20 September 2014

England: Chester and the Scottish play

We were really lucky with the weather the day we went to Chester for the open-air production of Macbeth at Grosvenor Park. We’d had thunder and lightning in the night and more, plus heavy rain, was forecast for exactly the time the play was on but, in the event, there was only one heavyish shower towards the end of the play, which almost everyone ignored – quickly pull on rain jacket, put bin bag over knees, focus on play – because it was riveting!

What a play it is! The Scottish play has long been my favourite Shakespeare, ever since we studied it in high school under an English teacher who sparked with life and enthusiasm and made Shakespeare come alive for a group of usually-bored-with-English-literature 16-year-olds. And this production was exceptional, with both Macbeth (played by Mark Healy) and Lady Macbeth (Hannah Barrie) performing their roles most excellently, and almost all the bit actors doing a splendid job.

It was superb to see Shakespeare performed live in a round make-shift theatre to an enraptured audience. I have no photos of the actual performance as photography was not permitted so you’ll need to be content with this panorama of the arena and a link to the website.  

We caught the train from Northwich to Chester, as it was easier than parking in the city. The journey only took about 30 minutes, followed by a short bus ride from the station to Chester’s city centre.

I adore
Chester’s inner-city buildings – they have so much character, so much history to admire and absorb. There are black-and-white half-timbered buildings aplenty, and most have carved and painted figures adorning their fronts and gable-ends. 

The oldest streets in Chester also have a kind of double-decker shopping arrangement called the Rows, a series of first-floor covered walkways with shops all along one side – very sensible on a rainy day, I can tell you. Some of the inner city streets are also turned over to pedestrians during the daytime – as a non-driver, I heartily approve of this measure.

Chester is home to a very impressive Anglican cathedral, a glorious building of great age – construction of its various parts ranges from 1093 through to the 16th century. The nave has a fabulous high roof, and the wooden choir stalls are very finely carved. 

The interior also contains the tombs of an 11th-century bishop and a 12th-century monk, as well as several chapels (dedicated to St Mary Magdalen, and Sts Oswald, George, Nicholas and Werburgh). The stained glass windows, some old, some modern, are particularly beautiful as you can see from the photos.

There is a café in the refectory hall, appropriately enough – though we didn’t eat there, and a well-stocked gift shop – though we didn’t buy anything. The Cathedral is a Grade 1 listed building, and definitely well worth a visit.  

Chester’s Roman past is of particular interest to me, as a former Classics scholar, but we didn’t have a lot of time for that during this visit. We did take a quick look at the remains of the Roman amphitheatre and garden and, in the late afternoon, after the play had finished, we took a turn around half of the city walls.

We strolled along the riverside where boats were taking visitors on trips and a band was playing in the rotunda, we ate, and Sarah did a spot of shopping. Apart from the occasional shower of rain, we had a thoroughly enjoyable day, and then as ..

            Light thickens; and the crow
Makes wing to the rooky wood;
Good things of the day begin to droop and drowse;
(Macbeth, Act 3, scene 2)

… we caught our train home before the witches came out to play.

19 September 2014

England: Jodrell Bank Observatory

It was another hot sunny day in Cheshire on the day we visited Jodrell Bank’s huge Lovell telescope. 

This landmark is visible for miles
It was an interesting place but expensive for what you get (£7 per adult – that’s currently NZ$14 or US$11.50), and it is a rather bizarre combination of radio telescope facility and discovery centre, and arboretum with a nationally important collection of crab apple and rowan trees. It is unclear why this particular combination has arisen, except that the property is owned by the University of Manchester and the 35-hectare arboretum comes under the auspices of its Plant Sciences Department while the Jodrell Bank Centre for Astrophysics is part of the university’s School of Physics and Astronomy. Also, Sir Bernard Lovell, founder of Jodrell Bank and the man after whom the telescope is named, had a great interest in trees – at the nearby village of Swettenham, you can visit the Lovell Quinta Arboretum, a 28-acre property with over 2500 trees and shrubs, which Lovell developed from grassland. It seems likely then that Lovell encouraged the similar development of the property at Jodrell Bank.

To be honest, the garden seemed much smaller than 35 hectares and was not at all an inspiration for the green-fingered or those who aspire to be so. The potting shed was not open – though the website says this small café is open from 11 till 3 during the summer holidays; the three beehives where you could, at set times, watch a beekeeper dig out some honey from the hives were a total apiarian understatement – though I’m in full support of anything that helps to protect the dwindling bee population; and the so-called Galaxy Gardens by a well-known British garden personality were also disappointing – though perhaps a visit in the spring when the crab apples are in blossom, or in the autumn, for the colour, would have been better. On the positive side, there was a very friendly cat!

The people in this photo help to show the enormous size of the telescope
Although I had a lovely chat about New Zealand with the ticket-seller who has family in Hamilton (the city nearest where I was born), the discovery centre and space centre were also disappointing, particularly as this was during the school holidays, which I would have thought would be a peak time for visitors. There were some interesting displays and activities to engage the interest of the astronomically challenged but some were out of order and the telescope itself appeared to out of action for maintenance – not that you can normally see anything, as it’s a radio, not optical telescope, but the printout of where it was ‘looking’ was just one more thing on the list of those not working.

Sarah and I had fun in front of the infrared camera, where you could see yourself on the screen – see photo. And we also enjoyed the display where you could use a touch screen to watch a series of short videos by some of the people who work at Jodrell Bank, explaining what their work entails, what their areas of interest are, etc. A video tour of the telescope was also interesting, though unfortunately a rather amateur production and with poor image quality, obviously not designed for projection on a large screen.

