Audley End, Essex

Tuesday, 17 January 2017

Every year, my birthday falls on the August bank holiday, and in my small semi-rural hometown (village) that means one thing: the agricultural fair. I've grown used to my birthday being spent sloshing - or in sunnier years, strolling - around the fields, looking at pens of cows, admiring piglets and discussing the results of vegetable contests. It's not very glamorous or exciting, but I looked forward to it every year. Since moving to the city a few years ago, I don't always make it back, and this year was the same. Instead, we jumped in the car and headed a little further into Essex for a trip to conjure up some of the countryside feeling. Our destination: Audley End.

Built in the early seventeenth century, the mansion took the place of the earlier Walden Abbey, and was used by the first Earl of Suffolk to entertain King James I (who later imprisoned the Earl in the Tower of London for embezzlement!) After a brief stint as a holiday home for Charles I when it was at its most massive, successive owners greatly reduced its size - until Sir John Griffin Griffin, who promptly stuck a load back on again. Photography isn't allowed in the house, but it's certainly a sight to be seen; Griffin, plus the later third Lord Baybrooke, both had somewhat eccentric tastes. The Jacobean style wood-panelled Great Hall contrasts quite starkly with the Roman painted Little Drawing Room. I absolutely loved the extensive natural history collection, with all kinds of taxidermy and fossils, on display throughout the house.

The weekend we paid our visit was the World War Two Weekend, so the whole place was packed with people enjoying 1940s music and fashion, watching army demonstrations and ration cooking in the kitchens. Even the stable block had been taken over with soldiers in character, loitering on antique cars and explaining field medicine. It was a little busier than I'd planned for - no quiet photographs for me! - but had such a great atmosphere. The beautiful walled kitchen garden and the greenhouses especially are not to be missed.

FIND AUDLEY END AT: off London Road, Saffron Walden, Essex, CB11 4JF

Post-apocalyptic & Dystopian Reads #3

Tuesday, 10 January 2017

See all my reviews of Post-Apocalyptic & Dystopian Reads here!

Laura van den Berg
Following a 'sickness' which sweeps the nation, beginning with 'silver blisters' and ending in memory loss, Joy is confined to a hospital purportedly looking to find a cure amongst the patients. In a world which has become desperate to remember, Joy is a woman who has spending a long time trying to forget her own life. I thought the first half of the book was more interesting than Joy's journey away from the hospital, and whilst it erred on the side of YA (not a bad thing, but not what I was looking for), it was an enjoyable and thought provoking read about what we choose to remember and what we choose to forget.

John Wyndham
One of Wyndham's most famous novels and a stalwart of the post-apocalyptic genre, The Day of the Triffids is one of my favourite reads this year. After reading a fair few widespread-disease-world-breakdown types of novels in my post-apocalyptic and dystopian binges, I found myself a little exhausted of them - but I found the unusual combination of world-wide blindness and killer plants compelling. It's an interesting and imaginative exploration of the many ways people will cope with disaster, if a little 'cosy catastrophe' for some tastes (and a product of its time).

Richard Matheson
Everyone knows the Will Smith film, everyone's cried when the dog dies. For those who haven't read it though: it's very different to the film, and that's actually a good thing. Normally, I'm pretty vampire-averse; it's just not a subgenre which excites me. However, I was surprised how much I enjoyed this book, and how I really felt I could see the world which Matheson built (and not in a cheesy Twilight-tinged way). It really built up the 'righteous destroyer' narrative and flipped it on its head (though perhaps not unexpectedly), but most of all it was the portrayal of loneliness and isolation which hit the right note for me.

Nevil Shute
The third book in this round of reading which was published in the 1950s, On the Beach deals with the aftermath of WW3. It's saddening that Shute was imagining the next disaster, only just over a decade since the end of World War Two. Nuclear war has devastated the planet, and survivors in Southern Australia - prepared with suicide pills - are living in wait for the global air currents to finally carry the radiation their way. It's one of my favourite books, not just in the post-apocalyptic genre - a masterclass in the ways people deal with an unseen, inevitable tragedy. Just don't expect anything other than bleak!

Michael Faber
This novel is totally different from most of the other books I've read in the genre; Peter departs from England to become a missionary to aliens on a distant planet, working for a corporation which depends on the planet's inhabitants to produce food. Back home, his wife lives in a world progressively more unstable; Peter experiences the seemingly apocalyptic events on Earth indirectly through her messages. In The Book of Strange New Things, Faber captured a lot of my feeling regarding the colonialist and exploitative tradition of mission work, as well as creating a surprisingly unnerving post-apocalyptic world despite barely delving into 'disaster' territory.

