Wednesday, 16 March 2016

“Painting the Modern Garden, Monet to Matisse .“ At the Royal Academy of Arts, Piccadilly

On Saturday 13th February this year Marilyn, Abi and myself went to see, “Painting the Modern Garden Monet to Matisse ,“ at the Royal Academy of Arts, just off Piccadilly.
It was an excellent exhibition displaying pictures from various artists who painted their gardens during the late 1800s into the early 1900s. Claude Monet’s garden pictures dominate, however the exhibition provided a detailed examination of the role of the garden in art and in peoples’ lives of the early 20th century right up to now. It covered all the modern genres of painting, Impressionism, Symbolism and the Avante Garde and also included artists from right across Europe. Of course there are pictures from Monets gardens at Argenteuil and finally Giverny, but also paintings by Gustave Caillebotte, Camille Pisarro and Pierre August Renoir. One painting by Pissaro depicts Monet painting in his garden at Arguenteuil. These garden pictures show the garden as a motif for modern life, relaxation and pleasure and not, as in the past, the utilitarian garden that grew vegetables and produce for eating and source of food and were, in a sense, a part of peoples survival. Other artists include John Singer Sergeants pictures executed in the Cotswold village of Broadway, Laurits Tuxen and Peder Kroyer in Denmark, Karl Nordstrom in Sweden, The German Impressionist Max Liebermann in Berlin and Joaquin Sorolla in Madrid. The American, Childe Hassam has some paintings displayed. He painted the garden of his friend, Celia Thaxter in Maine. This exhibition is not only about just the relationship between individual artists and their gardens it also has a broader meaning that encompasses the human relationship with nature and how gardens affects us all psychologically and help shape us as human beings. The artists in this exhibition find symbolic meaning, explore the effects of combining colour and a deeper emotional world through painting their gardens. 

Claude Monet's Agapanthus triptych. ( The three parts are owned respectively by Nelson Atkins Museum, St Louis Art Museum and Cleveland Museum of Art in America.)

The final room of the exhibiton has a triptych of Monets waterlilies that he painted between 1915 and 1919 covering the period of the first world war. Monet remained at Giverny during this time, which is north west of Paris, throughout the war although many local village people and indeed members of his own family left the area for safety. Giverny was very close to the war front and always there was the possibility that the Germans could overrun Giverny and on their route to  Paris. Monet did not want to leave Giverny ,the source of his inspiration and  wanted to continue painting. Some critics suggest that paintings such as this triptych were Monets response to war and his fears. The triptych is enormous and standing in front of it your sight is filled with the painting and your mind becomes completely taken over. Monet has stopped painting any reference to land or connections with the world. The painting is all water surface with its plays of light and shadow and large patches of waterlily pads and flowers. I could feel myself being absorbed into its depths. It was a sensation of almost sinking into the picture. It is as though in painting this Monet was passing into another world away from the terrible strife and unimaginable death  toll happening around him. It is an example of how we can interact with our gardens.

Blue bells at the bottom of my garden.

I can remember as a young child spending a lot of time in my grandparents’ house near to where I lived in Woolston in Southampton. Their garden had various meanings. I was shown the site where the air raid shelter had been dug to protect them from bombing in the second world war. I was shown pictures of how the garden had been dug over to grow vegetables to help feed themselves during the time of rationing. By the time I was born in 1952 their garden had been turned back to a place of relaxation and fun. They had a grass lawn, and flower beds with roses and various border shrubs and plants. In the spring there was a patch, near the garden shed at the bottom of the garden, where lilly of the valley grew and another patch that produced primroses. The fruit trees growing plums, greengages, cooking apples and eating apples and the cherry tree and the hazelnut tree that all been planted during the war to provide fruit to eat as a part of their austere diet still remained but they had become places of shade in the summer months and were islands of enjoyment producing juicy and luscious fruits.

By Emil Nolde

However, it was Mr Biggs’s garden, who was their next door neighbour that really took hold of my imagination. Sometimes my grandmother and I would squeeze through the gap in the fence to one side near the bottom of my grandparent’s garden and emerge into Mr Biggs garden. This was perfectly alright to do. The two families, all through the war years, had shared each other’s garden. My grandparents had provided fruit from their trees for the Biggs family and the Biggs family, whose garden was twice the size of my grandparent’s garden, had a chicken run providing eggs and the occasional chicken to be roasted and eaten. They also had space for a giant compost heap which both families shared. They had a large murky pond covered in water lily pads that held a multitude of fish. The Biggs family shared my grandparents air raid shelter when the warning sirens howled across the district warning of an impending Luftwaffe bombing raid. My grandfather had built an extra-large shelter for this purpose. I remember as a young child walking through Mr Biggs garden. It was populated with all sorts of trees which made it seem like a forest with a tall brick wall dividing the bottom of my grandparents garden from his. It was darkly shaded and blinding splinters of sunlight broke through the foliage in places. The pond, its edges covered in mosses and reeds seemed deep in its glassy blackness and occasionally the back of, a what appeared to me, a giant under water monster broke the surface. The compost heap, to one side of the pond, smelled musty and sour with rotting vegetation thrown on it. I can’t explain, but I liked the feeling of being there. It was dark and mysterious. I felt submerged in its shadowy depths. It felt like being inside a fantasy world. Elves and goblins could be just behind each tree trunk. Every sense of my young boyhood self was stimulated, smells, sites, shadowy shapes, the sounds of birds and squirrels. I must have felt then like Claude Monet in his garden or Camille Pissaro or Laurtis Tuxen or Joaquin Sorolla, in their gardens.

Monet's garden at Giverny.

At the back of the gallery guide to this exhibition are two pages advertising events and lectures, free talks and family events associated with the exhibition. One particular event caught my eye. An afternoon talk, “ Provocations in Art: Contemporary Urban Gardening.” It was held on Saturday 27th February so I  missed it but the description of the talk got me thinking and exploring the websites of the people involved. It was chaired by the journalist and horticulturalist, Alys Fowler. The guerrilla gardener and author Richard Reynolds, forager John Rensten and artist Wendy Shillman took part. I checked out Wendy Stillman first and discovered that she  and her husband have created a small urban garden on the roof top of their house near the BBC Centre just north of Oxford Circus and close to the British telecom Tower. A photograph on her website shows Wendy standing among her plants high above London with the BT tower in the background. She is an urban architect. She lives in an urban environment and combines producing her own food and using her house as a bed and breakfast for visitors to stay so they too can be inspired by her living experience in a big city. John Rensten lives and works in London too. He studies wild food such as fungi, wild flowers and fruits. He has set up an organization called, Forage London. He takes groups around London and other parts of the country searching for wild, free growing foods and teaching about them. Discovering about Richard Reynolds and his ideas about guerrilla gardening really inspired me. Reynolds has written and published a book recently entitled,“On Guerrilla Gardening,” In the book he describes gardeners he has met around the world who garden in subversive ways.The book refers to horticultural “sleeper cells” and “shock and awe” plantings, and takes tactical advice from the writings of Che Guevara and Mao Zedong. It all sounds like  1970’s student protest stuff. However it is exciting to learn about his nighttime escapades to isolated pieces of waste land all over London with his followers and collaborators. . Overnight they can plant whole areas and clean away the detritus of urban living. He has created twenty eight gardens so far. One article about him tells how the authorities, the local councils and the police have confronted him but on the whole have left him in peace. He defines guerilla gardening as, “ the cultivation of someone else’s land without their permission.” He used his tactics in the Tate Modern. On the 20th October 2015 Cruzvillegas created an installation that he said was inspired by guerilla gardens. He layed out a whole series of triangular planters filled with soil. However they were under the roof of the Tate Modern and there seemed no prospect of anything growing in these planters. Reynolds and his friend Vanessa Harden prepared some seed bombs and stood on the balcony overlooking the installation and began throwing the ,”bombs,” into the planters. The Tate Modern wasn’t sure how to react at first but decided it was a positive response to the installation and allowed them to continue with their obviously enthusiastic escapade. Even visitors of all ages attending the gallery joined in.

