In Praise of #Amsterdam Parks

Well designed and well-kept parks are good for people’s mental and physical health. In Amsterdam we have parks and green spaces in abundance. My favourite park, because it’s less than 100 metres walk away, is the Erasmuspark. When I moved to this neighbourhood in the 80s it was run down and more or less a no-go area because of danger of harassment or mugging. Since its renovation in the noughties and the addition of Terrasmus café, the park has grown in popularity. Events are organised there throughout the summer and it is a nice place for dog owners and young mothers to interact. While one wouldn’t think of striking up a conversation when walking along a regular concrete street, it’s far easier to chat to other dog owners or neighbours in a green setting. Nearby is also the Rembrandtpark, and of course Amsterdam’s famous Vondelpark. This time of year after the flocks of tourists have flown back home, even the Vondelpark is a pleasant place to be.

The parks have looked so lovely the last few days, I couldn’t resist taking some photos and sharing them with you. Try and head out to inhale some greenery if you can, even five minutes in a park can boost your mood. Catch these last few halcyon days of an Indian Summer.

 

Day of the Dog Event in Erasmuspark. Filmed by Peter Eijking

 

 

Posted in travel, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Living the Dream Inside a Chocolate Box

Those of you who follow my blog will know that Frank and I enjoy house-sitting and caring for animals. Looking after pets is a big part of the reciprocal agreement between house-sitter and owner. Often feeding the garden birds is something we are asked to keep up during the house-sit. We were once even asked to feed Aldi bread to a seagull called Sidney and his missus Samantha. So far we have looked after; horses, cats, dogs, fish, ducks, chickens and geese.

Dry Your Eyes
Now, my intention was to write a blog about how not to get too attached to the pets while looking after them. But I have failed miserably as I got very attached to one of ‘our’ wards – his name is Harvey – a miniature, long-haired Dachshund. He has the most soulful brown eyes and very soft, long fur which makes him an ideal lap dog, filling that gap for a pet owner who wants the fun and affection of a dog but the sofa-sharing convenience of a cat. Anyway, I have dried my tears which I shed on saying goodbye because the home-owner is keen for us to come back to house-sit next year’s holiday and I have even put my name on the list for a pup should they ever breed from him.

Bumper Harvest
This year has been a bumper harvest for house-sitting wonderful properties, meeting new animals and people! Neither of us were really familiar with the counties of Wiltshire and Hampshire but the rolling wheat fields in the slanting sun of the evening are breathtakingly beautiful. Avebury with its mysterious standing stones and quaint pub (encircled by the stones) was also a highlight. Does anyone remember the 1970s kid’s TV series, Children of the Stones? It was filmed in Avebury and scared the bejesus out of me.

Hampshire is also filled with pretty chocolate-box worthy villages and is only a stone’s throw from London where I visited the Frida Kahlo exhibition at the V&A. (Great exhibition but the V&A has really dumbed down, read my Tripadvisor review here – I even got food poisoning from their restaurant food.)
On a more positive note, Highclere Castle where Downton Abbey is filmed, is also just up the road in Berkshire. We spent a very enjoyable sun-drenched afternoon there, eating our own packed lunch, much cheaper and probably healthier!

Hobnobbing with the Locals
We were absorbed into the community on our house-sit in Worcestershire, making friends with the neighbours and being invited over for oven-baked pizza, Prosecco and a game of croquet on the lawn. The summer of 2018 will go down in history as a hot, dry one. Frank easily spent a couple of hours a day tending and watering (I chipped in occasionally) the extensive garden so it wouldn’t look like the Gobi Desert on the green-fingered owners’ return. Our dear friends, Cathy and David came to stay and David took some stunning photos of the garden and chickens. The village of Rock, near Kidderminster certainly tops our list for friendly and welcoming communities.

harkersandfriends

A Film Star’s Home
Below, a few pics of the highlights of our fabulous nine-week sojourn in the UK. We had originally planned to stay for a shorter period (seven weeks) but due to a cancellation by another house-sitter we had the chance to look after two dogs and two cats in the stunning village of Monxton in Hampshire. The 300-year-old thatched farmhouse formerly owned by film star, Gordon Harker (1885- 1967), is like something out of a fairytale. See more pics and Harker’s Bar on the Airbnb listing. Harker starred in three silent Hitchcock films and had an acting career which spanned the 1900s through the 1950s. Evidently he liked a drink as he built a bar in the cellar to entertain his film star friends. Maybe even Hitchcock had a tipple in the eponymous Harker’s Bar! We have yet to try it out as it’s decidedly spooky down there…

