Pottery and Wheelthrowing Workshop

I have no artistic ability whatsoever, but for some reason when my friend asked me if I fancied coming to a pottery class, I said yes. Despite being convinced that I couldn’t possibly create anything good, I turned up on Saturday morning ready to give it a go.

Potters' wheels in a row
Potters’ wheels in a row

The class took place in Banbury, where my friend lives, at the Banbury campus of Banbury and Bicester College. It was pouring with rain when we arrived, so we were glad to get inside and check out the equipment.

Potters' wheel
All fresh and clean… not for long

We were shown how to create a basic bowl on the wheel, which was operated by a foot pedal. Our instructor made it look so easy – but of course it wasn’t. The first time I threw a lump of clay down onto the wheel, it didn’t stick hard enough, so when the wheel began to go around the clay flew off at speed.

Plant pot
My first bowl plant pot, painted red

Over the course of the next few hours – with a break for tea and cake kindly brought in by another course attendee – I produced a number of ‘interesting’ pieces. What I realised is that you might have a particular bowl shape in mind, but the resulting piece won’t necessarily resemble the picture in your mind. My first ‘successful’ piece looked more like a plant pot. I was able to paint this piece too, and chose a nice bright red for it (no patterns – I’m far too inartistic for that!). Sadly we only had time to paint one piece, but the natural clay is still a nice earthy colour.

bowl
Successful bowl

I tried to make so many standard bowls, but they all collapsed, until finally – success! Towards the end of the session I decided to have a go at making some egg cups. Despite being a proper adult I still eat my boiled eggs out of shot glasses, so the thought of owning an actual egg cup was a pleasing one. I’m not convinced the first egg cup will be able to stand up on its own, but the second seems sturdier.

Egg cups
Egg cups

My creations will need to be fired in the kiln twice and then they will be ready for pickup. I had lots of fun in my pottery class and I would definitely recommend seeing if an FE college near you runs similar classes – it’s something different to do and you feel a real sense of achievement when you have created something.

Myddelton House Gardens

Myddelton House

I went out to explore north London on Sunday and discovered a wonderful little gem in Enfield. Myddelton House Gardens cover eight acres and have been restored to reflect their fascinating origins as the work of Edward Augustus Bowles, a self-taught gardener, artist and botanist.

The Gardens

Myddelton House was built in around 1812 and named after Sir Hugh Myddelton, an engineering ‘genius’ who created the New River, which flowed through the grounds between 1613 and 1968. The Bowles family lived in the house for many years. Edward Augustus Bowles was born in 1865 and, apart from a few years away, lived in Myddelton House until his death in 1954. His work on the Gardens brought him fame, and his philanthropic actions made him a beloved local figure.

The Gardens

I reached the Gardens via Turkey Street Overground station followed by a short walk. There were a few other visitors around, but the place was pleasantly quiet. The house is beautiful, but not open to the public; a small museum recounts Bowles’ life and work, displaying some interesting artefacts. There is also a small cafe, which I spent some time in after exploring the Gardens.

The Gardens

There is lots to see: ornate lawns give way to wildflower meadows, yew and pine trees can be seen, despite the lateness of the year crocuses flower sporadically. There is a ‘Tulip Lawn’, which I imagine is impressive in the summer, and the wisteria apparently flowers beautifully in May. One corner of the Gardens is dubbed the ‘Lunatic Asylum’ as it is dedicated to unusual plants.

A glasshouse

Bowles liked to collect random artefacts to decorate his gardens, including stones from London Bridge, pieces from the original St Paul’s Cathedral, and the Enfield Market Cross. There are some beautiful Victorian glasshouses which are still used to grow fruit and vegetables.

Enfield Market Cross
Enfield Market Cross

I was very impressed by the Gardens and I imagine they are even more beautiful in the spring and summer. I would like to go back, and I’d recommend them to anyone in the local area.

