Living in the past – old buildings as homes and stories

A few days ago I visited Presteigne, on the border of England and Wales (the counties of Herefordshire and Powys, to be precise).  With a population of fewer than 3,000 people, Presteigne would be classed as a village in most parts of the country, but here in the remote and sparsely-populated hills it is a town, with shops and services drawing people from the surrounding hamlets and scattered dwellings.   Sheep farming and tourism are the area’s main occupations, both capitalising on the sweeping hills and valleys of these unostentatiously beautiful borderlands, miles from anywhere.

Presteigne, which is called Llanandras in Welsh (loosely translating as ‘the enclosure around the Church of St Andrew’), is a historic town and was formerly the capital of the old county of Radnorshire (now subsumed into the administrative county of Powys).  It still has the court house, now a museum, as a legacy from that era.  The town is located beside the River Lugg, which forms the border between England and Wales.  It has a long pedigree as a settlement, featuring in the Domesday Book of 1086 – however, it also has charging points for electric vehicles in the town car park, a trendy deli, a modern convenience store on the high street, and a Chinese take-away.   

Modern features notwithstanding, what struck me most on my first visit to the town was how old it feels.  In the centre, along the high street and the area around the church, the houses are hundreds of years old.  Even where the facades appear newer, the buildings behind are constructed of traditional vernacular materials such as plaster and lath, half-timbering, cob, and stone.  Some, like the building which is now a charity (thrift) shop and a barbershop, are adorned with pargetting (ornamental plaster).  Centuries seep out of the walls of the buildings.  Each is grounded, venerable, secure in its place, a survivor.    Compared with the new-build boxes in the estates on the edge of town, which we drove past on the way in, these buildings are the ancestors which simply stayed, did not crumble and die, but remained rooted here in this community.

I find it interesting, though, that the town feels ‘old’ rather than ‘historic’.  Although I’m sure there are ‘listed buildings’ here, and that there are conservation orders in place for many of the streets, it doesn’t feel like a historic theme park.  Some places I’ve been – such as Holt in Norfolk, almost completely re-built in the Georgian period after a fire, or Stamford in Lincolnshire, with its picturesque stone buildings of homogenous limestone – are cohesive, visually harmonious, easy for the local tourist board to market as ‘historic’.  Presteigne is different.  Here, the buildings are jumbled together, built over centuries, fitted into gaps left by their predecessors, form following function.  The have been re-worked over time to the needs of each successive generation of occupants, which storeys added, extensions built, windows and doors relocated or bricked up, cottages and workshops fitted into the back premises of the buildings that front onto the street.  These aren’t picture-perfect ‘period homes’ – they are simply old houses, getting on with the business of living.

The contrast with the new houses on the estates is profound.  It is, in essence, a contrast between convenience and character.  These old houses are themselves – they have mass, substance, personality – they have their own stories.  The new houses are just blank pages.  Will the stories created there leave an imprint on the new buildings in the same way they have on the old?  I doubt it somehow.  The old buildings are not simply receptacles for living in.  They are themselves protagonists, characters in their stories.  They have adapted – with varying degrees of success – to the changes in society, in the way people live, and in technology, and the palimpsests of those changes are written upon them.   Have the new houses been built to last enough centuries to gain their own palimpsests, their own ghosts, to be characters in their own stories?  Looking at the neat estates of bungalows and semis, it’s hard to imagine.  Yes, the new buildings are more economical to heat, have regular-shaped rooms, conform to modern building standards.  But with little expectation that new-builds will last more than, perhaps, 60 years, issues of sustainability must be measured against the hundreds of years of service given by the timber frames and quarried stone walls of the old buildings.  What does that difference in life expectancy say about our society’s attitude to homes, to permanence, to community?

Walking back through the high street to the car, I felt a acutely aware of the long line of people who have come to Presteign in the last millennium and more, to live, to trade, to pause – as I was doing – on a journey.  The buildings I passed have seen perhaps the last 20 generations of those people, who walked and shopped and greeted people on the street as I did that day.  And in some indefinable way, the buildings are imprinted with their presence.

