A Weekend in Bath

Saturday, 23 July 2016

I don't think I've ever been to somewhere quite like Bath. Living somewhere like London, you get used to the city being very obviously made up of a huge variety of architectural styles - a skyscraper next to a Victorian pub, or brutalist concrete surrounding a Gothic inspired church. It's interesting and exciting, but it's also lovely to go to a place where so many of the buildings have survived in a single style. Bath is densely populated by beautiful Georgian terraces with the traditional golden Bath stone for the facades.

Probably the most obvious place to visit is the ROMAN BATHS. The ticket price is expensive, but you get a lot for your money - the museum exhibits and audioguide are extensive and extremely informative. The hot spring under the city created an ideal site for a Roman bath complex and temple, and there's more Roman remains being found all the time. I visited in the day, but the Baths are open until 10pm and I can see them being beautiful all lit up at night. The imposing Grade I listed BATH ABBEY, founded in the 7th century, is a great example of Gothic architecture (with beautiful 'fan' vaulted ceilings) and is easy to pop into on the way to or from the Baths. 

Next on the essentials list is the ROYAL CRESCENT, the half-circle set of Georgian Palladian townhouses built mainly for the wealthy to stay in during their visits to 'take the waters'. If you want to have a look at what Georgian life was like for the wealthy, you can visit No. 1 Royal Crescent, which has recreated the townhouse as it might have looked during the period. Round the corner on a little street called Margaret's Buildings there are a few little independent shops, including the rather eclectic OFF THE WALL ANTIQUES and several secondhand bookshops which are worth a visit. Uncharacteristically for me, I missed out on the Bath museums, but on my list for next time are the HERSCHEL MUSEUM OF ASTRONOMY (where the controversial planet Uranus was discovered), the FASHION MUSEUM, and the MUSEUM OF BATH AT WORK. Aside from the centre of the town, the canals that weave through the town are lovely for an evening walk past the narrowboats and locks; you can even follow the KENNET AND AVON CANAL PATH if you're feeling adventurous.

Food wise, you're spoilt for choice: Bath is well known for its independent restaurants and cafes. We had some great pizza at THE OVEN, and also made a trip to the Saturday morning BATH FARMER'S MARKET, where we picked up some freshly smoked mackerel, rosemary and potato bread, local cheese and chutney, and fresh apple juice for lunch. Also deserving a mention is THE REAL ITALIAN ICE CREAM COMPANY, which finished off our weekend perfectly.

The Graphic Art of the Harry Potter Films at House of MinaLima

Wednesday, 6 July 2016

It's amazing to think that Harry Potter has been (and continues to be) a part of so many people's lives for so long. Next year will mark twenty years since the release of the first book, Harry Potter and The Philosopher's Stone - I was nearly five at the time and with my mum reading it to me at night, a whole new world opened up to me. Ten years later, at fifteen, I was anxiously awaiting the release of the final book. Now, nearly another decade later, the films and the books still capture my imagination, remaining firm favourites on my shelves.

Ask any fan, and they'll generally have something in the films which didn't quite match up to their hopes or expectations for them. This is the way of book-to-film translation; our interpretation of how the written word should be visually transformed is never quite the same as someone else's. However: the world created in the films is something else. Any visitor to the Harry Potter Studio Tour can see the astounding attention and care that went into building the magical world we all loved so much. Graphic design is a huge part of the films, and something that I think gets really overlooked. So much of the atmosphere of a scene relies on the little things: the signage, schoolbooks, packaging, writing, labels on jars in the Potions classroom (a personal favourite).

The duo behind much of the design for the Harry Potter films is MinaLima - Miraphora Mina and Eduardo Lima, who have been working together ever since they met on set in 2001. They've now opened up their own shop and gallery, House of MinaLima; a four-storey treasure trove of graphic design goodies. The top two floors are dedicated to a new exhibition, The Graphic Art of the Harry Potter Films, which displays many of the original graphic design items and props from the films. I loved the little section on graphic design at the Studio Tour, so this hugely expanded version was incredible! As I'm studying books and the history of their design, I was particularly interested in their designs for the many books needed in the films: the marbled paper cover for Hogwarts: A History; the gold embossed leather Fantastic Beasts; and my favourite, the frankly spectacular cut metal plating on Magical Hieroglyphs and Logograms

Expect to find a whole host of the colourful Weasley's Wizarding Wheezes packaging, Nazi and Soviet propaganda inspired Daily Prophet pages, the classic 'Undesirable No. 1' Ministry poster, the Marauder's Map and much, much more. It's not a huge building (it's probably as close as you'll get to Diagon Alley in Central London), but it's easy to spend the whole afternoon there.

FIND THE HOUSE OF MINALIMA AT: 26 Greek Street, Soho, London W1D 5DE

Spring in Oxford

Monday, 20 June 2016

Whilst we all battle the storms and gales that June has brought us so far, it's easy to forget that back in May we had a couple of weeks of glorious sunshine. On one of those weeks, I packed up my bags and headed off to visit my mum in Oxford. I've already posted about our trip to the Oxford University Museum of Natural History and the Oxford Botanic Garden; but we managed to fit in quite a bit of wandering and a couple of other museums, too. Oxford is undeniably photogenic - winding lanes, blossoming trees, listed buildings everywhere, college halls straight out of Harry Potter and plenty of quaint pastel doorways. As usual, I was armed with my camera and took an inordinate amount of pictures.