FACTS

Address: Bulls Cross, Enfield, EN2 9HG

Website: visitleevalley.org.uk/en/content/cms/nature/gardens-heritage/myddelton-house-gardens

Opening Hours: 10am-5pm (or dusk if earlier)

Prices: Free

Chislehurst Caves

Chislehurst Caves Entrance

Chislehurst Caves have been on my list of places to visit in and around London for ages. I finally got round to going on Bank Holiday Monday, along with a friend. I thought they would be an ideal place to visit whatever the weather turned out to be like – they’re underground, after all! The Caves are really easy to get to – Chislehurst station is about fifteen or twenty minutes from Charing Cross, Cannon Street or London Bridge, and the Caves are only five or ten minutes walk from the station.

Artefacts on display
Artefacts on display

The only way to visit the Caves are via guided tour, which can be booked on arrival. While we were waiting for our tour, we had a look around the visitor centre – displaying various documents and artefacts associated with the caves – and eating in the good-value cafe. The website states that tours take place once an hour, but they seem to vary this according to demand: it was fairly busy when I went and there seemed to be tours every fifteen minutes. Our tour lasted about an hour, and we got a good look at the Caves and heard plenty of stories about them – some true, others more dubious.

Map of the caves
Map of the caves

While the name would suggest a natural phenomenon, Chislehurst Caves are in fact entirely man-made, mined for flint and lime-burning chalk from the thirteenth to the nineteenth century. William Nichols, the Vice President of the British Archaeological Association, theorised in 1903 that the mines were made by the Druids, Romans and Saxons. This is the theory put forward on the tour and it was only when I got back home and did some searching that I discovered it has now been more or less discredited.

Modern sculpture in the caves
Modern sculpture in the caves

This doesn’t prevent the tours from focusing on the Druids quite heavily, including a mock demonstration of a Druid sacrifice (which, to be fair, was emphasised to be only speculation). At one point we stood very still and had our lamps taken away so that we could experience what the caves were like in absolute darkness. This was quite exciting albeit somewhat spoilt by some idiot using their phone as a light. I do wish the website instructions about not using flash photography or the light function on mobile phones had been adhered to, as it would have made the tour a more pleasant experience for everyone.

I enjoyed hearing about the resident ghost, supposedly a woman whose skeleton was found when a natural pond was emptied and filled with rocks during the war. During the second half of the twentieth century, a reward was offered to anyone who successfully stayed in the Caves overnight; only one person ever successfully completed the challenge, and it is no longer running.

The underground chapel
The underground chapel

During the First World War, the Caves were used as ammunition storage by the Royal Arsenal. In the inter-war years, mushrooms were grown in the damp tunnels, but this came to a stop with the outbreak of World War 2. One of the most fascinating aspects of the history of the Caves is their use as an air raid shelter in this war: local families spent their nights here in specially-allocated bunks, and there was a hospital area on-site. One baby was actually born here, and christened in the chapel we saw at the beginning of the tour. The Caves later opened as a tourist attraction, and many rock stars played concerts here during the 1960s, including Jimi Hendrix and David Bowie.

Reconstruction of an air raid shelter
Reconstruction of an air raid shelter

The Caves are definitely an interesting place to visit and a tour is a good value way to spend an hour or so. I do wish it was made clearer which stories about the caves are true and which myth: I felt the tour was rather sensationalist in parts, and really the caves are interesting enough without this. Still, I did enjoy my visit and I do recommend Chislehurst Caves.

Entrance during the air raid shelter days
Entrance during the air raid shelter days

FACTS

Address: Caveside Close, Old Hill, Chislehurst, Kent, BR7 5NL

Website: chislehurst-caves.co.uk

Opening Hours: Tours on the hour 10am-4pm, Wednesdays to Sundays and Bank Holidays (except Christmas and New Year), every day during local school holidays.

Prices: £6 adults, £4 seniors and children

Warwick Castle

Warwick Castle
Warwick Castle

I’ve wanted to visit Warwick Castle for years – it’s one of the major historical sites in the UK and every time I go to Stratford on the train I go through Warwick and see the signs to the Castle. As a birthday treat to myself I decided to finally visit.

History

The beginnings of the Castle go back to 914 when Ethelfleda, daughter of Alfred the Great, ordered the building of a ‘burh’ or an earthen rampart to protect the small hill top settlement of Warwick from Danish invaders. In 1068, William the Conqueror founded a motte and bailey fort, consisting of a large earth mound with a timber stockade around both the top and base. This mound is still visible as part of the Castle today.

