Llamas, Outrageous Wealth and The Black Death

Our fourth house-sit of 2019 got off to a sticky start. On Sunday we had a gruelling five-hour journey from Amsterdam to Dunkirk in 30 degrees heat (no air-con). Then long tailbacks at British passport control in Dunkirk because according to the official it was one of the busiest weekends in the year with kids going back to school after half-term. The ferry was overrun with marauding teenagers so a quick upgrade to the Premium Lounge meant we could at least relax for the three-hour crossing and have ‘free’ non-alcoholic drinks and snacks in peace. Once on English soil journey-wise things didn’t improve much and an hour-long tailback on the M25 left me wondering why we do this house-sitting malarky! But then after a good night’s sleep and awaking in a beautiful spot life seemed good again.

Pet-sitting Llamas
I agreed on this house-sit early in the year and I knew it was in a grand and spacious Georgian farmhouse in Hertfordshire, and that two dogs and a cat needed caring for. Only in the last email from the owner before we arrived did we hear about llamas. There is no work involved with their care apart from looking over the fence and checking that they haven’t keeled over, so easy peasy, till so far anyway as one never knows with animals! Today it’s cold, windy and wet and the llamas were shorn before our arrival so I can’t help feeling a bit sorry for them out in the field with their backs to the rain. The neighbour’s horse looks none too happy about the weather either…

Plague Village

Spring of 1349 in Hertfordshire came with a black cloud – a plague that would wipe out as much as half the population. It brought death but also major social change.

Before the owners left, we were told that the llamas’ field butts onto the site of an abandoned plague village. The only visible remains of the settlement is a hollowed out track that leads to its centre, but the plague-ridden bodies are still buried there. *spooky sound effect* The farmhouse further up the lane does have ghosts, or entities that move chairs around we were told. (What is it with ghosts that they constantly have to move the furniture?) But the lady of ‘our’ house assured me that  there are no spooks in this building. Read more about Ardwick Village and the surprisingly positive effects of the plague on survivors’ social mobility and bargaining ability here.

Outrageous Riches

Yesterday was a gorgeous day and we took advantage of it and visited Waddesdon Manor just over the border in Buckinghamshire. Some people’s wealth is unimaginable to mortals like you and me, isn’t it? The French-style chateau was built between 1874 and 1889 for Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild as a weekend residence for grand entertaining and as a setting for his art collection. The last member of the Rothschild family to own Waddesdon was James de Rothschild (1878–1957). He bequeathed the house and its contents to the National Trust. It is one of the National Trust’s most visited properties, with over 466,000 visitors in 2018, and in 2017 Waddesdon Manor won ‘Visit England’s Large Visitor Attraction of the Year category.’ The Joshua Reynolds’ portraits were outstanding and it is a NT property that will stand out in my memory because of its opulence and grandeur. Entrance to the house was half-price on the day we visited due to upcoming filming but even so cost 16 pounds per person. It was worth it as we spend the biggest part of the day in the house and grounds.

Home County
I didn’t know much about Hertfordshire before we came here. I always found it a vaguely annoying place because people always muddle it with Herefordshire where I grew up. But it’s a beautiful county, and not as built up as I’d expected. It seems generally affluent because of its proximity to London, but the villages have plenty of rural charm. Nearby Tring has a wonderful High Street and all independent shops. A Midsomer Murders episode was shot in nearby Watlington. That will probably be next on the itinerary once this rain clears up…

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llamas

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Hornless unicorn and llamas

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Llamas

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Waddesdon Manor

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Aviary

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Lafite by J. Vasconcelos

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In front of the country pile

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Over the top automaton

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Job for Grandad and Rodney

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Artist, Gerard Douw

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Subject Madam Pompadour

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Dining room WM

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Waddesdon Manor

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Got the summer dress out.

 

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Is it OK to trample on the tulips, in pursuit of the ultimate selfie?

We live in an era of narcissism fuelled by sites such as Facebook and Instagram. Many people post images of themselves amongst the tulip fields surrounding the famous spring gardens, de Keukenhof and this often involves traipsing through and destroying farmers’ crops. One such tulip farmer, Simon Pennings claims to have sustained 10,000 euros of damage through tourist vandalism. It may not be intentional but the consequences are the same. Read more about selfie-madness in this Guardian article.

Simon Pennings, a grower near the town of Noordwijkerhout in the bulb region of south-west Netherlands, was the first to erect a barrier in his field, emblazoned with the slogan of a pilot campaign backed by the local tourist board: “Enjoy the flowers, respect our pride.”

During the Easter Bank Holiday roads around the Keukenhof were gridlocked and even visitors with reservations were advised not to come (by car) because of the congested car parks and roads.

