Friday, 30 January 2009

Postcard 16: a Madeleine Moment

Above: 'St Keverne' in bloom
Middle: Coverack, on the way to St Keverne
Below: Sign in the flower border: Middleton, Wales

The scene outside my window was a very wintry one yesterday morning, with white horses on the sea and grey clouds overhead. I went downstairs to make a cup of coffee. It was even darker in the dining room, that is until my eyes alighted on the startling Spring gold of the daffodils on the windowsill. It was a Proustian moment for me, as I remembered the madeleine.

Back in the late autumn we had been at Middleton, the National Botanic Garden of Wales, where we saw a green plant label in the earth saying 'St Keverne'. We looked forward to seeing these bulbs in flower, as St Keverne on the Lizard in Cornwall is a place that holds happy holiday memories for us. At that stage, the soil at Middleton was bare and there were no daffodil shoots in sight. Imagine my delight some weeks later, when we found 'St Keverne' bulbs for sale in a local garden centre, planted up in pots for Christmas.

We bought three pots, and kept one for ourselves. Hence the splash of gold on the windowsill. It transported me back to a happy day two summers ago when we were in St Keverne, a place I thought I knew well, with its fine church in the corner of the village square and its road to the treacherous rocks, aptly named The Manacles. On that particular day, we discovered something quite new to us in the vicinity of the village, and that was a small private museum of archaeological finds from the Lizard peninsula. The museum was at Poldowrian, on the site of a mesolithic-to-bronze-age settlement, and visiting hours were by appointment with the custodian. The site outside the museum building included a Bronze Age roundhouse. There was a lovely garden and an Iron Age cliff castle nearby. It was an idyllic afternoon.

It is strange how the human mind makes involuntary connections, and how a particular 'madeleine' - in this case a bright yellow one - can take us back unexpectedly to a past experience. As I look out over the estuary towards the Hartland light at the northern end of Cornwall, all I can see is a blanket of low cloud. I am grateful on a day like this for the splash of colour that transported me back to a carefree summer holiday in the Cornish sun.
Proust can have his madeleine: I would prefer a saffron cake!

  • Stop Press and on a different note: Festival Fever and Carnival Mania! I am delighted to get a mention on the February Festival of the Trees. Thank you, Ashley. We are thrilled, too, that thanks to Chris, David's podcast features in Carnival of the Arid.

Wednesday, 28 January 2009

Postcard 15: Otters!

Top: Meeting 'otters' at the Moors Centre, Yorkshire
Middle: Plaque to Gavin Maxwell's Teko (Kyleakin, Skye), beneath a sculpture by Laurence Broderick
Bottom: Eilean B
n (under the Skye Bridge), lighthouse keeper's cottage & home of Gavin Maxwell

'Looking up the river, they could see Otter start up, tense and rigid,
from out of the shallows where he crouched in dumb patience,
and could hear his amazed and joyous bark as he bounded up through the osiers on to the path.'

The Wind in the Willows
by Kenneth Grahame (chapter 7)

There is a buzz of excitement in South Wales at present as otters have been seen on Gower (AONB). An otter has also been caught on camera at Aberglasney in Carmarthenshire. I am hoping to see one before long! When I was on Skye last summer, I looked and looked. I think I saw a couple, but it was like looking for Nessie: it was hard to be sure. David definitely saw one on the beach.

Dr Gareth Parry from Swansea University was giving a talk about local otters (of Gower and Pembrokeshire) at the Science Café in the Dylan Thomas Centre in Swansea this evening. Unlike the otters in Scotland which can be seen during the day, the 'Welsh' otters tend to move around under cover of darkness. It seems that they may be adopting a 'marine lifestyle'. The Aberglasney otter must prefer the fresh-water oxbow lakes on the River Towy.

Professor P. Brain has posted a blog entry about Dr Dan Forman and the Gower otters. Back in 2005, naturalist, Iolo Williams was asking people to record their otter sightings in the Principality. I am delighted that their numbers seem to be on th increase.
My thanks to the Weaver of Grass for her comment below, and for reminding me about the Kathleen Raine link.

Tuesday, 27 January 2009

Postcard 14: MacDonald of the Isles

Top photo: 'King' of Inverlochy Castle
Below: Armadale, seat of the Clan MacDonald on Skye

I have been enjoying Neil Oliver's series of programmes, A History of Scotland, and particularly the episode about my distant ancestor, Alexander MacDonald, Lord of the Isles. The Open University has an excellent website for the programmes. During our holiday on Skye last summer, we visited the Clan Donald Centre, which incorporates the inspiring Museum of the Isles and a modern Library and Study Centre. We made some initial enquiries about a more recent ancestor, Ebenezer MacDonald, and hope to return some time to pursue this line of enquiry.

