The Newt in Somerset – January


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Last November/October, when my friend Mary came down from London for the day, we had planned to visit The Newt in Somerset, but the weather was so appalling that we went to the Haynes International Motor Museum instead, and a fine time we had there too. This Sunday, the forecast being reasonable, I decided to try again, and take advantage of a promotion whereby I could get a year’s pass for the price of one entry.

Hadspen House (back history here, but not updated since 2007) was the home of the Hobhouse family from 1785 until recently. In 2013, South African billionaire, Koos Bekker and his wife Karen Roos bought the place, including its very extensive grounds, and reportedly spent £50 million pounds on refurbishing it. The complex now comprises a hotel (£350 B and B a night) the Gardens, a small farm, and a cyder (sic) plant. (The Newt’s website does not give the story of the conversion as such, but its The Press gives links to many articles, the most informative, in my view, being those of the Telegraph and the Financial Times. The other accounts seem destined more at those, including the international market, who might be interested in staying at the hotel.)

Having bought my ticket near the car park,

I was directed to the Threshing Barn for further information and the ticket’s conversion into ‘membership’. I saw a modern building, but am now confused as to whether this has just been modernised out of all recognition, or is indeed brand new. The same goes for some of the other buildings.

Looking back at Cyder Cellar, Cyder Bar, Threshing Barn, Shop

Coffee was the first requirement, being served in the Greenhouse, it being too chilly for the Cyder Bar to be open.

When I saw this, I was reminded of an idea I had had of putting together a bowl of cacti and succulents to go on my front and very sunny window ledge. I have realised that very thing today, with the help of a grower living near Bristol. I hope the tiny plants do not grow this big!

Over coffee I looked at the plan, and decided to look at the gardens, nearby, before lunch, then take a walk in the more extensive grounds afterwards.

But first a peek at the Mushroom room.

Began my stroll.

Cottage garden
Through to the Victorian Fragrance Garden

Apparently the squirts of water from fish to toad are set off by movement sensors. I didn’t know this, and nearly got a shower on my calf from a small toadlet on a stone by my left ankle as I moved off! So that’s what the blurb meant by, ‘be[ing] careful not to approach the Giant Toad and her children: they have vile tempers!’

Over to the Colour Garden, to be explored at a more colourful time
Hadspen House, via the Long Walk
The Kitchen Garden in January
Interesting to see Aponogeton (water hawthorn) in bloom. Mine hasn’t shown the slightest leaf yet.
And a water lily thinking about waking up.
There were many labels around the place, always in English, sometimes accompanied by translations into what seemed like random other languages.
Dog kennels turned chicken house
For all their splendour, tiny bantams both
The Garden Café, see through a corner of the Parabola, which contains most of the 500-odd apple varieties grown on the estate.
A few counties were set in stone. Good to see my own, Middlesex, which disappeared in the London government reorganisation of 1965.

Time for lunch. All the dishes, whether vegetarian or not, are named for one of the vegetables grown in the gardens. I had ‘Kale’.

And two kinds of bread and two kinds of butter
The view, through glass, from my seat. Far too cold to eat outside.
I finished with jasmine tea.

A heavy shower followed my lunch, and I thought I would soon be headed home, especially as every gate out to the parkland I had seen in the morning had been locked, and displayed a notice, ‘Parkland walks will be opening in the summer.’ But the rain stopped quickly and I found that a walk into the deer park, near the café, was open.

I soon came to this. Despite appearances to the contrary, the supports are firmly planted in the ground.

At the end of the walkway came this.

To begin with I thought, enviously, that it might be someone’s home. The building was on the plan, but without a label. A young employee emerged, so I asked him. It was the just-opened Museum of Gardening. And here was its door, just round the corner.

The young man asked if I’d seen the deer. I’d forgotten I might. He said I was unlikely now, as they would have departed way over there from their morning hangout near here.

The Museum is to be investigated another time. I went on.

The ball had hundreds of holes drilled, for bees I imagine.

Beyond here was a big gate, with some machinery beyond. I wasn’t sure that I was allowed, or indeed wanted to go on this time. A woman, of about my own age, was approaching from the other side. Did I want to come through? She could let me. I said I was not sure, was thinking of turning round at this point anyway. We chatted, as she clearly knew a lot about the estate. She also asked if I’d seen the deer. There were two herds, red and fallow, the latter very shy indeed. I was bold in my questioning, and found that she was a Hobhouse. My departing ‘Really lovely to have met you’ was heartfelt!

WAY over on the horizon is King Alfred’s Tower, part of the Stourhead estate.

Nearly back at the beginning of my walk, I saw this. On the way out I had assumed it was a bit of fencing due to be placed somewhere. But I now realised it was the top of the Museum of Gardening, a safety precaution!

Evidence I was in a deer park

I looked up, and was surprised to see these does springing up the bank.

They were joined by a buck.

And then by a big buck!

Who wanted me to see his antlers in all their glory!

I took a slightly different route, through some woodland, back to the courtyard.

