The field is long and constricted, a death trap for men who are edging backwards whilst trying to avoid lethal blows.  How many fell is not recorded. Only important people were named.  Those who escaped the Bloody Meadow were faced with crossing the Mill Avon, and many drowned.

I took photos here but felt incredibly sad for the common soldiers who were buried in this meadow in anonymous pits while the nobles were interred in the Abbey and its graveyard.

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When I left the hotel, I stopped at the roundabout on the outskirts of Tewkesbury to marvel at the commemorative sculptures officially called the Arrivall.  I like to call them Victor and Vanquished.  This is a high vantage point from where the army of King Edward 1V could have seen the Duke of Somerset leading King Henry V1’s ill-fated army.

I have written about this sculpture before but on this day, being Remembrance Sunday, it was embellished with a ‘Lest we forget flag’, which somehow just reinforced the ongoing inevitability, futility, and tragedy of war for me.

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Victor represents the Yorkist army under Edward IV and is located on the roundabout itself. This part of the sculpture shows a horse and rider, the rider has a traditional lance with a pennant on top.

Vanquished, that represents the defeated Lancastrian army. This army was led by the Duke of Somerset, supporting Henry VI. Vanquished is a riderless horse, with its head bowed and a lance leaning on its back.

Here is a link for anyone seriously interested in the history of this fascinating area.

 

“Whoever saves one life, saves the world entire”

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Beached

For this week’s, WPC theme of ‘danger’, I thought I could post my daughter’s photo of the injured seal that had worn itself out and washed itself up on the beach near Santa Cruz, where she lives.  It was in grave danger until Lisa called Marine Rescue, who turned up quickly and returned to poor creature safely into the ocean.

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There was also a photo of a skunk walking down the garden path between Lisa and her front door!  Skunks are notoriously aggressive, unafraid of humans, carry diseases and smell disgusting.  She was in great danger of being attacked or sprayed as she carried her shopping in from the car.

But then, as I was reading Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice for my Open University course, I suddenly realised just how much danger some persecuted individuals or groups have faced, over the centuries.

In the Merchant of Venice, it is Shylock who is hated for being Jewish.  Shakespeare explores this brilliantly as only he can.  But it reminded me of places I have visited where evidence of the dangers of being Jewish is still clearly visible, or just below the surface.

Danger 2

Wrought Iron Star of David on the Cemetery gate in Krakow

Last year I visited a little Catalan town called Empuriabrava.  In the old town, I was horrified by the evidence of past abuse of Jews. There was a cemetery dedicated specifically to those who had been coerced into converting to Christianity.
“On 18th February, 1417 more than 100 people were baptised at the font of the Basilica of Santa Maria, surrounded by their godfathers and authorities.
In 1415, there was the first wave of mass conversions to Christianity as a result of the Perpignan ordinations driven by Benedict X111, known as “Papa Luna”. From that moment on, the converted Jews were buried in a delimited space of the Christian cemetery. The cemetery was attached to the Northern wall of the apse of the basilica. This area has been known for centuries as “the cemetery for the converted Jews”. Nowadays part of the old cemetery is occupied by the Cappella del Santissim, built in 1724, and the other part has been restored as a pedestrian walkway. “
It is a beautiful, peaceful town now but I have to say the references and reminders of those dark times were everywhere, and quite menacing.

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wrought iron representing barbed wire on the cemetery wall

At Gettysberg, Maj. Gen. Joshua L Chamberlain said,

“On great fields, something stays.  Forms change and pass; bodies disappear; buts spirits linger, to consecrate ground for the vision – place of souls”.

I knew exactly what he meant when I travelled to Krakow in Poland.

The city of Krakow is beautiful, compact, well preserved and a joy to walk around.  But my visit to the old Jewish quarter in Kazimierz as well as my visit to Schindler’s Enamel factory in Zablocie, which is now a museum, was a revelation.  It happened that I was there on 14thMarch 2012, 69 years to the day of the “final purge”.  The fact that this holocaust happened within living memory is horrific.  The fact that slaughter of innocents on this scale may be happening in parts of the world today is unbearable.

There were about 225,000 Jews living in Krakow before the war but only about 15,000 managed to survive it with the help of brave Poles who kept them hidden, and the enigmatic German Oskar Schindler who needed the cheap labour force they provided.

