Miracles Take A Little Longer….

When I was a teenager, the option of going to University was never encouraged. In those days a girl was expected to become a secretary or hairdresser, find a husband and marry. I was engaged at 18, married just before my 20th birthday and by 25 had three small sons. We lived in Sunderland.

Six years later I was invited to Durham to meet a vicar I knew from the Samaritans organisation.  (suicide prevention service). I fell hopelessly in love with the City and as my boys were now at school all day, decided it was time to resume my education.durham_cathedral_and_river_wear.jpg

The vicar sent me to meet his secretary who also worked at St Aidan’s College. When I arrived she told me that she had just received a cancellation of a university place. This means, she said, that I could have an interview with the College Principal immediately.

The formidable lady in question – a bastion of the British Empire – summoned me and imperiously pronounced “We are a gels ( girls) college”. That’s fine,” I said, “I am a gel”. I don’t understand how, but somehow I passed her inspection. I became a St. Aidan’s Maiden. Half an hour later I sat with the professor of one of the faculties, told him that I had recently achieved a Grade A in A Level sociology, so he might as well take me now rather than wait another year until I had another qualification. He agreed. Four days later I returned to Durham to enrol.

I had thought of studying law, but when I arrived the queue for law was too long for me to wait, otherwise I would have not been back in time to collect the boys from school. The shortest queue was for Sociology/Psychology. I registered. Five days later I began my three years BA Hons. course.

I was totally enthralled by both subjects, in particular studying the vagaries of human behaviour – a fascination that has remained with me over the years, and which now provides me with the basis for this story.

I have always been intrigued why people challenge themselves to achieve the seemingly impossible, whether climbing mountains, rowing solo across the Atlantic or skydiving out of planes. I appreciate that these have an element of danger and excitement, but there are thousands of others who simply strive to be unique – one look at the Guinness Book of Records will amaze – or appal you, at the antics that people get up to in order to achieve their three minutes of fame and become a legend in their own lunch hour.

But most of these activities pale into insignificance when compared with those of two extraordinary people whose endeavours leave me spellbound. The first is Gary Bevans. In 1987 he visited the Sistine Chapel in Rome and was captivated by Michaelangelo’s magnificent ceiling. He noticed that its shape and size were similar to the English Martyrs’ Church in Worthing, Sussex, where he regularly attended.

On returning home Gary was consumed by the idea of painting a replica of Michelangelo’s masterpiece in his local church. He approached his Priest and Bishop for their permission, they agreed and thus began a remarkable journey. Gary had never received any formal art training but being employed as a sign writer, he developed skills that proved invaluable for recreating the intricate architectural features of the original chapel. He was 33 – the same age as Michaelangelo, who, in 1508, began painting the Sistine Chapel, taking four years to complete it. Gary however, spent five and a half years as he could only paint during the evenings after work each day and at weekends.

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He initially planned to paint the panels in his garden shed and then fix them to the ceiling. However the screw holes damaged the artwork. Instead he used 7500 2” screws to fix hundreds of 8ft x 4ft plywood panels to the ceiling. He then sketched details onto them, and next carefully painted in acrylics. He also had to fill in three ceiling vents and remove a number of modern light fittings that would certainly have looked out of place illuminating ‘renaissance’ artwork.

He installed scaffolding to reach the ceiling and worked there every day. He claims that despite painting for so long with his head in a difficult position, he has never once had a neck problem. He attributes this to God who, he says, endowed him with the artistic talent and willpower to complete this mammoth project. It also probably helped that the paints he used were mixed with holy water. If faith can move mountains, Gary’s amazing achievement proves this.

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The exterior of the church is an unremarkable 1960’s building, but on entering, one is dazzled by the splendour of the Sistine Chapel without the ordeal of confronting hordes of Japanese tourists with selfie sticks, as in Rome. Trip Advisor gives Gary’s replica a five star rating and more than 30,000 people viewed it last year. I cannot wait to see it for myself when it re-opens in the spring.

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The second unique personality to introduce you to is Johan Huibers, a Dutch building contractor, carpenter and ardent Christian believer in the Creation. Several years ago he had a nightmare that a fierce storm flooded the entire province of Noord Holland where he lives. Around the same time he had just read the story of Noah’s Ark to his children, and this, combined with his bad dream, convinced him it was prophetic.

As a result he vowed to build a replica of Noah’s Ark, literally of biblical proportions, copying the measurements in cubits as written in the Bible. His wife initially laughed at his idea, saying “Fine you finish building it, then we’ll go on holiday to the moon”. But he persisted, completing his first Ark 13 years later.

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noah-and-ark-1-638.jpgHowever Johan was not satisfied with this vessel, as it was only half the size of Noah’s. So he sold it and began work on a larger one. Once more, he laboured non-stop, this time with the support of amateur carpenters including a hairdresser, butcher and teacher. Together they spent four years creating an outstanding vessel at a cost of around £5m. When he opened it to the public, he wryly admits certain things were not quite ship-shape, with the result that the authorities closed the boat to the public until it meets their stringent Health and Safety regulations.

Johan’s dream is to sail his ‘replica of God’s ship’ to ‘God’s land’ – Israel. He proclaims his love for the Jewish state saying “ I love the country and its people. They don’t obey rules, do whatever they want, drive like madmen, shove whilst standing on line and don’t listen to anyone – just like me!

But it will take more than passion to achieve his dream. His 2,500 ton Ark, constructed from beech and pine, is 410ft long, 95ft wide with five decks reaching 76ft high. However, it has no motor but then, I guess, neither had the Biblical one. To get it to Israel pulled by tugboats would cost around $1,300,000.

Saying this, I feel that if anyone can do it, Johan can. Considering what he has already achieved, which frankly is outstanding, maybe the final hurdle is only kid’s play.

Johan is convinced that we are approaching the End of Days but most people are not aware of it. The water will come, of that he is certain. His projection may not be so far from the truth bearing in mind global warming signs of rising sea levels. I am not, however, planning to book my passage just yet. Not for any reasons regarding the viability of his Ark, but because the very thought of going on any cruise gives me the horrors.