The Marl Pit

The Cyder Cellar was not open, but I looked in.

The farm shop definitely was open, and I bought bread, tomatoes and beans.

I shall be returning before long, and plan to follow the gardens and grounds through the seasons. Next time I will get there by 10.30, so that I can do the Garden tour, and have some more questions answered. Another time I will do the Cyder tour.

Twixtmas at Trefeca


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A four-day, three-night house party for early music-making fans, between Christmas and the New Year, has been happening for years and years, I’m told, but this had been the first time I’d heard of it, and this was the first time they allowed someone in who only sang, with no other string to her bow, as it were.

To quote Wikipedia, “Trefeca (also Trefecca, Trevecca, and Trevecka), located between Talgarth and Llangorse Lake in what is now south Powys in Wales, was the birthplace and home of the 18th-century Methodist leader Howel Harris (English: Howell Harris). It was also the site of two Calvinistic Methodist colleges at different times; the first sponsored by the Countess of Huntingdon (an English methodist leader) in the late eighteenth century; the second supported by the Welsh Calvinistic Methodist Connexion in the later nineteenth century.” Coleg Trefeca is now the conference centre and retreat house of the Presbyterian Church of Wales, with 14 twin-bedded rooms and several meeting rooms of various sizes. It is a Grade II listed building, and includes the Howell Harris Museum. It welcomes not only religious groups – evidently.

I arrived with a friend in her car (mine would not have taken all her many viols) late afternoon on the 27th, and found that some, after a quick cup of tea, were already planning to make music. We waited until the first official session after dinner, and I sang at that session with five viol players. I was not really intending to take photos during the stay, so have no photograph of that group as I was not with it again.

But my camera finger got itchy the next day, when I realised just how many interesting things there were around the place. First to catch my eye was this clock.

and its explanation, which, as with every other label, was also given in Welsh.

… though it stood at 11.40 throughout our stay.

Behind it was a display cabinet.

including these objects:

Baptismal bowl, presented in 1901
When I saw these cups I thought they were pure 1960s, but they’re 18th century.
“Scissors and keys owned by the tailor and novelist Daniel Owen, (1836-95) of Mold, who depicted Methodist life in his works”

We occupied the place fully. So manifestations of our own lives were all around.

Three viols in their cases, and a cushion

An unlit showcase in another room included these:

“It was the custom in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to present a commemorative silver trowel and sometimes a gavel to those who laid foundation stones of chapels. Seen here are some examples.”
“Chopsticks presented to John Ellis Jones (1875-1968) of Ffynnongroyw by Miss S. A. Jones of the China Inland Mission”

When I walked into the library during this free/informal playing time, I was inveigled into singing one verse of the piece they were playing (it had optional words) in return for being allowed to take their photo.

The dining room and part of the kitchen. Very good food was served, with no tempting cooked breakfasts, and light lunches. Just right.

Also found around the place were carriers for wind instruments and bags of music.

The weather did not tempt me outside on day two, so this was taken through glass.
Beverage station. The excellent and cost-saving system at Trefeca means that, on a rota, we took it in turns to make drinks during the breaks, and to serve and clear up after meals. Many hands, and all that.
I sang with recorders

I just happened to look out of my window at 8 a.m. on day three.

This presaged much nicer weather, and later in the day I was tempted outside.

The Coleg with its twentieth century accommodation block, very recently refurbished.
The ‘Strawberry Hill gothic‘ original buildings
(‘The beginning of wisdom is the fear of the Lord’, if my schoolgirl Latin is correct.)
They said I must go and find the weather-vane. This is the best angle I could get on it.

This being the setting where you could try things, I asked, to the organiser’s surprise, if I might have a session with the ‘loud wind’ (as against recorders) though I’m told I must now refer to it as ‘renaissance wind’. I took out the loud version of my voice, and I was pleased to say that the general consensus was that it had worked. These loud instruments are banished to the chapel (the small one if I read the Welsh correctly).

Cornett, kirtle, and three sackbuts of various sizes

Just a couple more pictures of items in the house:

From near to far: an eisteddfod chair won by Sarah Jane Rees (1839-1916), peot and temperance advocate; a chair owned by William Williams (1717-91) ‘Wales’s’ foremost hymnwriter’; a blacksmith’s anvil owned by Thomas Lewis (1759- 1842), another hymnwriter, and, furthest, if I remember correctly, a chair owned by Howell Harris himself.
When I first saw this, I was just reminded of the dock in a court, but in fact it is a pulpit, made of oak and wrought iron, used at Trefeca from 1768 to 1791.

As we travelled across the beautiful South Wales countryside on day one it had been smothered in mist and fog. As we returned on the afternoon of day four it was glorious in low sunshine – but of course my camera was in my suitcase.

A Mump and a Murmuration


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I’ve tried to find a female equivalent of ‘avuncular’, but, although there are suggestions on line, there is no such word authenticated by common, or even rare, usage. Anyway, I had an auntly visit for the two nights either side of Christmas Day, and we fully exploited the lovely day that was to be outdoors.