In March 1941, all Krakow Jews who previously lived in areas such as Kazimierz were forced to live in the new ghetto of Podgorze. The area comprised 320 buildings which had been home to the poorest Poles.  Almost 17000 Jews were now crammed into these buildings and the area was surrounded by barbed wire and walls.  By the autumn of 1941 the jobless Jews who did not have the correct paperwork were transported to concentration camps or shot where they stood.

On March 13-14th 1943 the final extermination was begun.  The first-hand accounts of the few who survived these events were recorded and can be heard at the Schindler factory which is now a museum.  I heard that the remaining men were separated from the women and children.  They were marched off to be used as forced labour.  Any who could not walk unaided were shot on the spot.  Then German soldiers went through the buildings clearing out the women and children to be loaded onto transport which would take them to the extermination camps.  Children and babies were just thrown out of the windows onto the waiting carts, not all landed safely.  The sick and elderly were just killed where they lay.
Literally thousands of Jews were loaded onto transport to the Plaszow camp where they gradually died from starvation, beating, disease, hard labour or execution.   Thousands of others were taken to the extermination camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau over the next few months.   The Auschwitz archives record the fate of those transported.  In February 1944 the remaining men arrived, in May the rest of the children and in August the women.  They all died in the gas chambers shortly afterwards.  The final transport of prisoners from Krakow arrived in Auschwitz the day before the camp was liberated by the Soviet army.
For a harrowing first hand eyewitness account of all the deportations including the final purge there is the memoir, The Cracow Ghetto Pharmacy by Tadeusz Pankiewicz.

Here are some photos from the displays at the Schindler factory or the Jewish Museum which touched me greatly.  They show families and groups of Jews being taken or led away from the ghetto to the camps.  They had to carry whatever they could and abandon the rest.  The last picture shows the Plaszow Camp between 1943-44 where women are being marched to forced labour.

 

What brought me to Adlestrop?

What brought me to Adlestrop?

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I recently started my second free course with the Open University at futurelearn.com

The first course was “Start Writing Fiction“, which was a hands-on course focused on the central skill of creating characters.   My current course is “Literature and Mental Health: Reading for Wellbeing.”  The course aims to explore how poems, plays and novels can help us understand and cope with deep emotional strain.

Readers who were used to following my blog weekly will have noticed that I have written nothing since I lost my little Dachsund, Dayna, who was the subject of my last post.  Maybe other pet owners, especially dog owners, will understand the depths of my despair at losing Dayna.

I am blessed to have a husband, adult children (albeit three of them live abroad), supportive friends and adorable grandchildren.  But, although I love them all dearly, after losing Dayna I was inconsolable.   I gradually slipped into a downward spiral of despair and lost interest in going out, seeing friends,  talking to people, cooking or even eating.  All I wanted to do was stay at home and curl up under a blanket wallowing in my misery and solitude.  I felt bereft and ridiculously lonely.  Hence my interest in finding ways to cope with ‘deep emotional strain’.

All of my children are dog lovers and my eldest daughter volunteers at a rescue centre in California.  They recommended that I get another dog – not as a replacement because my precious Dayna is irreplaceable, but as a companion.  So I started to search.   How I found my new dog is a long story which I will save for another day but suffice it to say she is NOT Dayna

My new puppy was 10 weeks old when I got her, and supposedly a Corgi crossed with a Dachsund.  However everyone including the local vet is convinced she is a Beagle cross.  I personally think there is a bit of shark in her too.  She is very cute and slightly crazy most of the time but totally adorable of course.  My grandson, Stanley, christened her Toffee and instantly fell in love with her.  Well who wouldn’t?

 

Anyway, I started the course and I am finding it very  stimulating.  It is brilliantly put together with input from poets, authors, doctors, psychiatrists and research scientists, as well as the wonderful actor Sir Ian McKellen, and the amazing Stephen Fry who defies categorisation!

There are countless opportunities for online discussion with other course participants and it was a discussion about the poet Edward Thomas that led me to drive to Adlestrop today.

Edward Thomas was primarily a nature poet and he wrote his famous poem Adlestrop when the train he was travelling on stopped there unexpectedly on 24 June 1914, just before the outbreak of WW!.  Instead of getting irritated, he used all of his senses to take in his surroundings and wallow in the details.

Edward Thomas joined the Artist’s Rifles in 1915 and sadly was killed in action in France in 1917.  Interestingly, his widow, Helen Thomas wrote two books after his death reportedly to help her recover from her deep depression.