Wendy Stillman in her rooftop garden.

I think these people ,John Rensten, Wendy Stillman and Richard Reynolds are the modern equivalent of Monet and Matisse. They are taking, in some ways, the idea of gardens as being important to peoples emotional, physical and imaginative lives forward into nowadays.They are responding to gardens and using gardens in  human contexts.

The lily pond at Giverny

The exhibiton of great paintings and the interviews with John Rensten, Wendy Shillman and Richard Reynolds have now inspired me to think of my garden in a range of different ways from how I have considered it before. I feel inspired to find out about what is there already. I know about the buddleia bush, some blue bells that shoot up creating a carpet of leaves and blue dangling flowers in the spring and a couple of  dilapidated looking apple trees, oh, and a few shrubs. However there is a lot I don’t know. I want to plan how I can develop it creating colours, smells, light and shade and sounds. This exhibition has got me thinking about it all. Watch this space. The Summer months will give me time to do something. In the words of Citizen Smith of the Tooting Popular front, “Power to the People,” and my back garden.

Wednesday, 2 March 2016


There was an article in The Guardian recently entitled, “Private school is still surest route to front rank professions.”Sally Weale, the education correspondent for The Guardian, explained that a privately educated elite still dominate the UK’s leading professions. The article mostly relayed the data collected by The Sutton trust educational charity without too much analysis provided. Does anybody really know why a child who goes to Eton has many more percentage points chance of going to Oxford or Cambridge or achieving a high ranking job in law, politics, medicine and journalism than a child attending, let’s say, Raynes Park High School, near where I live? Most would immediately say, well that is easy, they are better educated at Eton. Is it really that simple and is that belief really true?

The statistics are impressive. Sally Weare informs us that 7% of the population attend independent fee-paying schools but 71% of top military officers were educated privately, 74% of top judges had private education,51% of top journalists and 61% of top Doctors were all educated privately. Think back to that first stastic that   7% of the population attend private schools. 88% of the population attend state comprehensives. The 4% discrepancy can be accounted for by immigrants. That is an astounding set of statistics. Are state educated children really that much worse off?
Many might argue that the teaching is better in private education.  I know a lot of teachers very well.I have many teacher friends. Some teach in local comprehensives, some in state junior schools and some in high achieving private prep schools. I know two teachers who teach at St Paul’s, the top public school which George Osborne our Chancellor of the Exchequer attended. My friends and acquaintances are all trained to be teachers and are educated to the same degree standard. All are able and creative and exceedingly hard working teachers. I have taught in both private and state sectors, although I admit most of my career has been in state sector schools but that was my own choice. I just felt more inspired to teach children from ordinary homes and ordinary backgrounds reflecting my own background. So I don’t think it’s the teachers that cause the discrepancy. They would take umbrage if that is what I thought. Every single one of them works  hard and more often than not to the detriment of their own private lives and the state of their own wellbeing. The stress levels are very high.


I have met and taught probably thousands of children over my 35 years as a teacher. I have met children from impoverished backgrounds, comfortable middle class backgrounds and wealthy backgrounds. In one case an extremely wealthy background. I met an American gentleman and his family and spent a day with them touring London. The gentleman is a billionaire owning half the radio and TV stations across the States and the children were just ordinary friendly average kids who just happened to attend the top private schools in the States. In fact, their mother was most concerned about their education. They were not working hard enough and doing their best. I commiserated and we talked education and the trials and tribulations of bringing  children up. The worries of that mother sound familiar. I have had friends who went to Wellington College and one attended Lancing College in Sussex. Most of my friends went to state comprehensives. I suspect other friends went to public schools but they haven’t let on. All are great people. They have worked hard throughout their lives and have achieved varying degrees of success in their own fields. People are people, children are children. There must be something else causing these unbalanced statistics. To perhaps illustrate what is really going on I will tell the story of two boys and two families I know quite well.

 A surgeon? Who will get a job at this level?

Recently I have been teaching in a lovely school near Chertsey in Surrey. For the whole of the Autumn term I taught one particular class every Monday and Tuesday. The children who go to the school come from the catchment area surrounding the school. The children’s mums and dads are builders, electricians, shopkeepers, firemen, lorry drivers, that sort of thing.  Some of the mums actually work in the school, either as classroom assistants or in the kitchens. So I taught Arthur, not his real name, on Mondays and Tuesdays. His mum works as a cook in the school kitchens. I am not sure about this but I don’t think there is a dad about. Arthur is always focused. He invariably does his best and he has a sunny personality, he listens well and always tries to do his best. His mum is such a positive person and always cheery herself. His mum wants to do her best for Arthur. She has to watch every penny she earns but she tries to give Arthur nice things sometimes. His mum knows that reading and books are a good thing. She gets him to the local library when she can. She helps him with his homework and makes sure he gets it in on time. Arthur and his mum’s expectations are to do as well as he can in school and pass his G.C.S.E.s eventually he may do A levels in the future. Arthurs ambition is that he becomes an electrician or car mechanic or something along those lines. All Arthurs friends and their families are the same. They have ambitions to get a trade. I always believe what you want you will get if you want it hard enough. I am sure they will achieve their ambitions. What must be pointed out is that Arthur and his mum do not have friends who are teachers, doctors, lawyers, journalists, company executives or the like.
The next person I am going to write about is Daniel or Dan, again, not his real name. He attended the same public school, Marlborough, that Prince William’s wife the Duchess of Cambridge attended. I knew Dan and his family well during my own student days during the 1970’s. I lived in a house in Bayswater owned by Dan and met most of his family at various times. Dan completed his first degree in biology at Kings College and got a 2:2, a not very illustrious result, and so went on to do an MA in Biology at Southampton before doing his PHD at Southampton. He isn’t really an academic but this is what he wanted to do. He believed he could do it and he did. He was a bit of a lad. Dan, supports Southampton Football Club as indeed I do. We went to a few games at the old Dell together. He had a thing about Linda Lovelace ( I will leave it up to you to do a Google search Ha! Ha!) and we enjoyed more than a few pints together over those years and partied like mad. I have some  memories of wild Bayswater parties where the social mix was mostly upper class privately educated sorts and myself and Pete, a good friend of mine from Southamption. Apart from my accent and Petes accent you would not have been able to separate us from our more wealthy friends. We were all debauched together!!!Dan’s family were very well to do as you can imagine. They own a farm in Sussex and another farm in Cornwall. Dans dad iss a Harley Street surgeon who spends a lot of the week in his flat in Mayfair. Dan’s mum is an heiress to the BOVIS building company which constructs housing estates , mansions for the wealthy and does major construction projects like motorways. She sits on the board of directors. Their friends included members of the aristocracy, politicians and the big shakers and movers of this world.  Dan knows them and their children  like old friends. He is very confident in their company and  knows no different. I must admit I felt a little overawed at times but when you start talking to people that is what they are, people. I will leave it up to you to assess their wealth bracket. Dan’s mum was lovely. She cooked a mean English breakfast and honestly if you didn’t know any different, was just like any other mother.  Arthur’s mum and Dan’s mum would have got on like a house on fire.

