It certainly has been late coming this year, but finally we’ve had sunshine. And, enough sunshine for the flowers to truly get into their blooming stride. My backyard, not the sunniest of spaces, now has the late-flowering pheasant’s eye daffodil, a selection of aquilegias and a few alliums all out together.
Also this week a visit and wander around the local park offers a fine testament to the sun’s essential, life-giving force. It was delightful to see the azaleas and rhododendrons bringing colour to the partial shade of the fresh green canopy of deciduous trees.
And, out in the more open area there was the wild meadow-style planting of cow parsley mixed with clumps of spurge.
Even the more formal park-planting that borders the park entrance was full of loose, cheery colour. Although pansies and forget-me-nots are usually a spring combination, the answer to the question ‘End of Spring or Beginning of Summer?’ is, I think, most definitely the beginning of summer.
One small aside, even without deliberately or even mildly consciously choosing to take inspiration from all this welcome floral spectacle, it is most undoubtedly influencing my work.
The Suffolk county town of Ipswich was granted a Royal Charter by King John in the year 1200. Back at the end of the last century to mark and celebrate this 800 year anniversary a discussion at the Ipswich Arts Association suggested some kind of tapestry in the tradition of the Bayeux Tapestry might be created.
The project was a community endeavour under the direction of Isabel Clover, a lecturer and tutor at Suffolk College at the time. She is known nationally for her ecclesiastical designs and embroidery and it was she who researched and designed the eight panels that make up the finished Ipswich Charter Hangings.
This commemorative work was an extensive collaborative project that took three years to complete and involved embroiderers, local historians, sponsors and finally a craftsman to make the presentation frames.
The team of volunteer embroiderers (at the time past and present City & Guild students at Suffolk College) worked at creating the eight panels that each represented 100 years of Ipswich history.
It is over 20 years since the Charter Hangings were commissioned and created and during the intervening time they have been displayed not only in Suffolk, but also in Arras, France (twinned with Ipswich) and Ipswich, Massachusetts, USA.
Now they are back in Ipswich on display at St Peter’s by the Waterfront and just before the Covid pandemic closed public sites, I went to take a look at the eight panels.
At this point I must just apologise for the quality of the whole panel photographs. When I visited the full sequence of the eight panels they were lined up in a single row opposite the south-facing church windows and each panel was individually spotlit.
Unfortunately, as the hangings were behind glass for their conservation, this arrangement and lighting resulted in photographs with unwanted reflections and additional points of bright light reflecting off the protective glass.
Of course protecting these textile hangings behind glass is important, but the introduction of a hard although transparent layer over the textiles and stitching also alters the visual experience and you can see less of the surface quality of the fabrics and embroidery.
And, just to make capturing the quality of the work doubly awkward there was also a table, chairs and a grand piano directly in front of the display restricting any direct front-facing shots and entirely eliminating any chance of a photograph showing the entire work in sequence.
For those interested there’s further information in this newspaper article and below is a short sequence of close-up photographs showing stitching, fabrics and a variety of braided, woven and gimp trims.
Last autumn I made bulb lasagne (as the Dutch would say). In a couple of large pots I planted layers of tulip bulbs that had arrived from SarahRaven.com courtesy of my sister. Now spring has finally arrived here are the results.
The tulips in the pot that have been on the front doorstep are about three weeks ahead of those potted up in the backyard.
Of course, it’s all very well having a welcoming show of flowers as you arrive at the front door, but you’ve soon found your key, opened the door and stepped inside and that’s it. During one fleeting glance I noticed three dark red tulips, I think they’re a double version of Queen of the Night, had shorter stems and were a bit swamped and so I cut them for indoors. Now I see a lot more of them on my kitchen table.
This year it has been a noticeably cool spring, but now at last the backyard tulips are also out. It has been a lesson for me that before mid-May my backyard probably doesn’t get anything like the necessary six hours of direct sunlight for good flowering. The pear tree blossom has been and gone and currently there’s only the tulips, a small clump of forget-me-nots and some sparse cherry blossom. However, there are also nine pots that look empty, but actually, hopefully, contain dahlia tubers that might just have survived last year’s freezing winter weather. Fingers crossed that there will be more flowers . . . eventually.
After such a long and very dull winter and a slow start to the spring I see in the park that leaves, blossom and early blooms are bursting into life.
Perhaps the most graceful example of a tree in the first green of spring is the willow. And, in Holywells Park this beauty grows in the middle of one of the ponds, with the drama of drooping, feathery greenery enhanced by the still water.