By the way, for those of you wondering how I survived my academic life at Durham, below is my degree ceremony photograph. It was very special to have my parents and my sons there. I would like to think that, in some small way, it inspired them to achieve the academic successes they did. I must ask them some time !Scan 2.jpeg

 

 

 

 

 

Potty About Pots

I cannot remember a time when I was not in love with pots. It began in the 1950’s when BBC TV. ( then black and white) regularly showed a five minute clip of a potter throwing a clay vessel on a wheel as an interlude between programmes. I sometimes wondered why they needed intervals, perhaps because of a technical failure in the studio, or to give the staff time for a quick smoke or a visit to the loo. But whatever it was, I was mesmerised. I was hooked for life.

I began collecting ceramics in my mid twenties. I have never been an acquisitive person craving luxuries such as jewellery, clothes, handbags and so on but the only thing I positively lust after is when I see a ceramic that I simply must have. The earliest pots I bought were Clarice Cliff honey pots (art deco) and some early signed pieces from Royal Doulton. These are still in my collection.

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Clarice Cliff Honeypots ( 1930’s )

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Royal Doulton vases circa 1900

I have always had a passion for anything hand made, so  when, 36 years ago  I was invited by my late friend Dame Miriam Rothschild, to join the committee of the Alix de Rothschild Crafts Foundation in Israel, it seemed a natural path to follow.   ( You can read about Miriam in the story “A WOMAN WITHOUT EQUAL”  on my blog – ruthcorman.wordpress.com) 

This brought me into contact with many Israeli  artists in the field of contemporary applied arts and  In order to facilitate bilateral exchanges of artists between UK and Israel, I established the Designer Crafts Foundation.

One of the earliest exhibitions we held was a show in London of Ethiopian clay figures. It was shortly after the 1987 Ethiopian Jewish immigration to Israel.  The Jerusalem potter Avraham Moyal curated it and more than 250 pieces were displayed.  This I know to my cost as I had to wait for hours whilst British customs officials meticulously unwrapped every figure to check for hidden drugs. There were none.   This show not only introduced British audiences to Ethiopian Jewish artwork but also described in photographs the dramatic tale of the exodus of the Ethiopian Jewish community to Israel.

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Later in 1997  I decided to contact a number of my potter friends to tell them about our Jewish tradition of giving charity (tzedaka) every day.  I suggested they might like to create a tzedaka box. Their response was immediate with 30 of them producing some unique pieces for an exhibition held in my gallery, with the proceeds, appropriately, going to charity. Ruti Benjamini, a talented Israeli potter, also encouraged her students –  residents of Nightingale House, the home for the elderly, to take part.  I remember when they all came for afternoon tea and to see the exhibition. It was very moving to see how thrilled they were on seeing their work displayed alongside that of professional potters, demonstrating that one is never too old to learn new skills.

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More shows were held at our home in Jerusalem for both British and Israeli artists. El Al were very obliging about luggage allowances  and for one show we managed to bring 60 or more ceramics from England packed in a large suitcase. Amazingly nothing was damaged.  

To commemorate Israel’s 50th anniversary in 1998, ten British artists representing the fields of fashion, glass, woodturning, basketry, weaving, textiles and woodcarving were invited to Israel.  Their work was displayed both inside and outside the new Tel Aviv Opera House. 60 of my photographs were also on show. What we could not expect, however, was that after setting everything up the night before, there was a sudden enormous downpour of rain  – on May 2nd.!  A very rare occurrence.

Bringing artists to Israel has always been the major focus of our activities.  It gives Israelis  the chance to see the work and methods of British makers and for the artists it provides a unique opportunity  to meet their Israeli counterparts and see the country,  often for the first time. For the last 21 years they have taken part in a three day ceramics symposium at Tel Hai, followed by presentations in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.   

The Designer Crafts Foundation also organised the competition of the biennial prize for crafts, originally sponsored by the Alix de Rothschild Foundation.     The short listing was carried out in London with many major figures from the world of ceramics on the judging panel. Topics for the competition included The Art Of The Vessel,  Anything But A Vessel,  My Personal Box,  The Art of Recycling and more.  Prize-giving ceremonies were followed by exhibitions of the winners work in Israeli galleries, including  for the last three years at Bet Binyamini,  with the co-operation of Marcelle Klein and her colleagues. Marcelle and Yael Novak also did a sterling job of  curating the winners pieces from ‘My Personal Box’ at the Ben Uri Art Gallery, London.

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Nic Collins firing his woodturning kiln

Since we began some 70 artists have visited Israel from the U.K.   Friendships are quickly established.   Last year Nic Collins, our guest artist, invited two Tel Hai graduates  to visit his place in Dartmoor in January for a five day wood firing experience. They had a great time and despite the temperature dropping well below zero their enthusiasm was not chilled.  Perhaps working with a roaring kiln that reached 1300 degrees helped!

As well as sending UK artists to Israel, 15 Israeli potters and artists  have been  to the UK to speak at conferences, visit studios, take up residencies and generally experience the art world in Britain.

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The good news is that this exchange programme continues!  

 From 27 February – 12 March  2019   Chris Keenan  is coming to Israel to demonstrate his skill with porcelain.

After university Chris became an actor, a career he followed for 12 years.  Finding work in the theatre was often unpredictable, but he persevered until one day, in his 30’s, a friend introduced him to an up and coming potter –  Edmund de Waal, now one of the most highly regarded potters in Britain.

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After buying a couple of Edmund’s pots, Chris was suddenly inspired to consider changing direction.  He had always enjoyed creative activities, DIY, making clothes, cooking and so on and was keen to learn something new.   Serendipitously Edmund de Waal was looking to take on his first apprentice.   Chris applied, was accepted for a two year training period and paid his way working as a waiter.  At the end of the first year Chris had a show of his pots, sold several pieces and was able to give up waiting on tables.

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Today Chris works from his studio in Vanguard, Court, Peckham South London, where he began with Edmund.  When asked to describe his feelings about his work, Chris maintains that addiction comes first, then passion as you start to acquire skills and improve.

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Then there is the joy in discovering the pleasure ones work gives to a growing number of collectors, some of whom become good friends over the years –  an unexpected bonus!  As he says, “We are on a journey together as I feel my skill has not yet reached its peak”.   Having his own special place to come to work each day – his studio –  makes him feel immensely fortunate that he can spend his life doing something that gives him so much satisfaction.

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Photographs by Michael Harvey.

