Issue 118: 2017 08 17: Craft Villages… (Lynda Goetz)

17 August 2017

Craft Villages; Plant Villages; Flower, Vegetable and Produce Shows

Country life in the 21st century.

By Lynda Goetz 

The manager of our village pub is a Londoner.  His wife is Polish.  The idea of competitive entries for ‘A bucket of potatoes (one plant)’, ‘5 runner beans’, ‘3 matching white onions’, ‘a single rose’, ‘2 stems of mop head hydrangeas’ or ‘3 cheese scones’ etc left them both rather bemused.  I am sure both know about cling film, but not sure either would know why food items needed to be ‘displayed on a doyley’. They nevertheless entered into the spirit of things and not only allowed the pub to be used for the occasion, but closed it for judging at 10.30am and ‘re-opened to all at 2pm for viewing and prize-giving’.

This type of event, along with the village fete, is still viewed as something of a staple of village life around the country.  In many places the two are combined, which would appear to be sensible, although declining entries for the competitions have as here led to the occasions being separated in an attempt to focus attention more fully and boost participation.  Good organisers are needed, but so too are those willing to participate.  This year’s event in our village followed something of a flop last year held in the village hall (more out of the way).  It attracted a fair number of entries and a reasonable attendance, including some young families as well as the inevitable older participants and organisers.  Most came away with a sense of satisfaction at having been involved in a community effort (if perhaps as bemused as the Londoner about the judgements on the relative merits of raffia-tied onions and miniature floral arrangements in ‘your favourite egg cup’).

The Taunton Flower Show, first held in 1866 and every year since for two days in early August (apart from during World War II) and apparently claimed by some to be ‘the Chelsea of the West’, is in fact more like a cross between Hampton Court Flower Show and a village event on a grand scale.  There is an arena which, depending on the year, stages displays of falconry, stunt teams, motorcycle shows, band parades and exhibitions of sheep dog trials, dog agility presentations or displays of horsemanship; there are stands selling items from wooden-handled brushes (including ones for cleaning out flowerpots which look like mini loo-brushes) handmade somewhere in the world (not in the West Country anyway) to boots, leisure clothing, food and a Bee and Honey marquee.  There are a handful of designer gardens; a floral marquee with nurserymen selling everything from air plants and arum lilies to the latest zinias and zonartic pelargoniums; a Plant Village with wonderful collections of flowering perennials in every colour imaginable plus a Craft Village (think ‘Country Living’ marquee with slightly less panache) and a Festival Village with yet more crafts as well as more food and live music.  There is also the Competition Marquee where those who want to display their prowess at Victoria sponge making, jam-making or wine-making or exhibit their prize marrows, tomatoes or sweet peas get the chance to do so.  Competition entries this year are apparently the highest ever ‘in modern times’.  Most who attended felt it was ‘an enjoyable day out’ and a ‘well-organised event’.

The bemusement of city-dwellers and foreigners faced with certain aspects of these events is understandable.  After all, growing runner beans or raspberries is not easily done in cities.  Jam-making or wine-making has never really been a town-dweller’s pursuit – you do not get gluts of blackcurrants or elderberries in city gardens or parks.  Watching sheep-dogs round up ducks is probably not fascinating if the only ducks you ever see are the over-fed ones on park ponds and the only dog you are able realistically to keep is a miniature dachshund.  For those used to the top-flight performances available in big cities, the Scout Band playing at a local show may not be riveting, but are these sorts of events simply an anachronism in the 21st century or do they remain an essential part of rural life?

Some 20,000 people visit Vivary Park for what Taunton Horticultural Society claim is the oldest and longest running show of its kind in the UK (although Shrewsbury makes similar claims), but in an era when the bottom line is more important than ever, it looks as if the historic venue will cease to be used after next year because of the charges imposed by the local Council.  In spite of the highest ever entries in modern times, the sub-text here is that in pre-modern times (no definition given) the entries were higher.  Nowadays there are so many possibilities for entertainment and claims on our time that dedicating hours to domestic or horticultural skills is either denigrated or simply not done.  Younger generations appear to have little interest in such activities when they could either be out seeking adrenalin thrills of their own, in the form of, say, wind-surfing or kite-surfing or, failing that, sitting indoors surfing the ‘net or playing bloodthirsty and exciting online games.

