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Tuesday, 16 August 2016

Cumbria’s country shows

One of the great unsung attractions of Cumbria are its many agricultural and country shows which take place every year between May and October. If you’ve not been to one before I certainly recommend them because they give you a real insight into the farming and rural life of this part of the world.

The shows are very much part of local communities and were originally established to promote different breeds of cattle, sheep and heavy horse, and the crops which the farmers grew. Showing and judging livestock is at the heart of most of the days but there are plenty of other attractions as well.

You might see food tents selling Cumbrian produce, show jumping, farm machinery, poultry tents, trade stands, gundogs, terrier racing, fell ponies, working hunters, shows of light and heavy horses and Cumberland Westmorland wrestling. Not all of these things, however, are at every show.

There are often competitions for floral art, handicrafts, stickmaking, flowers, vegetables, baking and cake making. Four raspberry buns, three squares of gingerbread or a dish of rum butter might be three of the classes. And for children there could be a prize for the best farm on a biscuit tin lid or a creature made from fruit and vegetables. One show has a trophy for the dog with the waggiest tale.

Personally I like seeing the shows of livestock - heaps of work goes into making sure the animals look their best - and the poultry area, if there is one. But I usually make a beeline too for the local produce tent and what’s called the industrial tent where home baking and creativity are on display.

We’ve just had the Lowther Show but amongst those still to come are the Brough Show on Thursday, Rusland Show, Gosforth Show and Ravenstonedale Show this Saturday, the Lakeland Country Fair at Torver near Coniston on Sunday, Hawkshead Show next Tuesday (23rd), Dufton Show, Millom and Broughton Agricultural Show and Patterdale Dog Day on Saturday, August 27.

Grasmere Lakeland Sports and Show takes place on Sunday, August 28, Black Combe Country Fair the day after that, and then there are plenty more in September, including the impressive Westmorland Show near Kendal on September 8.

I might just add that ioomi, the company which designed this website, have also developed a ‘dedicated events management piece of software’, aimed at agricultural and county shows. It’s 21st century technology managing centuries old tradition.

Thursday, 04 August 2016

18 hours in Exeter

For me, Exeter was always a ‘passing through’ sort of place: heading through on the way to school or to play rugby, passing through for visits to family and friends. Two weeks ago I was there again and what a change from 15 years ago.

Then, Exeter seemed a fairly humdrum sort of city, despite having the most beautifully located of universities, a lovely cathedral, the Northcott Theatre, a small airport and an historic quayside, next to the River Exe.

Since then, of course, the Met Office has moved to the area, a new town called Cranbrook has grown up to the east of the city, a science park is being developed, Exeter Airport has expanded (now serving about 15 countries) and there have been other multi-million pound developments in the city itself, a shopping area called Princesshay being one of them (pic).

All this has come with a big change in the retail and restaurant scene. There’s a large John Lewis store and a Waitrose, and as we wandered around we spotted Hollister, The White Company, Carluccio’s, Jamie’s Italian, Reiss, Karen Millen, Hobbs, Russell and Bromley, Zara, Hotel Chocolat and Crew Clothing to name a few.

There were a handful of little squares and outside spots for cafés/restaurants as well. And at the Royal Clarence/ABode Hotel - opposite the cathedral and said to be the oldest hotel in the country - is ABode Restaurant, once run by well known chef and Exeter-born Michael Caines.

And there’s more to come, including a £70 million regeneration scheme around the old bus station site (new swimming pool here) and a £12 million redevelopment of part of the Guildhall shopping centre. The latter will focus on food and drink. An IKEA is coming too.

Last but certainly not least, Exeter has one of the best club rugby sides in the country, its ground hosting three matches during the World Cup last year. What 15 years of drive and ambition have done for the old Roman city. And that’s before you mention the nearby coast and countryside.

Exeter Tourist Information: www.visitexeter.com

Glorious Goodwood was getting much of the attention around Chichester last week but let’s not forget the Roman town’s other glories - its cathedral, Festival Theatre and, on a smaller scale, the excellent Pallant House Gallery. It was to the gallery we headed for the first major exhibition in 35 years of the British artist Christopher Wood who died in 1930 at the age of 29.

Although he befriended Picasso, Cezanne, Van Gogh and Jean Cocteau after moving to Paris in 1920 it was his close creative relationship with the artists Ben and Winifred Nicholson, then living at Banks near Brampton in Cumbria, that helped shape the unsophisticated style of his last years. Wood first visited the Nicholsons in what was then Cumberland in 1926 (landscape pictured) and later painted with them in Cornwall and Northumberland.

The exhibition is titled Christopher Wood: Sophisticated Primitive, a reference, as the gallery says, to the contradiction between Wood’s ‘civilised’ lifestyle in Paris and the ‘primitive’ aesthetic he aspired to.

After seeing the 80 or so works of art gathered here - paintings, drawings and set designs - you’re left wondering what might have been had this hugely talented individual lived considerably longer. It’s a first class show and goes on until October 2.

Pallant House itself combines a Grade I listed Queen Anne building with a modern wing, opened ten years ago this summer. Its focus is very much on modern British art so in some of the other rooms you’ll see more paintings by Ben Nicholson and by Ivon Hitchens who was another visitor to the Nicholsons at Banks.

There's also work by Lucian Freud, Frank Auerbach, David Bomberg, RB Kitaj, Peter Blake and a number of contemporary printmakers. We even spotted a pot by Cumbrian based William PlumptreThere’s a great bookshop here too.