MacDonald resources

Monday, 26 January 2009

Postcard 13: Swifts over the Parthenon

My archaeologist husband, David, has supplied the podcast (via YouTube) for this postcard from Athens. He writes,

'I was sitting next to the Parthenon in late September and the sky was thick with swirling swifts (or were they swallows? Please let us know!). I pointed the microphone of my digital recorder skywards and here is a snatch of the sound. The pictures, some from Philopappos Hill, were taken in the late afternoon.'

See Robert D. Lamberton and Susan I. Rotroff, Birds of the Athenian Agora (Excavations of the Athenian Agora, Picture Book 22; Princeton NJ: American School of Classical Studies at Athens, 1985) [Google Books] [Oxbow UK] [Oxbow USA].

Caroline continues:
'Menippus calls himself the swallow'
(The Herald in The Birds by Aristophanes)

Here in Britain, the RSPB Birdwatch 30 has been much on our minds this past weekend, so it seemed a good idea to take a different slant on the avian theme. You can see my recent sightings on my 'Birdstack' in the right hand column of this blog. Incidentally, the Little Owl (Athene noctua) was named after the goddess of Athens and wisdom, Athene [aka Athena]. Did you know about the origin of the phrase 'owls to Athens'?

Further reading
  • Aristophanes' Birds, a book by Nan Dunbar [Clarendon Press] about The Birds, the comic play by Aristophanes, including a discussion on the different species (e.g. the quasi-bird character of the Hoopoe) in the script.
  • A Magical Tour of Ancient Greece - a travel diary by Classics student, Ellen Brundige.
  • Birds and beasts of the Greek Anthology by Norman Douglas (birds from p.68, beginning with the eagle).
  • The British Museum: Birds (2008, ed. Mavis Pilbeam). I spent a Christmas book token on this lovely book. It has a fine illustration of the Common Hoopoe by John White and an excerpt from The Swallow by Charlotte Smith.
  • What would Hadrian Say? online poem about Athens by David Gill
  • Athens: an Art Deco house with an Acropolis view? (Times online)

Saturday, 24 January 2009

Postcard 12: Gloucestershire in the Negev


And now for something completely different! Here is a podcast poem, Gloucestershire in the Negev, written and read by my archaeologist husband, David.

David writes, 'the poem was published in The Seventh Quarry (edited by Peter Thabit Jones) and is a tribute to Adlestrop by Edward Thomas.' The photographs were taken on a study trip to Israel.

David and I have greatly enjoyed a couple of visits to Adlestrop, with its literary connections. I hope to post a postcard about the village soon. Tribute poems and articles to Adlestrop abound. Anne Harvey has compiled a wonderful book, Adlestrop Revisited, which includes pieces by Dannie Abse, Carole Satyamurti and John Betjeman, to name but three.

Postcard 11: Looking Glass Land? The lion and the ...

I was fascinated to read in this week's edition of the Times Higher (22-28 January 2009) about the review (Times online) by Rosemary Hill of a new and intriguing book. The book, just published by Granta, is called The Natural History of Unicorns. It is by Chris Lavers, associate professor of environmental and geomorphological sciences at the University of Nottingham. The book apparently covers an overview of what I would call the 'perceived development' of the unicorn from a nursery rhyme character to the 'co-dependent' creature we find in Alice through the Looking Glass.

As I was thinking about unicorns, I happened to click a link through to Seabrooke Leckie's blog ... and there was not quite a unicorn but an amazing and distinctly unicorn-esque creature. Do take a look.

Friday, 23 January 2009

Postcard 10: Poetry Visualized - a podcast about trees

Above: the yew tree at Strata Florida, also known as Ystrad Fflur, Wales
Below: a sunlit glade in the forest at Nant yr Arian, Ceredigion, Wales

I visited the Poetry Visualized site on the recommendation of the Poets who blog site, and was impressed with the visual podcast of Seeing the Forest, with words by Belinda Subraman, photography by Cheryl Townsend and music by CaDra. I had to bear with a couple of slight technical hitches, but it was worth persevering with the player.

We have some wonderful forests in Wales, like the one at Nant yr Arian, where the red kites are fed. We also have some trees with special significance, like the venerable old yew in the churchyard adjoining the abbey at Strata Florida. Once again, this is a good place to watch red kites.

The yew tree is associated with the Welsh bard, Dafydd ap Gwilym. It has been damaged by storms and hit by lightning, and is no longer in its prime; but its literary significance lives on.
George Borrow, author of Wild Wales, was one of many travellers to write about the site.