The earliest part of the Castle
The earliest part of the Castle

Henry de Beaumont was appointed the 1st Earl of Warwick in 1088. Successive Earls followed until the title passed to Richard Neville, who married the prior Earl’s sister, in 1449. This is the part of Warwick Castle’s history I’m most familiar with, because of Neville’s role in the Wars of the Roses and his unofficial title of ‘Kingmaker’. Later, the Castle lapsed into disrepair until James I presented it to Sir Fulke Greville in 1604. In 1871, a fire damaged the Private Apartments and the Great Hall and over 100 years later the Castle was bought by the Tussaud’s Group, marking its beginnings as a tourist attraction.

My Visit

I booked online because it was a bit cheaper – also you get to skip the queue once you get there. The Castle is not far from the centre of town so it isn’t much of a walk.

Inside, there is lots to see and do. I decided to do all the rampart-climbing in the morning, before it got too hot and before I ran out of energy. There are great views over the Warwickshire countryside, and there are informative panels that explain the history of different parts of the Castle.

View from the ramparts
View from the ramparts

Underneath the main building there is a walk-through display which shows the Earl of Warwick preparing for battle. Some of the wax figures are a little creepy, but this area is also pretty informative about what is probably the most famous period of the Castle’s history. Across the grounds, there is a ‘time machine’ exhibition which uses video technology to take you through the many centuries of the Castle’s history, with Horrible Histories-style humour.

I climbed to the top of the hill, formerly the old motte and bailey castle, and then decided I wanted a rest. This proved opportune as I was just in time for a birds of prey flying display, which was amazing. I actually ended up seeing two of these, and they were fascinating, featuring kestrels, eagles, an Andean condor, and my favourite – Ernie the owl.

Ernie the Owl
Ernie the owl

I left the big part of the Castle until last. This part was rebuilt after a fire in the nineteenth century. It explored the history of the Castle as a retreat for the great and the good in later centuries, with waxworks of Victorian worthies demonstrating the weekend parties and lavish entertainments that went on here.

Newer part of the Castle
Newer part of the Castle

I didn’t visit the Dungeons, being somewhat squeamish – this part costs more to visit anyway. I didn’t visit the Princess Tour either, that being aimed at very young children.

Nevertheless, I found that there was plenty to do – I think all ages and temperaments would find something to entertain them here. I’d definitely recommend Warwick Castle for a day out.

FACTS

Address: Warwick, CV34 4QU

Website: warwick-castle.com

Opening Hours: 10am-4/5pm depending on season/event

Prices: £36 for an open-dated ticket for one adult that allows you to visit the Castle and Dungeon at any time within 12 months; discounts are available for booking a selected day in advance (as opposed to just turning up), omitting the Dungeon, and for children or concessions. Check the website for special offers. Short breaks are also available.

Birdworld

Birdworld

I was browsing the Tesco Clubcard website looking for somewhere to use up my remaining vouchers, when I came across Birdworld. It wasn’t far from me, and what’s more, it had penguins! So I decided to visit.

Walk from Bentley station
The start of the walk from Bentley station

The nearest station is Farnham in Surrey, reachable from London Waterloo. You can then get a bus which stops directly outside Birdworld. However, I followed the directions on the website which explain how to walk through countryside from Bentley station. This might have been a good idea if it hadn’t been 30°C; as it was, I arrived at the park already tired. There is also a stream right next to the car park that you need to leap over – I was convinced I was going to fall in! Next time I think I’ll stick to the bus.

Some sort of toucan
Some sort of toucan

There is a gift shop and cafe at the entrance, so once I’d bought my ticket I had an early lunch before doing anything else. I picked up a map of the park and checked out the event times before heading off to explore.

Bird
I forget what this bird was called, but it had a cool name

As the name might suggest, Birdworld is home to a weird and wonderful variety of birds, from penguins to parrots, flamingos to owls. It has over 150 species and is the largest bird park in the UK.

Flamingos
Flamingos

You can follow the recommended route, or just wander around like I did. I started with the birds near the entrance, including the owls (this area is named after Sir Terry Pratchett) and the parakeets, before moving on to the flamingos and other sea birds.