A plumber. Who will get a job at this level of society?

So let’s have a think about this. We have Arthur, a decent human being, a friendly nice lad who wants to do his best and will achieve his ambitions I am sure. Then we have Dan, a decent human being also, a lad who wanted to do his best
 (when not down the pub Ha! Ha!) and has achieved his ambitions. What is the difference? Dan lives and works in Boston USA at the moment. He went on to work in the American health system doing biological research. Apart from a nice income from his job he has a large endowment supplied by his family. I am sure he is very wealthy although knowing Dan he would never flaunt it and you might not know if you met him. Ok he has a slightly posh accent but it is not overbearing. Arthur is poor and lives in straightened circumstances and probably always will. Dan and Arthur would get on well. I mentioned at the start of my account of Dan that his first degree was a 2:2 in Biology but he went on from there. I am absolutely certain that Arthur has the intelligence to at least get a 2:2 if he decided to go to university.
What are the differences then between the lives of Arthur and Dan? They are pretty obvious  really. They are social, family, expectations and confidence. Dan has lived and been brought up amongst the people he aspires to emulate and work with. Arthur’s aspirations of being an electrician or fireman belong to the society he has been brought up in. We talk nowadays of breaking class barriers. We talk about encouraging high ambitions. That is easy if you are born into a high strata of society. Those high aspirations are fed to you through your mother’s milk.
The film ,Educating Rita, starring Julie Walters and Michael Caine addresses these issues. If you break from one strata of society into another you really do cause damage to yourself emotionally and socially if other things are not in place such as the eponymous level playing field, whatever that might be. Some people decide to ignore and try and forget their past if they take a hike up the social ladder but does that work? Surely you can’t really forget your past and if you try to you are hurting part of yourself. Peter Cook and Dudley Moore , are a prime example of what can happen. Peter Cook came from a well to do background. He was born in Torquay to a high ranking civil servant father and a talented mother. He attended Radley top public school and went on to Pembroke College Cambridge. Dudley Moore came from an ordinary lower middle class in Dagenham in the East End of London. He attended  an ordinary local junior school, got the 11 plus and went to his local grammar school and went on to Magdelan College Oxford. He also attended the Guildahll College of Music. He was a talented musician and composer.   Peter Cook was a great satirist and began and edited Private Eye. He was a script writer for other comedians and ran The Establishment Club in SOHO where Lennie Bruce performed.Dudley Moore used to perfom with his jazz group in the basement of The Establishment Club.Both Peter Cook and Dudley Moore had a talent for socially observant comedy and brilliant characterisation. They came together and formed the greatest comic English duo of all time.These two, from different backgrounds were able to meet on apparently equal terms.Were the class barriers removed in their case?They went on to be part of the Beyond The Fringe with Jonathen Miller and Alan Bennett and eventually went on to perform for David Frost on his, That was The week That Was, series. They created their own television series called, Not Only But Also.

Peter Cook and Dudley Moore

 Peter Cook and Dudley Moore became very close friends, probably too close. The relationship between them was almost telepathic. Peter Cook became dominant and Dudley Moore hated that. Moore remained in Hollywood after the tour of the Beyond The Fringe and became an international star. They kept in touch but their relationship was never the same. It was class differences and attitudes that caused the rift. They were damaging each other in a bitter infighting. There is always something to pay for changing your social strata. The present social systems we have do not  allow for much movement between the classes.
My friend Dan, when he applies for a good job, he is interviewed by the sort of person he went to school with. The interviewers are people similar to his own family. He is confident and assured. They know his background and they know ,that he is one of them. They know he will fit. On the other hand, Arthur, when he has achieved his 2:2 degree, the same level as Dan’  s first degree, he might decide to apply for a good job. He will be uncomfortable. He will not have the experience of knowing the type of people that are interviewing him. He will lack confidence. He comes from a different world. It’s unlikely he will get the job.  It really is enough to make you angry. Of course there are things that Arthur can do to develop confidence and an assured demeanor but that is something he is going to have to learn the hard way.

Governments have talked about a classless society. They speak about encouraging children from all classes of society to go out and be achievers. This will not happen. The data at the start of this article proves it is not happening. A classless society can only be encouraged by government intervention and society evolving over a very long time. It can only be achieved through a sort of Darwinian adaptation over generations. The environment created by government policy and schools has got to be amenable to it though.

Thursday, 4 February 2016


I wrote about my adventure on the Northern Line in my diary today. So here are my diary pages with some photographs.
I hope you can read my handwriting? It is a mixture of  cursive and italic styles.As a child I was taught a cursive style. Over the years, teaching in various schools that had differing handwriting policies, I have had to adapt my handwriting to fit what each school required. I can write in a few styles now but I have to consciously make an effort to keep to one style. My own handwriting, performed almost at an unconscious level, has now become a mixture of  different styles.

 My day on the Northern Line, Morden to Edgware.

On the 163 bus to Morden travelling along Grand Drive from Motspur Park.

The 163 bus.

On the tube.

 Travelling towards Edgware.

Arriving in Edgware.

Edgware station entrance.

This is Edgware.

A short history of the Northern Line:
The Northern Line was created from three different companies in the 1920s. The Stockwell to Borough section is the oldest deep level tube section on the whole tube system opened in 1890.

The Northern line has various branches, which I discovered yesterday, There is the southernmost branch leading from Mordern to Waterloo. There are two central branches, one going via Bank Station and taking in the eastern part of the city and then there is the Charing Cross branch which includes the West End.The two northern most branches of the line split at Euston Station, one going to Edgware and one going to High Barnet.

The different sections of the line allude to the various railway companies that once owned the different parts of the Northern Line. The City and South London Railway Company, the C&SLR, began the original Stockwell line in 1890. The Charing Cross, Euston & Hampstead Railway, the CCE&HR, opened a line in 1903 from Charing Cross to Highgate.
In 1913 the Underground Electric Company of London, the UERL, who owned the CCE&HR took over the C&CLR but ran them as two separate lines. In 1920 a new tunnel was dug and the two lines were joined to make, The Northern Line.