The abbey at Strata Florida has many literary associations: I intend to explore some of these in a future post. Meanwhile, on the subject of trees, my brother and sister-in-law 'gave' us a (sponsored) tree for our 20th wedding anniversary. It is out there somewhere in the depths of Ceredigion, and we look forward to making a pilgrimage to find it.

Tuesday, 20 January 2009

Postcard 9: Moth Art at Aberglasney

Above: Aberglasney, Wales
Below: Six-spotted Burnet Moth, Cornwall

Most wildlife photographers (and enthusiastic amateurs like me) have taken photographs of butterflies, but how many of us have taken moths? I had to think quite hard to remember when I had last caught a moth on film. The above burnet moth was taken near Rinsey Mine in Cornwall, although I have also watched the species closer to home at Mwnt in Cardiganshire.

I was back at Aberglasney at the weekend, and it was there that I visited a most unusual and exciting exhibition of Moth Art, In a Different Light. The artistic exhibits are the work of Julian and Fiona Wormald, the 'Garden Impressionists'. The Wormalds were very inspired by Monet's Garden at Giverny, and hoped to encourage the rest of us take our own gardens more seriously as places of beauty and wildlife habitats. The Aberglasney exhibition includes images of an amazing total of 190 moths seen at Aberglasney in 2006. There are also larger pieces of Moth Art on display, which incorporate wing patterns and colours in the designs.

Back in the 18th century, the poet John Dyer lived at
Aberglasney, the garden subsequently 'lost in time'. He loved the landscape, and wrote about 'the face of nature' in 'all the hues of heaven's bow': I feel sure he would have been amazed by the number of species of moth on his home turf.

Monday, 19 January 2009

Postcard 8: Dim Pysgota!

We visited the Centre belonging to the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust (WWT) at Penclacwydd at the weekend, as you will know if you read my previous postcard. There are always hungry birds about; and every time I go there, I am always mildly amused by a sign in the water (left) in front of one of the hides. On my previous visit there was actually a kingfisher in close proximity to the sign. Back in August 2003, Ronnie Goodyer published my poem on the subject, Loughor Estuary, in Reach Magazine.

On a more serious note, the WWT undertakes marvellous work: it was founded at Slimbridge in Gloucestershire in 1946 by Sir Peter Scott. His godfather was J.M. Barrie (1860-1937), creator of Peter Pan. Sir Peter was the son of Antarctic explorer, Robert Falcon Scott (1868-1912).

  • I have just signed up to Birdstack (see Birdstack listing widget on lower right) in the hope that it will help me to record sightings.
  • On the subject of things 'polar', the Weaver of Grass has written about Shackleton's compass.

Saturday, 17 January 2009

Postcard 7: The Flamingo Pool, a far cry from Wonderland

Caribbean flamingo faces: The National Wetland Centre, Wales

We braved the wet and windy conditions and enjoyed a blustery walk around the Centre, which is part of the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust. I could not help thinking of Alice and her game of croquet, and feeling very sorry for these fine birds. Thankfully, flamingo games only take place in Wonderland.

I much prefer the sentiments expressed in a poem, Flamingo Watching by Kay Ryan on the Poetry Archive site.

My flamingo friends in Llanelli are well looked after, but some aspects of life are hard to fix. Apparently they did not take kindly to the wet summer, and there was some concern over whether they would reproduce (source: Waterlife, issue 166). Thankfully a spot of sunshine arrived in the nick of time, and with it a clutch of flamingo eggs. In mid-July the eggs hatched into seven flamingo chicks.

Friday, 16 January 2009

Postcard 6: A ripple on Loch Ness

Summer 2008: Urquhart Castle & Loch Ness.
The only monster I saw was a millipede ...
© Caroline Gill 2008

Monster-spotting on Loch Ness became popular in the 1930s, when Bertram Mills offered a £20,000 reward to anyone who could capture the monster. Virginia Woolf visited the loch in 1938, and commented on the monster with 'no head'. Beatrix Potter wrote about its 'humps' (Times Online). John Buchan penned a lean but evocative description of the king's Lieutenant at Loch Ness in his 1928 biography, Montrose.