Playing with the reflections ... and a selfie

Still, this huge beast was the biggest telescope in the world when it was built back in the 1970s and, at 89 metres tall and 76 metres across, it is still the third-largest steerable telescope in the world. And it is certainly an impressive structure when seen from below. There is a path around part, but not all, of the base of the telescope, which has signboards explaining various aspects of its history and how it functions, and there are some hands-on activities.

One I found fun was the pair of whispering dishes – two hemispherical dishes facing each other, into which you can whisper your secret message and be heard perfectly well by the person standing in front of the other dish some 30 metres away. By focusing sound waves, the dishes help to demonstrate the principle behind the Lovell telescope, which works by focusing radio waves from space. The signboard in the photo above explains it much better than I can and you can see the two dishes in the photo below.

The Lovell is not the only telescope on site – there are three other smaller telescopes at the observatory (though these are not accessible to the visiting public), and the whole place is the base for MERLIN, the Multi-Element Radio Linked Interferometer Network, an array of radio telescopes located throughout Britain

Some major discoveries have been made and important research work done at the Jodrell Bank Observatory, and, if one day humankind does finally discover whether or not there is intelligent life elsewhere in the universe, this could well be the place where that discovery is made. So, is there anybody out there?

18 September 2014

England: Pubs and their signs 1

The pub is an institution in England, a much-loved and oft-frequented centre of its local community, where the publican is counsellor and confidant as much as businessperson. Many of the public houses are centuries old, located in heritage buildings and steeped in history, with intriguing names and fascinating signs that reflect their origins.

Don’t be misled – I did not visit the interiors of all these pubs but I have certainly accumulated an album full of their signs. Here are the first of them, some of the signs that captivated me in Cheshire.

The Bells of Peover, Peover  
Given the name, you might perhaps expect there to be bells in the vicinity of this public house but there are none. The name refers to the Bell family who ran the pub in the 1870s, rather than to the bells in a church or a clock tower. And The Bells of Peover (pronounced Peever), which seems to date from around 1839, was originally called ‘The Warren de Tabley Arms’ – the family crest of the de Tabley family can still be seen on the front wall of the pub.

One particularly interesting fact about this pub came to light while I was researching its history. In the early months of 1944, when American soldiers were billeted at nearby Peover Hall, their commanders, General Eisenhower and General Patton, made plans for the D-Day invasion of Normandy over lunch here. For this reason, the flags of the United States and Great Britain still hang together outside the pub.

The Golden Pheasant, Plumley  
I couldn’t find much information about The Golden Pheasant, except that it’s approximately 200 years old, though the village itself is much older. The earliest known mention of Plumley is in 1119, in the Chartulary of the Abbey of St Werburgh, in Chester

We did see pheasants quite often as we drove around the narrow country lanes in Cheshire and, from personal experience, I can tell you that the pub is very nicely decorated inside, with lots of small nooks and cosy snugs where you can relax in a comfortable armchair with a friend and a drink. I totally agree with their philosophy on how to keep calm and would be more than happy to enjoy more ‘golden’ moments in this lovely place!

The Red Lion, Pickmere  
Unfortunately, I found no historical information about the Red Lion either, though it does appear on the 1840 Ordnance Survey map and I suspect it’s actually much older than that. It was refurbished in 2012 so the décor is very pleasant, tastefully furnished with nice spaces for eating and drinking.

Sarah and I visited this lovely pub twice during my three-week stay in Wincham. The first time we just enjoyed cold beers outside in the garden. It's a great place to eat on a summer's day, the grounds are nicely landscaped, there's a playground for the kids and it's dog friendly. The second visit was for lunch and both our meals were superb and delicious.

The Angel, Knutsford  
Knutsford is a large town close to where Sarah lives and it borders Tatton Park, the wonderful stately home and parklands which are very popular with both local visitors and tourists (see my previous blog). One of Knutsford’s other claims to fame is that it was home to well-known author Elizabeth Gaskell and, naturally enough, the town features in her novels. In Gaskell's time, the Angel Inn was a notable posting house and tavern, and it gets mentioned in her 1851 novel Cranford.

The White Bear, Knutsford  
Another old public house to be found in Knutsford is The White Bear. It was first registered in the 16th century, making it the oldest pub in town, and it’s also the last building in town to have a thatched roof. And what a roof it is! I love the little pheasant and bear the thatcher has added to the roof ridge.

The pub was once a coaching inn – in the 1820s you could catch the coach from here north to Liverpool or south via Newcastle, Stafford and Birmingham to London. There are several theories as to the origin of the pub’s name. The White Bear was the name of the ship Sir Francis Drake used for his daring raid on Cadiz Harbour in 1587; Richard III’s Queen Anne had a white bear as her crest; and, sadly, bear baiting used to be a popular sport in the days before football and rugby.  

The Lord Eldon, Knutsford  
Staying in Knutsford, the Lord Eldon public house (formerly known as the Duke of Wellington Inn) is another oldie at 300 years old and, interestingly, this beauty is supposed to be haunted. The ghost of Annie Pollitt, the daughter of Lord Eldon’s landlord James Pollitt, has been seen wandering the corridors in clothing dating from the 1800s and, apparently, also causes lights to flicker, objects to move and a cold breeze to send the chills up the spines of unsuspecting visitors.

According to an article in the Warrington Guardian on 13 June 2001, ‘Landlady Laura Scullion was sceptical about the myth when she took over the pub two years ago -- until she too glimpsed a white figure. "We had just closed for the night and I was standing at the bar with a barman when the white shadow of a woman moved across the bar and into the tap room," she said.’

I’ll leave you with that spooky tale but, be warned, there will definitely be more blogs about English pubs and their intriguing signs and history.