At present there are plans to extend the Northern Line. from Kennington to Battersea. From recent negotiations between London Transport and the tube workers unions, mostly about safety for employees, pay and conditions, which has been long going and arduous,  a twenty four hour ,"Night Tube,"will run on Friday and Saturday nights from Edgware and High Barnet to Mordern via Charing Cross.

Between 2003 and 2010 the Northen Line was the busiest line on the system. It is now the second busiest line on the system.

The London Underground font:
This is the sign for Burnt Oak Station. Burnt Oak is the penultimate station on the Edgware branch of the Northern Line. The font used for the London Underground signs was developed especially  for London Underground by Edward Johnston in 1916. It is a modern, simple and fresh lettering.It is  as direct and clean cut as  when it was first introduced in 1916. Transport for London owns the design and copyrights for all cuts of the New Johnston font. Other versions of the font such as the Johnson Delf Smith typeface was developed for some historical signs.

What of the future?
The Northern Line provides a link between north and south London.It works at full capacity being one of the busiest tube links in London. Over the decades and centuries it has been in existence it has provided access for people to get to jobs within the city in the banking and insurance sectors and has provided links to the entertainment industries in the West End and also the retail sector centered on Oxford Street and Regents Street. Jobs, businesses,the creative sectors such as the arts, museums, theatres and concert halls , leisure and education have all been served by providing quick travel from north to south London. London is growing and expanding at an enormous rate. More jobs and more industries need to develop and grow. The present tube and transport network, being at full capacity, needs to be expanded and modernised to meet these 21st century demands. Crossrail has been recently completed from Heathrow in the west  to Canary Wharf in the  east. It is a fast, high volume and modern expansion to London's transport system. Crossrail 2, is now planned and in the process of being constructed from South London to North London to create a much more efficient and high capacity, "northern line." Here is the Transport for London's description of the benefits provided by these new and faster crossrail networks.

"The key transport aims for Crossrail will support delivery of the objectives set out in the May 2010 Mayor’s Transport Strategy, namely to: • Support sustainable economic development and population growth by increasing transport capacity, reducing congestion on the transport network; • Improve transport connectivity through journey time savings; and   • Bring wider benefits including: enhancing accessibility (including those with restricted mobility) thereby improving people’s access to jobs, schools and other locations; improved transport safety with reduced road accidents; and environmental improvements; including a reduction in C02 emissions; 2.3 Crossrail will also support the delivery of objectives set out in the DfT’s Business Plan, namely to: • Support a transport system that is an engine for economic growth but one that is also greener and safer and improves quality of life in our communities; • Improve the links that help to move goods and people around; • Secure the sustainability of the railway and create capacity for improvement of services, by addressing the high cost of the UK railway compared with other railways and comparable industries; continue to invest in Crossrail and London Underground upgrades in the capital. Supporting London’s growth and relieving congestion."

The old Northern Line has provided access for Londoners, north and south, in the past and the above is a good description of what The Northern line has provided until now but on a smaller scale. The new Crossrail is intended to carry these  benefits, at an increased rate, forward into the 21st century.

Thursday, 28 January 2016


Marilyn, Sam, Alice, Emily and I have lived in this house for twenty-four years. Abi was born fifteen years ago. She is the only one us who has lived in the house all of her life so far. One of the first things we discovered, soon after moving in, was the message imprinted into the concrete border of the small semicircular pond we used to have in the back garden. It read, “6th June 1930.” This gave us an immediate connection with the people who first lived in our house. If we traced the letters and numbers of the imprint with our fingers, we were putting our fingers in the very spaces they had dragged their fingers to form the message.  Perhaps it commemorated the date they moved in, or, it was the date they completed making the pond?
So here I am looking into our back garden from the dining table positioned under a velux window in the roof of our new rear extension.  I can see the new patio just outside the bifold doors. It doesn’t look new. The rustic style tiles have lichen on their surface and they have a weathered look. This is because the tiles are not new. They were dug up from the garden path and used to cover the patio to give it an old, and we hope, a timeless look. The hardcore used to create the foundations of the patio are the back wall of our house that was demolished.The garden path from which the patio tiles were taken, is covered mostly by brown rotting crab apples fallen last Autumn. There is still one line of paving slabs, where there used to be two lines, stretching the length of the garden to the two sheds we have at the bottom.

Gardens, what are they exactly in the greater consideration of things? As human beings we are very good at classification. By ordering things into groups it helps us understand things better. Or so we think. Often if we change how we categorise things we see things differently. For example, we can categorise rocks into sedimentary, metamorphic and igneous. It helps us understand how the rocks were formed and where they come from.But if we see them in relation to how they can be used in,say, building, or perhaps as an artistic medium for sculpture or again as far as their textures and colours can be incorporated into garden design, we see them and understand them differently.

Our garden before the removal of the pond.

More and more these days people are recategorising our environments. In his book Landmarks, Robert Mcfarlane talks about,” edge lands.” I have watched a documentary about people exploring those areas near cities and towns which we find it difficult to categorise. No longer farming happens on these city edges. There might be unkempt fields left wild or with industrial estates built on them. They might be isolated pockets of scrub land between motorway junctions or near airports on the outer reaches of a conurbation. These are what is termed edge lands because they are on the edge of things. So an edge land doesn’t fit into any clear cut category of landscape. It is often an untidy jumble and mixture of different landscapes. But can it be seen as a type of unique landscape in itself?

Gardens, I think are in a similar situation. The term garden has become a category for a unique landscape. But what does this actually mean? Looking carefully and experiencing my own garden for long periods, I not sure it really can be categorised at all. I wonder what the birds and myriad of other animals who visit and live in my garden consider my garden to be? They eat, they live, they survive; what else is there for them?

We have a resident Robin. I think I found out once where he and his brood lived. We have an ivy covered fence and near the bottom of the garden, he and his wife built a nest in the thickly growing ivy near  our garden shed. Marilyn , in the Summer two years ago, got me to take the hedge trimmer and cut back the ivy, which to be honest was overtaking part of the garden near the bottom. I spent an hour or two cutting the ivy back when I came across a neat little nest buried deep within the thick entwined ivy tubers. The nest fell out. It had a couple of small pale blue eggs inside. They looked so perfect. I placed the nest, with the unbroken eggs in it, back in the ivy and tried to cover it with fronds and leaves. The nest was still visible whatever I did. Later I saw the robin on our path. It flew backwards and forwards between where the nest was and what seemed to be random parts of the garden. The next day the nest had gone. We thought our Robin had gone too.

There is a mature,” crab apple,“tree in our garden. The tree is covered in small red apples at the end of Summer and at the beginning of Autumn. Over the years, because Marilyn and I have both been working, we have done nothing with the apples, neither collecting them to boil down into crab apple jelly or to make apple pies with. The apples have been left to drop and rot on the pathway beneath or be scattered on the grass and left to rot into the soil. I am sure our back garden has the most nutrients derived from apples in its fibrous organic, and mineral constituents than any other garden I know. You can almost smell the aroma of apple in our soil.