Iceland Road Trip: Fjaðrárgljúfur & the Northern Lights

Wednesday, 4 January 2017

Read part one of my Iceland road trip, from Reykjavík to Vík, via Seljalandsfoss, Skógafoss, a crashed plane and the Reynisdrangar sea stacks, here.

Following the tent dramas of our third night, we decided to have a gentle start to the day. From the black sands of Reynisfjara beach and our little hotel in Vik we drove the seventy kilometres to Fjaðrárgljúfur, an Ice Age canyon carved from the land by the runoff from a retreating glacier. We walked across the open land to the very top of the cliffs, gazing down over three hundred feet to the river below winding its way around the canyon's walls. At the foot of the canyon where the river opened out onto the plains before the sea, we watched fish swimming in the water under the bridge. Before long, we were rolling up our jeans and wading up the freezing river with our tripods for support against the current, much to the amusement of the hikers following the cliff path. Our arrival at the little island of pebbles amidst the flow was cheered from above. We took it in turns to photograph upstream, fighting against the awkward sunlight and ignoring our soggy feet. I had to crack a rock to use as a knife to cut the hem of my jeans, which wouldn't roll back down over my knee.

Afterwards we drove further east along the coast, the road running over wide stretches of black sand and water from the river delta. As we made our way onward we saw Skeiðarárjökull, one of the huge glacial tongues of Vatnajökull, the largest glacier in Iceland. At the roadside, small pools of water reflected the mountains surrounding us like mirrors. Of course, as soon as we got out of the car to photograph them, the wind picked up and we joined the rest of the photographers waiting patiently for it to die back down again. 

Back in the car once more, we decided to push on for the chance to see the famous Jökulsárlón at dusk. Unfortunately our drive took a little longer than expected after our unplanned pitstop at the roadside, and we arrived just after the light began to fade from a nearly empty lagoon! With barely any icebergs to look at and almost no light to see them in anyway, we hauled ourselves back west to our little guesthouse at Hali (the Skyrhúsid Guest House) to warm up and cook some parking lot pasta on our temperamental trangia. Standing outside, watching over the boiling water and stirring the pot with a leg of my tripod to avoid the jumping flames, I looked up and saw the tiniest flicker of green in the sky. I ran to tell the others, and all of us stood in the freezing parking lot and watched the ever-so-slight dancing lights in the sky. I was totally unprepared to photograph it - my tripod was still stirring the pasta - but I managed to capture a single photograph of the show. It wasn't the most outstanding display of the Northern Lights in existence, but it was beautiful, and unlike anything I've ever seen.

Foggy Southend-on-sea

Saturday, 24 December 2016

We have a new addition to the household. Angel is an eight year old staffy mix (as are most of the dogs languishing in shelters in the UK). We fell in love at the first paw she offered and so far her name is suiting her down to the ground; aside from the slight tendency towards trying to steal from unwatched plates on tables... but I suffer from the same habit, so who am I to judge? After a couple of weeks settling in, our first proper 'outing' was to the beach at Southend-on-sea, where we saw exactly zero sea apart from the waves lapping at our feet, which Angel was trying (and failing) to catch. A few cold hours, many missed waves, and two shared sandwiches at the beachfront cafe later, we were all ready for the warmth of the car and a nap on the way home.

Anglesey Abbey, Cambridge

Thursday, 15 December 2016

The second day of our stay in Cambridge, we ventured out a little from the city to spend some time at Anglesey Abbey. A priory was first built here as early as the twelfth century, and it was eventually remodelled into a country house (and renamed the 'Abbey' to sound grander!) The current house is the most amazing mishmash of weird and wonderful decoration and objects - Lord Fairhaven, who restored the house in the 1920s, had a pretty eccentric taste! There's the headboard of carved nude cherubs, the vaulted dining hall, the many wall hangings, an entire wing for his painting collection, all the gold... it's all in all a really entertaining and intriguing place to spend an afternoon in. The gardens are also beautiful; we caught the tail end of the beautiful rainbow dahlia display, climbed around inside the Lode Mill, wandered through woods filled with little flowers and sniffed every rose in the rose garden. I think it's about time I invested in a National Trust membership.

FIND ANGLESEY ABBEY AT: Quy Road, Lode, Cambridge, CB25 9EJ