Yes, I remember Adlestrop —
The name, because one afternoon
Of heat the express-train drew up there
Unwontedly. It was late June.

The steam hissed. Someone cleared his throat.
No one left and no one came
On the bare platform. What I saw
Was Adlestrop — only the name

And willows, willow-herb, and grass,
And meadowsweet, and haycocks dry,
No whit less still and lonely fair
Than the high cloudlets in the sky.

And for that minute a blackbird sang
Close by, and round him, mistier,
Farther and farther, all the birds
Of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire.

Edward Thomas 1878 – 1917
Of course Adlestrop Station is no more although the railway line still passes through nearby fields.  Today the fields and the railway line were underwater, flooded after the week of heavy rain we have had in Gloucestershire.  But there is a wonderful bus shelter at the entrance to the village where the old station bench and sign is preserved and a brass copy of the poem displayed.
I went there today as I live just 20 miles away.  It was a cold, cloudy day, and the rain was drizzling down.  But the journey was worth it.  There were swathes of snowdrops by the roadside and in the churchyard.  There is a Yew tree shaped like a cross by the gate to the church.  The writer, Jane Austen was known to worship here when she visited her uncle, the Reverend Thomas Leigh.   There is a beautiful Cotswold stone manor house and a thatched village shop housing the ‘new’ post office. There were young riders in red jackets exercising the racehorses from the beautiful Adlestrop stables.
Here are the photos from Adlestrop

Steam train from every angle

Steam train from every angle

Well it is Bank Holiday Monday in the UK so as usual the weather is atrocious.  The rain is pouring down.  I have a sweater on as it is cool to say the least.  I feel so sorry for all the residents of local North Cotswold villages and towns who had planned fetes, festivals, open gardens and the like.  Their long planned for events will all be a washout.

I had planned to go to Childswickham for the ‘retro’ English Village Fete on the village green.  There was to be a flower festival in the church too.  After this I had planned to go to Dumbleton, which is a quintessential English village.  It has a pretty church, a well-used cricket club and a picturesque 19th century Hall which is now a hotel.  There are magnificent trees around beautiful parkland all set off by pretty little cottages and some rather grand houses.  Later I would have gone along the road to my favourite village of Broadway for good food and live music on the green.

I imagined I would get some good shots with my new digital camera (Panasonic Lumix TZ70) that I could take from every angle for this week’s photo challenge.  But it is not to be.  Instead I will use some shots I took some time ago at Toddington Railway Station.

This wonderful old steam railway takes me back to my childhood when we would take day trips by steam train from the grime of Gateshead to the fresh air and fun of the seaside at Whitley bay or South Shields.   It is beautifully restored, maintained and run by dedicated volunteers of the Gloucestershire Warwickshire Railway.  The route it takes gives wonderful views of the Cotswolds, and the towns and villages it passes through.

It is so beautiful that it is sometimes used as a film set and that is how I got my shots.  Alex Sibo, who was studying at our local university, wrote, directed and produced a short documentary film about his family history.  It follows the story of his grandfather, Bruno Siba, as he managed to escape WW11 Czechoslovakia.  He had to hide his identity and change his name in order to escape.  I played a minor part in his film, which was great fun.  You can watch a bit of the film here.

Here are my rather atmospheric shots of Toddington railway station early on a damp morning.  There are more recent shots on a previous blog.

Enveloped by a Rainbow

Doughnut building enveloped in rainbow lights copyright GCHQ, used with permission

Doughnut building enveloped in rainbow lights
copyright GCHQ2015, used with permission

For this week’s photo challenge the prompt is the word “enveloped”.  I understand it to mean totally surrounded or covered, and as such I could only choose one photo as illustration.  I did not take the photo, the copyright belongs to the Government Communications Headquarters, GCHQ, but I was given permission to use it for this blog.  The photo shows the entire doughnut-shaped building, which is near my home, surrounded and lit up in the colours of the rainbow.  This occurred last weekend (17th May 2015) on Sunday evening from 9pm as the sun set.  It was to mark the International Day against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia.  It was amazing in many respects.  Firstly, that GCHQ would make such a public gesture of solidarity with these misunderstood minority communities; and secondly, that a large crowd of people, including myself, drove, walked, and waited there to see it late on a Sunday evening.  I know parents who kept young children up specially to see it and then took the opportunity to discuss the reason for the event.