The Owl Parliament
The Owl Parliament

Along the way I passed kookaburras, peacocks and the gloriously named Tawny Frogmouths.

Baby Tawny Frogmouth
Baby Tawny Frogmouth

There is a farm right at the back, with rabbits, goats and chickens – there were even a few baby chicks. I missed out on seeing the live show in the theatre as I was a few minutes too late, but was able to watch from outside. I did get to the flight display area in time to see some of the birds of prey in action, which was very entertaining.

Baby chicks
Baby chicks

I left the penguins till last, as they are my favourites! There are two species of penguins living at Birdworld – African penguins, which live at Penguin Beach, and Humboldt penguins, which can be found at Penguin Island. I was in time to see the Humboldts being fed – they REALLY love their fish.

African penguins at Penguin Beach
African penguins at Penguin Beach
Humboldt penguins at Penguin Island
Humboldt penguins at Penguin Island

Before I left, I visited Underwater World, the entrance to which is just across from Birdworld. Entrance is included in the price of your ticket. This place has several interesting varieties of fish, and even miniature crocodiles.

Kookaburras
Kookaburras

I really enjoyed my visit to Birdworld, and if I lived closer I’d seriously consider buying an Annual Pass so that I could visit the penguins regularly. In any case, I certainly plan to visit again at some point.

Friendly cockatoo
Friendly cockatoo

FACTS

Address: Holt Pound, Farnham, Surrey, GU10 4LD

Website: birdworld.co.uk

Opening Hours: 10am-6pm

Prices: Adult £15.95, concession £13.95. Cheaper prices apply for children and under 3s are free. Prices are also cheaper off-season when the park is not fully open – check the website for details.

Walker Art Gallery

Walker Art Gallery

While I was in the Walker Art Gallery visiting the Mucha exhibition, I thought I might as well explore the place thoroughly. After all, it is host to one of the largest art collections in the country outside London. The collection dates from 1819, when the Liverpool Royal Institution came into possession of 37 works belonging to businessman William Roscoe, who had to sell his collection. Over the next few years the collection grew, and the building opened in 1877, named after its leading benefactor, Sir Andrew Barclay Walker.

There are two downstairs galleries, craft and design and sculpture, which are interesting to see. Upstairs are the majority of the works, mostly paintings, which are arranged in chronological order, from medieval and Renaissance art through to Victorian, Pre-Raphaelite and modern art. Highlights for me include the Pelican portrait of Elizabeth I and the large portrait of Henry VIII, as well as the painting of actor David Garrick as Richard III.

I’ve been to Liverpool twice before, only on brief flying visits so I’d never previously had a chance to visit. The Walker Art Gallery is a gem, though, and I’m glad I finally had the chance to check it out.

FACTS

Address: William Brown Street, Liverpool, L3 8EL

Website: liverpoolmuseums.org.uk/walker

Opening Hours: 10am-5pm daily

Price: Free

Alphonse Mucha: In Quest of Beauty – Walker Art Gallery

Walker Art Gallery

I know in London we’re spoilt for choice when it comes to exhibitions but I still get cross when one that I want to see doesn’t make it to the capital. A case in point is Alphonse Mucha: In Quest of Beauty, which stopped at Bournemouth, Norwich and Glasgow before finally ending up at the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool. Mucha is my favourite artist, so there was no question of me missing out. To Liverpool I would have to go.

One coach trip later, and I was at the gallery in time for its opening at ten.

Exhibition entrance

The exhibition explored how “Mucha’s idea of beauty influenced his work. Mucha believed that beauty was the essence of art and was achieved by striking a balance between the internal, spiritual world and the external, material world. This principle informed his entire oeuvre, from his Art Nouveau posters and commercial works to his later works on the history of the Czech and Slavonic people.” [Mucha Foundation]

The exhibition contained posters, sketches and artefacts relating to Mucha and his career, which came to define Art Nouveau and the fin de siècle. It began with some examples of posters he designed for the actress Sarah Bernhardt (their friendship and artistic partnership lasted many years), including the earliest, Gismonda, followed by Hamlet and La Dame Aux Camélias (one of my earliest memories of Mucha’s work is a mirror with this poster on top displayed on the landing in my childhood home).