Apart from adding to the organic make up of the garden the crab apple tree feeds numerous large, fat, grey wood pigeons. They gorge on the apples. There can be as many as ten of these grey weighty looking birds sitting in our tree bending the whip like branches downwards with their heaviness. Wood pigeons are grey with white markings on their necks. We hear them cooing loudly as they eat our crab apples and when they take flight they make a loud heavy wing beat sound like the ,”woomping,” sound of a helicopter rotor blade.

There is another, maybe somewhat surprising bird that also likes to feed on our apples. It is a green parakeet. The RSPB website tells us,

  The ring-necked, or rose-ringed, parakeet is the UK's most abundant naturalised parrot - it became established in the wild in the 1970s after captive birds escaped or were released.It is a well-known resident of the greater London area, roosting communally in large flocks. The population has been increasing steadily, though it remains concentrated in south-east England. Birds are regularly reported elsewhere in Britain, and are likely to be local escapees.”
And furthermore the statement on the RSPB site says,

If the parakeet population were to continue to grow, the implications for our native species must be closely monitored. The Government is obliged to ensure that non-native species do not adversely affect native wildlife, and is currently developing a policy framework for addressing the possible risks associated with such species becoming established.”

The story round here, in Motspur Park, is that when, in 1950 , the Humphrey Bogart, Audrey Hepburn film, Africa Queen, was being filmed at Pinewood Studios, some parakeets escaped from the jungle set and created a colony in Richmond Park. The fact that the RSPB say that the colonies of parakeets derive from escapees, the story could have some credence. They are growing and surviving nicely anyway, like the pigeons, on our masses of crab apples.

Ring-necked parakeet profile
When the children were younger we used to have rabbits. We constructed a hutch inside a wooden playhouse we have in the garden. That combination of hutch and playhouse has always kept our various pets over the years warm and somewhat insulated from the temperature and weather conditions outside. Generally during the day, we put our pets, rabbits, guinea pigs and so on and so forth, outside on the grass inside another enclosure. Unfortunately, urban gardens in Britain nowadays have foxes who visit. They smell out our animals and if they can find a way they will catch and eat them. We have generally kept our pets secure over the years but foxes are cunning blighters. If they can find a way, they will. Even though the rabbits were kept in a secure enclosure one fox found a way of getting through the chicken wire. Our well fed, very plump and rather large rabbit went missing one day. We didn’t tell Sam, Alice and Emily, who were quite young then, but Marilyn and I found body parts. A rabbit paw lay amongst the shrubbery and bits of rabbit fur was snagged on brambles and some rocks we have at the bottom of the garden. We told the children that,” Fluffy, “had decided to go to another home. From then on we doubled the layer of chicken wire on the external cage. 

Foxes also come into the garden to raid the bins. If they can smell food in the rubbish bins they will attack them, turn them over, spread the contents everywhere and get what they are after. Merton Council, for the last few years, are wise to this and supply every household with a sturdy plastic food waste bin with a lockable lid. Sometimes on a warm Summers day a fox will come into the garden and just lay on the grass sunning itself. If we see it from the house and knock on the window it will look up but generally stay put. They know we are inside and can’t get to them. If we open a window and shout at them, again, they seem to be wise to this and generally stay put. If we open the door into the garden, they will stand up leisurely and take their time to go out of the garden. They can be very very irritating.

It is interesting to consider why foxes have become urban creatures. Fox hunting was banned quite a few years ago now. People at first thought that with an increase in the fox population in the countryside foxes needed to go further afield, for instance into urban areas, to find food. But I don’t think it is that. Very few foxes were ever killed in this way, certainly not enough to affect the population of foxes. Farming methods must be the answer. There is less diversity in the countryside. Diverse habitats provide homes for a diverse range of creatures. If the diverse habitats are not there the animals will not survive and the food chains are affected adversely. The foxes food chains in the rural environment must have been depleted so they had no choice but to come into urban areas. The London Borough of Merton Council have a procedure for asking questions at their council meetings. Here is a quotation from their council meeting on the 4th February 2015
Public questions Procedure The Mayor will call your name and ask if you have a supplementary question arising from the answer you have received. If you do not have a supplementary question then simply respond thank you, no. If you do have a supplementary question respond thank you, yes. You will be shown to a seat in the chamber where you will ask your supplementary question. Make sure you use the microphone. Having put your question, please be seated whilst the Cabinet member responds. Once the response has been given, please return to your seat in the public gallery. The questions and answers and all supplementary questions and replies will be published on Merton’s website after the meeting.
3. From Andrew Gould To the Cabinet Member for Environmental Sustainability and Regeneration Question What are you doing to control the number of foxes in the borough? I am concerned they appear prevalent and increasingly confident around adults and children as well as causing a lot of additional mess which has to be cleared. Page 2 Reply Foxes are an increasingly urban phenomenon and Merton deals with them in exactly the same way as all other London boroughs. Our website provides details regarding ways in which residents can deter foxes, this includes: • If there is a fox living in a garden in your street some simple steps can help to encourage them to move on: • Keep all domestic waste in a wheeled bin or closed containers, not plastic bags and use the council’s brown bin food waste containers. • Only put your waste out on the morning of collection by 6am. • Do not leave food out for other animals. Be extremely careful where you put food to feed birds, this should be in suitable containers. • Make sure there are no areas where foxes can shelter. This may be an overgrown or neglected area or a void beneath a building. Voids can be protected using heavy-duty mesh, making sure that it is securely fixed to any building and buried to a depth of 12" (30 cm) into the soil to prevent the fox burrowing under the mesh. There is little that can be done to control the number of foxes since they are territorial and any efforts to reduce the population in one area would lead to relocation of other foxes into the area vacated.
 Councils can do nothing about foxes. We have to live with them.

A fox in an urban garden.
My next door neighbour Alf, is a brilliant bloke. You couldn’t wish for a better neighbour. He is extremely friendly. We have had a few beers together over the years in our local, The Earl Beatty. He is a qualified electrician and has installed new wiring and a new fuse box for us. We always attend his birthday party next door each year and what is more, he and Di, his wife, own a fantastic 1950’s Juke Box and play old vinyl singles on it. We always have a real party at Alf and Di's house.  The beers tend to flow. Alf has his passions. He’s had a few over the years but one interest that has stood the test of time is his rather large fish pond. Soon after Alf and Di moved in Alf began the construction of what I thought was going to be a swimming pool. It was  extensive and deep. But, no, it was to be a fish pond stocked with Koi Carp. Some of these Koi Carp are monsters now. You can see them breaking the surface sometimes and they are perhaps a metre or more long and very wide. Alf has had to cover his pond with netting. We get herons in the garden. They are great big grey feathered birds that stand on legs like long stilts Herons are only here for one reason, Alf’s fish. A heron loves a juicy fat Koi Carp apprently. We see them standing on the dividing fence between our two gardens sometimes. They stand motionless, just looking for a very long time. They point their long sharp beaks at the object of their desire.

A heron standing on my fence looking at the carp in Alf's pond.