Plant-growing, bee-keeping or jam-making require patience and consistency, characteristics frequently not attributable to the young.  Is it really surprising therefore that efforts to bring in young people to participate in events such as village fetes or local flower shows meet with little enthusiasm?  It is usually possible to encourage their involvement until say the age of 10 or 12, but then other interests and activities take over.  However, hasn’t it ever been thus?  Surely the village worthies were rarely those under forty and were always more likely to have been those older citizens with time on their hands?  The former headmistresses with the ability to organise things (as well as other people) did not spring fully formed at eighteen.  Perhaps all those in their twenties who now shudder at the thought of competing in a Swiss Roll competition might in time to come see it as worthwhile practice for their entry to ‘Bake Off’ or crocheting a baby blanket as good practice for ‘The Sewing Bee’.  In any case, once AI has taken over most people’s jobs and robots do all the boring bits of housework, perhaps more people will have time to focus on making preserves as well as watching end-to-end episodes of “How I Met Your Mother”.  The question is will anyone remember what a doyley was?


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Issue 118:2017 08 17:A Beefy Game (J.R.Thomas)

17 August 2017

A Beefy Game

The battle over shooting

by J.R. Thomas

It is that time of year again, when the Shaw Sheet puts on its best tweeds, tightens its plus fours, pulls on the old deer stalker, and goes for a walk on the wild side to hear the sound of gunfire.  Not for the Glorious Twelfth, you understand, but for opening salvoes of the annual match between grouse shooters and the RSPB (the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds).  This year each side has nominated a champion to do the fighting; so in the tweedy corner is Ian (“Beefy”) Botham, practised all-rounder of this parish, and for the orange anoraks, Chris Packham, a BBC journalist.

It would be a fair comment to say that these two gentlemen are not keen on each other.  Sir Ian, having had a distinguished if noisy career in cricket, has settled down to be a rosy cheeked country gent, and a spokesman, largely self-appointed, for the country sports lobby.  Mr Packham, who is lead presenter on the BBC’s popular show “Country File”; has also appointed himself a spokesman concerning country sports; to an extent where he must be pushing BBC rules on impartiality.

Regular readers will appreciate that when we say “country sports” we don’t mean fell-running or knockabout village footer, or even country house cricket.  We mean the pursuit of country animals and birds with an intended outcome relating to a cooking pot (or not, in the case of foxes).  We should also say that a lot of the respective backers of these two fine gentlemen don’t actually live in the country, or even earn their living there.  They tend to live in nice streets in smart suburbs but drive out to the country to pursue their interests.  The true country resident is probably more likely to be a Botham supporter than a Packham one, but he is even more likely to be out snaring a rabbit or poaching a pheasant, or in the Dog And Whistle, just having one more.

Mr Packham is very opposed to the pursuit of country creatures (maybe making an exception for rats and wasps as many animal lovers do), but he would like to see recreational shooting and hunting ended, at the least.  In particular he would like the early introduction of strict controls, to say nothing of a ban, on grouse shooting.  Grouse shooting and fox hunting cause particular angst amongst the anti-country sports lobby, which their opponents strongly suspect relates to class matters as much as the outcome of the tweedy chase, the end usually being the same whether the pursuit involves firearms, fishing rods, or horses and pink jackets.  But the perception is that as hunting and grouse shooting are expensive they tend to be more exclusively the interests of the better heeled, or better saddled.

Last year at about this time we introduced readers to the hen harrier.  This rare bird lives on moors in the north of England and in Scotland.  It is a handsome raptor and a very rare one, strictly legally protected, and adopted by many bird supporting groups (as opposed to game bird groups) as a symbol of what the moors are all about.  It has one unfortunate habit, which is, like many gentlemen with traditional tastes in dining, that it likes to eat grouse.  The gents like them fully grown and hung in a larder for a few days; the hen harrier prefers grouse chicks seized from the nest for immediate consumption.  (The gents tend to add roast potatoes, cabbage, and gravy, but the hen harrier has not listened to the nutritionists and eats its grouse sans accompaniments.) You will see the scope for particularly bitter conflict between mature grouse eaters and supporters of hen harriers.