Examples of Mucha’s advertising posters follow: some of the earliest examples of the use of art in advertising. Most of the posters include familiar Mucha tropes: the stylised women, the long flowing hair, the ‘halo’ and the use of motifs from nature. Later Mucha created designs without a particular advertising focus: the seasons, the muses, the flowers. He also began to work on his Slav Epic, a work dedicated to his homeland which was seeking independence (and gained it in 1918).

It was incredible being able to see some of these original posters on display, especially bearing in mind that they were not designed to last: they were temporary adverts only, but their impact has endured. I was also fascinated by the photographs of Mucha in his studio, surrounded by his work.

This is a fairly small exhibition, and perhaps not worth travelling from London and back in a day unless you’re a really big fan. I absolutely love Mucha, though, and for me it was totally worth it to see these beautiful designs.

Hetton Historical Walk (Heritage Open Days)

Hetton-le-Hole Walking Map
Hetton-le-Hole Walking Map

With the onset of September it was time once again for the national Heritage Open Days, which take place each year up and down the country. This year I happened to be at home, but being too lazy to get myself to Newcastle or Durham to check out what was on offer, I ended up only attending one event. This was a historic walk around Hetton-le-Hole, where several members of my family live, grew up and are otherwise associated with.

1872 school house
1872 school house

We met at Hetton Centre, a fairly recent building that happens to be on the site of the old Hetton Hall. The exact date of the Hall’s construction is uncertain but it was built in the classical style. It had become dilapidated by the end of the nineteenth century and was demolished in 1923. We headed to the centre of Hetton, passing the old school house (opened in 1872), before stopping off at the point where the first moving locomotives ran, taking coal from Lyons Colliery to the River Wear.

Signpost towards the Wear
Signpost towards the Wear

The street is still named Railway Street, and just beyond there are still sleepers from the Hetton Railway. The line was surveyed by George Stephenson in 1822 and was supervised by his brother Robert. Our guide took us to nearby Fairy Street, and explained that it was so-called because of the large hillock here nicknamed the Fairy Cradle, which supposedly dated from the Iron Age.

Fairy Street
Fairy Street

We stopped off at the Primitive Methodist Chapel. Primitive Methodism reached Hetton in 1823 and this chapel was opened in 1858. I’ve been here plenty of times over the years for weddings and funerals, but this was the first time I had the chance to look around and take things in from a historical point of view. The church was built entirely by the miners. Interestingly, there used to be a public house attached to the church – not owned by it, just next door – somewhat ironic as Methodists are teetotal!

Primitive Methodist Chapel
Primitive Methodist Chapel
Inside the Chapel
Inside the Chapel

Heading beyond down the road we ended up in a part of town I’d never seen before, and a beautiful though rather run-down building, the former Pavilion Theatre and Cinema, built by Ralph Barton in 1909. The first manager was Linden Travers, father of the actor Bill Travers.

Pavilion Theatre and Cinema
Pavilion Theatre and Cinema

We then stopped at the site of the former Anglican church, now sadly reduced to rubble. A nearby house (Laburnum House) has a blue plaque with details about Nicholas Wood, friend and colleague of George Stephenson, co-founder of the Institute of Mining, and partner in the Hetton Coal Company from 1844, whose grave is in the nearby churchyard.

Site of Anglican Church
Site of Anglican Church
Nicholas Wood's blue plaque
Nicholas Wood’s blue plaque
Nicholas Wood's grave
Nicholas Wood’s grave

Crossing the road, we passed the Wesleyan Chapel in Front Street (built in 1824) then ventured towards the oldest part of town, taking in Hetton House, one of the oldest houses in the town, dating from approximately the 1720s and bought by the Lyon family (the Earls of Strathmore) in 1746. The house has two extensions, one dating from the 19th century and one from the 20th. It was most recently used as council offices and closed in 2010. Nearby is the former Standard Theatre, built in 1874. It was converted to a bus garage in 1916.

Wesleyan Chapel
Wesleyan Chapel
Hetton House
Hetton House

The tour ended in style as we stopped at the 18th-century Old Smithy which has recently opened up for occasional open days once again. I really enjoyed the tour and I learned a lot.