A short, sunny, very local morning walk, with Glastonbury Tor to our left (on the outward leg) went unrecorded as far as images are concerned, but it made a good start to the day. After a light lunch, conscious that daylight would not last long, we drove across the moors (formerly known as the Somerset Levels, now renamed the Avalon Marshes) to Burrowbridge, where the King Alfred Inn was the headquarters of the unofficial relief operations during the terrible flooding in 2014. We parked at the National Trust car park, and I offered young-in-heart B. the chance to climb up Barrow Mump, a sort of mini Glastonbury Tor.

She was game. (She always is.) I really should have thought ahead and suggested she put on trousers.

We took a gently spiral route, and looked back from time to time at flooded fields, a normal phenomenon at this time of year. Somerset is thought to mean ‘Land of the Summer People’, from the time before the Levels were drained, and people lived on the ‘islands’ in the winter, grazing their cattle on the flat lands in the summer only.
Some people think that this sort of selfie is just not on (private joke).

It was VERY muddy and even more slippery.

Two-thirds of the way up
We made it just a little further
Coming down
Looking back, we saw that some people made it to the top.

It was not for lack of energy that we decided to abandon our target, but because it just became so difficult and dangerous underfoot. We thought that discretion was the better part of valour. Indeed, we were pretty pleased with our achievement.

A backward look at the ruined church from the car park.

The low sun was getting lower , and I was very aware that these were ideal conditions to see the starlings coming in to roost, since it is only in clear skies that they do their amazing murmurations, their swirling and whirling to avoid attacks by birds of prey. (I presume the latter do not hunt in cloudy conditions.) Otherwise they just arrive where they have decided to settle for the night and go straight down to bed.

I had rung the starling hotline, which tells you where our local starlings have settled the previous night. (They come in numbers to feed in my garden during the day!) It is not guaranteed, but likely that they will choose the same place, out of three possibilities, the following night. By a series of questions during the ten-minute drive to what I made a mystery destination, B. managed to work out where, or at any rate why, we were going. We found many people already gathered at RSPB Ham Wall. Ten minutes later the starlings started to arrive. And to murmurate, possibly the best I have ever seen there.

Those were all taken towards the north-east. The rest are to the south-east.

We stayed for about half an hour, and could have stayed for the same time again to see all the stragglers in. The light was going fast and the birds were still streaming in as we left.

I was, as they say, right chuffed, that nature had laid on this spectacle. B. had not visited Somerset for eight years, so this was real treat for both of us.

Tate Modern


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The next day, my train back to the West Country wasn’t until early afternoon, so Mary and I went to Tate Modern, which she knew well, but I had never visited since its opening in 2000. We went by overground (which was mainly under ground for this section) to Blackfriars Station, and it was pleasing to see that the staff at the station where we got on was taking some pride in its upkeep.

It was just a couple of minutes’ walk from Blackfriars to the gallery, and I took this photo on the way. The station platform, with its solar panel roofing, extends the full length of the bridge, and there is a splendid view of St Paul’s Cathedral over the Thames.

Developed from the former Bankside Power Station, Tate Modern is immense! It is worth visiting for the architecture alone. The power station was designed by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, grandson of the famous Sir (George) Gilbert Scott, and son of George Gilbert Scott Jr., also an architect.

This is just the end of the very long building, which has four storeys.

A controversial extension, the 10-storey Blavatnik building, was added and opened in 2016. The nearly residents were not pleased at the invasion of their privacy.

After just a glimpse of the Turbine Hall, (guess what it used to contain)

we took a coffee in the ground floor café, looking out over the river to St Paul’s. Right over to the left can be seen a small dome (the flying saucers are reflections of the cafe’s lighting) …

… which taken with my camera at maximum, 24 x, zoom and slightly shaky hand, does indeed prove to be that of the Old Bailey.

We had intended to visit a specific paid exhibitions, but, relaxed over our coffee, decided just to explore the building and generally wander. And there was plenty to see. For a start, the temporary exhibit, its surface made of non-toxic acrylic and cement, at the far end of the Turbine Hall, Fons Americanus, inspired by the Victoria Memorial, and ‘a narrative on the origins of the African diaspora’. Here from a first floor balcony …

… and up close to some details from the ground floor.

We took escalators up to the fourth floor, and the bridge across to the Blavatnik building, giving us another perspective on the Turbine Hall and its sculpture.

Having crossed to the new wing, I took a lift to its tenth floor, and went round the four sides of its open balcony, in a clockwise direction. It was a bright sunny day, but it was also very cold and rather blowy up there, so I did not stay long.

This shows just how close the new extension is to the triangular sun-rooms in the flats opposite.
I definitely do not find the bulgy building at all attractive.
The solar panels on the Blackfriars Station platform roof are evident.

Returning to the bar at that level, I was hoping that this message might be accurate, specially having learned some some very depressing political news the afternoon before.

