Saturday 31 December 2022

Winter Wonderland

Behind a gloomy Victorian shrubbery there's a gloomy Victorian mansion, but behind that lurks one of the most extraordinary gardens in contains whole continents, including China and Ancient Egypt – not to mention Italian terraces and a Scottish glen...this is how Alan Titchmarsh, the TV gardener, described Biddulph Grange Gardens in Staffordshire, our Twixtmas destination. 

Researching my family history I discovered my 12 x great-grandfather, Richard Edge (1512 - 1592) was the owner of Knypersley Hall in Biddulph in Staffordshire which was eventually sold to the noted horticulturalist, Richard Bateman, in 1809. Bateman lived here until he bought the neighbouring property of Biddulph Grange in 1840 where he and his son, James, created one of the country's greatest gardens using their wealth to purchase specimens bought back from the great Victorian plant-hunters. I've always felt an affinity with Biddulph Grange so the link, if a little tenuous, makes me shiver with excitement over the family connection.

James Bateman (1811 - 1897)

If you're wondering about the origins of the town's name, Biddulph, it's believed to be from the Anglo-Saxon word, bidulfe, meaning wolf slayer and the Biddulph family crest includes a wolf rampant. 
Biddulph Grange was rebuilt after the original burned down in 1896. From 1923 until 1991 it was used as a hospital but, over time, the gardens fell into disrepair and were taken over by the National Trust in 1988. The house remains privately owned, these days divided into swanky apartments with views to die for.

Midwinter it may be but there's nothing bleak about Biddulph Grange, it's bloody gorgeous all year round. Everywhere from the Himalayan Glens, Pine Avenues and English formal planting there's interest wherever you look. We've visited regularly since becoming National Trust members in 2016 but there's something extra special about the gardens in Winter.

The deer were part of a trail for children and we could hear squeals of excitement when they ticked each one off their list. I can't think of a more thrilling destination, at 56 years old I'm as giddy as they are, scrambling up the well-worn stone steps and stumbling through the dark tunnels which lead to a magical world of secret gardens.... 

We cross perilously high bridges...

...and enticing-looking archways

We travel to Italy, meandering down neat avenues, admiring the topiary and the marvelously ornate planters.

 And visit China where the glint of gaudy pagodas and golden icons are reflected in the lake below.

And wonder at the weirdness of Britain's first stumpery - an almost lunar landscape created from felled oaks.

   We explore the Egyptian pyramid, cut from privet and flanked by a pair of handsome sphinxes.

And ascend the steps hewn from the rocks to the top of the crenelated tower of the folly and look out at the vista below, finding it hard to imagine that the post-industrial landscape of The Potteries is a mere stone's throw away.

The Cheshire Cottage lies at the end of Wellingtonia Avenue, huge evergreen trees grown from seed brought back from the Americas in the 19th Century.

Built in 1856, the cottage bears the initials of James and his wife, Maria believed to be a nod to Queen Victoria's Swiss Chalet built in the grounds of Osborne House.

In the Summer months the Dahlia is ablaze with a rainbow of gaudy blooms but still remains beautiful even in the depths of Winter. 

It was the first time we'd visited Bateman's Geological Gallery, built in 1862 and restored by the National Trust in 2016.

After a car picnic we made our way towards home, stopping off at Longton (36 miles from Walsall), one of the six principal towns which make up Stoke-on-Trent. 

 Recognise these bottle kilns, Throwdown fans? Yes, it's Gladstone Pottery where The Great Pottery Throwdown is filmed. (The new series starts at 7.45pm on Sunday 8th January, I'm so excited!)

 A pottery factory has stood here since 1787 and was originally run by the Shelley Family who produced earthenware and decorated plates produced by Josiah Wedgewood at Etruria. The factory opened as a museum in 1970 but is currently closed, not due to reopen until the Spring.

Hoping to have some exotic heritage, a DNA test I took several years ago actually revealed my ethnicity was 82% Potteries (the area that has been at the centre of the British pottery industry from the beginning of the 17th century). My 8 x great grandfather, Edward Adams of Bank House, Bagnall (1661 -1727) belonded to one of the great Staffordshire pottery dynasties, The Adamses. The Adams's founded the Greengates Pottery in Tunstall (another of the six towns that make up Stoke-on-Trent), producing fine jasperware table sets, plaques, medallions and other products stamped Adams & Co. The family leased their Brickhouse Pottery to Josiah Wedgwood until 1772 when he moved to his premises in Etruria. Greengates Pottery was absorbed into the Wedgwood group in 1966 and the building was eventually demolished in the 1990s.