Walking in a Winter Wonderland – a walk down Glastonbury high street

In a normal year, the centre of Glastonbury would be bustling at this time of year, with shoppers visiting the many emporia of alternative retail culture in the town.  This year, it has been very different – because of social distancing rules, there has been no Frost Fayre, and far fewer visitors than usual for the Winter Solstice.  Nevertheless, the shopkeepers have done a wonderful job of decorating their windows, in defiantly bright contrast to a season which has seemed even darker than usual this year.  I would like to share with you a walk, in pictures, down the High Street to the Market Place and along Magdalene Street, after dark.  For me, the lit windows are like magic lanterns or stained glass, glowing with light and colour, with images and symbols which bring out different aspects of the seasonal festivals.

Let’s start on the High Street.  This is one of my favourite shops, with its Art Deco window panels and kaleidoscopic lanterns.  The big lump in the middle of the display is myrrh – one of the three gifts traditionally brought to the Christ child in the manger in Bethlehem, by the wise men who came from the east.  There is something of the souk about this shop, and the owner always keeps an incense burner alight outside the door, sending exotic fragrances out into the Somerset town.

Just across the road, I like the whimsy of a gift shop wrapped up like a present, picking up on the tradition of exchanging gifts which has been part of midwinter celebrations for millennia.  I don’t envy them fixing those lights up on the roof!  I know it’s a shop which sells lovely things, and it looks very inviting, but this evening I’m photographing, not shopping, so I keep walking.

This shop has been recently refurbished, and the gilding of the lettering catches the light (gold, frankincense, myrrh).  This shop sells mostly Indian items, and its window display is full of little lights, hinting at Diwali.  The top floor, which I must admit I have never noticed in daylight, has a rainbow of lanterns suspended from the ceiling.  I think they go very well with the municipal Christmas tree on the front of the shop.

The Green Man is a significant folkloric and pagan symbol, and at this season of evergreens he is everywhere in Glastonbury.  This is a particularly fine example, framed by greenery and bringing a touch of the wildwood to the high street.

More Green Men here too, who have been joined by Cernunnos, the Celtic horned god.  The interweaving of traditions and beliefs is a major feature of Glastonbury, and is reflected in the range of merchandise which shops offer to modern-day pilgrims and visitors.  It is said that over 70 religions and beliefs are represented in the town, making Glastonbury perhaps one of the most spiritually diverse places on earth.

But amid all the paraphernalia of spirituality, people’s physical needs are catered for too, and the baker’s shop has a cornucopia of seasonal goodies in the window.  The mince pies look delicious, and I don’t even like mince pies!  Let’s hope the Scandi-style elves in the display don’t eat them all…

Across the road, one of Glastonbury’s best-known shops covers all the bases for seasonal gift-buying – a witches’ calendar for 2021, a cushion showing moon phases, a Green Man apron, magic spell kits and oracle cards, and a book on the Winter Solstice.  There is a tree, with snow-filled baubles, and a wreath with greenery and berries, and also the Tree of Life.

The next window seems quite conventional, for Glastonbury – a Christmas tree and Santa Claus.  But if you look closely, you’ll see that it’s not exactly the Santa of popular culture – this chap is nearer to the old images of Father Christmas, looking rather as if he’s just come walking out of the forest with an armful of kindling for the Yule fire.

A couple of doors down, we have more trees and another Father Christmas – but again, he isn’t the scarlet-clad figure with the sleigh and the ho-ho-ho.  This one is dressed in brown, smiling benevolently amid frosty-white trees, lit with cool whites and blues and populated with cuddly woodland animals.  It looks like an illustration from a children’s book, and I’d love to read the whole story.

By way of contrast, the next window has nothing conventional about it at all – there may be a wreath of leaves, but they frame a seated figure of the Buddha, reflected to infinity in a circular mirror, and flanked by a pair of angles who look like they were crafted by Jacob Epstein.  Cascades of light and washes of colour create an ephemeral magic.

We have reached the bottom of the high street, and turn left into the Market Place.  Here, there’s a clothes line of colourful stockings, strung above a vast selection of crystals.  A decorated Christmas tree sits beside geodes and ammonites, which are echoed in the signage above the shop window.

In the toy shop next door, the stunning wooden fairy tale castle which is a permanent fixture has been joined for the season by a couple of Nutcracker figures and a very cute reindeer in a winter wonderland that is all sparkle and ice.  The nod to continental Christmas customs is continued in the Nordic bunting across the window.

And so, finally, we come to Magdalene Street, and the last of the lit shops.  In a building which is one of only three in Glastonbury to survive from the 15th century, a handsome reindeer follows a trail of shining stars, with the inky-black winter sky above.