Not so long ago it was illegal in this country for men and women to be practising homosexuals.  And it would have been unthinkable to get a job with the security and intelligence services while openly gay.  But of course many people did work in these fields while keeping their sexuality hidden.  One such man was the mathematician and cryptographer Alan Turing.  He worked at Bletchley Park, which was the forerunner to GCHQ.  There he and a brilliant young team helped crack Germany’s Enigma Code, which certainly shortened the second world war by a couple of years thereby saving millions of lives.  But when his sexual orientation was discovered, Turing lost his security clearance and was convicted for gross indecency.  His life was ruined by this conviction and his reputation was destroyed.  He was subjected to ‘corrective’ hormonal treatment until, two years later it is believed, he committed suicide by cyanide poisoning.  In 2013 he was granted a posthumous pardon by the Queen and honoured for his work.

In 2014 the film The Imitation Game was made about Turing and his work.  The film is so good that it won an Oscar as well as 51 other awards.  Starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Keira Knightley and Matthew Goode, the acting is outstanding.   The truth may be stretched a little for dramatic effect, but the film is gripping from beginning to end.

My opposition to any form of discrimination and prejudice stems from my years in teaching when I observed the misery it caused to children.  During my 30+ years working in the field of education, I taught over a thousand primary school pupils in state schools.  It is reasonable to assume that they were a fairly representative sample of children raised during the second half of the 20th century.  The majority were from stable, loving and supportive families with parents who worked hard and were able to provide good homes, experiences and opportunities for their children.  But over the years I also worked with many children who were not so lucky.  Lots of families suffered from the negative effects of poverty through no fault of their own.  But in some cases families were dysfunctional due to addictions-to gambling, alcohol or illegal drugs.  There was also a criminal element including a small minority of parents who were actually dangerously antisocial.  Whatever the cause, the children suffered most.

In all those years I only encountered one child with what I would call a ‘wicked’ nature.  He took pleasure in inflicting pain and suffering on other children, animals and even his own family.  Every available agency tried to help him, his parents, and the school, manage and change his behaviour, to no avail.  In those years too I met many confused and unhappy children who had a poor self-image and little confidence.  There were as many reasons as children for this; inadequate parenting, poverty, social, emotional or physical issues, learning difficulties, and sometimes gender issues.

Someone once explained to me that the gap between how we see ourselves and how others see us is crucial to our self-esteem.  School age children are social creatures.  They need to be accepted and respected by their peer group.  They are not born with low self-esteem.  It is an acquired condition.  If, for whatever reason, they do not ‘fit in’ to their group, their self-esteem suffers.  And they may become victims of bullying.  This is enormously important because research has shown that low self-esteem leads to unhappiness, ill health, and a less rewarding and successful life.  In extreme cases it can lead to suicide.

This brings me to the tragic case of a 15 year old boy who took his own life because he was being taunted at school for behaviour which ignorant bullies called ‘gay’.  The effect of this on his family and true friends was so traumatic that some months later his father took his own life and then one of his friends did the same.

This is why I am so proud of GCHQ for lighting up the ‘doughnut’ building in rainbow colours at the weekend.  In this country, and in many others I am sure, the past has been marred by intolerance bred of ignorance and fear.  People have been judged because of the colour of their skin; their accent, age, gender, beliefs, finances, job, clothes, or sexuality rather than their humanity.  There is no place in a civilised society for such prejudices.  Critics have denounced the gesture online as a political gimmick, but if it draws crowds of ordinary families who then discuss these issues with their children then it was a very worthwhile one in my opinion.

Read about a previous creative gesture by GCHQ in my blogpost Living Poppy in a Doughnut

The Boy

Fragile and different

Defeated by the bullies

He jumped to his death

 

The girl

Remnants of ribbons

And fading flowers weep, where she

Fell to her death

 

The Father

The death of his son

Drove him to despair.  Destroyed,

His life he ended.

 

The Cemetery

Lawned garden of grief

Compassion carved into stone

Too late to show love

 

Blenheim Palace

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It wasn’t an auspicious start when we met the coach to travel to Woodstock on 27th November 2014.  It was a misty morning, dismal and damp with drizzle.  However as always the mood on the coach was sunny and light hearted; WI ladies are such good company.  We were heading off to Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire to see the house decorated in “Glitter and Gold” for Christmas.  On the way we travelled through the lovely village of Bladon where most of the Spencer Churchill’s are buried at St Martin’s Church.