Holywells Park also has a couple of old magnolias now putting on their annual outrageous blast of sugary pink.
Of course any park worth its salt has an ornamental cherry or two, but the only one in blossom when I visited was this semi-double white cherry.
For the handful of folk who have not noticed this has been a very dry spring particularly here in East Anglia, and, the park’s dry garden looked suitably resilient. The daffodil display was just coming to an end as the first green spikes of the ornamental grasses pushed up through last year’s neatly pruned brown clumps .
One of the aspects of Holywells Park that I appreciate is that it isn’t a particularly ordered or a heavily maintained park. There are areas of light-touch maintenance where primroses peek out from under the hedges and
weeds/wildflowers such as red campion and nettle are left to thrive in a naturalistic manner not least to the benefit of the wildlife, and a human with a camera.
Sometimes the mixing of old and new can work well and the result can be quite beautiful, both enhancing the past and showcasing the new. One example of this is the south porch of St Peter’s Church in Ipswich. It has a 21st-century metal grille door set within a 15th-century stone and flint arch complete with Tudor roses.
The gates of gilded steel were made in 2008 by Paul Richardson (1967-). The work was commissioned by the Ipswich Hospital Band, when the church was deconsecrated and became a concert venue. If you look carefully you can see the two musical angels are partially constructed using metalwork from musical instruments. They also wear gowns patterned with the Tudor rose motif. I particular liked the golden fish weaving through the scrollwork waves, referencing St Peter as a fisherman and also the proximity to the nearby Ipswich Waterfront.
Sadly though not all the local medieval treasures of Ipswich have fared so well where redevelopment of the harbour waterside has seen a mushrooming of tall residential tower blocks. The new blocks have replaced drab, utilitarian warehouses, but the trouble with these new blocks is that they are much taller buildings and they dwarf the Old Customs House and the medieval churches nearby.
However, although the site of Quay Place from the north is no doubt nothing like the look and feel of its original 15th-century setting, the view from the east, as it lines up with St Peter’s is very pleasing. And, despite the fact that Key Street is now part of a busy one-way system, this is is one of my favourite views in Ipswich. (Sadly, my photograph doesn’t do it justice.)
In the 1990s I lived in a village 20 minutes from Ipswich and every now and then I would drive into the town with my mother and my toddler daughter to visit the shops. Just off the Buttermarket was the newly built Buttermarket shopping centre that opened in 1992 and I remember visiting one of its main shops ‘Owen Owen’, a department store, now long gone.
The Buttermarket has been some kind of street since the 15th century, but by the 20th century it had become a shop-lined urban road with passing traffic and pavements for pedestrians. However, over the course of the last 25 years the Buttermarket has been completely pedestrianized with vehicular access being time-restricted and permitted for deliveries only. It has made it a quieter, cleaner and safer space for shoppers, but even before the year of Covid lockdowns the numbers of people visiting and shopping were on the slide.
Pedestrianization has been one tool in the box of tools urban planners and town councils have used to encourage visitors and shoppers to town centres. Along with the Buttermarket more recently, in 2010, the top of Queens Street at the junction with Princes Street was also pedestrianized and in the process Giles Circus was created. It has become a meeting point and the redevelopment has even included some trees.
In normal times this area has regular market stalls, but when I passed through last Thursday on the way to the bank all was very quiet indeed.
Hopefully, from 12 April onwards life and energy and bustle will return to the town centre even if some well-known retailers will no longer be reopening their shop doors.
Still, for the time being here is a charming bronze dog, Butch. He is part of ‘The Famous Giles Family’ sculpture erected in honour of ‘Giles’, the well-known cartoonist Ronald Carl Giles, who used to work in an office overlooking this road junction in Ipswich.
If you’ve not already seen the film ‘The Dig’ (currently available on Netflix) and would like to come to it fresh and with an open mind, then don’t read on.
Where to begin? The disciplines of archaeology and history are concerned with the substance and interpretation of the past, but interpretation of our past is not the preserve of the academic. This stuff, this substance of the past, provides material for the work of writers, artists and filmmakers to make their own reinterpretations as they create offerings that enrich our lives and entertain us.
However, there is a confidence bordering on audaciousness in taking past events, particularly people’s lives, and re-presenting them in a manner that distinctly departs from the factual, historical record. The question is how far does an interpreter go with invention to bring a history to life? Does it really matter if a film, that in no way suggests itself as documentary, changes the maturity and physicality of a central character. This is the primary difficulty for me with the film, ‘The Dig’. It is a film that retells the discovery of the Sutton Hoo ship burial by Basil Brown and his working relationship with the landowner, Edith Pretty, who commissioned his excavations.