Whichever of the midwinter festivals you celebrate, may I send you – despite the particular challenges of this year – peace, love and happiness.

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Making people proud of where they live – the public art of the Glastonbury Mural Trail

A year ago this week the Glastonbury Mural Trail was launched as part of Somerset Art Weeks.  Murals have been part of Glastonbury life for decades – at least since the 1960s when Pat Leyshon decorated the front of Pat Li Shun, her business at the top of the High Street, with colourful flowers – and have always sparked controversy.  I have been visiting Glastonbury since the 1990s, and for years have been aware of various murals springing up around the town (and sometimes disappearing again by my next visit), but the Mural Trail took the concept to a whole new level.  When I came to live in Glastonbury this summer, one of the first things I did was to pick up a Trail leaflet at the Glastonbury Information Centre, grab my camera, and walk the Trail.

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Glastonbury mural by M.O.A. (John Mason, LUVM, SYM, DMK, SIKOH)

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Drapers – artist unknown

Following the Trail was great fun – the murals are not always in obvious places, or easy to find, and that’s part of the appeal, as it becomes a kind of artistic treasure hunt.  It was a great way to explore parts of the town I didn’t know, sparking many conversations as I enlisted the help of passers-by in searching for elusive murals.  The Glastonbury Mural Trail is also a showcase of serious artistic talent.  The variety of styles, subjects and scale means there must be something here for everyone, and I even came across a few that weren’t on the Trail Map (I was to find out why later).  There’s still one I haven’t found, because it’s in a pub garden and I just haven’t been organised enough to get there when the pub is open.

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Avalon Now, by SYM

Having enjoyed the Mural Trail so much, I wanted to know more about how it came to exist, and what the motivations behind it were, so I arranged to meet Kim von Coels, who facilitated the creation of the Trail for last year’s Somerset Arts Weeks.  Socially distanced in the garden of her Glastonbury home, Kim tells me that there had previously been a leaflet produced by Jim and Caroline at the Pilgrim Reception Centre, listing the then existing murals.  Kim – who, like me, loves maps – had produced a Glastonbury town map, and was approached by the Town Clerk, Gerard Tucker, to design a map of the murals.  She agreed, but only if the Town Council would give its blessing to the creation of new murals (subject to the necessary permissions).  The project was born.

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Goddess Hall, by Jon Minshull

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Our World, by Jon Minshull

A Facebook group was set up, and its members started researching the possibilities.  They found that, even in a conservation area, murals could be painted in most locations, with the permission of the wall owner, provided that the wall had been previously rendered or was of block construction, and that the subject matter was not offensive.

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Wildwood (detail) by M.O.A.

Next came callouts – for artists who wanted to paint murals, for owners of walls who wanted murals, and for businesses willing to cover the costs with sponsorship.  Between April and September of 2019 Kim operated a kind of matchmaking service, connecting artists, wall owners and sponsors, and getting the necessary permissions.  As an example, she tells the story of the mural in Bere Lane, where the owner of the wall was keen to have a Viking theme for their mural, which meant that she was able to get sponsorship from Wyrdraven, the Viking shop in town.

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Glastonbury Experience (detail) by Jon Minshull

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I think this may be my favourite!  By Sikoh

The involvement of local businesses was key, says Kim, and Jill Barker of the Chamber of Commerce and Tourism helped make this happen.  Nobody got paid – there were just a few small honorariums for artist who would not otherwise have been able to participate – but sponsorship ensured that no one was out of pocket.  Support was both financial, and in kind (for example from Thorndown Paints), with some firms sponsoring the project as a whole and others sponsoring specific walls (for details of all sponsors, see the Glastonbury Mural Trail leaflet).  All wanted it to be good and successful, and the Town Council paid for the Mural Trail to be part of Somerset Art Weeks in September 2019.  At the official opening at the skate park, hundreds of people turned up, and Kim admits to being “totally blown away” by the positive response.

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Avalon Marshes by Jon Minshull

What, I wondered, gives Kim most satisfaction about the project?  She has no hesitation in replying.  For her, the joy is that it’s free, it’s accessible to anyone, whenever you want – it’s public, it’s always open.  And it cheers people up and makes them happy.  It has, she admits, been a lot of hard work, but she wants there to be murals, to have people able to paint them, and people able to enjoy them.  She loves that people who normally don’t like graffiti are embracing the murals.  Kim feels it’s important that the subject matter of the mural is “universally pleasant – who doesn’t like nature, flowers, animals, landscapes?  It’s great when art creates a conversation but that’s not what the Mural Trail is for.”  Public art, says Kim, “makes people proud of where they live” and she’s keen to take the Mural Trail beyond the main thoroughfares into “the corners” of the town.

