Museum visits as the Easter school holiday comes to an end; Cheltenham wisteria well in advance of London’s

Mauve wisteria Cheltenham

Attending a choir school is a mixed blessing. On the one hand, there’s a real emphasis on music making, whether playing instruments or being in one or more of several choirs, but on the other it does mean the holidays are often out of rhythm with other schools. Autumn half term is always a fortnight to help the choir have the stamina for the Christmas period and a late Easter also means an extended holiday to give the choir school a chance to recover from their exertions. But we shouldn’t complain too much for last week when I went down to London to help out, going to museums, shops and using public transport was a bit of a child free dream.

Fair isle jumper with wisteria flowers (May 2018)

A new window of experience opened for me on Tuesday when for the first time ever I scooped my 4 year old granddaughter up and set off on a bus to visit just one shop – Liberty’s just off Regent Street. She was especially pleased about this for unknown to me, a 2021 film, Cruella – which tries to give the 1001 Dalmatians’ character a bit of a back story – is set in the shop (complete with a totally imagined glass covered dress-designing department and back-of-shop corridors decorated with the most wonderful floor to ceiling tiles.) First of all we stood outside and waited for the shop’s clock to strike the hour so we could see a rather sedate St George chase a rather sluggish dragon round and round a few times – something which Daughter No 1 later said that I’d never done with her. Then, noting the gold galleon on top of the building in we went to amble round the jewellery, swish the silk scarves hanging on display and test a couple of perfumes as we passed. Up by lift to the top floor, we then worked our way down, the smallest person particularly enjoying wandering among the piled rugs and textiles of the cave-like carpet department, being lifted up to look over the central well where hanging mermaids dangled and walking around the fabric department where neatly stacked banks of every pretty pattern imaginable delighted the eyes in a way that the film completely forgot about.  A display of things sugar almond pink and glittery tucked away in a corner by the stairs had my companion spellbound and speechless but to her credit there were no demands to be bought anything and after a light lunch, we left the shop empty handed (well, I fib, I bought 3 very plain navy buttons for the wool coat she’d brought with her as I thought the metal buttons it had were too heavy for the stretched buttonholes.)  Once home and quite tired from our outing we watched a bit of the film that had so excited her.


Cheltenham wisteria over the garden wall

Wednesday was very finely planned as I had two activities in mind, both of which I hope will become things we do regularly in school holidays. First we (me, the au pair, CJ, and the 2 small people) visited the National Gallery, but this time we began with the Sainsbury wing with its Early Renaissance paintings because, since her first proper school Christmas, the smallest person has become very taken with baby Jesus and some of the sweetest are to be found here. Saint Sebastian did not go unnoticed and inadequate as was my explanation for why he was pierced with quite so many arrows, we were lucky that she thought no more of it and moved on. Gallery staff obviously aim to keep regular visitors on their toes and it was interesting to have to hunt out favourite pictures hung in different places from our last visit. A new acquisition caught our eyes, The Red Boy by Sir Thomas Lawrence (1825) which had only come into the collection in 2021 having been in the Lambton family since its commission. We had had a reproduction of this in my childhood home so it was a particular pleasure to see the real thing which was even lovelier than I imagined. Thoughts of The Red Boy often bring with it thoughts of The Blue Boy (Gainsborough, 1770) which coincidentally is on display at the National Gallery for just another 2 weeks before returning to The Huntingdon Museum in California. I doubt I shall get to see it. Lunch of quiche (and salad for the adults) was eaten up with relish and not an ounce of fuss and the small person was commended for successfully navigating a restaurant full of seated and moving adults while carrying a tray with two lunches on it.

Wisteria embroidered wedding coat (2017 hand embroidered by Mary Addison)

Now the tricky bit came. I wanted to take the small person to a lunchtime concert at the Wigmore Hall where a young violinist and pianist were performing. The small person had just passed his Grade I violin so it seemed an experience too good to miss. With fingers crossed we would take the 4 year old too and if it all became too much CJ would take her out. Incredibly everything went ultra smoothly. A cab took us from the National Gallery to the Wigmore Hall (and only cost £10) and the Wigmore Hall were delightfully welcoming of children, both of whom, along with the 19 year old au pair were free (as the concert was part of the Cavatina Chamber Music Trust ticket scheme) while mine was also reduced in price. With seats 4 rows from the front, the 2 small people got comfortable in their plush velvet chairs and looked about them at the building in quiet anticipation of a new experience. I need not have worried about the smallest person for the performers were full of personality and played their instruments with dynamism and a great deal of panache. The pianist bounced off his seat with exuberance and played with a flamboyance that drew you to his tiny quick hands, while his iPad score turned pages of its own volition like something out of the Sorcerer’s Apprentice.  Dressed in red trousers and a camisole top with a cleverly folded peplum, the violinist made an immediate impact on the smallest person. For her too the music took over her whole body and drew you into the subtleties of the harmonies and the sometimes not at all subtle dissonances. Within the first few minutes of playing I felt that elastic feeling of something being stretched out of my very being. Goodness knows what the children felt. Delighted at how both children had behaved, I decided that was enough for one day so we left after the Brahms.  After such a full day, the two children played, mainly amicably with their magnet building toy and although there was a bit of a difficult teatime with the smallest person, we knew they’d had a day to remember.