‘The Dig’ has made no claims for historical accuracy and itself is a film drama based on a historical novel (‘The Dig’, John Preston, 2007) which itself is a dramatised retelling of the actual events of the discovery of the ship burial in 1939. For example, in the novel a fictionalised RAF officer, Rory Lomax, photographs the dig replacing the original amateur photographers Barbara Wagstaff and Mercie Lack, who were two visiting school teachers on holiday in the Woodbridge area during the excavations of September 1939.
Literary licence is sanctioned in historical fiction to bring a story to life and when a book is made into a film that licence is often expanded to accommodate other constraints such as, let’s say, a film’s marketability. The long held view from the film industry seems to be that for commercial success well-known stars are required. The brilliant casting of Ralph Fiennes as Basil Brown (with the best Suffolk accent I’ve ever heard from a screen actor) is met with the odd casting of Carey Mulligan as Edith Pretty.
My response to the whole film is coloured by this choice. Casting Carey Mulligan (35 years old) as Edith Pretty (56 years old and unwell at the time of the excavations) was possibly a choice for marketability at the expense of any vague nod to the lives of the real people in this historical drama. The sidelining of twenty years of a woman’s life and experience is seemingly of no consequence. In fact this woman, Edith Pretty, had had an unusual life for her class and times; she had travelled extensively, married late at 43 years old and had her only son, Robert, at 47 years old. However, this (dialogue below) is how her full and colourful backstory is summarised in the film. Using one scene Mrs Lyons (the housekeeper and cook), describes Mrs Pretty’s life for the benefit of Mr Brown:
She’s only been here 12 year. Came down from Cheshire. Then she married the Colonel. He first met with Edith when she was still at school. And then on her 17th birthday he asked her to marry him. She turn him down. She say she can’t possibly leave her father. She care for her father another 13 year, until he died. She finally accepted the Colonel’s proposal. He’d been asking every year on her birthday. Just after they had Robert her husband went and died too. Imagine that.
Mrs Lyons, Cook & Housekeeper. Film ‘The Dig’, 2021.
During the course of the film there were also a couple of scenes where Edith Pretty experiences episodes of illness and a trip to a London physician for her to receive a diagnosis of serious heart disease. The film gave no indication of her previous adventurous life at all and sadly, all the melancholic staring across the Suffolk landscape together with make-up to both age and make Ms Mulligan look poorly, still did not make her interpretation a believable Edith Pretty. Perhaps actors such as Saskia Reeves (59), Helen McCrory (52) or Tamsin Greig (54) could have brought some depth and drive to the role of Edith. This was after all a woman who had visited excavations in the Nile Valley, served with the French Red Cross at Vitry le Francois in 1917, became one of the first women magistrates and turned down a marriage proposal over 25 times.
If filmmakers are going to paint a watercolour of a central character rather than give us the oil painting and thus alter the dynamics at the centre of a story why not just make a different film. This film is based on the discovery of the Sutton Hoo ship burial where the word ‘based’ is doing the heavy lifting, particularly where the female characters are concerned.
The best part of the film was the gorgeous shots of Suffolk’s coastal waterways. The most surprising and unexpectedly disappointing aspect of the film was there was no grand reveal at the very end showing the treasure found on the Anglo-Saxon boat which is now on display at the British Museum thanks to the generous gift of Edith Pretty.
The last time the Beast from the East visited Suffolk was back in late February 2018. I remember it clearly as I live on a hill, on a residential street that never sees the gritters. Vexingly, early on the morning of the initial heavy snow I was one of the first residents who had to drive down the treacherous road on my way to a 7.45 am appointment for an MRI scan at the hospital. I had been grateful that I was parked facing down the hill. It was an unpleasant and tricky few minutes behind the wheel.
This time the Beast from the East has turned up courtesy of Storm Darcy. It arrived as I walked down early on Sunday morning to pop in to see my father and drop off his Sunday newspaper. The arrival of a snowstorm and the subsequent whitening of the town does unite the disparate untidiness of the urban view, but it could hardly be called picturesque.
By the time I had walked back home my backyard was covered. I don’t consider it looks particularly picturesque either, and by Tuesday it simply looked comical.
It’s now Thursday afternoon and still the temperature hasn’t risen above freezing today even though it’s sunshine and blue skies, but at least it isn’t as cold as Braemar’s -23 Centigrade!!!!