 

You can meet Chris, hear him talk and watch him  demonstrate his skills at

Tel Aviv Museum Thursday, February 28.       Time 17.00    contact: workshops@tamuseum.com

Tel Hai –  Thursday March 7 – Open Day including workshop, demonstration and presentation – details from gmrosenstone@gmail.com        

Israel Museum, Jerusalem    Monday March 11     18.30   Contact:  Eldad Shaltiel, The Art classes office 026771303, 026708961.

 

 

 

 

 

Chris Keenan has works in the following Public Collections:  Victoria & Albert Museum, London,     Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, Mashiko Museum of Ceramic Art, Japan. Gallery Oldham,Contemporary Art Society, London,  MIMA,Middlesborough  York Art Gallery,   Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool.

His work is regularly exhibited in galleries both in the UK and abroad.

 

 

 

Growing Up – Green

It was undoubtedly fascination with my latest research and story on hydroponics that led me into the world of vertical gardens and cultivated rooftops of London.

My first  surprise  was to discover that the Greater London Authority have been actively promoting greening the city for years now, producing a map showing 700 green roofs in central London alone.  This amounts to 17.5 hectares – which for those of you who share my confusion over measurements, is 175,000 square metres.Walkie-Talkie_-_Sept_2015I decided that I must venture forth and see some of  these wonders for myself.  The first I chose, perhaps the most impressive in terms of scale, is 20 Fenchurch Street – a building affectionally called the ‘Walkie Talkie’ designed by Uruguayan architect Rafael Vinoly who successful turned  the traditional idea on its head that buildings should be narrower at the top than the bottom.23B5383.jpgAt the ground floor exterior of this monolithic edifice you are greeted by a 700sq.m living wall of 52,000 plants –  very impressive (by Biotecture see above) but the extra ‘wow’ factor is when you take the lift to floor 37 and see the luxuriant ‘Sky’ gardens covering the top three floors, which accommodate three restaurants.

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For me, getting up there was a challenge – elevators not being my favoured form of transport (since being locked into one for two hours aged 15) – nor am I happy with heights.    Despite this I confronted my demons and the sense of achievement plus the outstanding views made it a memorable experience.

Looking down I saw many iconic London landmarks –  Tower of London, River Thames, St Paul’s Cathedral and out as far as Canary Wharf. Of particular interest  was to see that  seven or eight  rooftops below had been transformed with growing produce  or gardens for relaxing.

It is also worth mentioning that a visit to the Sky Garden is free – you simply book in advance on their website.  A real bargain, considering that a visit up the Shard  (another London ‘high spot’) costs £28 per person – a hefty sum for a family group.   One delicate touch at  Sky Garden is the sign informing visitors that the use ‘selfie sticks’ to take photos is absolutely not permitted.  Now that’s progress of which I heartily approve.

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I  next visited the MTV studios in Camden. It was a perfect day for taking photos, a beautiful sunny Sunday, when Camden is heaving with people coming to visit the lively market, cafes and shops that cater mainly for a young and hipster crowd.  This heavily built up area has little greenery, but suddenly you come upon Hawley Crescent and discover a stunning vertical garden.    Seeing it made me realise how different urban living could be if this concept became the norm. It would totally transform our cities,  encourage  biodiversity and improve the quality of our air.

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From here I continued to the Athenaeum Hotel, Piccadilly, which has a garden reaching from street level to the 10th floor.   Patrick Blanc, the award winning French artist and botanist, designed it to include bird feeders and a selection of plants that attract butterflies and bees.  His stunning vertical  gardens can be seen in cities all over the world.  

But it is not just offices and hotels that commission his art – two ‘transport’ venues are included in his portfolio  – Gate 25 of Terminal 3 at Heathrow Airport where, according to the newspapers “London Airport installed 1,680 plants in a bid to tackle travel rage”.  This sounds to me  like the usual sensationalist  headline – after all if I get stressed I am more likely to eat chocolate than have rage.   I am curious to know if they have bothered to measure its effectiveness?

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The next ‘transport’ project is a magnificent wall at Edgware Road underground station –  on the Bakerloo Line.  Another Patrick Blanc design, installed by Biotecture. No mention as to  whether this one is intended to minimise Underground Rage.

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The next treat awaiting me was Ham Yard Hotel in Soho. The history of this area is fascinating and worth a story of its own.   Henry VIII transformed it from farmland into a Royal Park and it became the home of the aristocracy.  It also provided safe haven for waves of European refugees including the Protestant Huguenots who fled France around 1690. In 1854 there was an outbreak of cholera caused by locally infected water.  Many wealthier residents left the area and subsequently it gained a reputation for  prostitutes, music halls and clubs, becoming the haunt of writers, poets, artists and beatniks.   Many famous performers began their careers here playing jazz, beat or skiffle in Soho’s iconic music venues until the late  20th century.

In the 1980’s a process of gentrification began.   Today It is a fashionable district of restaurants, record shops and boutiques and, being blessed with not having  many high rise buildings,  retains something of its old character. It is also a major centre for the film and media industry, probably influenced by its proximity to London’s theatreland.HamYard.jpgHowever returning to Ham Yard Hotel  – this extraordinary boutique hotel is tucked away in a quiet square in the centre of Soho.  I wanted to visit their rooftop garden which turned out to be a magical outdoor covered terrace with a profusion of plants flowers, fruit espaliers, ancient olive trees, a traditional  kitchen garden of herbs, vegetables and two beehives. Whilst up there It is impossible to believe that you are in the centre of a city – this little tranquil spot of heaven is the perfect antidote after a busy day in London.  

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What I had not expected were the beautiful  hotel interiors with an emphasis on original and exciting art and a surprise to delight the eye at every turn. Designer  Kit Kemp it is nothing short of inspirational.  She believes that every room should be like a painted canvas – and they truly are.   In addition to organising art tours in the area, the hotel has a theatre, bowling alley, library, and spa.    Rarely am I so impressed but I did tell the Manager that I would happily sell up and move in.

Visiting these places left me feeling more optimistic than I expected.   We know that plants filter toxins from air so these rooftops and gardens must help. 

Saying that, In 2015 the media abounded with news that London’s Oxford Street was the most heavily polluted  in the world.   The main culprit – traffic fumes,  in particular diesel, which years ago was promoted as the healthier alternative to petrol.  This has proven to be untrue, so the need is now to eliminate diesel vehicles which contribute to around 40,000 premature deaths annually in the UK.