Blenheim palace is a Baroque masterpiece designed by Nicholas Hawksmoor and Sir John Vanbrugh, which took 17 years to complete.  On our tour we were told that the house was so perfect that it has never been extended or redesigned.  It was begun in 1704 thanks to Queen Anne who had just come to the throne.  John Churchill had been given the title, Duke of Marlborough by the previous monarch, William of Orange.  It was a particularly turbulent time in Europe and the Duke was recognised by most as a man of courage, stamina and will-power, as well as a brilliant military man.  He was leading the allied forces in Europe when there was a bloody and decisive battle at Blindheim, in Bavaria.  On August 13 1704, Marlborough and his men held back King Louis XIV’s troops and saved Vienna from a French attack.  This changed the course of history in Europe, protecting British interests.  The Queen was so pleased that she granted Marlborough the Manor and Honour of Woodstock and acres of gorgeous countryside as well as the promise of money to build a house as a fitting monument to his great victory.  The name Blindheim was then anglicised and became Blenheim.

This is an extract from the famous poem called The Battle of Blenheim by Robert Southey;

“It was the English,” Kaspar cried,
“Who put the French to rout;
But what they killed each other for
I could not well make out.
But everybody said,” quoth he,
“That ’twas a famous victory!

By the time we reached Blenheim via the long sweeping drive, the sun was shining and it was a perfect day to take in the impressive views of the grounds, the lakes, the bridge, and the breathtaking beauty and symmetry of the house itself.

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We were doubly fortunate because, not only was the house decked out for Christmas, but there was a spectacular art exhibition by the Chinese conceptual artist, Ai Weihei.  Being an outspoken social activist, Ai Weihei brings politics into his work and some of it was quite controversial.  However there were some really beautiful and thought provoking pieces.  I particularly liked the ‘Chandelier 2002’, which was made of glass crystals, lights, metal and scaffolding.  Being over 5 metres tall it hung glittering from the ceiling in the grand entrance.  I was not so keen on the piece called ‘He Xie, 2012’, in the red drawing room, which consisted of masses of porcelain crabs on the exquisite carpet.

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We managed to see almost every room in the public parts of the house learning snippets as we dipped in and out of fascinating guided tours.  Every room was different and had objects of beauty to see, sculptures, furniture, china, silverware, paintings and spectacular tapestries.  We were amazed to see huge cases filled with small model soldiers complete with arms and vehicles displayed in battle formation from many wars.  It seems that Blenheim holds the National Collection of the British Model Soldier Society.

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On the first floor of the house we took a fascinating, if rather unnerving tour, called “Blenheim~the Untold Story”.  This was narrated by the ‘ghost’ of Grace Ridley who was the favoured servant of the first duchess, Sarah.  The voice of Grace led us from room to room mysteriously as she rattled through over 300 years of history and 11 Dukes of Marlborough.  It was certainly entertaining and informative.

On a very sad note, we learned that the 11th Duke had died just a few weeks ago on the 16th October this year at the age of 88.  He was a cousin of the wartime Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who was also his godfather, and he was also distantly related to the late Princess Diana.  He inherited Blenheim in 1972 and devoted his life to preserving the Palace for the benefit of future generations.  His titles will now pass to his eldest son James, Marquess of Blandford, who was born in 1955.  It is an enormous responsibility which I certainly would not relish.  However there is a strong board of trustees to help him.

The late 11th Duke of Marlborough

The late 11th Duke of Marlborough

After exhausting the beauty of the house and enjoying a lovely lunch in the Water Terrace Café, one of several eating places at Blenheim, we ventured out into the open air to enjoy just some of the many formal gardens.  We saw the water terraces, the Italian garden and the secret garden which were beautiful.  We didn’t manage to visit the park with its cascades and the Temple of Diana, where Winston Churchill proposed to Clemmie.  Nor did we walk to the huge Column of Victory or Vanbrugh’s Grand Bridge.  However we saw them in the distance and were thrilled by all we did see.  We all agreed we would be going back in the Spring.  And, we were amazed to learn that we could convert our day tickets into an annual pass which gives free entry for the next 12 months!

