Picking up the detail

Visiting several National Trust properties recently it was clear things differ significantly today compared to twenty years ago. Then people walked through rooms following a guidebook purchased on arrival, kept away from the objects of interest by heavy red ropes and disapproving looks from room stewards.

Today the room stewards engage in conversation, where possible closer access to items of interest is available and the consequences of handling objects is explained through hands-on displays. Discretely placed teasels deter attempts to sit on furniture but the occasional seat is made available for those who need it.

However, it is the constantly changing exhibitions and add-ons that make repeat visits attractive. Hughendon Manor, for example, had a Forties weekend in progress when we visited. Various Enactment groups demonstrated weapons, fired a mortar and put on skirmishes to demonstrate aspects of warfare in World War II. A Home Guard group explained their equipment and shared moments of humour and entertainers sang and danced and encouraged people to have a go for themselves. The weather meant a Battle of Britain flight was cancelled but otherwise it made for a very full day. Worth visiting for its connection to Benjamin Disraeli and the recently discovered World War II role in map-making, there is plenty to offer background detail for writers in many areas.

NT Hughendon 40sWaddesdon Manor have a number of exhibitions in place at present but it was a small display of portraits of Queen Elizabeth I and some of her courtiers and portraits of Queen Elizabeth II that proved of particular interest. The text pointed out the symbolism in the paintings. Seeking out these small details meant taking a much closer look at the paintings and a greater appreciation of their execution.

NT Waddesdon PortraitsUpton House near Banbury was for sale in 1927 and the eventual buyer passed the property on to the NT at his death. The sale was the central theme for 2017 and visitors were treated as potential buyers with the notable attractions of the house pointed out in the “details” provided and by the room guides. Significant alterations were made to the house following the sale and the property was extended. An interesting part of the visit was a display relating to the architect who brought these about with drawings, models, photos and sketches. Rather than look at them from the point of view of the owner this made a change and showed the stages involved in the planning and execution. There were even copies of plans of the gardens with planting plans included should one wish to try any of them at home.

NT Upton House SaleThis more relaxed approach is more informative and must surely draw the visitors in and encourage repeat visits. From a social history point of view there was much of interest for a writer. Background details and new lines of research often stem from visits of this kind. At other properties the domestic quarters have offered insights into the preparation and presentation of food. Recipes, napkin folding designs and menus are among the items that have proved of interest. Often it is the ephemera of life that offers the detail that brings a story or article to life.

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Slow Sloes

Driving around the countryside the hedgerows are well laden this year it seems. In the past I have recorded estimates of how good a harvest is for a a list of species such as hawthorn, oak, blackberry and so on for the Woodland Trust. Whilst many of these will be feeding wildlife others, such as blackberry and elder produce fruits enjoyed by human and animal alike. I’ve already made a batch of blackberry and apple jelly this year. Whilst picking the blackberries we spotted a good crop of sloes and decided try making sloe gin. Always good to try something new. Blackthorn blossom  1 April 2016

Sloes are the fruit of the blackthorn, a common hedgerow plant locally. In spring the blossom dresses the hedges as if covered in snow. The time it actually blooms is the subject of several weather sayings. In contrast to the sparkling white blossom the fruits are almost black, resembling small plums and carry a bloom similar to that found on that fruit. Beautiful blossom and useful fruit but the most vicious thorns attacking the unwary.

Whenever I try something new I take photos at every stage. If it’s new to me it is new to others and who knows when the pictures might not come in useful for an article. It worked when I made my first quince jelly a few years back anyway. So far the fruit has been washed and dried, pricked all over and placed in a sterile jar. Sugar has been added and then the gin. Sadly it will be a while before the product can be tested. The recipe suggests leaving it for at least three months in a cool dark place, just giving it an occasional shake. After a week the liquid has already turned  an attractive deep red.  At least the blackberry and apple jelly was ready much sooner and has already been enjoyed on toasted muffins and will fill a Victoria sandwich this weekend.

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Preserving Memories

Enlisted the help of some younger family members to gather blackberries at the weekend. I had gathered a trayful of fallen apples and thought blackberry and apple jelly would be a great recipe to use them up. Having convinced the picking force that blackberries did not have to be eaten on the spot but could be used in other ways sufficient blackberries were picked for the task.B and A Jelly crop

No time like the present for using the fruit so it was weighed, washed and added to the pan with the chopped apples and simmered gently for a while to soften the fruit. As we all enjoyed the sweet fruity aroma I was soon transported back to my own childhood.