 In June 2018  Mayor Sadiq Khan  announced that  sixty-eight electric double-decker buses will be added to London’s green bus fleet in 2019.  Local businesses in the area  are also doing their bit, having restricted the number of daily visits of delivery and refuse collection vehicles, resulting in a noticeable reduction of  traffic.

But there is more – fashion designer Stella McCartney  uses biopolymer mannequins in her Bond Street store made from sugarcane, coated with organic paint which, unlike plastic based alternatives, are biodegradable.  Her store  is fitted with air filtration units that remove 95% of all airborne pollutants. To add to this The Body Shop, a long time champion of environmental issues, introduced filtration units into their brand advertising at three bus stops in central London where waiting passengers can breathe clean air.  Hopefully more will follow.

These initiatives may seem insignificant when weighed against the enormity of the  pollution problem, but hopefully such ideas will snowball.

My Russian grandmother used to have a saying “Ver der’s a vill der’s a Vay”. (Where there’s a will there’s a way)  She was always right.   By combining our efforts we might just manage to leave a healthier world for our children’s children.

As for me I am totally bowled over by the concept of vertical gardening. I might wear a mask to do it, but just imagine, no more bending down to weed! Instead I guess I will just have to learn how to climb ladders.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Blooming marvellous…

It was many years ago in Manchester when my seven year old son invited his friend to join us for lunch. I fed them their favourite –  fish fingers, chips and peas.

fish-fingers-children.jpgAs I stood in the kitchen peeling potatoes, our guest watching me, suddenly exclaimed “Golly gosh – I didn’t know that chips came from potatoes”.

Remember, in those  days “golly gosh” was a popular expression of surprise –  a euphemism for ‘Good God’ (from1757).   This made me question what boys might utter today, but all I could think of  was ‘Wow’,  which surprisingly isn’t modern at all but dates back to  sixteenth century Scotland.

But I digress.  The boy’s comment shocked me and I resolved to ensure that least my three sons knew the basics of where food comes from.   Too few children have the experience of planting  a seed and watching  it grow. I felt they needed to get their hands dirty, work the soil and observe the joy of creation.

This principle I upheld until recently, when  my ideas were completely turned on their head, as I began reading about an alternative system of growing plants – hydroponics which is, wait for it – without soil – using only water with added nutrients.

How revolutionary, thought I, this must be a recent innovation – but  guess what, wrong again!    For whilst researching this subject, my voyage of discovery led me to Sir Francis Bacon (1551-1626), an English philosopher, scientist, jurist, orator and prolific and erudite author, who served as Attorney General and later Lord Chancellor of England.  (What, I wonder, did he do in his spare time?)

belowSir Francis Bacon, 1st Viscount St Alban.
portrait.jpgOne of his books, published posthumously in 1627,  described how to grow plants without soil.  Following this, research into water culture became popular  and many scientists carried on  experimenting with his ideas.

GerickeTomatoesGreenhouse.jpgIn 1929 Gericke, a plant physiologist, created a sensation by growing tomato plants 25feet high  without soil. Others refuted his method declaring it had little advantage over soil-grown produce, but  around the same time, one of the earliest hydroponic successes occurred on Wake Island, a rocky atoll in the Pacific which was a refuelling stop for PanAm airlines.  The island had no soil,  but fresh vegetables were hydroponically grown there for the passengers and crew.

Since then influential  bodies – NASA and the Kennedy Space Station, have demonstrated how hydroponics can provide a life support system in space travel. Today Canada has hundreds of acres of large-scale greenhouses with tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers grown this way and  it is estimated that the world market will increase fourfold by 2023.IMG_0979.jpg

‘Green In The City’ (above)

My interest in this topic was aroused after reading an article about a revolutionary rooftop farm.  Set up by Mendi Falk “Green In The City” is located on the rooftop of the oldest and largest shopping mall in Israel – the Dizengoff Centre, Tel Aviv. I had to see it for myself.

I  was greeted by Sheana – an expert in sustainability whose enthusiasm was infectious.  She told me that two dozen varieties of vegetables and herbs including lettuce, basil, pak choy, onions, tomatoes and cucumbers are grown and supplied to 20 restaurants in Tel Aviv, with no transport costs and hence no carbon footprint.  The public buys from three stalls in the mall paying by means of an honesty box.

Their hydroponic process is elegant in its simplicity.   A tank of fish sits on the roof.  Plants feed off waste created by the fish and in return the fish thrive on the oxygen produced by the crops which grow faster, produce greater yields and take up less space than using other methods. Pesticides are eliminated as most plant diseases come from soil.  A main feature is that it uses 70 – 90% less water than soil grown produce. In a world threatened with diminishing water resources this is a massive plus.

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Their aim is to inspire urban dwellers to ‘green’ the city.  However other timely objectives are addressed. The complex  also serves as an educational facility with visitors learning how to grow their own hydroponic produce and also which varieties of plants attract butterflies.  Bee hives will be installed emphasising their importance in our lives.   1,700 trees grow on the roof and these will eventually be given to projects encouraging afforestation which in turn reduces the carbon output.  Simply put, the more trees, the less pollution.

I learned how rainwater can be better utilised.  All over the world most is wasted when, for example, a  sudden downpour can result in urban flooding.  At Green In The City  a section is devoted to demonstrating how absorbent ‘pillows’ can conserve large amounts of rainfall which is then slowly released to feed the plants.  This system protects buildings by eliminating the flooding that can cause structural damage.

But this is not the only green spot blooming in Israel. Others are in Beersheba, Jerusalem and Haifa.  Bat Yam houses a special community project supported by the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel,  where those with mental health issues grow hydroponic plants as a means of aiding their recovery.  Hydroponics are also used by some religious Jews to grow crops during the Shmita ( every seventh year) following a biblical injunction to leave the land uncultivated.

Hydroponics is now used in many countries, but of particular interest to me, and certainly  ‘unexpected’, is the farm installed 100 feet  below busy London streets.    ‘Growing Underground’ is an urban farm in Clapham, housed in a network of 7,000 square feet of tunnels that used to shelter up to 8,000 people during air raids in WW11.  It was opened by restaurateur Michel Roux (below) who is delighted that fresh organic produce is now available locally.claphamcommonfarm.jpgAs seen in  Tel Aviv, some 20 different types of herbs are cultivated and distributed to a growing number of markets, wholesalers and contract caterers across the city.  The main difference is that in London they use low energy LED lighting – they claim that they have reached the stage where plants can grow without natural light, instead using the LED spectrum adjusted to suit different plants.