Back on the fourth floor, we decide that we would investigate some of the many galleries. This was in the corridor as we went back to the fourth floor bridge.

The three following are in a temporary exhibition of works by Hungarian artist Dora Maurer, b 1937.

We moved on.

Emak Bakia, by Man Ray, 1926, remade 1970
From Surface to Surface, 1971, remade (seems to be the fashion) 1986, by Sosumu Koshimuzu, b 1944
I was so pleased at how this picture had worked (Mary is third from the left) that I failed to get its title, but recall that the artist specialises in plaits.
Art for other People #14, 1984 by Richard Deacon, b 1949
Sol Lewitt Upside Down – Structure with Three Towers, Expanded 23 Times, Split in Three, by Haegue Yang, 2015, made from 500 Venetian blinds. We quite liked this, if not its title.

Time was moving on and I had to get to Paddington, so we made our way down and out, deviating to a second floor balcony, and returning to a corridor seeking to entice one into one of the temporary exhibitions.

As I needed to get to Blackfriars underground, not overground station, we had decided to cross back over the Thames by the Millenium (aka ‘the Wobbly’) Bridge. From brilliant sunshine, the weather had turned icy cold, very blustery, and somewhat rainy! We did not linger, and I just managed to get photos looking upstream

and downstream.

Despite the art not always being to my taste, I think I should like to return to Tate Modern sometime, to, for instance, see the Henry Moore gallery, and that displaying British art from 1545 (so not solely modern).

A canalside walk in London


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Earlier this week, I went up to London to see my friend Mary. Inspired by her brother’s previous exploit, and hoping to have better weather than he did, I decided to walk from Paddington Station towards Camden Town. Mary met me off the train, which was five minutes early. I was pleased to have her guidance to get me to Paddington Basin, the start of the walk.

I did not realise it at the time, but we must have been very near to St Mary’s Hospital, where I had a couple of minor operations in my childhood.

Looking back at the Fan Bridge

We stopped for a coffee in a café in one of the many luxurious buildings in the recent grand redevelopment around the basin. We sat looking out over the canal, which at this point is the very end of the Paddington Arm of the Grand Union Canal. (On just looking this up, I now realise that the canal we used to visits as kids in West London/Middlesex was on this same Paddington Arm.) We thought we might hang on for the few minutes before the expected Fan Bridge opening, but fortunately checked our facts. We thought that two days and seven minutes was too long to wait.

We also reckoned that, though attractive – in warmer weather – these boats were far too expensive to hire.
I tried to capture in this picture the expansive splendour – about which I had very mixed feelings – of the whole development, but failed miserably.
The gulls seemed to like the roof of the narrowboat as a resting place.
Just one of the many interesting buildings
We could find no explanation of this sculpture of two men facing each other.
Approaching Little Venice, where the Regent’s Canal joins the Paddington Arm of the Grand Union Canal.
A gull photobombs the view of the Grand Union Canal. We’re going over the bridge to turn right and walk beside the Regent’s Canal
A Canada goose is a little more co-operative, but a moorhen isn’t
I think Mary’s suggestion that we take the boat rather than walk was only a joke, but I’m not sure.

For much of the time, because of private moorings, works, or the canal disappearing into a tunnel, we could not walk on the towpath itself. Here we passed alongside the Blomfield Road private moorings, and can see the Apostolic Catholic Church on Maida Avenue. It is (or was in 2014) the only remaining congregation of that movement in the world, and that with limited liturgy, as the last priest died in 1971. There were 200,000 followers in 1000 congregations worldwide in 1900.

The canal goes into the Maida Hill tunnel, but we have to go over the top.
Another short tunnel we could not enter

I was particularly glad to have Mary with me at this point, as works sent us away from the canal for a short while, but she knew where to go. It was particularly pleasing, for more than one reason, to see this as we approached Lisson Grove and the Lisson Green estate.

As we crossed back over the canal. we saw the boat we had not caught earlier on, returning to Little Venice.

We continued to the most beautiful section of our walk, including six Italianate villas, built, amazingly, between 1988 and 2004, as this fascinating article reveals.

Looking back at a vanishing cyclist. I think this is the one who actually said ‘Thank you’ as we stood aside.
This is Macclesfield Bridge, also known as Blow-up Bridge following an incident which led to the passing of the Explosives Act, 1875
We’ve come just a little too far, as we are now at the aviary in London Zoo…
… and opposite the giraffe house.

We made our way back a few yards, and went up a short flight of steps to cross the road to Primrose Hill This plan informed me that, whereas all my life I have referred to ‘Regent’s Park’, I should have been calling it ‘The Regent’s Park’ – which makes sense.

We crossed the grass beside Primrose Hill, resisting the temptation to go up.

So this was the best view overlooking London that I could manage.

I enjoyed the effect of the thinning foliage on the elegant houses as we neared our exit from the park.

A delicious Greek meal was taken at ‘Lemonia‘ in Primrose Hill, but we had arrived too late for the chocolate fudge cake. Perhaps it’s as well.