Every year relatives would visit laden with bags of cooking apples. Much as we loved apple pies there had to be other uses found that would preserve them as we had no fridge let alone a freezer. The solution was to go blackberry picking and for the black enamel cauldron used as a preserving pan to be dragged out to boil up the fruit for jelly. I loved it on bread instead of our usual jam but it was the smell that pervaded the house as it cooked that brought back these memories this weekend.

The strained juice just needs to be boiled up with sugar to reach setting point and then the jars of deep maroon jelly can be lined up in the cupboard just as my mother used to display them on the larder shelves. I suspect that I won’t be salting beans or bottling tomatoes as she did, however.

Sometimes we overlook how important our lesser senses are in evoking memories. Smell, taste and touch are just as important as sight and sound.

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To boil or simmer?

The latest issue of Best of British magazine carries an article I wrote after years of collecting snippets of information and photographs on a topic. It is about the drinking troughs provided for horses in towns and cities from the mid nineteenth century until the fifties. It all started when visiting Shropshire and spotting a trough with an inscription including the word Metropolitan, a word which suggested our capital rather than a town or city location. After spotting a few more on our travels – have you noticed how often once you have seen one example of something they keep cropping up – I delved a bit further into their history and gradually built up a collection of photographs and individual stories that suggested an article might be possible.

A Metropolitan Cattle Trough and Drinking Fountain Association trough now in use for floral displays.

A Metropolitan Cattle Trough and Drinking Fountain Association trough now in use for floral displays.

Whilst this piece has been simmering away for years others reach boiling point more quickly. The photos from a week in Devon included a number on a single theme and it didn’t take long for them to come together into a finished article which was submitted only a week after our return.

It is not just a case of keeping your eyes peeled either. A chance remark, often in the scene setting for an event or TV programme, can set the cogs turning. Introducing Antiques Roadshow on one occasion the presenter mentioned the name of the alley he was standing next to. I already knew of a few local names for alleys and soon collected enough for an article. I hadn’t found them all, though, as one reader responded on the letters page next month I had missed one from the neighbouring town to the Antiques Roadshow example. It did tell me that at least one person had read it!

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Write Your Story – Now

A few months ago when our speaker cried off at the last minute I was persuaded to give a talk about the articles I write. It went down quite well given the little time I had for preparation and at the end I mentioned that everybody had at least one story to tell… their own.

Several people commented afterwards that they were always being pestered by family to write down their stories or they had themselves considered writing them down “when I have time”. Recently the topic came up again and I asked how many had made a start. I wasn’t greeted by a show of hands. I offered to give a few pointers and it ended up with a group coming together for a chat. The rule was no actual writing, although notes of stories they were reminded of were permitted, and I offered one or two ideas to start people off.

Everyday Objects. Sewing accessories to inspire an article or story.

Everyday Objects. Sewing accessories to inspire an article or story.

I found a great quote to start off the session. There is never a right time to do something so do it now. The first thing I did was produce a box of prompts – items I had collected from a different era that might spark memories and indeed they did. A school beret had us going down the route of school uniform, the school day, getting to school, subjects people enjoyed or hated, and so on. After about half an hour, and lubricated by a cuppa, we switched to words or phrases that might inspire discussion. Lost was a particularly productive one with most of those present having been lost at some time. I found it interesting that no one talked about the loss of a person, pet or object, let alone a lost opportunity.

To end up I suggested a couple of ways stories could be recorded without a lot of writing which seemed to be the most common factor holding people back. We talked about photographs and not just listing the names of those in photographs but also the date, place and occasion that made it memorable. Q & A sessions with family members using a recorder was another possibility considered.

The time passed quickly and the group want to continue with more sessions which was not my original intention so now wracking my brains for new approaches and ideas. There must be others who have run such sessions …

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Chocolate treats

Some of the earliest articles I had published were about entering consumer competitions. Some were advice pieces whilst others were about specific wins or types of prize. A number of these prizes have been for “a year of…” a product and have included breakfast cereals (52 packs) Bread (vouchers for 104 loaves) and tights (52 pairs). Wine proved to be a disappointing 12 bottles but it was very good wine and a recent win of chocolate is still arriving at intervals.Chocolate Blog


Sometimes prizes allow you to do something new and maybe not generally available to the general public whilst product prizes can introduce you to items new to the market as in the case of the chocolate. These are hand-made chocolate bars made without additives, supplied by bean chocolate, London.


The first delivery of four introduced their first four options of salted cinder milk chocolate, milk chocolate with bacon, 60% dark chocolate and dark chocolate with hazelnut. None of the chocolate is very sweet and it therefore blends well with the savoury options but my preference was for the dark chocolate which again is unlike any chocolate I have tried before. They have expanded the range now to include some white chocolate versions, too. My only difficulty, apart from how quickly they disappeared, was with breaking up the bars which did not have moulded divisions but I understand that may be addressed shortly. Of course, writing and chocolate go hand in hand so this was a welcome opportunity.