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So my story began with a child who did not know where chips came from.  This concerned me then, but not as much as the  results of a recent UK survey about food.  27,500 youngsters aged 5-16yrs were interviewed.  30% of the youngest thought that cheese comes from plants, 11% of the older ones believed that tomatoes were grown under ground,  and many others claimed that fish fingers were made from chicken.   22% were sure that pasta came from animals.  

However as strange as this seems, nothing compares to what happened on April Fool’s Day 1957  when the BBC aired a  t.v. programme showing a Swiss family harvesting spaghetti from their trees.   This achieved immediate credibility as the voice-over was by the respected broadcaster Richard Dimbleby.Spaghetti_harvest.jpg

Picking spaghetti in Switzerland.

We must remember that pasta was not an everyday food in 1950s Britain, only known then as the tinned variety in tomato sauce and considered a delicacy.  Eight million people watched the programme, following which hundreds phoned in to ask how they could grow their own spaghetti trees. The BBC reportedly told them to “place a sprig of spaghetti in a tin of tomato sauce and hope for the best.”     You absolutely must look this up on YouTube – it is unbelievable!

But now for a last word on fish fingers. I did not mention that  the youngster featured earlier in this story told me that he never realised that fish had fingers. I had no answer for that.  But to add to the mystique, some years ago the graffiti artist Banksy displayed an art installation of fish fingers squirming around in a goldfish bowl.  These images have remained with me and have definitely stopped me from ever wanting to eat fish fingers again.  If you watch this on Youtube I suspect you might agree…….

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A story I never thought I would write

Some ten years ago I started singing lessons.   I passed the Grades at the Guildhall School of Music –  (I was the only student attending without their mother!) and am currently studying for the Advanced Performance Certificate which requires singing six arias in three languages for a 35 minute programme.

Why am I doing this? Obviously my career does not  depend upon getting good grades – but Camille, my first teacher, was adamant that it is the best way to focus and improve.   She was right.  I love the discipline of the learning process. The question of performing in public rarely comes into the equation.

When Camille left London she recommended that I transfer to Jorge – a  Spanish concert pianist who teaches music at the Central School of Ballet.  However my concern was what to do when I am in Israel, sometimes for six weeks at a time –  I needed to find someone to fill the gap.   Fortunately, four years ago I was introduced to Haim Tukachinsky –  a  concert pianist based at the Jerusalem Music Academy.

 

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I knew little of him but vividly recall our first meeting as he, coming from a Haredi (ultra religious) background, was immediately distinctive because of his long black side curls. My first question was to ask how he was permitted to teach me, as I understood that it was forbidden for religious Jewish men to listen to a woman’s voice.   He smiled and simply said –  “I teach’. 

And so we began our journey.  He proved to be an excellent teacher –  encouraging whilst at the same time critical of every little point that needed correction – a mispronunciation, a wrong note, a timing issue  – and so on.  This rigour was exactly what I needed.  In 2016, I was invited to sing six solo arias in Maale Adumim – my first public performance with a 65 piece orchestra.  As the day for the concert approached I became rather nervous – why on earth was I putting myself under this pressure, whatever for?  

The day of the concert arrived, Haim insisted on coming with me.  He was like a rock and it was he who gave me the confidence to perform.    He sat in the eighth row directly in front of me,  no-one realising that he was conducting me from his seat, and mouthing all the words of each piece.   Thanks to him, the evening was a success.  We ended the performance with his playing the piano and my singing  ‘Summertime’ from Porgy and Bess.  It was an occasion I will never forget.  

But more of Haim.    He became interested in music from a very young age.  He attended a religious elementary school in Kiryat Motzkin, but chose not to continue to higher learning.  Instead  according to his mother Yael, “he wanted to learn music, to use it to sanctify God’s name”.

 Haim studied at  the Jerusalem Academy of Music – composition under Dr Michael Wolpe and piano under Prof. Isaac Katz and Prof. Vadim Monostyrsky.  He attended many masterclasses of world famous musicians and in 2007-2009 was the winner of the America-Israel Cultural Foundation scholarship and also received the prestigious Wolf scholarship.  He then began performing extensively as a soloist, accompanist and with chamber ensembles at venues in Israel and abroad.

  In 2012 Haim added a new dimension to his creativity by venturing into the world of musical theatre as musical director of shows such as The Sound of Music, Singing In the Rain, Cats, a Little Night Music, The Producers and more. His ability to bridge the gap between classical music and contemporary musical theatre, a genre that he had never previously experienced, was  hugely impressive and he received many accolades for his musical genius, incredible pedagogical skills and most of all for his magical personality, so full of life, joy, respect, and inspiration.

In July of this year Charles and I invited him to stay wth us in London, mainly so that he could attend some top class concerts at the Proms in the Royal Albert Hall and visit museums and galleries.   He came for ten days and was the best house guest ever.   Every day I packed him sandwiches and off he went to explore the city.  The first three days he spent at the British Museum, captivated by everything he saw.  Each evening he went to a Prom concert.  I joined him twice,  my enjoyment enhanced by learning through Haim how to understand better what we were hearing.

We visited St Paul’s Cathedral where we were given free entry to the Bill Viola art show. We  then crossed the Millennium Bridge over the Thames to the Tate Modern.

St Pauls.jpegHere we saw the Picasso exhibition.  Haim was concerned that I might be bored going around with him, saying he took longer in museums than anyone else he knew, but it was wonderful to see his enthusiasm, openness and sensitivity to all art forms including the architecture of London.

P1080844-1.jpg Another day we walked over Hampstead Heath, seeing it anew through his eyes.    Haim gives the  initial impression of being reserved but he readily engaged with everyone we met and charmed them all.

I, as a person who can go to sleep at 8.00pm, found myself staying up late and we chatted for hours.   He told me of his family and particularly the nephews and nieces that he loved, proudly relating anecdotes of their achievements.  We also shared youtube videos that each of us enjoyed and laughed a lot. I  suppose what I remember mostly is his gentle manner and wonderful sense of humour.

On his last night I organised a private concert for him at the home of a friend who had a grand piano. The programme was “From Greig To Gershwin” and he charmingly introduced each piece with wit and erudition.  