In the early evening, Mary went off to a talk on Troy, a prelude to an exhibition to come soon, and I went to a Guardian Live ‘conversation’ at King’s Place, between someone who no doubt thought she was too well-known to introduce herself, and Trevor McDonald, held to promote the latter’s recently published autobiography.

A bowl of home-made lentil soup and an exchange on our cultural experiences rounded off a very pleasant day.

Arnhem Remembered 5


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Thursday 19th September. Rather than spend 6 hours hanging around Schiphol Airport, I decided to stop off in central Amsterdam for a while. I had last been there in June 1985, for the International Conference on Prison Abolition, when I was working in probation. It had been held at the Vrije Universiteit (Free University), very near the city centre, but my main souvenir was of two very enjoyable 3-hour canal trips, one of them including dinner. I hoped to pass the time agreeably once more in the same fashion, perhaps having lunch on board.

With hindsight, I wish I’d done more research in advance. It turned out that I could not have lunch on board a canal cruise, not even by buying a sandwich and eating it there. And any cruises before the evening would only last an hour. As I stepped out of the central station, Amsterdam was heaving, with tourists (guilty), and seemed pretty dirty, especially compared with the pristine newness, openness and cleanliness of the Arnhem area we had been travelling in. Of course, much of that was because the whole area had been flattened by the Nazis 75 years ago.

I took a desultory photograph or two around the station,

St Nicholas basilica
Looking back at the station

then looked for somewhere to find lunch that was not a sandwich bar, and where I could sit down. I eventually found Royal98 on Dam Square and had a very good quinoa, feta cheese and pine nut salad, in pleasant surroundings. I decided to take a one-hour boat trip on one of the offers, all of which seemed to be identical. Probably not, but I was feeling grumpy by now. I am normally a great planner, but had relied on there being a three-hour cruise I could take. Had I known otherwise, I would have done a walk round with a printed plan, and visited a museum or something into the bargain.

Anyway, still grumpy, I realised that in order to be able to sit at an open window, I was going to have to face backwards, and I couldn’t make the earphones for the English commentary stay in my ears as I did my best to take decent photos. Here are some of my efforts.

The architecture of the National Opera House is still controversial, according to the commentary.
‘The only spot in Amsterdam where you can see seven bridges at once.’
The only kind of bicycle I saw in the Netherlands – other than the tandem tricycle seen on a station platform on my first day – was the ‘sit-up-and-beg’ type, which, I imagine, has a more formal name.
The commentary encouraged us to look at the varying mansard roofs (which I still prefer to spell ‘rooves’ as I was taught).
When this waterfront was developed, houses had to be of a single fixed width. Some people got around this by buying two frontages.
Houseboats used to be cheaper form of living. No longer.
I was pleased that we went out on to Amsterdam’s main waterfront on the IJ,
Although this looks like a great liner, this was not intended. It is NEMO, Amsterdam’s science museum. Now there’s something I could have done, with a little more research.
Return to our starting point

Having still a fair amount of time, but little idea of what to do, I went inside the Basilica. Its dark (apparently) marble columns and walls reminded me of my visit to the black granite of St Mungo’s Cathedral, Glasgow.

I particularly liked the metalwork, here a candle-holder.

Back to the station, and this time I walked right through it to the rear, so different architecturally from the front. Over the road, through a cycle park, and I was at the wide open IJ once more for a final look before collecting my case from its locker, and finding a train for Schiphol.

The front of the station
The back of the station, on the waterfront

A week on, and I am trying to make sense of the whole experience, which for me is inextricably tied up with the turbulence in British politics right now, Europe-related. Musically and socially the week was most enjoyable, even if for most of the time I was singing below my preferred range. Historically, it was interesting and moving, and at times quite emotionally draining. Beatrix had arranged a wonderful programme for us.

But, thoughout the time, I was keeping a very close eye on what was happening (or indeed not happening in those very days) in Parliament, and British politics generally. Time and again, being reminded of the tragic and hateful results of war and enmity, I came back to the whole stupidity and, in my view immorality of so many aspects of the whole Brexit movement, and how it is tearing my country apart, when five years ago, 95% of its residents knew nothing of and took no interest in the European Union.

At the time of writing I can still hope that the UK will not leave the European Union, which has ensured peace among our nations for the last 74 years, given smooth trade, brought jobs, given study and work opportunities to many (including myself), ensured co-operation in matters of security and crime prevention, and just generally made the world a better place. How can anyone want to jeopardise all that? I understand the political and, (for a few very rich people, financial) reasons, and can only deplore them, and regret that ignorance and jingoism have led so many to support those political reasons.

An unusual way to end one of my travel blog series, but we live in unusual times.

Arnhem Remembered 3


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Monday, 16th September was a wet day, and fortunately we did not have to go outside of the monastery, having a full day of rehearsals and a concert in its chapel that evening. I took very few photos, just two, of guests at our concert.