My very first blog showed photos taken at the Keukenhof in 2012 and this year I visited again with friends from England. It was busier than I was used to as mid-April is the peak season for the surrounding tulip fields to bloom. Even so, the paths in the garden are fairly wide and people behaved amicably towards each other so that it wasn’t a stressful visit.

Top Tips for visiting the Keukenhof

Go on a week day and avoid Bank holidays if you can.
Park at the additional entrance rather than the main entrance.
Take sandwiches and water because the food on offer is only the unhealthy kind, and overpriced.
Get there before 11 am as that is when the coaches arrive from either Schiphol or Amsterdam.
Take photos of the surrounding fields but resist the urge to trample into the middle of the crop. Better still hire a bike and dodge the tailbacks.
Be mindful that this is not an authentic experience of the country. Dutch people tend to avoid the Keukenhof like the plague!

Some photos of my 2019 visit. The theme was flower power!

 

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Creative Hub – De Ceuvel in #Amsterdam

Sorry for the radio silence, dear followers! I have been doing a turbo-boost fiction course which I blogged about for Writers Abroad here. That took up my writing energy for a bit.

Clichéd Vision
The new series on BBC1, Sunday evenings at 9pm, Baptiste, is set in Amsterdam. Occasionally it shows the city in a flattering light, but generally the usual clichés are peppered throughout; scantily clad women in windows being leched at by drunken men in stag parties, a tulip farmer who hasn’t seen a bath in months, Romanian underworld figures who specialise in decapitation, and drugs being sold in every café. These are supposedly the types of people and activities that abound in my adopted hometown. No doubt this has a smidgen of realism, it would be naïve not to believe so, but it’s pretty easy to avoid seedy areas if you just look a little further afield and don’t fall into tourist traps.

Get the Ferry Instead
Few weekends ago, when the weather was all balmy, I got the ferry from behind Central Station across the River Ij, to visit The Ceuvel. This is a creative hub of start-ups, unicorns, and community projects based in a former shipyard that looks out over the River Ij. The community is entirely off-grid, in what the Dutch call a circular-living economy. All energy sources are renewables, everything, including the boats and their refurbishments are made from re-used and recycled material. It has a post-apocalyptic vibe, the phoenix arising from the ashes, but the views over the water are calming and it feels inclusive. Anyone can walk amongst the boats and soak up the atmosphere. It was fun to wander along the boardwalk wondering what all those creative young things were getting up to in their wooden houseboats. There is also a nice café called, unexpectedly enough, Café, de Ceuvel. So next time you are heading Amsterdam way, avoid the clichés and take ferry 901 towards Buiksloterweg instead. All passengers travel free. See another aspect of Amsterdam, just as real as the clichés, a little harder to find but definitely a lot more wholesome.

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Silence: an elusive pot of gold at the end of the rainbow

Cityscape with traffic noise

At least 1m healthy life-years are lost every year in western European countries because of environmental noise, according to World Health Organization.

Noise, it’s everywhere, isn’t it? Loud machines and vehicles are associated with importance and personal status. It’s even infiltrated our language. The idiom; he/she’s a big noise means someone is an important person.

Fire Alarm set too loud
Even if you live out in the sticks there are increasingly loud household appliances to contend with. Mistakenly, we associate noise with efficacy or at social occasions, conviviality. After getting irreparable tinnitus in the 90s from a fire alarm that was set too loud, nowadays, I never go anywhere without ear plugs. Visiting the cinema can be an ear-damaging experience (theatres control the sound levels and the trailers and ads are often set above acceptable norms). I’ve given up on music concerts all together. It just isn’t worth the risk.

Discovering a low tolerance for noise
But before sustaining permanent tinnitus, I was always sensitive to noise. One of my earliest memories is of Mum hoovering the front room and me stamping on the red switch at the back of the machine to silence it. I was then just a toddler.

Hoover

The offending vacuum cleaner

I still have, ‘tender’ senses, a characteristic of a hypersensitive type. For example, meeting a friend at a noisy café with a growling coffee machine, cacophonous conversation and scraping chairs to contend with, the occasion can turn into a trial rather than a treat. Hyper Sensitive People (HSP) are now becoming better understood mainly because of the book, The Highly Sensitive Person: How To Thrive When The World Overwhelms You by Dr. Elaine N. Aron which was published in 1999. HSP make up around 20% of adults and this comprehensive list of traits is helpful in identifying if you or someone around you is an HSP;

The habits of Highly Sensitive People

*They react strongly to noisy environments and need regular downtime to recover.

*They’ve often been told to stop being so sensitive or to toughen up.

*They agonise over decisions: as well as having great attention to detail, being more aware of consequences they also worry about upsetting others. “But they tend to make very good decisions in the end,” says Dr Aron.

*They notice small details: “An HSP will notice somebody’s new haircut or the design of a hotel carpet when others won’t,” says Dr Aron.

*They’re people pleasers: because they’re so sensitive to criticism they tend to overcompensate.