Old Smithy
Old Smithy
Old Smithy
Old Smithy
Inside the smithy
Inside the smithy

WWT London

WWT London entrance

The WWT London Wetland Centre is a wetland reserve managed by the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust in the Barnes area of the London Borough of Richmond upon Thames, southwest London. I had some Tesco Clubcard Days Out tokens to use, so decided to pay it a visit.

The WWT is a conservation charity with a focus on saving and preserving wetlands, which are havens for wildlife and essential to our ecosystem. There are several wetland centres throughout the country. I actually grew up pretty near the Washington centre, so have visited it several times; this is the first time, however, that I have visited the London site.

Statue of Peter Scott

I got the bus to the centre (several buses run nearby, from Hammersmith and White City) and walked up to the entrance. The first thing I spotted, in a pond close by, was a statue of Peter Scott. He founded the WWT in 1946: the first site was at Slimbridge and even then was open to the public. (Incidentally, Peter was the son of polar explorer Robert Falcon Scott. In his last letter to his wife Kathleen, Scott wrote of their son, “Make the boy interested in nature if you can”. Looks like that worked out pretty well).

Ducks

Once I’d paid and passed through the entrance building, I found myself in a central courtyard with the observatory straight ahead, a café to my right, and two possible routes ahead of me: the West route and the South route, which curve around the main lake in the centre (a map is available online). I opted for the West route first of all.

Assorted waterfowl

It was a lovely day, and I enjoyed walking past the various ponds and lakes, trying to identify the various birds roaming around. This area is divided into different sections, each one based on a wetland from a different part of the world. I had fun with some of the rather random bird names – I’m particularly fond of the whistling ducks. As I walked back I realised I was just in time for the otter feeding. There are a pair of otters here, Asian short-clawed otters, and it was fun to watch them play and dive for their fish.

Ducks having a conversation

When I got back to the entrance I went for a cup of tea before heading down the South route. This one was much quieter, calmer and more open. I passed the bat house and had a lovely view out onto the expanse of the main wetland. I ventured into a couple of the hides, but I don’t really have the patience to sit quietly identifying birds!

Ducklings

A note on accessibility: the wetland was built upon the site of a defunct reservoir, so it’s pretty flat, and most of the paths are wide. The largest hide even has a lift, so overall it seems pretty accessible.

Otters

I really enjoyed my trip to the Wetland Centre. I wonder if I made a mistake coming in the late spring: I thought this would be the best time but in fact it’s in the winter when you’re more likely to see the rarer birds. The website has an interesting guide to what you might be able to see each season, as well as lots of interesting facts about wetlands and wildlife.

Otters

Entrance is pretty pricey, but it’s all for a good cause, and if you use Clubcard tokens like me it’s a bargain. Recommended.

FACTS

Address: Queen Elizabeth’s Walk, Barnes, London SW13 9WT

Website: wwt.org.uk/wetland-centres/london

Opening Hours: 9.30am-5.30pm summer, 9.30am-4.30pm winter

Prices: £13.49 adults, £10.09 concessions, £7.42 children 4-16, under 4s free. Slightly cheaper prices are available without Gift Aid.

The Play’s The Thing – Royal Shakespeare Company, Stratford upon Avon

I’m a frequent visitor to the Royal Shakespeare Company, and I was excited to learn about their new exhibition, The Play’s The Thing. This new permanent exhibition covers “100 years of theatre-making in Stratford-upon-Avon.”

For a short time the exhibition contains the famous Chandos portrait of Shakespeare, on loan from the National Portrait Gallery. The space also displays a First Folio, dating from 1623.

The exhibition is full of costumes and props from the RSC’s history, which I loved looking at, although it made me think of all the productions I’ve missed over the years. For a more hands-on experience, you can also explore the ‘Director’s Desk’, try on virtual costumes (and some actual hats) and learn more about the history of theatre-making in the Company.

2016_1208PlaysTheThing18
Trying on a hat

I had lots of fun in the exhibition. Tickets are £8.50 for adults, £5 for 16-25-year-olds, and £4.25 for children and disabled people. You can convert your ticket into an annual pass so if you visit the RSC often, you can go back again and again.