Greengates Pottery circa 1870

I was surprised at how deserted it was, expecting at least a few other fans to be wandering around but it was just us (and a couple of cars which slowed down and looked at us like me were mad). We half-hoped we'd catch sight of the wonderful Keith Brymer-Jones but it was not to be - it turns out that we were twenty-four hours too early, he posted on his Facebook page that he was there the following day - gah!

Wishing you all a Happy New Year! Thanks for visiting my blog and for all the kind comments and messages you've left over the past thirteen years.

See you in 2023!

Wednesday 28 December 2022

Betwixt and Between

 It's Twixtmas, the yawning chasm between Xmas and New Year when the days seem to last for an eternity and where sherry and a war film at midday seem perfectly acceptable.

I signed off on Xmas Eve in a rush to get to Spoons - posting cards through the neighbours' letterboxes along the way. We met up with my brother and Tony, had a few beers and a late lunch (a small Brie and spinach pizza for me). Walking home via Asda we picked up a bottle of dry sherry and a box of plant-based mince pies and spent the evening watching Slow Horses and the Gone Fishing Xmas special. 

Xmas day started with tea and exchanging gifts in bed. Tony popped round mid-morning with more presents and we had a glass of sherry with a mince pie whilst opening them. 

We'd booked to have our annual Dead Relatives Society gathering at Kouzina, Walsall's Greek restaurant, on Xmas Eve but they'd messaged on 23rd December as they'd had a serious breakdown in the kitchen and couldn't get an engineer out in time so Xmas was cancelled. Fortunately Golden Moments, one of the longest established Indian restaurants in town came to the rescue and squeezed us in for Xmas Day. With it being at such short notice, it was just the three of us. (I think Tony was blinking and our conversation hadn't bored him to death!)

Although there was an option of a traditional Xmas dinner it's not really our thing and we all opted for Indian. The set menu consisted of either a vegetarian platter (tandoori paneer, vegetable samosa and pakora) or a meat one (shaslick chicken, shami kebab, tandoori lamb and chicken tikka), I'm sure you can guess which each of us opted for.

Diners could order any main course from the menu, I chose Kadu Muttar (butternut squash with peas in a chilli-hot sauce) with sizzling rice (pan-fried with spring onions) and a garlic and duniya (coriander) nan.

Jon ordered their White Jalfrezi (don't be deceived by the colour, the spiciness is the stuff of legends, check out those chillies) with pilau rice and a Peshwari naan whilst Tony chose Lamb Lal Nagaha tandoori naan and veg pilau rice

There was a bowl of Bombay Aloo to share.

Jon and I ordered a bottle of the house red, Barefoot Merlot, and Tony drank Cobra.

Desert was Gulab Jamun with ice cream and winter berries (I'm not a fan of ice cream so the boys ate mine).

After coffee, the waiter kindly packaged up our leftovers and we headed our separate ways. Tony works in retail and had to open the shop early the next morning, ready for those who have nothing better to do than buy three piece suites, mattresses and carpets on Boxing Day.

We had a relaxing evening drinking tea, sprawled in front of the TV, too stuffed to consider eating another thing. We watched The Festive Throwdown (wonderful stuff) and a couple of episodes of Stanley Tucci's Italy whilst I crocheted.

Lord Jon had a couple of days respite from photographing me in my outfits so here's my festive frocks hanging in the spare room - Xmas Day's vintage lamé and chiffon number from Victor Costa's Romantica line, given to me by a friend over a decade ago, and Xmas Eve's 1960s witchy-looking black velvet maxi from Samuel Sherman's Sambo collection (a car boot find back in the noughties).

On Boxing Day I was up before 6am to do my Wii Fit workout before making tea and going back to bed for an hour with my latest book.... and what a read it is.. In 1850 dollmaker and aspiring painter Iris Whittle leaves behind her job at a London workshop to model for the Pre-Raphaelite artist, Louis Frost. Frost isn't the only person to be captivated by Iris's striking looks when she also catches the eye of the darkly obsessive Silas Reed, a curiosity collector. 