The RSPB says that in England there are only three pairs of breeding hen harriers left (there are more in Scotland, maybe 350 pairs, but there too numbers have generally declined).   It blames the grouse business for this, saying that moorland keepers are eradicating hen harriers on their moors to make sure there are plenty of grouse to shoot each autumn.  So we have a perhaps slightly confusing conflict between a group determined to protect a bird whose apparent sole interest in life is to kill and eat other birds, and a group who would like rid of the hen harrier to enable them to cut out the intermediary in killing and eating other birds.  (Nobody says that conservation or country sports are logical.)  But getting back to the fisticuffs stuff, certainly gamekeepers have been convicted of killing hen harriers and other predator birds, though it is a rare offence.  Indeed, with hen harriers being so carefully monitored, it would be a very rash gamekeeper that would shoot one, though the preferred agent of death, says the RSPB, is poison, and that is very difficult to pin on any particular person.

This year that conflict has become even more bitter than usual.  Sir Ian lost the First Test of the season and had his barrels bent during an interview by BBC Radio 5.  He stumbled over questions on whether shot birds, especially pheasants, had been buried because there is no market for their meat, in contrast to the shooting lobby’s line that all meat goes into the food chain and is fine lean natural meat at that.  The Botham temper is always a treat and Five Live listeners certainly got some entertainment that day.

Dunwich beach at dawn during the Dunwich Dynamo cycle event – no place for a romantically inclined stone curlew

But the RSPB was badly wrong footed last week when a new report was published which considered the quantum and diversity of bird life on shooting estates and moors.  Far from being deserts, on which only grouse thrive, the report says that managed estates show many more birds and many more varieties of bird life, than estates where there is no shooting or keepering.  They quote for instance 24 times as many lapwing, 6 times as many curlew, and so on.  Many more rare birds indeed than on, for example, the extensive upland and estuary lands owned by the RSPB, which have notably low diversity.  Red faces round at the bird lovers HQ and glee amongst the tweedy set.  The RSPB grumbled that this was far from an independent report, as it had been commissioned and paid for by a number of estate owners.  This did not go down well with the universities of Newcastle and Durham, who conducted the research and said that their results were free of any pressure or polishing.  They indeed pointed out that their results do not apply to all birds – some, such as pipits, prefer unmanaged land which suits their feeding and nesting habits better.  (They also found no hen harriers at all, they added.)  But generally, they said, managed land has less predators – the keepers keep off the foxes and rabbits and stoats and weasels and badgers (do insert your favourite Wind in the Willows character).

So Second Test to Sir Ian and the shooting lobby.  The Third Test was run earlier this week, with the RSPB trumpeting that a very rare stone curlew had bred on the beach at Dunwich Heath in Suffolk, the claims that keepers were needed to keep pests down thus being disproved.  Unfortunately that seems to have become a sort of LBW (Leg Before Wicket for the non-cricket-lovers) for the RSPB when it was revealed that it had put an electric fence round half an acre of beach to keep all those predators off.  Not really practical for all the British Isles, crowed the shooting lobby.

That will not be the end of it for this season.  Like the Archers, this everyday story of country folk has plenty of life (or death) in it yet.

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Issue 118: 2017 08 17: Lazy Bastards (Chin Chin)

17 August 2017

Lazy Bastards

A working man’s revenge.

By Chin Chin

Bastards, Corbynist-Tory-fascist-Marxist-racist-foreign bastards, have you heard what they’ve done?  Who?  Well, them of course.  Those ghastly subhuman pieces of animal excrement who call themselves the editors of the Shaw Sheet.  Haven’t you seen the announcement?  There it is on page 1 – a two-week holiday in the second half of August.  What on earth for?  To rest the grubby talents of those who write the “comment” pieces!  As if any of them had any talent to rest.  We all know that they just produce padding for Chin Chin and the other “features” articles.  Those are the ones that get the readers out of bed on a Thursday morning.  Who really reads the obviously second rate observations on current news that have the cheek to appear above them on the Contents page?

Look, I’m not an unreasonable guy.  I can see that writing probably doesn’t come easy to them, and they probably get a bit out of breath keeping up with me and the features writers.  Like infantry marching with cavalry, if you see what I mean.  If the editors had come to me in the proper way and mentioned, over a glass of something pleasant served with the odd tug of the forelock, that the comment writers were struggling a bit, then I’d have been the first to say that I wasn’t in the least surprised and to agree to a pause to let them revive.  But did they hell?  No, Chin Chin was not asked.  Never mind that he holds the whole ragbag production together.  Never mind that he is the one journalist of international calibre that they have got.  No, the Editors write comment, so, as soon as they and their precious friends are a little tired, it’s off with the presses and away on vacation.  What a set of lazy bums!