 

 

Posted in travel, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Nostalgia and Spitfires in Bewdley

During a Sunday afternoon visit to the small town of Bewdley, Worcestershire situated on the River Severn, Frank and I stumbled across a 1940s-themed event along the Severn Valley Railway Line at Bewdley train station. GIs, Tommies, civilians, landgirls and glamorous ladies were out in their glad rags strutting their stuff up and down the platform. How wonderful to be transported back to a simpler time when we didn’t have omnipresent, tyrannical technology at our heels. But I told myself I shouldn’t get too nostalgic; I wouldn’t have enjoyed rationing, air-raid shelters, blackouts or indeed any of the fears and deprivations that ordinary folk endured during WWII.

It was pure escapism though on a very hot day with tunes from a less cynical age such as Mairzy Doats, playing in the background. Old-fashioned trains shunted in and out of the the station without much care for deadlines or timetables; time slowed to a more manageable pace. On the other hand, I was also quite glad it was 2018 because it meant I could take a few snaps with my phone and share them with you. Toodlepip! Until the next blog!

Two cool ladies that went the extra mile to look good!

Two cool ladies that went the extra mile to look good!

Taking a picnic along - love the sun umbrella

Taking a picnic along – love the sun umbrella

Welcome shade while waiting for the train

Welcome shade while waiting for the train

Found this vintagey dress at the open-air sale behind the ticket office so quickly changed!

Himself in front of the iconic Spitfire that epitomised Britain’s fighting spirit during the darkest times of the Battle of Britain.

More photos of our train trip in 2014 along the Severn Valley Railway Line.

Posted in travel, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Celebrate National Flash Fiction Day!

16 June is National Flash Fiction day! Founded by writer, Calum Kerr in 2012, this relatively ‘new’ genre of micro-stories is growing in popularity and there are more and more opportunities for writers to submit and see their work published online or in print. Indeed, now we are all so busy flash fiction can be the ideal form of entertainment to fill otherwise redundant time when sitting in a waiting room or standing on a station platform. Its brevity makes it perfect for reading on a mobile device.

Anyway, I will cut to the chase! My story, ‘Swanning Around’ went live on the National Flash Fiction Flood between 6-7 am CET this morning  but you may read it at your leisure via the link below. It’s a 500-word piece about a late bloomer, a stroppy swan and an ice sculpture. If you are intrigued how these disparate elements form a story then please click and don’t forget to bookmark the link for other stories! There will be new ones posted throughout the day and they have all been curated by experts in the world of flash fiction. Enjoy! My piece, Swanning Around

swan-369090_1280

 

 

 

 

Posted in Creative writing, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Sing for your supper, or is it dinner, or perhaps even tea?

A Dutch student learning English once asked me when British people have their supper. A deceptively-simple sounding question, isn’t it? One which I could have answered simply enough by telling him that supper is a simple snack of a sandwich or biscuits with a hot drink before going to bed. But then, if I did that I would have missed out on the chance to explain (or at least attempt to) the rather complicated English class system. It’s always easiest to start with oneself as an example so here goes.

Soap for Tea
Growing up as a smallholder’s daughter in 1970s Britain I believed myself to be working class with middle-class aspirations. We mixed with people from all levels of society through our love of horses and that included upper and middle-classes whom we got to know through show-jumping and Pony Club membership. At home breakfast was cereal or toast (from the Rayburn) with a few rashers of bacon, dinner was a substantial hot meal served about 1pm, tea was a cold meal, bread & cheese and cold meats followed by cake at 6.30pm. This meal always coincided with watching the Brummy soap series, Crossroads on telly, and then if still feeling peckish around bedtime, a cup of tea or Ovaltine accompanied by crackers or biscuits was in order for supper. Having hobnobbed a bit in the tuck shop at Pony Club Camp with posh people’s children I learned that they had supper around our teatime and that it was a hearty warm meal with two courses eaten in an informal manner.

The Rayburn

The Rayburn with toasting fork

Tea table at home

Tea table at home

Supper snack

Supper snack

After tea, washing up

After tea, washing up – All sketches by yours truly anno 1979

Class Divisions
When I went to university I was suddenly surrounded by middle-class people who had their main hot meal or dinner in the evening, a light lunch around noon, tea was something sweet eaten between lunch and dinner and supper a pre-bedtime snack. Are you getting confused? Believe me, I was. After finishing university and learning about garlic, avocado and Liebfraumilch wine, I travelled overland in Africa with a group of northerners and unsure of my provenance they quizzed me about what time of day I had dinner. Even though I had adopted some middle-class habits and nomenclature during my student days, dinner was still firmly embedded in my consciousness as a warm midday meal. Happy I had given them the right answer, I was warmly taken into the fold! Northerners consider themselves generally working class; the hard-working webbed feet of the elegant swan that is England anywhere south of Nottingham.