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2015 marks many important anniversaries linked to Sir Winston Churchill, including the 50th Anniversary of his death, and the 75th Anniversary of the Battle of Britain ~ ‘his finest hour’.  There will be a special exhibition focussing on his life, from his birth at Blenheim Palace on 30th November 1874 to his days as our Prime Minister.  The room where he was born has been preserved just as it was and there is a case with his baby vest in it.  There are also 2 of his paintings and a lock of his hair.  Winston Churchill was the son of a younger brother of the 8thDuke.

There are many reasons I would like to revisit Blenheim Palace.  I would love to explore the gardens, lakes and the park.  I would also like to see the Column of Victory up close.  But I think we were very lucky to see the house decorated for Christmas with glitter and gold.  It was a very special day out.

“Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red”

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The weather was atrocious when I finally managed to visit the Tower of London with a friend.  After an unseasonably warm October, November has arrived with a splash.  It rained non-stop while we were at the Tower.  Not gentle rain, or refreshing rain, but relentless, heavy, pounding rain, that ran in waves down the sloping entrance, soaking my shoes and the bottom of my trousers.  My daughter has this theory that if it is raining in Barcelona where she lives, it will be dry in London and vice versa.  She happened to ring me just as I was leaving the house clad in wellies and mac.  But as there was a thunderstorm and heavy rain in Barcelona, she said I wouldn’t need them so I changed.  She was wrong.  I got soaked!

Despite the rain, the Tower was packed with visitors and I was impressed by how cheerful and friendly they were.  Most of the people I spoke to in the extremely long queues were from London or nearby counties of Kent and Essex.  Some said they hadn’t been to the Tower since they were children on a school visit.  Others, like me, had made a day trip involving hours on public transport- coaches, trains, buses and the underground.  Travelling, walking, and queuing all in torrential rain.  All had made the effort because they were keen to see the installation officially called, “Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red”, but generally known by the people as ~ The Poppies!

Poppies of course are an emotive symbol, used since the 1920s by the Royal British Legion to raise funds for their charitable work, ‘to the memory of the fallen and the future of the living’.   Although they are controversial, most people in the UK seem to wear them to show respect for those who fought and died in previous conflicts, and solidarity with those serving in the armed forces today.  The tradition was inspired by the poem, In Flanders Fields, by John McCrae. The story goes that when his friend, Alexis Helmer was killed at Ypres in 1915, the Canadian doctor, Major John McCrae, conducted the burial.  In his grief he was moved by the beauty of the wild red poppies growing amongst the horror of the graves.  The sight inspired McCrae to write this famous poem.

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

The poppies forming the installation at the Tower, all 888,246 of them, were handmade under the direction of the ceramic artist Paul Cummins to commemorate the centenary of the outbreak of World War One.  The artist reportedly said that he took his inspiration from the words of an unknown soldier from Derby who wrote that all his friends, indeed everyone he cared about, had been killed in that dreadful war.   He described, “Blood swept lands and seas of red, where angels dare to tread”.   The ceramic poppies, each representing a British or Commonwealth fatality in WW1, were ‘planted’ by volunteers in the moat around the Tower of London; not haphazardly, but artistically arranged by the stage designer, Tom Piper.   Now complete, they spill over battlements, around walls and out of windows, covering the grassy moat with a red river of biblical proportions.  There is a very appropriate poem which reflects not only the poppies but how I feel about the whole experience:

London by William Blake

I wandered through each chartered street,
Near where the chartered Thames does flow,
A mark in every face I meet,
Marks of weakness, marks of woe.

In every cry of every man,
In every infant’s cry of fear,
In every voice, in every ban,
The mind-forged manacles I hear:

How the chimney-sweeper’s cry
Every blackening church appals,
And the hapless soldier’s sigh
Runs in blood down palace-walls
.

The Journalist, Jonathan Jones has been criticised in some quarters of the media for his opinion that the poppies at the Tower of London are “fake, trite and inward-looking – a UKIP-style memorial”, theguardian.com, 28 October). I found his comments shocking, but thought provoking.

 My impression was of a river of blood flowing around the tower, but outside of the establishment in every sense of the word.  Inside, the building protects and reflects power, treasures, pomp, ceremony, privilege, and a dark side to our history ~ cruelty, torture, imprisonment and murder.