Watching him perform was mesmerising. His whole being, combining physical, mental and emotional energy  resulted in a unique experience. The audience were stunned, overwhelmed and deeply moved.  Their thank you letters next day expressed such terms, urging me to do whatever possible to get him back to London for a larger audience.

When Haim returned to Israel,  it was as if a family member was leaving us, but I promised to be in touch as soon as we arrived in Jerusalem.  This was only three weeks ago. We had this crazy idea of his playing on the concrete piano in central Jerusalem with my singing alongside him.

This was not to be.   Two days later Haim, whilst walking back from prayers at the Western Wall, was knocked down by a hit and run driver and killed.     The driver, a Spanish journalist who lived in Jerusalem, was reported as being three times over the alcohol limit. He is in custody awaiting trial.

I do not have the words to write of the shock of losing a beloved friend in this way, in particular one so young and with all his life ahead of him and my heart goes out to his family,   He was 31.

Many times during our lessons I would stop Haim to say thank you, telling him that singing with him was as if receiving a very special gift.      As a newcomer to the world of music, I am astonished by the overwhelming feeling of  happiness I feel once I start to sing.     Haim replied saying “Music is one of the greatest gifts you can give to a person, for it has the power to make one happy, regardless of their situation”.

One of the pieces we worked on recently was Bernstein’s ‘Somewhere’ from West Side Story.  At the moment I cannot bring myself to sing it – the  words being so very moving.

There’s a place for us, Somewhere a place for us.

Peace and quiet and open air wait for us somewhere.

There’s a time for us, some day a time for us,

 Time together with time to spare, time to look, time to care,

 Some day!  Somewhere   We’ll find a new way of living,

We’ll find a way of forgiving    Somewhere . . .

There’s a place for us, A time and place for us.

Hold my hand and we’re halfway there.

Hold my hand and I’ll take you there

Somehow, Some day, Somewhere!

It is perhaps a small consolation to think that Haim, this beautiful person so loved and admired by many,  is now at peace ‘somewhere’….

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A Woman Without Equal

 

miriam in garden .jpegYears ago I was fortunate enough to become  a friend of one of the most outstanding people I have ever known – Dame Miriam Rothschild.  It was she who involved me in the field of contemporary crafts in Israel – a passion for which has endured over the years.  But more of this later.    First, something about this remarkable woman.

Miriam was born  in 1908 at  Ashton Wold, Northamptonshire, the family home built by her father Charles Rothschild of the Jewish banking family. He was the son of Nathan Mayer Rothschild who in 1885 became the first Jew to receive a peerage as the 1st Baron Rothschild.  

Charles devoted much of his energy to entomology and natural history.  He amassed a collection of 260,000 fleas, now housed in London’s Natural History Museum.  He was passionate about nature conservation, established the first nature reserve near Ely in 1899, and spent his life managing his estate at Ashton Wold to make it suitable for wildlife, especially butterflies.  Miriam told me how he was ahead of his time in his understanding that, whilst preserving endangered species in zoos was fine,  more at risk  were their natural habitats, without which they could never survive.

As a child Miriam never attended school but was taught at home under the watchful eyes of her parents. She said her father never approved of governesses or exams so she had a blissful childhood.  Aged four she played on the family farm and was featured in Country Life magazine as the ‘youngest milkmaid’ in Britain”.  She was always fascinated by insects and  recalls “My father never treated me as a child but made me believe I was helping him in his work.”

Tragically Charles died aged 46 when Miriam was 15, after which she was guided by her father’s elder brother Walter, a truly English eccentric.   He  too was  a naturalist who gathered the largest collection of specimens ever assembled by one man, including two million butterflies and moths, 200,000 birds eggs, 300,000 bird skins and 4,000 mounted mammals and birds. They were displayed in his zoological museum at Tring, Hertfordshire  and opened to the public in 1892.

 

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Miriam remembers seeing his cassowaries, wallabies and 144 Galapagos tortoises roaming freely around the estate. Uncle Walter was also famed for driving a team of six zebras to Buckingham Palace to demonstrate their tameness.

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As an active Zionist and close friend of Chaim Weizmann he worked to draft the document for a Jewish homeland in Palestine, the Balfour Declaration, and personally received the letter from Lord Balfour confirming the support of the British Government.

Not surprisingly in view of her background, Miriam became a world authority on fleas.  She was the first person to discover their complex jumping mechanism and explained to me  how they could jump to heights 50 times their body size, akin to my jumping to the top of the Empire State Building.

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Miriam was very proud of being Jewish but denied believing in the creation. However on one occasion she did say that she began to believe it when she discovered that fleas had penises.  She spoke on BBC’s ‘Desert Island Discs’ about how beautiful these creatures were and illustrated the cover of her book ‘Atlas of Insect Tissue’ with an image of a flea’s vagina.flea book cover.jpg

The natural world was her main focus but she also pursued many other  important activities. Prior to WW2 she worked to persuade the UK Government  to admit more Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany. She personally welcomed and housed  49 Jewish children.  She also cared for wounded British soldiers – one of whom  she married –  Captain George Lane, a  Hungarian Jewish exile who fought with the British Commandos and was decorated as a war hero. 

Another important contribution to the war effort were the two years she spent helping to break the Enigma Code with Alan Turing at Bletchley Park. For this she was awarded a Defence Medal.

In her teens Miriam was an excellent sportswoman, following in the footsteps of her mother. She reached international standards at cricket and squash.  Aged 18,  she began Zoology studies at Chelsea Polytechnic, following which her prolific academic career took off.

 In 1982 she received the CBE, commenting “I must be the first person to receive this for examining the backsides of fleas.” In 1985 she was appointed a Fellow of the Royal Society for her contribution to etymology and botany.  She became a Dame in 2000 and received honorary doctorates from eight universities including Oxford and Cambridge.  During her lifetime she published more than 360 scientific papers  and 11 books. 

The Royal Horticultural Society awarded her a medal for her wild flower meadows,  a gold medal for 80 varieties of gooseberries, and in 1991 she received their highest accolade – the Victoria Medal of Honour.    Because of her extensive knowledge of wild flowers, Prince Charles planted his Highgrove Estate with seeds that she cultivated and Lady Bird Johnson  consulted her about the programme  to beautify American roadsides.  On Desert Island Discs her chosen luxury was a bag of wild flower seeds – named ‘Farmer’s Nightmare’, so called for being full of what countrymen would regard  as  weeds.