It’s like being back in the 70s, isn’t it?  The days before Mrs Thatcher, when the country was dominated by closed shops and the National Dock Labour Scheme.  Remember how it was?  “Demarcation dispute? Go on strike!”, “Need longer loo breaks? Work-to-rule!”, “Feeling a bit tired? Demand a holiday!”  Well, it has all started again and at the Shaw Sheet too.  The question is what to do about it.

True, yet again we have a female Prime Minister which I suppose is a start, but she really isn’t up to Mrs T’s standards on this sort of thing.  To whom, then, can I turn?  If I went to Cable he would chunter on about not interfering with the press, and Corbyn, although charming enough, would probably suggest we move to Venezuela.  That’s just nonsense.  Murdoch may have moved “The Times” to Wapping, but how do you move a magazine which has no offices?  Anyway, Venezuela is outside the M25.  No, there’s no point in looking to any the British political parties for help.

What about over the Channel, though?  The new French President has promised to clean up continental working practices.  Perhaps he would like to try a test run here.  What would he think of lazy editors betraying their readership by taking a couple of weeks off?  You’re right.  He wouldn’t think much of it at all, so I am going to ask him to intervene.  Now, how do I get the number of the Élysée?  I know, Directory Enquiries.

“‘Ello’Ello.  Le numero de Palais Élysée, s’il vous plait”


“Le maison du President Macron.”


“Look, my man, there’s no need to patronise me by speaking in English.  What is that?  Oh, you are English.  What is the point of calling it International Directory Enquiries if you answer in English?  Pretentious twerps!”

“What?  No, I certainly didn’t say that.  Just practicing my Hungarian.  Oh I see, well it is an international number I want: Élysée?  No, I quite understand that there may be a lot of girls with that name in France but it’s the palace I’m after.  You know, the one in Paris.  You can put me through?  Wonderful.”

“Hello, êtes-vous the Élysée Palais?  Je veux speaker avec M le President de les working practices.  Je suis grand journalist Anglais, fort important.  What, you speak English?  Well, I think he will want to speak to me.  No?  What about the First Lady then?  Ah yes, I had forgotten, she is still unofficial.  One of the presidential maitresses, perhaps?  Non, I said maitresses not mattresses; not the same thing at all.”


Swine, they have rung off.  That is certainly the full macron glacé and no mistake.  Well, the politicians are clearly useless so how can I get my revenge?  I know.  I could find out where the editors are going and go there too, staying in a slightly better room and supping at a nicer table.  That shouldn’t be a problem, but I have to be having a better time too.  That means I need to be there with a femme fatale and I don’t really know many of them.  There’s that Dora in accounts of course but she ends every sentence with the words “you see”, even when I quite palpably don’t.  She might look alright but night after night of sparkling conversation seems unlikely.

The trouble is that I don’t know many other women but I’m not going be to put off by that.  It’ll be a new adventure going abroad and I must expect to innovate.  Actually, I know exactly how to do it.

“Dring, dring. Hello, operator. You know that you mentioned that you have numbers for lots of girls in France called Élysée……”


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Issue 117: 2017 08 10: The Holiday Competition (Chin Chin)

10 August 2017

The Holiday Competition

A change in conversation.

By Chin Chin

An English summer sees many changes. The trees which budded in April begin to lose their spring blossom and come into glorious leaf in the course of June.  Meanwhile, down on the chalk streams, the trout, gorged on the plentiful insect life of May, shade their eyes from the bright sunshine and can only be tempted to feed on the proffered fly in the morning and evening.  As the season moves on to autumn, nature begins to dry out and, before long, the paths will be strewn with brown leaves, crackling underfoot.

Time passes indoors as well, and the beginning of August is the time for a change in topics of conversation.  Exam results have now been published so we have heard all that there is to hear about the achievements of other people’s children, or, as the case may be, about why they did not fulfil their potential.