*They feel other people’s pain: “HSP tend to have incredible empathy and will worry about others a lot and be in tune with how they’re feeling,” says Dr Aron

Light bulb Moment
I completed a mindfulness course in 2014, and the aforementioned book about HSP was recommended to me. After reading the first few pages, I experienced a light bulb moment. At last, at the tender age of 54, I understood why I was different from others and needed to recover from evenings in noisy restaurants or parties, and why other people’s bad moods or unhappiness affected me so much.

Childhood is an important time for helping a child cope with hypersensitivity. If a child is taught to accept and value their emotions instead of being told to toughen up, then this can lead to better mental health in adulthood. One important trait which isn’t mentioned on the list above is that HSPs often have a special affinity with animals. As a child growing up on a smallholding, animals were an extension of my family. Animals didn’t judge or worry about me. They accepted me as I was.

Coping Strategies
However, you don’t have to be HSP to suffer from the ill effects of noise so my coping strategies may help you!

Look for silent household appliances. I recently purchased a quiet vacuum cleaner, and earplugs help me cope with noisy environments. I use paper towels or hand wipes in public toilets instead of Dyson dryers. I have a very understanding husband who also cherishes his peace, and through house-sitting we can spend time in quiet places away from the sometimes overwhelming hubbub of the city. Writing and reading are two favourite activities, neither of which involve noise. I go to a dance class where the teacher is mature about the noise levels of the music. I can enjoy the cinema and theatre as long as earplugs are always at the ready! The Dutch company Alpine sells the best earplugs in terms of comfort and noise control.

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A quiet place in Mongolia

Read more about HSP here in an article in the Telegraph.

More in-depth information on HSP at Dr Aron’s website.

Potentially devastating health effects of noise in this Guardian article

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A Ghost Story for #Christmas!


Decorations, reindeer and jolly, rotund gentlemen are all very well, but there’s another tradition of Christmas which I love as much as the aforementioned, and that is a cracking good ghost story. The last few weeks I’ve been hooked on Netflix series, ‘The Haunting of Hill House,’ directed by Mike Flanagan. The series is loosely based on the book by Shirley Jackson. Horror writer, Stephen King, describes the series as, ‘close to genius’.

Memories or Ghosts?
The story is told through two timelines; switching between one summer the Crain family spent at Hill House when the children were growing up, and their lives as adults in the present. The story is told over ten episodes in a non-linear way and we get to know what led up to a night in Hill House that changed the family’s lives forever. We also learn why the truly terrifying Bent Neck Lady haunted Nell Cairn when she was a kid and still haunts her in adulthood long after leaving Hill House.
THoHH plays with that numinous area between emotional vulnerabilities and supernatural possession suggesting that we are all, like the Crain family, ‘haunted’ in some way; perhaps by family trauma, relationships that went wrong or wishes that never came to fruition.

Inspired by Poe
When I was at secondary school, we had to write a story in response to Edgar Allen Poe’s tale, ‘The Black Cat’. I wrote about a girl walking in a wood at night who witnessed a murder through the lighted window of a log cabin. She didn’t see the actual figures but events unfolded in silhouette on the cabin wall. I was really proud to be asked to read it to the class. My first published short story had ghosts and witchcraft, but since then I have generally stayed away from the horror genre because of its reputation as trashy entertainment, and the fact that it’s so easy to get it wrong and end up with something farcical.

Can we learn from the horror genre?
My opinions on horror changed however, when I went to a workshop at a writers’ conference a few years ago. The tutor explained how fiction writers, regardless of genre, can learn so much from the horror story. All stories need powerful antagonists, and horror stories have to deliver on that score. Readers must care deeply about the main character and at the climax of the action you know that your MC will be isolated and face-to-face with the antagonist. The classic three act structure of fiction; inciting incident, building to a climax, and resolution is already blue-printed into the ghost story.

Jekyll and Hyde
In many horror stories, protagonist and antagonist even merge into one, so that hitherto ‘good’ characters step over to the dark side. Indeed, the characters’ struggles with light and dark forces are major plot points in THoHH. This merging with dark forces also happens in Stephen King’s novel, The Shining. King famously hated Stanley Kubrick’s film of his book. In the novel, protagonist, Jack Torrance, tries his utmost to resist the evil forces in the haunted Overlook Hotel, retaining traces of his humanity almost until the end of the story. In the film, lapsed alcoholic, Jack, quickly sides with malevolent spirits and carries out their evil bidding without resistance.

Why do we need ghost stories?
Kubrick said that, ‘The Shining,’ is a positive movie because any evidence of life after death offers reassurance to mortals.
Ghost-story doyenne, Susan Hill, theorises in this Guardian article that we all enjoy thrills in a safe environment and in doing so prepare ourselves for the real frights and dangers in life. And Stephen King suggests that it’s much more diverting to be scared of ghosts than it is to worry about the true horrors of life such as serious illness, loss of loved ones and the grim reaper.