In addition to all this she married and raised six children.

I myself met Miriam in 1989.  As Director of the British Israel Arts Foundation, I was working to promote cultural links between the two countries.   Miriam called to ask if I could arrange a trip to Israel for the UK’s  leading authority on Art Therapy – Edward Adamson.  I visited her at the museum she set up  at Ashton Wold housing 6,000 artworks by hospital inmates.   It was a revelation to learn of Edward’s seminal work, transforming, through art, the lives of so many patients.  In 1991 I brought him to Israel for a lecture tour combined with an exhibition  in Kfar Saba of the British patients’ work.

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Miriam then asked if I would  join her to sit on the committee in Jerusalem of the Alix de Rothschild Craft Foundation.  Alix had always had a great passion for crafts and tools. She and Miriam  were cousins and great friends and when Alix died in 1982 David de Rothschild, her son, established a foundation in his mother’s name.  Miriam and I attended meetings at their centre in the Old City of Jerusalem.   On another occasion she invited me to the opening of the Supreme Court Building in Jerusalem in 1992 , funded by the Rothschilds. It was a splendid and memorable occasion. 

Supreme Court building, Jerusalemiu-1.jpegIn 1997 Miriam suggested I set up a charity to work with the Alix de Rothschild Foundation to help artists by arranging exhibitions, exchange visits and awarding prizes.  And so the UK Designer Crafts Foundation was born.   Over the years more than seventy UK artists have visited Israel to give lectures and workshops.  Enduring links  have been created between artists of both countries.  This continues today.

 For some reason I kept all the letters that Miriam sent me over the years. Re-reading them I can hear so clearly her voice and her ready laugh – she had a great sense of humour and was hugely  enthusiastic and supportive.    In one letter she wrote “Dear Ruth, I am very impressed with your ruthless activity – but think I need to create a new adjective for it!”

 

Ashton Wold House A wold.jpegI visited Miriam several times at Ashton Wold.  Her house was covered  with a profusion of ivy, wisteria, clematis and roses. The gardens were bursting with wild flowers, trees and shrubs.  “My garden has come to symbolise the new sympathy with wildlife” she said. This was when I learned that there are no such thing as weeds – they are simply flowers growing where they choose rather than being given designated plots by us.

On  arrival I was always greeted by Miriam’s coterie of miniature Shetland sheepdogs that followed her everywhere.   Every room in the house was piled high with books, papers and paintings collected over many years – including an enlargement of a flea, by the artist Graham Sutherland which hung in her toilet. 

Over lunch Miriam regaled me with stories  – American airmen were billeted there during WW2,  one being Clark Gable  whom, she said, was very handsome but quite humourless.   She however combined wit with erudition and displayed warmth and a passion for life. She was an unapologetic humanitarian, fighting cause after cause, including homosexual rights, free milk for schoolchildren, better treatment for laboratory animals.   She was also credited with inventing seat belts.   During WW2  an airfield was erected on her land –  she met the pilots, noticed their seat belts and wondered if these could be applied to cars.  She produced one to test, the rest is history.

Miriam could always be identified by her singular dress style, loose fitting clothes, in mauve, blue and lilac with matching headscarf. These she designed to eliminate ‘the need to make unnecessary choices’.  She would often be seen walking through the village with a tame fox in tow and wearing her customary white wellington boots.  These she adopted after abandoning  leather shoes, having seen the cruelty to farmed animals.  Asked if she always wore them, she replied, “Well I wore them on a visit to Buckingham Palace”.

I remember clearly my last visit.  Miriam was about 95 and whilst talking of our work in Israel, she said “It is very nice for me to think that when I ‘ll be up there with the birds you will be down here looking after things”.   I have never forgotten this and sometimes, when I may feel like giving it up, I remember her and realise that there is absolutely no way I can possibly break my promise to this very unique and inspiring person.

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In memory of a special friend.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Scilly Story.

It was comedian Spike Milligan who famously said “Went to Cornwall once, to go any further would  be Scilly”.  This piqued my curiosity, but I never did anything about it until years later when we decided to visit the Islands. 

Situated 28 miles off the coast of Cornwall, is an archipelago of 140 tiny islands. Five are inhabited, the remainder have their own residents – namely more than 20 varieties of birds, (the islands being heaven for bird watchers).  There are several types of bats, grey seals abound and it is the home of the unique Scilly Shrew, which sounds more like an insult than a species. Turtles, dolphins and sharks can be seen in the waters.

We discovered this paradise 15 years ago and have returned every year since. It exerts a magical spell over almost all its visitors who share an unspoken agreement never to tell others about it in case they decide to come and ruin the place. (oops! I guess I am now breaking that rule!)

 We fly from the mainland in a Twin Otter 16-seater airplane.  Once, before boarding, a zealous security official ordered me to remove my shoes.  I replied that were I to hijack a plane it would hardly be one flying eight passengers to the Scillies.   A fellow traveller, aged 94, was treated like an international terrorist when his bionic hips set off their electronic equipment.  On board there are no toilets, no food and no in-flight entertainment unless you count the  excellent running commentary given by our two pilots as to what to see below during the flight.

 

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coming in to land

The tiny landing strip on St Mary’s is merely yards from the rocky coastline and as you alight from the plane you are greeted with a stunning view overlooking the town, the Garrison and the Star Castle – our hotel.   Fifteen minutes after landing we are there. IMG_3245.jpg

 

On arrival  the first thing I do is  stand at the Castle entrance gazing at the harbour dotted with small boats, the islands on the horizon, and the unbelievably clear azure sea.  I am speechless (yes me!)  and want to cry with joy – it is perfect.

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According to Arthurian legends, these Islands were once linked to Cornwall by Lyonesse – a land of 140 villages, handsome maidens and strong men, rich pastures and the beautiful city of Lions.  One day, around 1099, all of this was suddenly engulfed by the sea. One man and his horse survived.  Theories abound – it was supposedly the location for the tragic love story of Tristan and Isolde and periodically fisherman report finding pieces of masonry in their nets, but who knows the truth? Sea levels were undoubtedly once much lower than today so maybe there is a hidden city in the deeps covered in seaweed. 