Source of Comedy
You’ll be relieved to hear I didn’t go on at length to my student as I have done here but I simplified my answer somewhat. But even so, being Dutch and wanting a straightforward answer to a straightforward question it probably sounded waffly. In the Netherlands you have ontbijt, lunch en avondmaaltijd and that’s it.

Is it perhaps time to ditch this outmoded way of pigeon-holing people into working, middle or upper class? But then where would we look for rich sources of comedy? So many of our best loved sitcoms were based on class idiosyncrasies. Only Fools and Horses, The Good Life, Are you Being Served, To the Manor Born, Dad’s Army, Keeping up Appearances and Hi-de-Hi are all built upon observations of the different layers of English society exaggerating each group’s aspirations and absurdities. Maybe that’s why there are so few good comedies being written today as society merges into one homogeneous whole in which everyone is vaguely middle-class. I’m curious to hear what time of day you have supper? What class do you belong to or perhaps you consider yourself classless?

Further ramblings on supper on The Guardian.

Posted in Art, Creative writing, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Hair, it’s our Crowning Glory

At least that’s what women are led to believe from an early age and the beauty industry is more than happy to divest us of our money in pursuit of that ideal. I’ve been thinking about fictional characters’ hair a lot recently. In films and novels Caucasian women often have character-defining hair. Black; witchy and duplicitous, red; fiery and vivacious; blonde; angelic or tarty, brown; plain and intelligent, grey/white; wise and intellectual, curly; unpredictable and bubbly, straight; cool and calculating. This left me with a dilemma because I was struggling to choose the hair colour and type of my young, female protagonist, but I didn’t want to push her into any of those stereotypes.

woman-586185_640 (1)
In a Tangle
So I began to tackle the problem in a circuitous way and by happy accident discovered the fascinating, non-fiction book, Entanglement: The Secret Lives of Hair by Emma Tarlo. Now, like you, I knew that both men and women can need wigs for a variety of medical, cosmetic or religious reasons but I had no idea of the global, largely covert, billion-dollar trade in the procurement and processing of human hair into wigs and extensions. Sourcing hair generally starts in third world countries. Some women sell their hair to barbers for a short-lived respite from poverty in China, India, Myanmar and Pakistan. On the other side of the world, relatively wealthy women choose to boost their income by selling their hair directly to the client via the Buy and Sell Hair website. The reasons for sale are as various as the hair types on offer. Hindus have their hair tonsured in Indian temples as a way of showing thanks, or to seek rebirth; indeed the vast temple of Tirumala acts as a magnet for pilgrims drawing people and hair from all over India. Each year the tonsured hair adds around 20 million pounds to the temple’s coffers.

Giveaway Hair
Sometimes, hair donation is purely altruistic as in the recent case of the Duchess of Cambridge donating seven inches of her locks to the Little Princesses Trust (based in Hereford) for children and young adults who have lost their hair through cancer treatment. How bizarre to think that a sick child somewhere will be wearing our future Queen consort’s hair. Truly a crowning glory! The hair is sorted anonymously so no one will ever know that their wig contains Kate’s tresses.

Decisions, Decisions
While all these hair stories make fascinating reading, it isn’t taking me nearer a solution in my writing dilemma! What it does show me though is how important this decision is and how much identity and status are invested in luscious locks or lack thereof. Would Dennis the Menace be as naughty without his black, unruly mop? Could Heathcliff have been blonde? Could Pippi Longstocking have had mousey-coloured hair? Would Bond villain, Blofeld, have been as menacing if he weren’t bald? How do you decide your characters’ hair colour and type? Can you think of fictional characters defined by their hair? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Embed from Getty Images

 

Posted in Creative writing, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Tulips, skunk cabbage and the BFG meet in Yorkshire

On our second house-sit of the year looking after a cat and Koi fish in Yorkshire, the sun came out and because we probably won’t visit the Keukenhof this year (my husband isn’t a fan of the regimental neatness and selfie-stick wielding hoards) we went to Harlow Carr Gardens in Harrogate instead. Spring has been a long time coming but at last; tulips and daffodils are in abundance, lambs are gambolling in the fields and the Koi fish we are looking after will probably need feeding as they become more active. A few photos of our day out below. Nice and jumbly, The Big Friendly Giant (Roald Dahl) enjoyed the sunshine as well. Really eye catching (and smelly) were the bright yellow Skunk Cabbage plants lining the side of the stream. And of course, a visit to the unsurpassed, Betty’s Tea Rooms was in order to round the day off perfectly…

 

Posted in travel | Tagged , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

First House-sit of 2018!