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Sugar Skull by Sophie Alexi/The Krumble Empire

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Winged Bug by Sophie Alexi/The Krumble Empire/Doodledubz

Kim has herself collaborated in the painting of four of the Trail’s murals – whichever way I walk from home to the High Street I pass one of her creations!  I ask her which is her own favourite, and she replies that she is very fond of the mural at the side of Abbey Park (number 25 on the current map) as it was painted by Oksana Gaidasheva from one of Kim’s photographs.

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Globe Inn mural by Oksana Gadaisheva

The Glastonbury Mural Trail continues to grow.  At the time of the launch there were 26 murals, and Kim estimates that there are another 7 or 8 now – she thinks the total will be up to 36 by the time she produces the revised Trail leaflet in a few weeks.  Some have just happened – especially during lockdown – and then she is told about them so that she can add them to the Trail.  In other cases, artists contact her – “find me a wall!” – although that’s getting ever harder as “there are only so many walls!”

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By DMK

Kim von Coels is an artist and photographer.  She also works at Heart of the Tribe, a new gallery in Glastonbury.  You can read more about the Glastonbury Mural Trail, and download a leaflet, here.  There is also a Glastonbury Mural Trail page on Facebook.  For more about colourful Glastonbury, take a look at this post on the Normal for Glastonbury blog.

Family life – the swans of Oxburgh Hall

As the summer comes to a close, I’m sharing a family saga that’s been unfolding over the past few months.  I am fortunate to have Oxburgh Hall (National Trust) just down the road, and the fine moat is home to a pair of swans.  Last summer, while swan couples in the surrounding countryside reared their families, there were no little silver puffballs for the Oxburgh swans.

This year, however, they had more luck.  Back in June, they were proudly showing off their single baby.  Small, fluffy and grey, they guarded it fiercely.  Any visitor venturing too near was seen off by a hissing parent.  As an adult swan can easily break your arm if sufficiently cross, visitors wisely left well alone!  We got some nice pictures though.

Cygnets (baby swans) are quite vulnerable.  As well as having the usual youngsters’ talent for getting into life-threatening scrapes, when they are tiny they are also vulnerable to predators such as foxes, herons and raptors.  Prolonged wet periods can cause them to get waterlogged and chilled, and in hot weather they can easily overheat.  They can also be targeted by parasites, which weaken their system.  About a third of hatchlings don’t make it past the first two weeks of life.  They are not fed by their parents, but feed themselves from the start, so they have to learn quickly how to find enough suitable food to fuel their rapid growth.

On my next visit to Oxburgh, in July, I was thrilled to find that the lone cygnet was not only surviving, but thriving!  The parents were a little less protective now that the crucial first couple of weeks were past, and our little cygnet was growing well.

Much less fluffy, s/he (too early to tell if it’s a cob or a pen) is a sturdy little thing, and seems to have mastered the art of hoovering food up out of the moat.  It was actually quite hard to get a photograph, as the cygnet spent most of its time upended, feeding!  I got dozens of pictures of its backside, but not many of its head…

Fast forward to late August, and there was a heart-stopping moment as we couldn’t find the swan family.  We walked all round the moat, searched the fields, but there was no sign of them.   Just as we were about to go and find a member of staff to enquire what had happened to the swans, we spotted them in the river beyond the moat.  The cygnet is now HUGE!  It is rapidly growing to be as big as its mother, and is confidently swimming off by itself.

I stood on the little footbridge to take this photograph, but had to move aside when the flotilla headed my way, with the parents hissing loudly – they wanted to swim under the footbridge, and objected to my presence!  I obediently made way (I don’t argue with swans) and they ducked under the bridge and headed off downstream.

It’s been lovely to follow this youngster’s progress, and it’s great that the pair have finally managed to raise young – even if it is just the one.  Maybe they are an inexperienced pair and they’ll be more successful in future years – it’s a good excuse to keep going back to Oxburgh Hall to find out!

Norfolk Lavender – where farming meets fragrance

If you drive along the A149 near Heacham in north-west Norfolk during June and July, remember to wind down your windows as you approach the traffic lights.  Not only will you see row upon row, field upon field, of purple lavender, but the fragrance will fill your car and your senses.