One indisputable fact is that the sea around the archipelago is a graveyard for 700 shipwrecks – 530 of which are registered since records began in 1305.

One of the most dramatic concerned the distinguished Admiral of the Fleet, Sir Cloudesley Shovell ( what a great name!) At the tender age of 15 he showed legendary bravery by swimming between ships during a sea battle with military orders in his mouth. In 1707 whilst returning from fighting pirates near Toulon, his flagship, HMS Association, hit rocks and capsized in four minutes with the loss of all 800 crew, including Shovell and his two stepsons. Altogether 2,000 sailors died that day, in one of the worst maritime disasters of British history.

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In  l967, I myself recall the sinking of the Torrey Canyon, an oil tanker carrying 120,000 tons of crude oil. It hit the Seven Stones Reef near the Islands causing catastrophic environmental damage. To minimise this, the Royal Air Force tried to bomb the ship and burn the oil, but failed. Thousands of volunteers attempted to clean up the resultant spill but at least 250,000 seabirds died.  Even today 51 years later, evidence of the oil is found as far away as Guernsey. 

The Isles of Scilly Museum tells of such maritime disasters and the geology, history and archaeology of the area, including the many Iron Age villages and burial places.   In  387AD two Roman Bishops were exiled here as a result of the Priscillian heresy ( look this up!)  They headed a cult of free love and it is said that they ensured that, being Bishops, they got more free love more often than anyone else. 

Over the centuries the Islands had periods of prosperity followed by acute poverty. The growth of Atlantic trade routes during Tudor times focused attention on the Scillies but it was the indomitable Queen Elizabeth who, because of the threat from Spain following the Armada 1588, began constructing defences – the Garrison and the Star Castle on St Mary’s.

During the English Civil War  the islanders were staunchly Royalist – Prince Charles stayed at the Star Castle after fleeing Cromwell’s forces in 1646. The islands were used as a base by Royalist privateers who raided merchant ships.  This piracy had been tolerated back in the Elizabethan era, provided the attacks were against Dutch or French ships.  When Cromwell took over, the islanders remained Royalist and continued attacking Dutch ships.  So much so that in 1651 a Dutch admiral came to the islands demanding reparation for the goods stolen and declared war on the Scilly Isles.  

This declaration was never rescinded until 1986 when the Dutch ambassador visited the islands to sign a peace treaty.    History books refer to it as the 350 Years War.

In the 18th and 19th centuries the Islands became destitute, but Augustus Smith, a Liberal MP and social reformer, acquired the lease from the Duchy of Cornwall and set about restoring their fortunes. He introduced full time education and better living conditions for the poor; constructed a new quay and parish church;  established the sub-tropical gardens on Tresco, introduced  postal connections with the mainland and encouraged new enterprises including the flower industry, which today, together with tourism, is central to the economic success of the Islands.

From the Star Castle we often walk around the Garrison – a walled defence line with cannons and gun emplacements, encircling a large promontory overlooking the sea. Because of its strategic position, flying boats were based on the Islands during WW1 and  during WW2 a squadron of Hurricanes provided cover for convoys crossing the Atlantic. 

 Each day we explore a different island.   Our boatman, Tim, waits at the quay.  He takes eight passengers drops us off and returns to collect us at around teatime. He is an essential part of our visit – his jokes never change and he never fails to entertain.Tim, the boatman.jpgSt Mary’s and St Martins are the only two islands where  traffic is permitted. St Martin’s is renowned for its sweeping silvery white bays – the sand contains flakes of  mica which stick to your skin like fish scales and make you “sparkle like mermaids”, according to one small visitor.  Here are also the remains of the cottage industry turning seaweed into kelp, for use in the soap and glass  industries and which gave glass its green hue.

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the sweeping white bays of St Martin’s

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Here  you can see a variety of plant life in the crystal clear sea.

St Agnes and Gugh are the smallest inhabited islands and during low tide one can walk between them.  The dry stone walls completely covered in a profusion of plants and lichens give the Islands their distinctive character.

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At Bryher we walk north over gorse covered hills and then take a narrow steep coastal path towards  Hell’s Bay – so called as this side of the island receives the full blast of the storms which create a dramatic rocky coastline.  We always stop at Hell’s Bay Hotel for a drink, a snack and more lately a snooze, and then continue to the quay  to meet our boat back to St Mary’s.

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  Tresco is renowned for its world famed sub tropical gardens.They are impressive, but we prefer to walk north, scrambling  up steep hillsides  to Cromwell’s Castle and then across the heather strewn moorland to Old Grimsby for lunch.    As on all the islands there are magnificent views at every turn.cromwells castle.jpgTresco gardens.jpg

Two additional features are unique to the Scillies.     One is the tranquillity.  Even on bank holiday we walk for hours and meet only a handful of others.  Another is the friendliness of the locals.  Last year, whilst walking on St Martins, I lost my walking poles.  I mentioned this briefly to the local policeman Matt whom we met over lunch.   On arriving back at St Mary’s a message awaited me to come to the police station to retrieve my sticks.   Unbeknown to me, he had walked an hour to the north of St Martins, found them and brought them back by boat to St Mary’s then found out where we were staying.  How’s that for outstanding public  service?

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 However the islands are not without drama.  Last year the entire crew of  a naval frigate moored in the bay  planned a march past in the town.  Some 800 people turned up to see them. The excitement mounted as we waited. Suddenly there was an announcement.   Due to a slight change in the weather the lady commander ( commandress?)  decided that it was too dangerous for her sailors to disembark.   I sat next to three old soldiers wearing their military medals. One of them, Charlie, was outraged.  “How is it they managed to capture the bloody Falklands but can’t get off their  f… ing boat?”  We may have missed the parade, but the ribald comments of these old-timers more than made up for it.

On St Mary’s is a small area named ‘Nowhere’.  The story goes that a local recruit went to join the army in WW2.   When his CO asked where he was from he said “Nowhere Sir”,  to which the officer shouted “Listen here, when I ask you a question I want a proper answer.  Don’t be funny with me! You must live in a place, what’s it called?”  To which the young man replied “Nowhere, Scilly.”

As for me I prefer to think of it as ‘Somewhere’.  Remember the song by Bernstein/Sondheim from’West Side Story’  

‘There’s a place for us,   Somewhere a place for us,

Peace and quiet and open air, wait for us somewhere’

I have definitely found my ‘somewhere’.

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