Our first house-sit of the year looking after dogs; Lilly and Bertie; cats; Thomasina and Purdey, in Walmer, Kent. A few highlights;

  • ‘Beast from the east’ weather meant hunkering down against the elements inside a very cosy house. Warming up again after walking the dogs on the Walmer seafront.
  • Falling in love with rescue dog, Lilly. Her owners saved her from being killed in a particularly vicious way in Mauritius. She was going to be run over by a car as her ex-owner held her down. Thank goodness she yelped loudly and was rescued by her kind and courageous present owners. We also doted on her long-suffering father figure, Bertie who has to put up with her rather spoilt, girly ways.
  • A walk along the White Cliffs of Dover after tooing and frooing past them for 34 years.
  • Visit to the picturesque town of Sandwich and the nostalgic Empire cinema to see feel-good movie, ‘Finding your Feet,’ and a lovely lunch at No Name restaurant.
  • Fish and chips don’t travel, and even though lots of Amsterdam restaurants think they are serving British fish and chips, the Dutch always seem to get the batter and the chips all wrong. So an authentic Fish and Chips is always on the cards on a UK visit. We found the best in Sandwich at Ossie’s
  • Visiting the spectacular Turner Contemporary in Margate and seeing the curated-by-locals visual response to T.S. Eliot’s poem, The Waste Land. Enjoying the views of the sea from the cafe!
  • Walmer Castle and its lovely garden designed by the Queen Mum. Loved the topiary hedge which is very weirdly shaped. Apparently in the winter of 1947 the heavy snow stunted its growth. When the Queen Mum was asked if she wanted it put right, she said no, she liked it as it was, all higgledy-piggledy. We also saw the original Wellington boots in Walmer Castle where the eponymous boot-wearer spent his last days.
  • An invigorating hack at Owl House Stables and enjoying the views of the sea from the clifftops.
Posted in Art, poetry, travel | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Magical Objects and Hidden Shoes

Apotropaice Devices by Alice Pattullo

During a visit to Yorkshire Sculpture Park last year a print by illustrator, Alice Pattullo caught my eye. The picture was entitled, ‘Apotropaic Devices For the Home.’ I wasn’t sure what apotropaic meant, but the mirror-image china dogs triggered a childhood memory of dutiful visits with my mother to an elderly neighbour who had the same ornaments on her mantelpiece. We had few decorative objects in our farmhouse apart from photos of prize-winning sheep or horses displayed on a sideboard. Our main source of heat was a Rayburn (similar to an Aga) so we didn’t even have a mantelpiece to put china dogs on but still, I coveted them. After googling the word, I learned that apotropaic meant designed to avert evil, and discovered that china dogs were not merely ornamental, they also guarded against malign forces entering through the fireplace.

Superstitions
Even though we never had china dogs, Mum was quite superstitious; always buying J-cloths or scrubbing brushes to appease Gypsies who called at our house and so prevent them from casting spells upon us, always turning a horseshoe right side up so the good luck didn’t fall out and always closing umbrellas before entering the house. Naturally, I inherited some of these behaviours. As I sit here typing, I can see at least three protective talismans in my home. The Indalo man (dating from the Paleolithic period), which was a lovely gift from fellow WA member, Chris Nedahl; a nazar (stylized glass eye) which I bought in Istanbul; and a Mexican Day of the Dead skull which I bought in Leiden’s Museum of Ethnography.

Hidden Shoe from Northampton Museum Collection

Story Inspiration
Since leaving the depths of the countryside and living amongst the more rational Dutch I have become less superstitious but for our second WA anthology, Foreign Encounters, I wrote a story, ‘Blow Me a Kiss,’ about a curious object which fascinated me. Displayed in the tiny but entrancing Butcher Row House Museum, in Ledbury, Herefordshire, was a child’s shoe which had been found bricked up in the chimney of a local cottage. The museum attendant told me it was common practice to place shoes in portals of the home, i.e. chimneys or above windows or door lintels. The shoes were meant to ward off  malicious forces, luring evil entities to attack the shoe rather than the wearer. A child’s shoe might also promote fertility so my initial belief that a child had died in the house was unfounded. The Ledbury shoe had merely been outgrown and granted a second life protecting the home’s inhabitants.