What about you? Do you like ghost/supernatural horror stories? Which ones are your favourites? Maybe you are a rationalist who has no truck with ghosts, fictional or otherwise?

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Coffee, Cake and Furry Friends #catcafe #jippies #haarlem

Haarlem is so close to Amsterdam that Frank and I often go there for a day trip. It’s much more civilised than Amsterdam. The Red Light District there is quite small which means it doesn’t attract the amount of low life and spin-off criminality that Amsterdam does. Many streets are pedestrianised and it generally has a calm feeling which you can’t find in the centre of Amsterdam.

So, after heading to Haarlem and doing a little bit of early Christmas shopping for such essentials as Dachshund-shaped Christmas baubles and mince pies from expat shop A Taste of Home, we decided we needed some rest and sustenance. Good fortune favours the brave and we happily stumbled across Cat Café, Jippies. I believe that this concept of allowing cats to mix with customers while they enjoy their beverages originated in Taipei, Taiwan, in 1998 but it truly became a ‘thing’ in Tokyo, Japan. More about the history on this Wikipedia page.

There are ground rules for each individual cat café however; washing your hands before entry, not picking up the cats, and not giving them titbits from the table. Seemed reasonable enough, so before we knew it we were sitting down being largely ignored by the seven rescue cats that grace customers with their presences at Jippies Katten Cafe

In case you’re wondering about hygiene, the food preparation area is totally sealed off from the cats and they have a separate area at the back of the café where they can escape to whenever they want to. There were no smells of cat either; the café was scrupulously clean. You can leave a donation for the cat’s welfare if you wish, but by patronising the café you also contribute to the upkeep of the seven rescue cats.

Cats, or pets in general seem to engender ‘gezelligheid’ which is that Dutch word no one can really translate. It’s often translated as cosy, but gezelligheid also says something about  a sense of community. At Jippies, instead of being strangers with a load of other strangers at separate tables, it felt like an informal gathering of mutual cat-lovers. The cats’ antics got people chatting and so the ice was broken. So the friendliness brought about by the cats was another bonus. Needless to say, the sticky banana cake wasn’t bad either. So if you are ever in Haarlem in need of a furry friend and sustenance, head to Jippies, Katten Café!

Keizerstraat 10
2011 VS Haarlem
Open Wed thru Sun 10am to 5.30pm

 

Watch Haarlem vlogger, Marit, at Jippies. (all in Dutch)

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This Little Pig Likes to Frolic #Endthecageage #CIWF

Can I Play Outside?
I grew up on a smallholding so the welfare of farm animals has always been an important issue to me. I believe farm animals should live without pain and discomfort and be able to fulfil their natural instincts. At the end of what is hopefully a pleasant life, abattoirs should be local so that hellish journeys are eliminated. Killing should take place under humane circumstances. Sounds easy doesn’t it? But with 600 mega-farms in the Netherlands alone, it’s a long road ahead. Whilst big numbers don’t necessarily mean bad animal husbandry, it often leads to overcrowded conditions and a focus on profit margins rather than quality of the meat/eggs/milk and animal welfare. It’s all too easy to blame the farmer but consumers and supermarkets play a greater role in their need for low prices and high turnover respectively. The Dutch government isn’t helping much, it even subsidises mega-farms outside of the Netherlands in developing countries. Go figure.

No Meat Today
I guess you are thinking I am a vegetarian. I’m not, but I do have meat-free days which makes me a flexitarian. If we all made a few adjustments to our diet and gave up meat once a week that would significantly reduce the need for intensive farming methods. Paul McCartney’s Meat Free Monday, campaign encourages us to have at least one meat-free day a week. That would have a huge effect on the amount of green house gases produced and significantly decrease the need for intensive farming and the spin-off animal suffering involved. Small changes on a wide scale can have a huge impact.

Supporting Campaigns
For many years I have made annual donations to Compassion in World Farming. They have just started a Crowdfunding campaign, to send the pig sculpture (pictured below) on a tour of the Netherlands. The aim is to raise awareness amongst consumers about the nightmarish circumstances some farm animals live in. The impressive ‘Ode to a Pig,’ is made by artist, Jantien Mook, who made ‘Ode to the Wilderness’ which I blogged about here.

Get Involved
Please sign the petition, End the Cage Age. Or better still crowdfund the campaign so that happy pig gets to go on tour in NL, CIWF campaign is open for funding till 8 November. Right now he’s in the Westerpark, Amsterdam, on the edge of the playing field. Why not leave meat off the menu for one day this week? Plenty of tasty recipes via the Meat Free Monday link. Good luck and on behalf of the pigs, thank you!

 

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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

 

 

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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…

 

 

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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.

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