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You would be forgiven for thinking you’d been transported to the lavender fields of Grasse in France.  But here, amid the wheat of East Anglia, is Norfolk Lavender, the UK’s largest commercial lavender grower, with nearly 100 acres under production, and it’s been here since 1932.  Lavender growing had almost died out after the First World War, when demand had peaked due to the use of lavender oil in dressings because of its antiseptic properties.  Local nurseryman and florist Linn Chilvers had a dream to establish a lavender farm, and in partnership with landowner Francis Dusgate he planted the first six acres with 13,000 plants.  In 1936 they bought vintage French stills dating from 1874, and began to distil lavender oil.  Those same stills were in use until 2009!

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When I visited earlier this week, I was shown how the current still is used to extract the oil from the lavender harvest.  Maurice, who has worked at Norfolk Lavender for six years, explained that the 2019 harvest is about a month late because of the wet June.

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Maurice talked me through the process.  First, the harvested lavender is loaded into the boiler.  The whole crop is used – stems as well as flower heads – in order to allow air pockets for the steam to circulate.  If only the flower heads are used, it becomes compacted and the steam wouldn’t be able to vaporise the oil.

The steam circulates through the lavender in the boiler, vaporising the oil and rising into the condenser.  At this stage, the steam/oil is cooled, turning into a liquid mixture of water and oil.  This goes into the separator, where the oil floats on the water, ready to tap off.

One boiler-full (roughly a ‘dumpy bag’ full) can yield between 100 and 700ml of lavender oil, depending on the variety.  On that day, Maurice was processing a variety called Maillette, which is high yielding and produces oil which is used in the company’s candle production.

After distillation, the oil has to mature for up to two years – rather like fine wine or cheese!  Maurice handed me a sample of the freshly distilled oil to sniff.  It has a quite ‘green’ or ‘vegetable’ fragrance, with a suggestion of mown grass, definitely lavender but not the deep, warm fragrance we are used to in lavender essential oil.  This depth and complexity develops with maturation.

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Maurice told me that they have already sold out of the essential oil from the harvest two years ago.  Demand for lavender is increasing, especially amongst younger customers, as a new generation rediscovers the beneficial properties of lavender.

So, what’s so special about lavender?  Its use goes back to at least Roman times, when it was used medicinally, in massage, and in worship.  In fact, its name (lavandum) is associated with the Latin for ‘washing’, as lavender was used in the hot water of Roman baths.

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Lavender was a staple of the medieval ‘physic garden’, where it was grown for its medicinal properties.  By the sixteenth century, it was being used as a moth repellent, air freshener and toothpaste (mixed with charcoal – maybe not to the taste of 21st century consumers).  It was also believed to help keep the plague at bay, and demand for it was therefore high!

By the nineteenth century, lavender’s appeal was mostly its fragrance, and it was widely used in perfumery.  Modern fans, however, also appreciate its reputed properties in reducing stress, inducing calm, and promoting sleep.  Lavender is widely used in aromatherapy, and in a wide range of products – many of which are made by Norfolk Lavender.

As part of its commitment to the continuity and heritage of lavender growing in the UK, Norfolk Lavender is also home to a National Collection of lavenders, with over a hundred varieties of lavender, many of which are available to buy in the Plant Centre.

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Norfolk Lavender is next to the traffic lights at Heacham.  At the heart of the site is Caley Mill, a watermill built in 1837, which ground flour right up to 1923.  Most of the building is now offices and stores for Norfolk Lavender, but the old miller’s cottage has been converted into an excellent tea room (The Lavender Lounge).  Don’t miss the truly amazing lavender cake (complete with lavender-coloured icing!).  And in case you were wondering, no, it doesn’t taste like soap – it’s just fragrant and delicious.

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There’s also a large gift shop, which a seasonally changing selection of gifts as well as a large range of lavender-based products, including many of Norfolk Lavender’s own lines.   With the adjoining gardens to explore, and with Unique Gifts & Interiors, Walsingham Farm Shop, Farmer Fred’s Adventure Play Barn, and a rare breeds farm sharing the site, there’s something for everyone at Norfolk Lavender.  It’s good to see that this company, started from the vision of a local man with a dream, is thriving over 80 years later, providing a high quality visitor attraction and creating new generations of enthusiasts for lavender.

For more details of Norfolk Lavender, take a look at their website.