Archive of concealed shoes

An Archive of Hidden Shoes
The custom was so widespread in the UK that in the 1950s a Hidden Shoe Index was set up by former curator June Swann, at Northampton Museum. The index lists just under 3,000 shoes found in properties from the Shetland Islands to the Isles of Scilly, with the greatest number being from the south-east of England. The museum also holds 250 found shoes, the oldest dating to the 1540s, from St John’s College, Oxford (pictured above) The practice was taken to the New World by immigrants where it continued into the 1920s and 1930s. The current curator still receives two or three messages per month about found shoes from as far afield as the US, Canada and Australia. The museum index has recently been digitized and should you want to research further there is also a user-generated, online catalogue of hidden shoes with their locations on Historypin.

Are Writers More Superstitious?
So in an age where science and technology rules our lives what makes some of us still superstitious? Are writers and creative folk generally more superstitious than others? Does a writer’s need to attribute meaning to events or objects when creating a story make us more susceptible to magical beliefs? Do you have apotropaic devices in your home or perhaps you are even wearing one? Would these objects be a good way of describing a character who owned them? Or even the catalyst for a short story like the shoe I saw in Ledbury. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

With thanks to Alyson Hillbourne who reawakened my interest in hidden shoes by sending me this article.

Images courtesy of Alice Pattullo and Dr Ceri Houlbrook

Posted in Creative writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Love-lock Bridges in Amsterdam

Amsterdam is a romantic city, full of canals and pretty bridges isn’t it? So you would expect to see many, many more of those love-lock bridges around town. But no, we have only two, de Magere Brug (Skinny Bridge) and de Staalmeestersbrug. The love-locks on the Magere Brug have recently been drastically pruned by the Amsterdam Council  so only a few remain, clinging a little forlornly onto the bridge’s warning light.

View from Magere Brug

View from Magere BrugMagere BrugLove-locks on Magere Brug

The Staalmeestersbrug with the tower of the Zuiderkerk in the background, puts on a better show. As I took my photos I met a lovely couple who were searching for the padlock they had placed there to seal their love, three years ago. The man even scaled the bridge’s chains, rifling through all the other padlocks in a desperate search for it. Sadly, it was gone, but the couple are still together, which strikes me as the most important thing! I wonder if Amsterdam council workers ever have any qualms while wielding their bolt-cutters destroying the pacts sealed by all those lovers? Knowing the pragmatic Dutch: probably not.

Love-locks Staalmeestersbrug

Love-locks on StaalmeestersbrugZuiderkerk Tower in the backgroundLove is Always Hopeful

IMG_20180108_142045.jpgScaling Great Heights for Love

Where did it all begin?
According to Elisabeth Timmermans who writes a great blog called, ‘Love in the Time of Tinder’ (in Dutch) this tradition of lovers engraving a padlock with their names, chaining it to a bridge and then throwing the key in the water dates back to the eve of WW1. In Serbia, the stunningly beautiful, Nada fell in love with Relja, a Serbian officer. Relja was conscripted to fight in the war against Greece but the couple sealed their love and swore eternal fidelity to each other by getting engaged before Relja went off to war. Months and months passed and after a series of love letters that remained unanswered, it finally dawned on Nada that Relja would never come back home. Not because he had been killed, but because his heart no longer craved her or his native Serbia.

In Greece Relja had fallen madly in love with a woman from Corfu and subsequently broke off his engagement with Nada. Her heart broke. A lost soul, she wandered through the Serbian town of Vrnjačka Baja and jumped off the famous footbridge in Serbia, the ‘Most Ljubavi’ (literally translated as Love Bridge). She died from her injuries. Since then the ‘Most Ljubavi’ has been covered in love locks. According to legend, all soldiers return faithfully to their fiancée after their love is sealed by means of a love-lock to ‘Most Ljubavi.’ This ritual practice has now spread over many cities and even though Amsterdam Council does its best, it can’t totally control the lovers that are drawn to this romantic city with its shimmering canals and picturesque bridges.

Love Undeterred
The couple whom I met on the Staalmeestersbrug were undeterred however and set off to buy a new padlock and attach it to the bridge again, this time hopefully for eternity, or at least until the next bolt-cutting killjoy comes along.

Undeterred Lovers

 

 

Posted in travel | Tagged , , , , , , , | 4 Comments