 Often the heron will come to the realization that it is not going to get a fish, because they must become aware of the netting. But some don’t become aware of the netting and I have seen a heron flap its great wings,  and land on top of the pond and have a go at stabbing a fish through the net. They don’t get anywhere obviously and soon fly off. The RSPB website puts it this way, as far as Herons go,
Grey herons are large birds that eat lots of fish, but also small birds and mammals. You can see them by any river or lake.”
I would also add, and in my back garden.

Recently we discovered that a small mouse has joined our guinea pigs in their sheltered hutch at night time. Marilyn discovered it happily eating the guinea pig’s food alongside the guinea pigs themselves. It seemed all very amicable.
One visitor we get occasionally is a Jay. We only see it a couple of times a year. Jays, "garrulous  glandarius,"are apparently shy birds. They live,
“………. in both deciduous and coniferous woodland, parks and mature gardens. Likes oak trees in autumn when there are plenty of acorns. Often seen flying across a woodland glade giving its screeching call, it becomes more obvious in autumn when it may fly some distance in the open in search of acorns.” ( RSPB)  

A Jay.
We definitely have a mature garden, to put it politely, but we do not have acorns in our garden. Maybe the Jay is a secret lover of our crab apples, like every other bird that visits us. I have never heard it screech. I wonder what that sounds like? There are mature oaks, however, in our local park, Sir Joseph Hood Playing Fields. Oaks boarder, Blakes Lane, which is on the other side of Motspur Park Station. Blakes Lane is an old country lane, that during the Victorian period, lead to Blakes Farm, when this area was all farms.

A pile of logs at the bottom of the garden provides habitats for all sorts of woodlice, beetles and ants. In the evening flocks of black headed gulls fly overhead towards the west. Heathrow Airport is in that direction near Staines. Staines is where many of the large water company reservoirs, that provide London with water are located. Marilyn and I often wonder if the gulls are making for the large expanses of water that comprise the giant reservoirs. As I write this a blackbird with a bright yellow beak is standing on our grass. It is pecking the ground, probably trying to catch a worm. The ground is soft after much rain recently. The blackbird doesn’t have to peck the ground too hard. To the consternation of my daughters, the bath in the bathroom can be home to, “daddy long legs.” On more than one occasion I have had to catch the offending creatures in my cupped hands and remove them from the bath and find a dark shady place under a bush in the garden to deposit them. We often get sparrows in the garden and sometimes, on a warm summers evening we see swallows spiraling and racing about the sky above us. When we had a ,"wild life," pond, before we had the back of the house extended, it became full with reeds, wild irises and water lilies floating on it. The pond attracted a multitude, nearly a  plague, of frogs and dragon flies hovered around the purple flowers of the irises. Pond skaters and water boatmen skimmed across the surface of the pond.

Returning to the idea about ,"edge lands," and other sorts of landscape categories  I am not sure these  categories work.Where I live  is right in the middle of urban development and yet we get all this, "nature," that we live alongside. Bill Bryson, in his recent book, “The Road to Little Dribbling( more notes from A Small Island)”,writes that London is the best city in the world and one of the reasons he gives is that when he looks down at an Ordnance Survey Map of London he sees mostly green.Bryson loves the idea that a city, as vast as London, has so much green.There are the well-manicured parks like Hyde Park and Regents Park in the centre of London and there are the many shrubberied and arbored squares that comprise central London but also, as you move further out, there are the vast wild areas of Richmond Park, Wimbledon Common, Bushey Park and Putney Commons. Then there is all the greenery bordering the Thames as you travel inland towards Windsor. Bryson sees London as comprising large green areas interspersed with buildings. So rather like my own garden, London is a happy mixture of urban, and wild nature. It is wrong to think of wilderness, countryside and town as separate entities. Do these categories really exist?

Monday, 4 January 2016


The cast of A Christmas Carol at the Rose Theatre Kingston upon Thames
 ( Picture:Rose Theater website)

The sentence, “The pen is mightier than the sword,” was coined by English author Edward Bulwer-Lytton in 1839 for his play, “Richelieu; Or the Conspiracy.” It is easy to say, that Bulwer-Lytton’s statement is self-evident. However, it is an interesting concept to look at more closely. It does seem the power of words are a very powerful and potent weapon in all our lives.
Marilyn, Abigail and I went into Kingston upon Thames this afternoon to watch “A Christmas Carol,” at The Rose Theatre, performed by a company of actors along with members of The Rose Youth Theatre in a production adapted and directed by Ciaran McConville. Charles Dickens, the author of A Christmas Carol, himself became wealthy and gained considerable influence in society and throughout the whole world. He was , what might be termed, using an often misused and maligned phrase, a ,”superstar,” of the Victorian era. He became so through, primarily, the power of the pen and the written and spoken word. Through words he was able to rise out of poor circumstances and virtual penury and be a powerful influence on those in power and society as a whole.

 The actors of  The Rose Theatre's production of A Christmas Carol, use the playwright’s words, interpreting them with meaning. They created a strong, emotional and intellectual response amongst a large audience using words that, to be honest, were not even their own to begin with but they certainly made those words their own. Words don't have to be your own  for you to make them powerful.

The auditorium of The Rose Theatre Kingston upon Thames at the interval.

 The young actors, who performed in this production, raise an interesting aspect. This production used children and teenagers from The Rose Youth Theatre. Drama Clubs for children and young people are numerous. My own four children all went to drama clubs when they were young for quite a number of years. In each case they went from the age five or six to at least the age of twelve. Once they went on to secondary schools they fell by the way but not until they had gained inestimable benefits and enjoyment from participating in all that a drama club offers. Abigail can stand in front of an audience and read a text out clearly and confidently. She can  learn a few lines and speak to an audience with them. Two very powerful and useful skills in our society. It will be interesting to consider how  the ability to use language creatively in various circumstances will help them as they develop into adulthood.

I have been reading ,Landscapes, by Robert McFarlane recently. He has created whole glossaries of words covering all sorts of landscape, often collecting words that have been lost or gone out of use. He states that particular words and language connected with particular places enables those using the words to understand and connect at a deep level with an environment. His book is a collection of glossaries that contain words which describe various landscapes such as mountains, water, coasts, woodland and what he terms as, edge lands. The ability to know and use these words provide great power to the user. Macfarlane sites an example where AMC, a company that develops wind farms and the local council of the Outer Hebrides, wanted to build 240 wind turbines on Brindled Moor. He tells about AMC, the wind turbine company gaining planning permission to build these wind turbines. However, the local community  gathered all the local information they could about the moorland to present to the planning department to prove that the moor is of great natural and scientific importance. Both the council and AMC thought of it and portrayed it as a useless wilderness, a barren wasteland. The local people won their case because they found words, some that had fallen out of use because they were no longer used,  that described the meaning of so many surprising aspects of the moors and hence proved the moors importance. This is an incredible example of the power of words in action.