The first is of 97-year-old British veteran, Private George Avery, 71st Field Company, Royal Engineers. (My grandfather served behind the trenches in the Royal Engineers in the First World War, and in the Second my father in the RAF and my uncle in the Royal Navy. How I wish, like so many, that I had asked the questions when I had the chance. And, additionally this day, I was conscious that it would have been my mother’s 100th birthday.)

In September 1944 the Royal Engineers prepared for the drive north to Arnhem, and in February 1945 built the longest Bailey bridge in the world. Private Avery was at Auschwitz shortly after Liberation and says he will always remember that.

Here he is in those days. Same cheeky smile!

The other photo I took minutes later, of the US Ambassador to the Netherlands, Pete Hoekstra. He was born in the Netherlands, but moved to the US when he was three. He had been at the Freedom Museum the day before and had been urged to come to our concert if he was free. Here he is addressing us before the concert, with his wife, Diane, and ‘our’ American, Bill.

The chapel was full, with nearly 300 in the audience, the Ambassador unnervingly just feet away from us as we sang. Here our conductor, Peter Leech, is giving us concert feedback at the beginning of our rehearsal the next day, as we sat in our same places.

Tuesday 17th September. After lunch at the monastery, we set off in the coach for Uden. We were greeted there at the Commonwealth War Cemetery, right in the middle of the town, by a former mayor, Mr Antoon Verbakel. He has been for many years the chair of a group concerned with honouring those buried there, some 700, the vast majority of whom are British. He told us of the history of the cemetery, and said that, while their annual war remembrance ceremonies ares in May, he personally comes to the cemetery at the same time as – and he choked with emotion at this point – as our Queen is honouring the dead in Whitehall on Remembrance Sunday. He presented Peter with a book he had written giving the story of the cemetery, after which we were free to walk around.

A 32-year-old Flight sergeant from the Royal Canadian Airforce, 26.05.1943
A 19-year-old Trooper from the Royal Tank Regiment, 29.09.1944
A 20-year-old Private from the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, 07.11.1944
A 26-year-old Russian prince, serving with the Monmouthshire Regiment, 26.10.1944
A 20-year-old Pilot Officer from the RAF, 15.06.1943
A 20-year-old Private from the Dorsetshire Regiment, 16.02.1945
A 19-year-old Private from the East Yorkshire Regiment, 09.03.1945
A 21-year-old from the Royal Marines, 13.04.1945
A 20-year-old from the Polish forces, 31.03.1945
A 31-year-old Navigator from the RAF, 27.01.1943
A 25-year-old Corporal from the Royal Welch Fusiliers, 25.10.1944
A 21-year-old from the Glider Pilot Regiment of the Army Air Corps, 25.09.1944
A 33-year-old Corporal from the Somerset Light Infantry, 04.10.1944
An Unknown Soldier from the Royal Household Corps, October 1944
A 29-year-old from the Military Police, 13.04.1945

And many hundreds more, including servicemen from New Zealand and Australia.

It was time to walk to the parish room of the St-Petrus Kerk, where we would give our second concert. This was not just any old kerk. It was the size of a cathedral!

It was just as big inside as it was outside, as we discovered during our rehearsal.

Between rehearsal and concert, we were as bad as the youngsters…

For the concert, the church, while not packed, was very full, probably the same number as the night before. We were delighted to see Private Avery and his family there again in the front row, joining in, along with the rest of the audience, our encore, an arrangement of ‘We’ll meet again.’ The Dutch know it as well, if not better than the British do.

Arnhem Remembered 2


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Sunday 15th September. We were free for the early part of the morning as the chapel was being used for eucharist. So I went out for a short walk with Clementine and Mariske. The first thing I saw of note was a huge pile of sugar beet, a first for me.

A pleasure lake pleases both humans and cormorants
Two adjacent fields were full of wild geese, Barnacle and Greylag. The farmers do not like them, I was told.
Clementina and Mariske did not take much persuading to climb onto this sculpture ‘The sunken windmill’, on the site of a real one which had stood here from about 1300 until 1929

After a late morning rehearsal and lunch, we piled into a coach to be taken to what had, until recent renewal and enlargement, been called the Nationaal Bevreijdingsmuseum (National Liberation Museum). Having just reopened on 1st September, it was now called the Vreiheidts Museum (Freedom Museum). The Museum was the sponsor of our entire weeklong visit. The journey to Groesbeek took about 45 minutes.

Passing via Nijmegen, we crossed the Waal, a distributary of the Rhine.

As we arrived, a Dutch Band, calling itself Bill Baker’s Big Band, was playing American dance music of the ‘forties.

We stood and listened for a while, before moving to the museum itself.

The museum itself may be finished, but its landscaping has not quite yet been completed. Its dome is reminiscent of a parachute.

Once inside we assembled in the café, were given vouchers for refreshments to be taken later, and were welcomed by the Director of the Museum.

Items on sale
I don’t think this radio equipment was on sale!
Beatrix and the Director of the Museum, Wiel Lenders

As planned, we moved back to the performing area,

and sang four short items from our programme, not under the tent but in front of it. The woman singing with the band had been amplified and I was a little concerned that the audience would not be captured by our acoustic sound, but they were, and were highly appreciative. I was delighted to find that we had been singing under the EU flag.