White wisteria in an Islington garden
May 22 2017

Because British Museums are free and bus travel is too for the under 11s (and the aged), there’s really no point in not going out on as many days as possible during the holidays. And so it was that Thursday saw our little team of four heading to the Natural History Museum. As with the National Gallery, it was a first for the au pair, so we did the classic dinosaur bits before going upstairs and visiting the geological specimens which I thought they might find boring. Fortunately bright coloured minerals and some stunning cut stones excited their interest. I’ve always enjoyed this gallery in its old fashioned cases and the children seemed to too. It seemed a good idea to look at the most recent meteorite of February  2021 that fell on the front drive of a house in Winchcombe just outside Cheltenham but honestly, it was difficult to get excited about it. I did, however,  get excited about seeing the museum’s Archaeopteryx fossil of a creature transitional between dinosaurs and modern birds. British museums are really getting their act together on the catering front and CJ and I had delicious chicken salads that wouldn’t have shamed Ottolenghi; the small person chose and ate an enormous cheese baguette while his sisterr had a children’s lunch of a soft roll with cheese, a museli biscuit and a apple. Another brilliant day.

White wisteria, Islington, 22 May 2017

Apart from lunch we bought the children nothing at all – and nor did they ask for it which is even more impressive. If they carry on like this I shall be happy to take them anywhere. The Nutcracker, Les Miserables, Glyndebourne (Mozart, I think) – all may be possible. What future fun.

It is, however, wonderful to be home in Cheltenham! where the wisteria is full on to overflowing. The London wisteria is way behind and at that sad looking will it/won’t it stage when you’re not sure whether it’ll ever come to something. I’m back again for a certain one’s 5th birthday in 2 week’s time, perhaps it’ll be divine then. Oh and my son liked his T shirt – a real triumph as it’s the only thing I’ve ever made for him!


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Book of Kells style A T shirt

Book of Kells style A (hand embroidered by Mary Addison)

Having been in T shirt embellishing mode recently, I recklessly thought it was time I did something for my son. When I first suggested the idea he looked a bit hesitant but perked up when I started talking of an initial in the style of the Book of Kells, whose strongly entwined patterns I know he likes. Now I’ve finished the T shirt I think the yellow and red are a bit bright –  my supply of jersey for appliqué is limited.  I have a feeling that after I show it to him next week when I go to London, I may well end up soaking it in a bath of warm tea which is always a good way to take the edge off the colours. If that fails, we shall just have to write it off to experience and he can use it for house painting, gardening, climbing mountains, etc. What is life without a bit of experimentation even if it doesn’t quite work?

T shirt with Book of Kells style A (hand embroidered by Mary Addison)

For the last of my husband’s latest art appreciation sessions which focused on looking at paintings of people at work, we were a small, select group of about 8 (not including Chapel Arts staff, at least one of whom draws up his chair to look and listen). Coming straight after a Bank Holiday people were away doing other things which is to be expected. However, sometimes being part of a smaller group enables people to open up and join in with their own experiences, which are often eye openingly interesting or at the very least informative – one man explained the complexities of water management as we looked at a Constable Stour valley painting while on another occasion a depiction of the annual Rushcart festival at Saddleworth Church in 1828 caused a bit of a Morris-dancing-on-the-green sort of titter – rightfully silenced when someone pointed out that she’d lived in that village and that moreover, the rush festival – still celebrated – was as important a date on the calendar as the harvest festival. Architects and engineers are always useful in the audience, although sometimes the brave soul who says they haven’t a clue as to what a painting is about  can be the very best person to have around. Last week paintings of factory work during the second World War initiated a conversation about how women had enjoyed some of the most physical of factory work while men were away fighting. One woman’s mother had worked in a munitions factory, while another woman’s grandmother had worked as a welder and really enjoyed it  – for a while we were all very Foyle’s War. It was interesting though that two out of eight of those present had direct knowledge from relatives with such experience – we are after all 70 + years on from WWII.

April has in the main been unusually dry but crossing Montpellier Gardens after rain one day our noses were greeted by that most lovely of smells – no not cut grass after lawn mowing, although that’s pretty glorious, but the scent of rain on earth that has been dry for just that bit too long. And what is even more wonderful is that I’ve just discovered this sublime fragrance has a lovely name – petrichor (from the Greek ‘petra’ meaning stone and ‘ichor’ which is the word for the ethereal blood of the gods). The word dates back to just 1964 when Australian scientists isolated the chemicals involved. Petrichor refers to both the scent and its chemical components, the most important of which is something called geosmin, the product of Streptomyces bacteria living in the soil. Also contributing to the smell  are oils produced in plants’ roots which act to put a stop to growth and seed germination during dry spells. When a rain drop hits the dry earth, minute air bubbles capture the smell as  they bounce off and upwards to passing nostrils and so give the human owners the familiar feeling of earthy wellbeing.  Mmmmmm. Our neighbours’ mauve wisteria has rushed out with the sun this last week, so I’m hoping for only gentle falls of rain for the time being. It’s a wonderful time for a week in London as I shall catch another wisteria, this time white, which generously cascades more on our side than theirs. Oh, don’t you love spring!

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