“He’s enormously intelligent, you know.  His therapist says that his IQ is very high indeed.  Genius level really. It’s no wonder that the school and the examiners don’t quite ‘get’ him.  No, we haven’t had the IQ tested but that is just a formality.  The therapist knows, a very experienced man, and very expensive too I may say.  Top of his profession and very blunt about the shortcomings of his colleagues.  No wonder that they hate him so much, although I must say that trying to stir up rumours about his qualifications was a pretty dirty tactic.”

“Anyway, if Oxford had just met him rather than relying on those stupid examinations they would have realised what an original talent he has.  Yes, I know that it would have been boring for them having to visit the institution at Feltham but you would have thought that his potential would have made it well worth the trouble.  Still, they are all lazy and overpaid these days.  Willie and Claudia had just the same problem with their son – you know, the one who threw the acid.  Oxford wouldn’t look beyond his exam results either and the psychotherapist says he is megabright too.  The same psychotherapist as it happens.”

It is hard to know whether that is more tedious than the conversation of those whose children are still at large:

“Yes, Nancy got a good degree, I’m glad to say, and from Durham too.  Of course she’s fallen straight into a job.  Her father suggested a fund management firm – you know he works for the regulator but absolutely no strings pulled – so she will be travelling the world on business.  Pay?  Well, nothing until she’s proved her value to the firm.  They say it’s better like that as it teaches about the realities of commercial life early on and anyway we can afford an allowance.  Your children?  Oh yes, is Simon still working as a barista in that shop?  It’s near where Nancy works, isn’t it?  I must ask her to buy a coffee from him.”

Relief though it is that conversations like this are past their annual peak, nature (which abhors a vacuum) has found something to put in their place: the foreign holiday competition.

There you are sitting happily at a dinner party, your senses dimmed by the ingestion of slightly over-sweet prosecco, but looking forward to the promise of Chardonnay to come.  Thank goodness someone else has agreed to do the driving.  You should be able to relax and enjoy yourself.  A wasp buzzes about you.  You hit it first time with your table napkin.  All is quiet.  Unnoticed by your hostess you allow your eyes to close in concentration.  Then, suddenly, the mood is broken.  The fateful words hit you with the searing impact of a burglar alarm.  “Where are you going on holiday?”

The difficulty is that you haven’t made any plans.  Everyone else at the table has theirs and to top locations too: “Our castle on the Scottish moors is so nice at this time of year”; “It’s important to be up north for the 12th”; “An Italian Count has lent me his house in Tuscany”; “The temperature is lower on a yacht”.  And there you are, not even having looked at a brochure.  What a loser!  Mr Trump would fire you at once!

There are various ways of responding.  Back in the boom years you could simply say that you were too busy making huge amounts of money in the city, that sort of thing.  But now, when even the Prime Minister goes for long walking holidays in Europe, that has become unfashionable.  It will only lead to people assuming that you cannot afford to go and making you offers on your house.

A more practical answer is to refer to some fictitious plans and keep them vague.  That is fine if you have GCSE in geography but, if not, ignorance can let you down badly.  I once mystified a dinner table by saying that the political situation in the Baltic seemed to make them impracticable as a holiday destination.  Actually I was just repeating something I had read in the newspapers but had unfortunately failed to appreciate that the Baltic and the Balkans are not the same place.  A plan to drive to Ireland becomes less convincing if you are clearly unaware that you have to go on a boat.

In the end the best policy is probably to appear cagey.  After all, someone of your importance would not want it to be known where they were going on holiday in case the media or agents of foreign powers tried to get hold of them.  Much better to respond to the topic with an obvious attempt to change the subject and deliberately vague responses.

“Aha,” they will say, “I expect that he really works for MI6 and that his holiday plans are just part of his cover.  Did you hear him pretend to mix up the Baltic and the Balkans?  No one could be as stupid as that.  I expect that he is in for a pretty exciting summer.”


Issue 117:2017 08 10:A better Plas(J.R.Thomas)

10 August 2017

A better Plas

The legacy of Clough Williams-Ellis

by J.R. Thomas

Clough Williams-Ellis’s career bestrode most the twentieth century.

“Who he?” you may be muttering over the muesli; if and when you do recall who he, you may well smite your forehead and shout “Of course!”

Clough, born in 1883, was by profession and by temperament an architect.  At age eighteen he sent himself to the Architectural Association School in London, but finding it was teaching him little (at least about those things which he wanted to know about) he joined a small architectural practice for eight months, after which he sent up his own practice and procured his first commission.  He was then twenty.