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Grave Markers from The Great War

World War One Grave Markers

Watching a local news report on soldiers from a local village who lost their lives at Passchendaele which included scenes from inside the church I spotted several Grave Markers from the Great War. I couldn’t see exactly how many were displayed but it was more than one or two.

I have seen a similar group elsewhere when looking round churches when visiting new areas but generally there are just one or two simple plain crosses, with occasionally those of an officer which are more elaborate. These markers were erected to mark the spot where a soldier was buried where he fell on the battlefield. As the Commonwealth War Graves Cemeteries developed the original markers were available to the families. Displaying them within the church was quite common, given there was no grave in the churchyard to visit.

Airmen often had a cut down propeller formed into a cross as these were made of wood, too. I have only come across one of these locally.

I recall seeing one for an army officer when visiting Kent, possibly Hythe, but the majority of those displayed are simple plain crosses recording the name and regiment of the fallen along with the date.

After a hundred years it is perhaps surprising to still find these on display. Often they have been cleared away during refurbishment of churches and indeed some I have seen have been found in the porch or in the ringing area rather than alongside the church Roll of Honour.

They are very poignant reminders of sacrifice and a direct link to the battlefield.

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A letter a day…

A few years ago I took part in the A-Z Blog Challenge that takes place each April. The idea is to blog every day except Sunday and visit other blogs to comment. I had hoped it would help build a habit of writing regularly as well as being a bit of fun. Whilst I had a few comments and have indeed kept in contact with a couple of people it did take up a lot of time and meant I got little other writing done in that period.

This year I repeated an experiment from two years ago and instead wrote magazine letters daily. These went to a variety of publications and covered a range of formats including tips, funny photos, comments on previous issues and TV programmes and anecdotes. As I searched publications for suitable pages to target I noticed three things. Firstly it is now quite common for only a Star Letter to be rewarded and in some magazines letters are not remunerated at all. Secondly published letters are more likely to be awarded a “prize” in kind than in cash. I can recall being paid a guinea for a letter I wrote when quite young to one of the many magazines my mother read. Over the years I have had a number of cash awards although some of these were in the form of gift vouchers. The third discovery was that many publications which once welcomed feedback in the form of letters no longer have a page to record the opinions of their readers or to have the readers entertain each other.Magazine Letter Rewards Blog

In the event I did miss a couple of days during the month although I continued beyond the end of April to compensate. Before the month was out several of the items were published, two in different issues of the same publication, and all the rewards have turned up in good time, something that has not always been true in the past. Not only pleasing to have some small successes but I am now writing on a regular basis once more so it seems to have done the trick.

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Fiction Choices

I tend to get in a rut for reading, sometimes taking on a whole series of say crime novels for weeks on end and then maybe switching to historical fiction or biographies. Fiction usually comes from the library and their layout, putting all crime novels together for example, makes chance discoveries of potential reading matter less likely.

Variety has come from other sources of late. I have won a few new novels in magazine giveaways and I also receive occasional titles either from an online site or direct from publishers and one of these was Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman.Eleanor Oliphant Blog

I enjoyed this book – found it difficult to put down in fact. The details of Eleanor’s backstory were revealed at just the right moment to move the story on and leave the reader speculating as to the whole truth. Eleanor herself had such a distinctive voice yet felt herself to be a background figure in the scheme of things. Raymond, who enjoys most of the action with Eleanor, has a calm, measured approach to life, an ideal foil for the ups and downs of Eleanor’s story. As it unfolded I often felt I knew what might happen next yet time and again I was proved wrong and the ending was a complete surprise and yet at no time did I feel cheated or deceived. This was purely clever plotting. It is hard to believe this was a first novel.

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Jane Austen exhibition

A while since I visited Oxford but recently had the opportunity so popped into the Weston Library of the Bodleian to take in the Jane Austen exhibition, Which Jane Austen. It is a real treat for lovers of her novels, full of surprising aspects of her life.Jane Austen

Jane Austen’s love of London was a feature of one display and a note taken from her letters and journals mentions being more interested in looking at the people than the exhibits in a museum. People watching was clearly her thing as comes over so perfectly in her characters.

Other exhibits show the popularity of Jane Austen’s novels with soldiers in the trenches in the Great War, her novels reminding them of home and normality. Navy lists and details of Portsmouth tours remind us she had brothers who served in the Navy. Correspondence with her publisher showed her to be a good businesswoman and so on.

Sadly I had less than an hour so was only able to take in a fraction of what is on offer and, as photography is not allowed, make a few notes of points of especial interest. On until October 29th the exhibition is free.

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