  A Christmas Carol
Ebenezer Scrooge (Rose Theater website picture)

 For these sort of productions, such as A Christmas Carol, whole families turn up. If not the fathers, and they too turn up more often than not if they possibly can, mums with their offspring attend. Often,more than one family go together. The various families being friends. This observation alone attests to the importance the use of language and words mean to people. It is interesting, for the purpose of the title of this article, to examine the use of language and the conversations that go on among these families. Before I am accused, it sounds as though I might be an eavesdropper, these family groups tend to talk loudly and dramatically so conversations among them cannot be avoided by those nearby such as myself. By listening to their conversation it is perhaps a little too easy to make assumptions about their education and social background, which of course leads on to, through their use of language,  a consideration of the power these people might wield in society. What sort of families go to the theater? Do all families from every part of society go? Do schools and teachers think the theater, and all it means, is important in main stream education? What might this all mean for society?

So there were Marilyn, Abigail and myself sitting in the audience of The Rose Theatre, maybe ten or fifteen minutes before the production of, A Christmas Carol, began. All around us were vibrant and lively children and vibrant and lively adults mostly talking with clipped, clear, southern home counties accents, shall we say.

Imagine these words spoken loudly with no awareness of other people around them and let me assure you, there were lots of other people around.

“ Oh Emily, will you sit still? ( said with a slightly strained desperation in the tone). That is your seat.
Robert, come here at once. Stop faffing about,
What ,are, you doing my love?
Take off your coat. You will be too warm.
Arthur,what are you doing as well? Sit down!”
Then to her best friend, who has also brought her sparkling, super bright, beautiful offspring.
“Amelia, we will get them settled soon. Oh by the way, how was yours and Roberts holiday on the Amalfi Coast? Philip and I absolutely loved it when we went. Those villages perched on the cliffs. So delightful. Oh darling,we drank too much Retsina. Got quite drunk one night. Haw! Haw! Antonio, the waiter, he was gorgeous let me tell you. Got me in quite a flutter. I don’t think Philip noticed. Ha! Ha! Well if he did he didn’t say anything the love. Mind you, between you and me and the gate post, I think he fancied the waitress. Ha! Ha! Ha! I didn’t say anything.”

Its not so much the content of this sort of conversation but the absolute confidence it is delivered with.

And so conversations like this all over the theater took place in insular groups. These people do not seem to be aware of anybody else. There is something self centered about them. They are the most important people on this earth after all, aren’t they? They speak and use words with enormous confidence. That is the thing that sets them apart. They are all extremely confident. Words, language derived through a really good education, have given them this ability. These people are in advertising, or their husbands might be solicitors or doctors. I will leave out teachers and their families, although they could be grouped in this middle class strata of society. There is an element that teacher’s families have, I think, which makes them a little different and that is a consideration for others. They have a certain humility. But, I am biased!   The middle classes therefore are the mainstay of local theaters such as The Rose in Kingston or Richmond Theater in Richmond upon Thames, The National Theater on the South Bank and various other National productions put on at other theaters around London. They generally do not go to the productions that tourists from around the world attend. They read novels voraciously, give confident, apt, sometimes humorous speeches at functions and always speak with just the right words and tone at funerals and weddings. They have the words and confidence to persuade employers to give them a job at interviews. These are just a few examples of the  power of using language well.

These people sitting around us, and these type of families who  fill theaters everywhere, are supremely confident with language. They will know, not just the plot of the play, but they probably can quote well known parts of the dialogue and understand things like the meaning of the play and the characterization and subtleties of mood and tone. They will be able to discuss the play afterwards over a nice meal in Jamie Oliver’s Italian Kitchen just down the road or at, Costas, over a cup of coffee and a croissant. If that is not power what is? They know how to persuade and get things done by using language.

So how can this trend for one part of society to claim words and language as their own, spread throughout the rest of society at all levels? In schools the national Curriculum requires all children to study Shakespeare from the age of ten years. All younger children have to take school library books home to read with their parents and a strict record of this is kept. At sixteen, for their GCSE exams children from all backgrounds have to read an 19th century novel, a piece of modern literature such as George Orwell’s Animal farm or 1984, and an American novel such as, John Steinbeck’s, The Grapes of Wrath. They have to read poetry, know even more Shakespeare than they did at the age of twelve and be able to quote from Shakespeare and know not only plots but characterization and how characters interact and different aspects of the arc of the story. They have to know this in some depth, questioning and analyzing the text. They are also taken to the theater to see various productions. This possession of language by all strata’s of society is promoted strongly in schools. Language with all the power it carries is offered to all not just a few. Unfortunately, the families of some children hold them back. Some children almost learn to live a double life. They have the rich diverse language they know and learn at school and then when they go home they use an impoverished language. At The Rose Theater there were no working class families. Working class children, because of their experience of language at school would most probably have accessed the play just as well as those families and children who did go but it is not the done thing for them. This is a great shame. What is hopeful though is that because they are exposed to a rich variety and use of language at school they may be inspired and make their own decisions as they grow older. At the very least when they do come across this rich use of words during their lives they will not feel completely excluded because they will have experienced it at school.

It really is important to read and write well and use language. Make it work for you.

An introductory film clip of the show: 

Sunday, 13 December 2015



On the 4th December I went up to London by train and got the underground, the northern line, to Tottenham Court Road. I got out there and walked to the British Museum in Bloomsbury. I wanted to take one of the free gallery tours the British Museum provides. I saw that there was a free tour starting at 11.15am in Room 49, one of the Roman Galleries. The tour and accompanying talk was titled, “Gods and Goddesses in Roman Britain.” I walked to room 49 by way of the grand staircase that is located on the left of the main entrance to the British Museum. I noticed a lady standing in the far right hand corner, looking around at the people in the gallery. One gentleman was standing with her. She saw me looking and smiled. I realized that this lady was the tour guide and I introduced myself. The gentleman waiting with her said hello too. There was just the two of us on this guided tour apparently but just as she began to talk, showing us a map of Roman Britain positioned on the wall, another gentleman joined us. So it was to be three of us.

The grand staircase leading to the upper galleries and Room 49.

The lady taking the tour was genial and enthusiastic. She explained that the tour lasted half an hour and that she would be showing us a range of gods and goddesses from locations found in different parts of the Roman Provence, Britannia. She demonstrated on the map of Roman Britain where the places the Gods, she was going to talk about, were found. She pointed out Corbridge on the River Tyne in the far north,  places in Lincolnshire, Norfolk, Hertfordshire and Londinium. Finally, we were going as far south as Hinton St Mary in Dorset.  The Gods and Goddesses we were going to consider mostly came from the 4 th century AD, towards the end of Roman rule in Britain, when there was upheaval in the political and social makeup of the island. It was a time when there were less individual Gods and one or two gods were becoming preeminent such as Minerva the goddess of water and Mithras, the god of war, but it also was a time that saw  the introduction of Christianity. It was a time of religious contrasts and change as well a political change.

A fine figure of a man. The God Mars from Fossdyke.