Books about the monster abound and Edinburgh boasts its own 3D Noch Ness Experience. You can read or listen to The Loch Ness Monster's Song by Scots Makar, Edwin Morgan; and countless other poets have tried to capture something of this elusive phenomenon. Years before Woolf's visit, the monster was afforded special protection under the 1912 Protection of Animals Act for Scotland.Castle Urquhart:

Wednesday, 14 January 2009

Postcard 5: Pope at Sherborne Castle

I visited Sherborne Castle in the footsteps of Alexander Pope, who came in 1724 and was inspired to write about the gardens. The stone bothy in the photograph would not have been in place at the time of Pope's visit, but the poet mentions the cascade and a 'rustic seat of stone'. Members of the Digby family decided to call the present alcove 'Pope's Seat' in the late eighteenth century.

The castle in the background, otherwise known as Sherborne Lodge (as opposed to the old 12th century castle, now a ruin) was built by Sir Walter Raleigh in 1594. The grounds and garden were landscaped by 'Capability' Brown.

Pope, the son of a Roman Catholic linen merchant and grandson of an Anglican clergyman, wrote his first verse when he was twelve years old. Pope made English translations in verse of the Iliad and the Odyssey by Homer. His income from these volumes enabled him to move to Twickhenham, where his study of landscape gardening began. One of the first books I ever bought in a secondhand bookshop was a small brown copy of Pope's Iliad.

Tuesday, 13 January 2009

Postcard 4: Kilmuir, Skye

Above: Plaque in Kilmuir
Below: Gate to the cemetery at Kilmuir

Jen Hadfield has just been named as the TS Eliot prize winner. She lives on Shetland, so it seemed appropriate to focus on something Scottish for today's postcard.

The cemetery at Kilmuir on Skye's Trotternish peninsula boasts an outstanding position, looking out over the Minch towards the Outer Hebrides. The cemetery is famous on account of the grave of Flora MacDonald, but she merits a later entry in her own right, and is by no means the only person worthy of note.

Seton Gordon's memorial lies just outside the confines of the graveyard. His favourite bird was the golden eagle, and he spent part of his life at Duntulm on Skye. He was given his first camera when he was seventeen in 1907, and was also a talented piper. In 1935 he bought out a book called
Sea-gulls in London (link to WorldCat).

When we visited the Kilmuir graveyard, the light was amazing. We looked out over the Skye Museum of Island Life to the sea beyond.


Monday, 12 January 2009

Postcard 3: Mwnt and the Bardsey Island Trail

The little church of the Holy Cross at Mwnt, near Cardigan Island

We love coming to Mwnt for a picnic, and it was good to see the little church featuring on S4C's 'Dechrau Canu, Dechrau Canmol' programme last night. We joined the Friends of Mwnt Church some months ago, and enjoy receiving a calendar of events. The 12th century font is older than the current church.

Mwnt has a splendid coastal position, and we have often seen a seal or two. We watched a couple of bottlenose dolphins on one occasion. Cardigan Island, home to a number of seals, is nearby: the Cardigan Island Coastal Farm Park is well worth a visit.

I have selected Mwnt, not so much on its own literary merit, but on account of the fact that it marks a convenient resting point on the ancient pilgrimage route (a) between St Davids and Bardsey Island - aka Enlli - and (b) between St Davids and the beautiful abbey of Strata Florida. Poets R.S. Thomas, Gillian Clarke, Fflur Dafydd and Christine Evans have all had close links with the island.

Saturday, 10 January 2009

Postcard 2: Aberglasney, the garden lost in time

The photograph shows a silhouetted John Rudd in the garden at Aberglasney in Carmarthenshire. However, the person that I particularly associate with this secret 'garden lost in time' is the poet, John Dyer. Wordsworth admired Dyer, and wrote a sonnet addressed to him, which begins 'Bard of the Fleece'.

Daffodils have been out in the garden since early December: I wonder what Wordsworth would think of that. A firecrest caused great excitement when it was spotted before Christmas.

I have a number of favourite Aberglasney and John Dyer books: I have listed a selection of them below.
  • A Garden Lost in Time by Penny David (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1999)
  • Nine Green Gardens by Gillian Clarke (Gomer, 2000)
  • Grongar Hill & Other Poems by John Dyer (The Grongar Press)
  • The Fleece by John Dyer (The Cyder Press, 2007)
  • Writers of Wales: John Dyer by Belinda Humfrey (University of Wales Press, 1980)
  • The Poems of John Dyer edited by Edward Thomas (Llanerch Enterprises, 1999)
  • Selected Poetry and Prose by John Dyer (Trent Editions, 2000)

Friday, 9 January 2009

Postcard 1: Welcome / Croeso

I have been thinking for some while that it would be good to continue my 'Landscape & Literature' pages via a blog, so here goes! I hope you will enjoy my 'postcards' from Swansea, home town of the poet, Dylan Thomas.