After refreshments, we were then free to look around the museum. This was very comprehensive, and dealt fully with the build-up to WWII, its roots in WWI, poverty and unemployment, the rise of Nazism, and moved on to the course of the war, particularly as it affected the Netherlands. Here are just a few of the many photos I took, some of them not as focussed as they might have been by my less than steady hand in dim light.

A short film introducing the Museum
It was inevitable that much of the explanation had to be in text panels. These were in Dutch, English and German.
Unemployment leading to unrest
The outbreak of war, and Nazi occupation of surrounding countries. (I use the word ‘Nazi’ deliberately. I learnt later in the week that one of the two brave Germans in our group was very uncomfortable at the use of the ‘German’ in connection with the events.)
A reference to WWII in other parts of the world
The stories of individuals
A German (I can’t avoid the word here) one-person bunker, offering protection against flying shrapnel and shells.
American carrier pigeon’s uniform. Pigeons ‘were normally transported in cages. This uniform was used for short transports during which a pigeon could be tied to a soldier’s uniform with a piece of string. Paratroopers sometimes jumped with the carrier pigeon strapped against their chest.’
My time started running out. I had no time left to sit down, choose my language, and watch the mock up of the progress of the Operation.
A photo of a small part of the parachute drops in September 1944.
And I just had to rush through the last sections of the Museum

As I went round, I felt so strongly that our current politicians, many of them a near generation younger than me, should be obliged to visit this museum to understand what the EU is really all about, and why it was created.

This was ironically brought home even more as we realised that our route home was actually taking us through a small corner of Germany. Only the yellow street signs told us we had crossed a country border.

Arnhem Remembered 1


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I have just spent a week in the Netherlands, commemorating with an ‘International Liberation Choir’ of 24 singers, the 75th anniversary of Operation Market Garden, also known as the Battle of Arnhem. “In the summer of 1944, the Allies launched a daring airborne operation to secure the River Rhine crossings and advance into northern Germany. Although it ultimately failed to achieve its objectives, the determination and courage shown by the airborne troops and the units that assisted them made Market Garden one of the Second World War’s (1939-45) most famous battles.” (The opening of the National Army Museum’s account. See also the Imperial War Museum’s story in pictures, and a very full account in Wikipedia.)

Friday 13th September. I had had about two hours’ sleep the night before, reading far too late about the Operation, and about the authenticity of the film, ‘A Bridge Too Far’ which I had just watched, (very authentic, except that Montgomery is let off lightly at the expense of Browning), and worried that I would not wake up at 3.15.

Arriving at Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport, I boarded a train to Arnhem, where I arrived about lunchtime, despite a 75-minute delay at Bristol Airport for lack of buses from terminal to plane.

No-one with me on the upper deck of the train. Am I on the right one?
The very flat Dutch countryside
The Amsterdam-Rhine Canal accompanies the railway line as far as Utrecht, used here by a pleasure boat,
and here by a commercial one.
Examples of the double-decker train I was on, and a regional train.
Given that this was the Netherlands, I saw hundreds and hundreds of bicycles during the week. But this was the only tandem tricycle I saw, here on the railway platform of a station we passed through.

Fortified by an excellent mushroom and cheese omelette at the Robin-Hood bistro café …

Again I have the place to myself!

… I caught the no. 300 bus to Huissen, for a short walk to the Dominican monastery where most of us were to stay (several lived near enough not to have to) and to rehearse.

View from my window.

The main function of the monastery, which now has only four monks, is as a modest guest house for groups and individuals. Far from a spartan cell, my room was comfortable and a very decent size. Showers and loos were a short way down the corridor, but there was a basin in each room.

I spent the rest of the afternoon settling in and relaxing in my room, before meeting the others in the dining room for a very early evening meal. The choir was 24-strong: 12 Dutch, 9 British, two German and one American. Sadly the only Polish representative had had to drop out shortly before the week, and the organiser, the amazing Beatrix, had not been able to find a Canadian singer at all. These six countries were those involved in Operation Market Garden in 1944. The British conductor, composer, and lecturer, Peter Leech, directed the music.

Saturday, 14th September. I explored the grounds for a few minutes before breakfast.

We were not the only guests. When we arrived there was also a group in residence studying meditation for the weekend, and others came and went during our stay.

The whole of Saturday was spent discovering and rehearsing the repertoire for our concerts. Early on, the director of hospitality led Marianne Schuurmans, mayor of Lingewaard (the municipality which includes Huissen, link is to map), and the prior of the monastery into the chapel to welcome and thank us. In excellent English.

We had the splendid library to ourselves for our breaks.