FEATURED: Balliol College, Christ Church Cathedral, The Old Music Room, The King's Arms, Bodleian Library, Oxford University Parks, Queen's College

Post-apocalyptic & Dystopian Reads #1

Monday, 13 June 2016

When most people find out I did an English degree and that my Master's degree is in Book History, one of the first things they'll say is 'so you like reading then!'. And they're right - partly. I love books, and I love the escape reading offers, but when your entire academic life and career path revolves around a serious amount of reading, it's sometimes easy to end up choosing to do other things in your spare time. For a while, the thought of picking up another book for fun after ten hours of studying made my brain want to escape through my ears. After my first degree, I let myself have some time off and then worked back into reading through my gateway book drug of choice: post-apocalyptic and dystopian fiction (I clearly don't like to give myself too easy a time).

Jose Saramago
This novel is one of my favourites of all time, and I don't have many. A driver at a traffic light goes blind; the ophthalmologist who is treating him goes blind before he can work out what is causing the unusual 'white' blindness. Quickly, the mysterious illness spreads through the population, and the authorities try to contain the epidemic by shutting the sick into a mental asylum. Saramago makes this scenario frighteningly real - I felt like he really captured how society could break down so rapidly in a situation like this. The prose style is a little unusual, but I found that it really adds to the sense of tension and confusion which builds throughout the novel. Amongst the horror, though, you'll find beauty too.

Peter Heller
Hig lives with his dog under the watchful eyes of his survivalist next door neighbour Bangley, who counters Hig's flying skills with his watchtower and stock of ammunition. A kind of influenza has wiped out most of the world, with a blood disease soon following. Hig's existence is comfortable - or as comfortable as it might be at the end of the world, whilst mourning the loss of mostly everything you've known - but a random radio transmission compels him to seek out the possibility of other survivors. The Dog Stars had me in tears several times. Some of the prose is a little laboured (the sex scenes, for example), but overall it's heartfelt, simple, and beautifully written. A lovely reflection of the human need for something 'more' than survival.

Jeff Vandermeer
The first part of the Southern Reach Trilogy, Annihilation deals with the twelfth expedition into Area X, a strange area cut off from the rest of civilization and seemingly with a whole new set of biological and physical rules. Few of the team members from the previous expeditions have returned, and those which have have been irreparably changed by mental trauma, some with a kind of cancer. The novel follows 'the biologist', part of an all female team, and the rapid deterioration of the group as they explore Area X. Whilst in places I lost a little interest in the characters, I was consistently drawn in by the need to find out more about Area X despite its slightly contrived name. Vandermeer's prose has some serious beauty, too. I'm currently reading Authority, the second in the trilogy, and though I'm not finding it as engaging so far, my curiosity is keeping me going.

Emily St John Mandel
I was recommended this book by several people on Twitter, and they were right to do so! Station Eleven is quite a different approach to writing in the post-apocalyptic genre. The format seems at first to fit the standard world-after-disaster story: the Georgia Flu wipes out 99% of humanity, the people left behind deal with the fall out as best they can; cults and 'ferals' roam the landscape. However, Station Eleven strays both forward and backwards in time, weaving a narrative between the before and after, slowly connecting the dots. Mainly the novel follows a group of performers, the Travelling Symphony, as they move through the new world with the motto 'survival is not insufficient'. It's a beautiful exploration of art, memory and meaning.

Sandra Newman
Sandra Newman's novel rests on the usual premise: a post-epidemic world populated by warring factions. The twist is that these factions are made up of self-sufficient children, who will be killed by an inherited condition ('Posies') before they are twenty - one is our heroine, Ice Cream Star. It's not always easy going. There's six hundred pages to wade through, and I did get bogged down in the middle. I felt the narrative could have done with some whittling down - but overall, the world-building was strong and I felt for the characters. The whole of Country is built on language - Newman's prose is lyrical, intensely layered and unapologetic (don't hope for a glossary) - and this is what I feel is its most powerful aspect.

Oxford University Museum of Natural History

Saturday, 4 June 2016

Of course, no visit to any city would be complete for me without at least one visit to a museum. In Oxford, I managed to fit in two - plus the Botanic Garden - in amongst our wandering and cake eating. The Oxford University Museum of Natural History was our first stop. Fascinatingly, the museum building was funded through the sale of bibles: the Oxford University Press was a significant producer of these from its founding. It's certainly an amazing piece of architecture, built in 1861 with influence from the writings of John Ruskin. It's well known for the beautiful glass roof and elaborate cast iron supports; the decoration is wonderful, though actually still remaining somewhat unfinished as funding ran out (you can actually see the differences in the window arch decoration in the photograph above). I particularly loved that each of the small columns of the cloisters inside are made from a different British stone, carefully labelled. The museum holds the natural history collections of the University, including the Oxford dodo, Mandy the taxidermy Shetland pony and of course plenty of fossils. Given that I work in museums in engagement, I'm also really pleased to see the museum has a youth forum for people aged 14-19!

I was sadly a little too early to visit their new exhibition, Microsculpture, which features large scale photographic portraits of insects by Levon Bliss. However, I did get to see Kurt Jackson's Bees exhibition, which was lovely and thought provoking regarding the current situation of bees int the UK. Both are part of a series of events at the museum called 'Visions of Nature', which explores the natural world through the lens of different visual artists. I really love this focus: too often we see art and science as separate subjects, rather than the amazingly interconnected disciplines that they are; each informs the other and have done for centuries.

I really love the 'day in the life at the Museum of Natural History' below - it's really nice to see what goes on behind the scenes in other museums, especially ones outside London which get a bit less press.