Tomorrow Netflix is showing ‘The Dig’, a film featuring the discovery of the early seventh-century, Anglo Saxon ship burial at Sutton Hoo in Suffolk. The original dig was begun on 20th June 1938 when the owner of Tranmer House and Estate, Edith Pretty, invited a local, gifted yet amateur archaeologist, Basil Brown, to investigate the earth mounds on her property. The film stars Ralph Fiennes (incidentally born in Ipswich) as Basil Brown and Carey Mulligan as Edith Pretty.
The following year, in September 1939, the ship burial and inhumation were discovered and found to be intact as the excavation proceeded.
When Basil Brown began digging Mound One he had no idea that the excavation would turn into one of the most dramatic events in British Archaeology.
The discovery of the ship burial and a magnificent collection of grave goods is considered to be one of the most significant finds of Anglo-Saxon art to date in Europe.
In a startling symbolic composition, a snake body provides the protective rim across the crown. Its beady garnet eyes and gaping mouth meet the beak of a fierce bird, whose wings make the eye-brows, whose body forms the nose and whose tail forms the moustache of the implacable human armoured face.
Martin Carver, ‘Sutton Hoo Burial Ground of Kings?'(1998)
Since 1997 the site at Sutton Hoo has belonged to the National Trust and is open to the public. Recently, in August 2019 a £4 million Visitor Centre was opened to mark the 80th year anniversary of the discovery. The site now includes a cafe/restaurant and shop joining the purpose-built High Hall, exhibition space.
Last September, when Covid restrictions eased and visitors were allowed inside public spaces, my daughter and I went for a look. Of course, she remembered her first visit when we came down from Norwich in 2005 and it had been much, much quieter.
After walking round the mounds we queued briefly, donned masks and signed in (Covid protocol) to see inside Mrs Pretty’s home, Tranmer House.
Only parts of the ground floor were open and the space where 15 years ago my daughter and I enjoyed a delightful and memorable retelling of Beowulf (with puppets), is now a small exhibition space. A few photographs of Edith Pretty’s life and many photographs of the 1939 dig are on display.
Before leaving, we noticed the queue for the High Hall had disappeared so following the same mask and signing-in routine we entered the exhibition to be greeted by a representation of an Anglo-Saxon, highborn warrior swooping down from the ceiling.
As you progress through the exhibition many of the exhibits are high quality replicas such as the complete helmet of bronze, silver and tin by Ivor Lawton. There are a few early finds from Mound 17 (the warrior horseman and horse burial site) on display. These are similar to some of the artefacts excavated from Mound One.
A look round Tranmer House and the displays in High Hall are interesting, but all the significant finds are in the British Museum in London. However, that’s not really the point of visiting Sutton Hoo. It is about experiencing the site, knowing the history and seeing the strange Burial Mounds set within the Suffolk countryside.
As I write only the estate walks are open due to the current lockdown restrictions.
Last Saturday, we had blue skies with winter sun in Ipswich from dawn to dusk and despite the temperatures hovering all day around freezing, plenty of people visited the local parks for their permitted exercise. I was walking through the park as the sun began to set and stepped away from the busy paths to stand for 10 minutes to capture the sun doing down.
You can see there were both family groups and joggers making circuits of the pond,
and also plenty of dog walkers too, but everyone began to rapidly vacate the park as the sun sank beneath the horizon. Nobody wants to be locked in by mistake in these freezing temperatures.
When I got home and scrolled through the pictures I liked the ‘through the big old trees’ shot so much I am now using it for the background on my phone. Even though it’s a winter scene and the trees are dark and towering, there is a warming glow (much more noticeable on my phone than it appears here) which I find genuinely uplifting each time I open the phone. For me this is an example of the usually insignificant aspects of daily life that have become those brief pleasures helping many of us get through these grim days.
The first person I know to get the Covid vaccine has been my father. I took him to the GP’s surgery this afternoon and the whole process ran very smoothly. All the staff and nurses were pleasant and kind. The ‘Covid Vaccine Clinic’ was well organised especially considering the need to keep the elderly folk, many with walking sticks or wheelchairs, the appropriate two metres apart. And, of course, it was masks for everybody.
After the nurse ran through the usual health questions with my father I asked her how many people they’d vaccinated so far. She said they had been allocated a batch of 900 doses and had already vaccinated over 600 elderly Ipswich residents this week.
As you probably have already heard in the news everybody has to sit and wait for a further 15 minutes after the jab. This is a precaution in case of an adverse allergic reaction. It soon became obvious that waiting for 15 minutes was more bothersome for some people than the actually jab, but helpfully they were all given a Covid Vaccination information leaflet to help pass the time.