Significantly, many of the people, probably the majority, who came to see the poppies, stayed outside the Tower.  It costs quite a lot for an ordinary family to go inside!  (Happily almost the whole installation can be seen freely from outside.)  I think this is as it should be.  The ordinary people came, not to see the grandeur of the Tower, but to be a part of something spectacular yet stunning in its simplicity.  They stood good-humoured, all ages and nationalities, helping each other in the pouring rain, humanity at its best, honouring those who died.  It was beautiful.

I did go into the Tower but it felt alien, as if it had nothing to do with the poppies – except for the Beefeaters.  These men have all served at least 22 years in the forces, and must have attained at least the rank of Sergeant Major.  They were larger than life characters who wore their immaculate, gorgeous, yet slightly ridiculous uniforms with evident pride and aplomb.  Their uniforms were drenched.  The rain dripped off them like the tears shed by countless families of the fallen we were there to remember.  Somehow this fitted the mood and made it all real.  Did those young men stand firm and wear their rain-sodden, mud-soaked uniforms with pride on those dreadful battlefields?

There is some talk this week of leaving the poppies in situ for longer.  While I don’t agree with this I think it could be very moving to see them standing through the biting winds, mist, murk and mud of a British November.  They could then represent the poor, the homeless, the jobless and all the disadvantaged in this very unequal world.  If they stayed longer, through the cold, frost and snow of a harsh December, they could represent, the lonely, the sick, the disabled, and the elderly so often at the mercy of exhausted relatives or poorly paid and overworked “carers” in homes and hospitals.   Too many of them look forward to death as an escape from suffering, as so many of those young men must have done during WW1.

The juxtaposition of the simple poppies outside, and the Crown Jewels inside the Tower was revealing.  Considered precious, these ‘priceless’ treasures are displayed in glass cases watched over by security.   With soft lighting and controlled temperatures they are guarded in secure rooms sealed by impenetrable metal doors.  They reminded me of seeing the embalmed body of Lenin in his mausoleum in Red Square!  Would that our young soldiers had been so well cared for on the WW1 battlefields!

Unfortunately we seem to have learned little after a hundred years.  The most incongruous thing I saw during my visit was a sign, which said you could avoid the queues by paying for membership of something or other.  This is exactly what is wrong with our world.  Money can buy advantage in every sphere of life.  Those with money, power and influence can get the best seats in theatres, tables in restaurants, food, education, housing, healthcare, medical treatment, etc. etc.  You name it and you can have it if you have money.

The world is still run by a strange elite, a brotherhood, for they are mostly men, who make and adjust the rules to protect and promote their own interests and to feather their own nests.  The few prosper at the expense of the many who struggle daily to get and keep a home in which to live and raise their family, to feed, clothe and educate them, and try desperately to stay well enough to not need help in their old age.  Only when laws, rules and decisions are made, and actions taken to promote the common good, will the war have been worth it.  We are a long way from that yet.

 There may be no-one living now who actually fought in WW1, but there are countless families who treasure the memory of a relative who did, and this installation has given them an opportunity to remember them and to pass on their history to the next generation.   My own grandfather joined up at the start of the war aged just 14 years 8 months and was sent to France as a bugler in 1917, aged 17.  Thankfully he survived.  But, like many others, he never talked about his wartime experiences.  We found out about them when he died many years later and his comrades spoke at his funeral.  Since then I have researched his war record and it is astonishing what he went through.   To me he was always my lovely granddad who ran a corner shop and let me sit by the fire in the back of the shop eating out of date sweeties and chatting to my much loved granny.  I always respected and loved him, but now I admire him for his strength of character and I am proud to be descended from him.

I will finish by posting some photos taken by myself and friends and by quoting a comment sent in to the Guardian, which I agree with wholeheartedly:

“So perhaps the sea of poppies is not about the war of 1914-18, but about a very different conflict, which is still raging in 2014. I mean, of course, the conflict between those who want us to believe that everything is all right (even if some bad things happen) – that everything that was done in the last 100 years turned out okay in the end, and will continue to do so; and those who know in their hearts and minds that things are not okay – that the events of the past decade, whether about banking, climate change, poverty or war, are signals to us that we need to do things differently. Perhaps a dried-up castle moat full of enormously expensive fake flowers is a very potent symbol after all – just not the one the artist intended.”
Nick Moseley
Chesham, Buckinghamshire

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2817086/How-make-888-246-china-poppies-fired-glaze-Meet-unsung-heroes-glorious-artwork-captivating-Britain-Tower-tribute-WWI-fallen.html#v-3868841266001

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zc5ijfpXwK0