We started our tour with a case of small bronze votive offerings.It appears that the people of Britannia were superstitious. If they were going on a business trip, or they were unwell or perhaps they wanted good fortune, they would make an offering to their favourite god or goddess, the one they thought would be most favourable to their cause. This votive offering usually took the form of a small bronze effigy placed in the temple associated with their god. I presume prayers and chants were intoned, probably accompanied with scented tapers. The worship would include sensory effects of all kinds. Psychologically the worshiper would be now in a positive state of mind ready for their task ahead. The first effigy we looked at was a small, very detailed bronze statue of Mars, the god of war found at Fossdyke in Lincolnshire. It is a statue of a naked man looking muscular and well built.  It is a very flattering male figure to say the least. One aspect that is interesting about this statue  is that it stands on a bronze plinth  inscribed with a dedication to the God Mars and also to the Emperor. It  reads that it was dedicated by the Colasuni, Bruccius and Caratius and was made by the bronzesmith  Celatus who also donated some of the metal. Bruccius and Caratius were brothers, probably setting out on a business trip to another part of the Empire. What is  unusual is that the person who made the statue, Caratius, also provided some of the expensive bronze. Caratius was not thinking about making and selling a votive offering for profit it seems. Maybe by making a contribution to the statue, Ceratius, also wanted to praise the god Mars. He too must have wanted a favour. You wonder what his intentions might have been. As it is a particularly fine specimen of a votive offering  he has put a lot of work and effort into making it. These three men are investing much in this statuette. They want something badly. It is easy to say they are ignorant and superstitious. However, superstition is created through human imagination and sometimes partial knowledge about something and this belief can increase in power over time. In our own lives we invest meaning in objects. A collective family memory has meaning for us, a photograph of a best friend living on the other side of the world, a piece of furniture or a vase passed down through the family. Stories and memories attached to objects build up meaning and attachment within that object. So perhaps we should not deride the people of the Roman province nearly two thousand years ago because,  are we different really?

The Corbridge Lanx.

One particularly impressive artefact was the Corbridge, Lanx found in the River Tyne. It is ,an almost pristine, embossed rectangular silver dish. It portrays a scene of five gods and goddesses from ancient Greek antiquity. It is important to note that all the Roman Gods were taken from the Greeks. The Lanx shows a shrine to Apollo. What is interesting about it though is that it was made, like many of the objects we were looking at in our tour, in the 4th century AD when Christianity was becoming popular throughout the Empire. There are various speculations about its purpose. It could be that the owner wanted to show that he or she knew about the old gods even though he or she may well have taken on Christianity. It might be a teaching aid about the old gods. Unlike some of the other silver and gold wear artefacts on display in room 49, it is unscratched. It probably was not used to carry food. Other elaborate embossed plates show evidence for knives being used to cut food on their surface. The Corbridge, Lanx has no such marks. Perhaps it was merely displayed to be looked at?  Because it was made at a time of religious and political upheaval it can be read as the owner hedging their bets. He or she may have become a Christian but they were keeping the old Gods happy too. This attitude can also be seen in the mosaic floor uncovered in Dorset that we also looked at later.

The most flattering view of Senuna. Her front is mostly worn away and decayed.

Ashwell is a lovely village positioned on the edge of a chalk escarpment, fourty five miles north of the centre of London, in Hertfordshire. The springs that emerge from the chalk escarpment there are the source of the River Cam. It was here in 2002 that Alan Meek, a detectorist, came across the Ashwell hoard consisting of gold jewelry, several plaques of gold and silver and a small silver figurine of the goddess, Senuna. The plaques have her name embossed on them so the archaeologists were able to make this association of the statue and the plaques. Senuna was an unknown goddess. She seems to have been connected with the Roman Goddess Minerva because she has similar characteristics. One thing that this talk revealed is that the term Romano Britain is a good description of Roman Britain. The Romans did not replace local customs and beliefs but were very good at assimilating what the local people believed in and integrated local traditions with Roman traditions. Roman Britain had its own unique characteristics therefore, different from other parts of the Empire. Other parts of the Empire too would have had their local characteristics. However, all places within the Empire would have had recognizably  Roman characteristics too. This goddess figurine of Senuna is a good example of that process. Senuna is believed to have been a local water goddess associated with the springs. Minerva was a Roman water goddess and so the two became associated in this part of Roman Britain. The Roman Army is a good example of this adaptive process also. Roman legions throughout the Empire were recruited from local regional tribes. Even the great Roman Army became, over time, an amalgam of nations. One of the important linking traits though was that they were all Roman Citizens.

Some of the gold and silver votive offerings  with Senuna's name printed on them. It was been noticed that these were made with dies that were pressed into the thin metal leaves. Some of them were printed with the same die.

The other issue that the Ashwell hoard find highlights is the assistance of amateur metal detectorists and their undoubted modern day contribution to archaeology. Alan Meek, the gentleman who discovered the hoard was one such metal detectorist. Archaeologists try and include detectorists, with their expertise in detecting metal objects, in the exploration of archaeological sites. Dr Francis Pryor, the archaeologist who has excavated many Mesolithic sites in Britain, discusses the useful help detectorists provide, in his book, Home, a study of the, "home", in Mesolithic and subsequent ancient times. Obviously metal is a prerequisite so Francis Prior discusses the use of detectorists on Bronze Age and Iron Age sites and those following on from those periods in our history. I got the sense from his book that at first he was against using these amateurs, who, admittedly, have caused problems in the past, disturbing archaeological sites and sometimes stealing rare and important finds. However, Francis Pryor and many other archaeologists have formed friendly and productive relationships with detectorists where their expertise, which the run of the mill archaeologist might not have, can be used constructively in a planned and structured way alongside archaeologists working in the field. Many rare finds, especially some of the fantastic metal hoards such as the one found at Ashwell would not have been discovered.

The roundel from the Hinton St Mary villa mosaic.

Finally, we arrived at a particularly impressive display in our tour of Roman gods and goddesses. It was a 4th century AD mosaic roundel from a floor discovered in a Roman Villa at Hinton St Mary in Dorset. It depicts a large head of a young man gazing straight out of the mosaic, looking the onlooker squarely in the eye. It is an unwavering stare. Behind his head protrude the overlapping letters P and X. These are the Greek letters chi and rho. They stand for the early Christian symbol for Jesus Christ. It probably means that the mosaic portrait depicts Christ. But we have to be careful. There are oblique references to the Roman pagan gods too in the roundel. In the four corners, where in a pagan depiction there would be representations of the four seasons, there are instead representations of what could be the four gospel writers. Or maybe they are the four seasons amalgamated with the Christian symbolism of the central portrait? The image does strongly suggest a Christian depiction but we have always got to remember that the Romans were good at mixing and matching and playing the political game. They liked to hedge their bets. Joined to the apparently Christian roundel a short step away in the next room of the villa at Hinton St Mary is another floor that shows the pagan hero Bellepheron overcoming the triple headed Chimera. A pagan symbol for good overcoming evil, but isn’t that also a Christian belief?
The portrayal of a time when religious,political and national upheaval was going on, the 4th century AD, has its resonances today. There is  evidence for all sorts of  beliefs, customs and ideas coming together, adapting and changing the way people lived. So many things were being put into a sort of melting pot. We only have to look at modern times to see the same types of forces and changes going on. This gives us a strong attachment to the ancient people of Britain. They really were no different from us. The human condition doesn’t change does it?