After breakfast we popped over to my brother's house with his present as it was too heavy to bring to the pub on Saturday (a hamper of posh treats we'd assembled ourselves) and caught up over a coffee. I wore my charity-shopped Levis and Timberland boots with a Monsoon block-printed Indian cotton blouse from their Artisan Collection topped off with an orange wool fedora bought from Debenhams four years ago (with my Afghan coat over the top, after two mild days, there was a icy breeze.)

We got back and discovered Escape to Athena was on TV, it was filmed on Rhodes so we kept screeching with excitement when we spotted places we recognised.

After an afternoon of crocheting (me) and sewing (Jon) with 6Music, we devoured an Indian feast for tea the Golden Moments leftovers accompanied by a box of spicy Indian snacks delivered by our new neighbours, Aqeel and Shazia. Later we watched The Darkest Hour (Gary Oldman is magnificent) followed by the sublime The Detectorists.

Tuesday (another bank holiday) kicked off with my daily Wii Fit session and, whilst waiting for the tea to brew, I finished off my crocheting, one of two tank tops I'd made since Xmas Day.

Wearing a second-hand Naked Generation block printed midi dress and my stompy Celtic & Co. boots (plus a coat, it was another cold day) Jon and I walked down to Lidl for supplies, combining fresh air and exercise with essential errands.

Jon's always done the grocery shopping and in recent years had swapped his allegiance from Lidl to Morrisons, but after popping into the German supermarket for the Waste Not boxes he's realised the error of his ways - the fruit and veg is better quality and the prices are loads cheaper (and the staff are just as friendly). There weren't any boxes on Tuesday but there were reduced to clear bargains in the fridges including four packs of Bombay potatoes, a couple of artisan pizzas and a tub of cottage cheese which, along with the wholemeal seeded bloomer, 2 x litre pots of Greek yogurt, a punnet of blueberries, a bag of Brussels sprouts, four clementines, four limes, a box of ruby grapes, four kiwi fruit, a jar of wholegrain mustard, half-a-dozen free range eggs, a bunch of bananas, a cauliflower, a bag of baking potatoes, a bag of carrots, a bottle of Spanish rosé and lunch for the young homeless man, shivering with cold, came in at £34.

Liz and Adrian popped round for a sherry and after they'd left I turned the PC on for the first time since Saturday and had an epic blogland catch-up. After tea (half of a Lidl artisan pizza each with some oven-cooked chilli-infused potato slices) we watched Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri - I'm not sure why it took us so long to get around to it, it was fantastic.

I'd started with an annoying tickly throat on Tuesday evening but a dose of echinacea before bed seemed to have done the trick (or maybe it was the ivy covered pentangle hanging from the door). After a Wii Fit workout and breakfast I wrapped my eBay sales and we popped out to the post office to drop them off. I wore a vintage suede mini skirt and my Galleries Lafayette suede jacket.

The weather was vile, cold with torrential rain and high winds, so we cheered ourselves up with an impromptu trip to the clearance charity shop, coming home with...

  • A 100% silk tie-necked mini dress by Lux, an Urban Outfitters label. I actually owned this dress in the noughties, bought from a car boot sale from an employee who used to sell new and tagged UO clothes and accessories, and I lived in it for years. I wonder if this was mine originally? It's back in my wardrobe now!
  • A 1970s metallic leather leaf belt, made in England.
  • A 1980s Welsh Village, Made in Wales screen printed cotton blouse.
  • An Arancrafts, Ireland 100% merino wool cardi (Mim had one of their jumpers for Xmas. They're desirable things!)
  • Aubin & Wills novelty fox jumper, also 100% merino wool
  • Fransa, Denmark fully lined suede midi skirt.

The £1 hardback book bin yielded a couple of treasures. You can find a copy of the Surrealism book, published by Schneede in 1973 on Abebooks HERE. The forty-one colour plates include Rene Magritte's Ready-Made Bouquet, Max Ernst's Napoleon in the Wilderness, Oscar Dominguez's Electrosexual Sewing Machine and my favourite, The Birthday by Dorothea Tanning. 

I'm not at all familiar with Ken Howard. After a bit of research I discovered that he called himself The Last Living Impressionist and died in September this year at the age of 89 (obituary HERE). There's some stunning work in Inspired by Light, I loved the cluttered rooms and huge windows in which he painted his models (they remind me of our house) and his paintings of Rajasthan capture the radiant light perfectly.  

It's another afternoon of crocheting for me - fingers crossed for a dry day tomorrow, a National Trust property awaits. 

See you soon!