Back in Kendal and quite coincidentally, Winifred Nicholson in Cumberland is on at Abbot Hall Art Gallery until October 15.

Thursday, 28 July 2016

Beatrix Potter

Today is the 150th anniversary of the birth of Beatrix Potter, mycologist, writer and Lakeland farmer. For those who want a brief introduction to her life, here's a section from the 2016 Dymond Guide to the Lake District and Cumbria.....

If it wasn’t for Beatrix Potter’s parents changing their holiday habit of visiting Scotland, her tales might have had an entirely different setting. But in 1882, after years of summer holidays in Perthshire, the Potters rented Wray Castle near Ambleside. At Wray the vicar was Canon Hardwicke Drummond Rawnsley who left a lasting impression on the 16 year old girl with his views on countryside conservation. He later became one of the founders of the National Trust.

Even though she was a farmer for 30 years of her life, it is the children’s books which Potter produced over a much shorter time which made her famous.

Born in London to a wealthy barrister and his wife, she was encouraged from an early age to draw and paint. Through the study and observation of plants and animals came her great ability as an illustrator, particularly of fungi and natural history. She continued to join her parents on holidays in her thirties, many of them in the Lake District. In 1896 the family went to Near Sawrey for the first time, a place she became smitten with. Nine years later she purchased Hill Top Farm (pic).

Her first book, The Tale of Peter Rabbit, had originated in 1893 in an illustrated letter to a young boy. The eventual publisher was Frederick Warne whose son, Norman, was engaged to Potter for a short time before his premature death in 1905. Hill Top Farm provided the backdrop for several of her books and for famous characters like Tom Kitten and Jemima Puddle-Duck. But it was also the catalyst for a new life as a farmer. She increased the livestock at Hill Top, bought another farm at Sawrey in 1909 and then four years later married local solicitor William Heelis.

The couple didn’t live at Hill Top but Potter kept it on and in 1924 bought a third farm at Troutbeck near Windermere. For the next 19 years this was her major interest: only four of her ‘small’ books were written after her marriage. Elected chairman of the Herdwick Sheep Breeders’ Association, she died before she could take up the post, bequeathing about 4,000 acres (1,619 ha) of the Lake District and 15 farms to the National Trust (pic).

Tuesday, 12 July 2016

Spring Fling

Whoever thought of the name Spring Fling for ‘Scotland’s premier art and craft open studios event’ deserves a medal. So much joy is conveyed by two simple words, so much is on view during the three days of this late May event.

Set up in 2003, Spring Fling takes place in south west Scotland, showcasing the work of about 100 artists and makers: painters, potters, printmakers, sculptors, photographers, furniture makers, jewellery designers, glass artists and more. All this in lovely, unspoilt - and for many people, undiscovered - countryside. There’s plenty of wonderful coastline too.

As usual, the well-designed and informative Spring Fling programme drops through the post several weeks beforehand which gives us plenty of time to decide on a route through Dumfries and Galloway and which of the studios to visit. We normally make an initial beeline for Kircudbright, because there’s a cluster of studios in and around the small harbour town, and then take it from there.

I admit we’ve got our favourites scattered across the region, those we annually pop in to see. There’s Trevor Leat (willow sculptures, pic), for instance, Morag Macpherson (textiles, pic), and Clare Dawdry (potter/ceramist). But over the years we’ve also discovered the work of architectural blacksmith Adam Booth, glass artist Amanda Simmons, and this year Lizzie Farey (willow artist), painter Heather M Nisbet, jeweller Kathryn King and Jennie Ashmore who makes beautiful collages from leaves and flowers she collects in the countryside (pic).

In Cumbria in a couple of months time (September 10-25) there’s a similar event called C-Art which, like Spring Fling, gives people the opportunity to meet artists and makers in their studios and talk to them about their creations. It’s a great way to buy original work from the many talented individuals who paint and print, design and make in this part of the world. And you get to explore some pretty nice countryside at the same time.

We woke to the sight of sheep nibbling in the field below our window and fell asleep to the sound of the stream chuckling past the cottage. After five years of watching Sue and Martin Hawkard create a second self-catering property at their home of Howe Foot near Coniston Water, we were finally here to stay for three nights. We wished it were thirty.

Otley Beck is not just a labour of love and longevity but an example of the highest standards of craftsmanship. Huge oak roofing timbers, Tilberthwaite slate on floors and kitchen worktops, a lovely aqua-coloured Aga, glazed tiles in the bathroom, polished slate for the window cills, underfloor heating and Fired Earth paint colours are some of its features. And all the building work, furnishing and decorating done by Sue and Martin themselves.

By day we toured the immediate area, taking in the Duddon Valley, the wonderful beach of Silecroft near Millom and an area around Coniston Water. By night we cooked on the striking looking Aga, using the Aga cooking pans, the Sabatier knives and Emma Bridgewater plates, and then cosied up beside the wood burning stove in the living/dining room. One night to watch Coldplay at Glastonbury...in the warm.

Brantwood, John Ruskin’s home for 29 years, lies a few miles to the north of this enchanting little spot and I can pay no greater compliment to Otley Beck than say that the Victorian polymath - himself a champion of the Arts and Crafts movement - would have been full of admiration for the love, care and attention to detail which has gone into creating this perfect ‘cottage for two’.

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