Not surprisingly, our moving programme told of war, of death, of remembrance, of commemoration, and of peace and hope. It included works by composers and poets of the six nations, including Tallis and Parry, the Canadian Kathryn Rose, Huub de Lange, J C Bach and Hugo Distler, the Polish early baroque composer Bartolomiej Pekiel, the American Peter C Lutkin, and three pieces by Peter Leech. I was choking as we first sang through his ‘In Flanders Fields‘, a poem by the Canadian physician and lieutenant-colonel John McCrae, apparently well-known but which I had never come across before.

After another early evening meal, there was time for a wander round the town.

I was delighted to catch the tail end of a carillon.

Back to the monastery.

I saw an information board which told me that it had been founded in the 19th century, and had played an important role in the war, when much of the territory around had been flattened. The clean and peaceful present-day surroundings were such a contrast.

Model of the monastery and its guest house in the vestibule.

Arnhem Remembered 4


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Wednesday 18th September. Before we set off for today’s events, Mariske, on behalf of all of us, presented Beatrix with some flowers to thank her for all the hard work she had put in, on a purely voluntary basis, to organise our splendid week. What a lot she had had to think about! And later, we gave a her a restaurant voucher, which will have enabled her to have good company with her as well.

Beatrix had certainly organised a full day for this our last day! After the presentation, we once more embarked in our coach, armed with packed lunch, music and costumes, and travelled again to Groesbeek, passed the Freedom Museum, and shortly afterwards stopped on the road at Wylerbaan, like many other vehicles, to catch a few minutes of a parachute drop, the first of several sessions that day. I manage to get these photos through the coach window.

That session over, we were able to move on the remaining few hundred metres to park, and walk a short distance to the spectators’ ground, encountering many people coming away from the session of which we had seen just a little.

It was time for lunch. It was going to be a while before the next demonstration.

Most of us ate standing up. The alternative was sitting on straw and dust.

In due course we were diverted by hang gliders, some, Beatrix told me, (translating from the Dutch commentary), with people making their first drop, in tandem. (Remind me to add that to my list of unfulfilled ambitions.)

I spotted some red berets eating their frites, and went over to talk to them. It turned out they were German paratroopers, volunteers for the day. They had already done one jump each and were due to do more. (I never did find out exactly who was taking part in the demonstration that day, but I had the impression there were no UK or US paras there. Perhaps they were being saved for the following weekend, when Princess (formerly Queen) Beatrix of the Netherlands and Prince Charles were attending the commemorations.)

I asked if I could take a photo of the badge of the spokesman, and got his smiley eyes as well.

The next session of parachute drops was about to start. I moved down to the fence to get the fullest view. Here they come.

And I switched to video to get the full passage of four planes, each spewing out a dozen or so paratroopers, followed up by a fifth plane, whose purpose was not clear to me.

The planes then circled round several more times to pass again and release more paras.

(This picture makes me think of Magritte for some reason.)

In due course we had to remember our musical obligations. As we left I spotted a group of four more soldiers in uniform, chatting together. One would not be photographed, but the others agreed. It turned out they were Dutch military police.

That’s one of our number photobombing!

As we walked away I got this beautifully sunlit photo of one of the C-130 Hercules. I just love it’s bottle-nosed dolphin nose! Its registration is G-273, and I’ve been able to find out that it belongs to the Royal Netherlands Air Force.

During our time in the country we had seen virtually none of that icon of ‘Holland’: windmills. But we did pass this one as we drove to our concert location. It turns out it was South Windmill, now one of many war memorials in Groesbeek. ‘In the cupola of this mill was planned the Spring offensive of 1945 by 400,000 British and Canadian soldiers… that … allowed irresistible Allied armies to cross the Rhine and end the war. … [T]he crucial role of this mill as the prime observation has been immortalized ….. by George G Blackburn, who as an artillery forward observation officer spent much of the winter of 1944-45 in its cupola.’

It was good to find that we were to sing in a more modest-sized church that evening.

After short rehearsal, we got back into the coach to be taken to a pancake house (the Pannenkoeken Restaurant de Duivelsberg). Because of coach access problems, this involved a short walk though a nature reserve.

Not only was that pleasant, it was worth it!

My cherry pancake was excellent!

It had been intended that we visit a Canadian war cemetery before the parachute drop, but time had run out, so Beatrix fitted it in now.

Post Script. I have since learned that although this is called the Canadian War Cemetery, in addition to the 2617 graves of known servicemen, the memorial is to 1,047 missing soldiers whose bodies were never found. They died during operations in northwest Europe after August 1944 when the River Seine was crossed. Their names are on the red brick memorial, and include 942 British, 102 Canadians, 2 South-Africans, and one British aviator.

There was plenty of time back at the church for us to get ready, and we were amused to be able to watch the audience coming in via CCTV!

It was standing room only for the concert, with welcome and introduction by Wiel Lenders, (Director of the Freedom Museum). His also were the thanks and valediction (‘We’ll meet again’ had again gone down very well), at the end of which each one of us was presented with a (paper) carrier bag with souvenir booklets and other items.

We departed separately after breakfast the following morning, and I spent some hours in Amsterdam. That will be the subject of the final blog in this series.