With interruptions for war service, he practised as an architect for seventy four years until his death in 1978.  In the 1920’s he was a prolific and fashionable architect, with a style, whilst derivative of classical Georgian, very much of his own – and still recognisable.  He wrote a number of campaigning books about architecture, design, and planning, the best known being “England and the Octopus” published in 1928, which set about ribbon development – those long straggling lines of houses along country lanes and on town outskirts – and was very influential in not only stopping such approaches to building but in the formation of the UK’s planning system.  Finally, just to top things off, he was instrumental in the setting up of the National Parks system in the late 1940’s with Sir Arthur Hobhouse.

But those things may not be why you remember him.

Portmeirion.  That is why you probably know his name; not the pottery, which was created by his daughter Susan Williams-Ellis, but his extraordinary creation of a complete small town on the north side of Cardigan Bay, a blend of new build and rescued bits of threatened buildings, that piece of Italian Lingurian coastal townscape which has somehow landed in North Wales, that was entirely Clough’s creation and a forthright statement of his philosophy.  Don’t just preach what beautiful is, build it; show, don’t just tell.  (Also, those of a certain age or disposition will know, the location of that magnificent but perplexing TV series “The Prisoner“, in which Clough, then aged 85, frequently pops up as an extra).  Portmeirion is a great tribute to what can be done with enough energy and constant rigorous attention to design.

But Clough did not just create one paradise; he made two. The other is much smaller, much less known, and much more private – but open to the public, none the less.  This is Plas Brondanw, an ancient Welsh manor house, standing in Snowdonia, about five miles north of Portmeirion.  It had been a Williams property for many centuries, and Clough’s father unexpectedly inherited it at the beginning of the twentieth century.  Being a clergyman of fixed habits he had no use for it and passed it on to his son on his 25th birthday.  Clough lived there for the rest of his life (and in Hampstead, he liked hills), making a great garden, then extending his architectural reach out to the neighbouring village and hill farms which he owned.

These acres belong still to his descendants (great grandchildren now) who cleave to and preserve the great man’s designs in both spirit and reality.  Indeed it is still very obvious where the Williams-Ellis acres begin: spindly sub-Regency ironwork and bright blue and yellow paint adorn the estate buildings, and a positive riot of blue and yellow mark the gates to Plas Brondanw.  Pass through the entrance building (containing all essentials of the touristic life, shop, tea room, ticket desk, loos) and arrive in a formal garden running along the hillside. Yet this is a formal garden where the planted bones of formality are so luscious, so verdant, that, like some overfed and over refreshed dowager of certain years, they burst out of all constraints and bloom with almost indecent restraint. That exuberance is not surprising. There can be few better places to make a garden – southwest facing, within reach of the moderating and moist influence of the sea, yet far enough to escape the salt and the gales.  Water is supplied by the hills and mountains above, which manage to multi-function by fencing out any nasty icy north easterlies, and also provide a magnificent backdrop to Clough’s creation. Indeed the whole thing is a piece of theatre, perfect for Clough’s theatrical nature, and enhanced by the careful placement of classical statues and stage like spaces. From every point there are magnificent views of Snowdonia (and indeed, Snowdon).  There are avenues that lead to more avenues, secret places, an orangery which must be one of the most beautiful buildings in Britain (available for weddings, should any reader have such inclinations), a terrace of worthies, and all linked by that bright blue and yellow paint work on iron and wood.  Somehow it is both inspirational and restful.

At the centre, perched on the hillside, is Plas Brondanw itself, from the garden side a four story tower of clear medieval origin; on the entrance side a much more modest manor.  In 1951 the house was severely damaged in a fire, which would have been a major setback to most 68 year olds. Not to Clough, who with huge enthusiasm instantly rebuilt it, gently incorporating a little more light through Georgian style windows and improving the internal arrangements.

But you still have not seen everything. For that you must leave the garden and cross the lane into the woods on the hillside. Here is a much wilder woodland garden, with mysterious paths and glades, but also with Clough pieces to amuse and enlighten.  A column with a flaming urn on top recalls the fire that damaged the house; a tin shelter (but what a tin shelter) provides a resting point; and at the high point, a ruined castle with views to mountains and sea (and to Portmeirion).  But no ordinary ruined castle.

Clough married Annabelle Strachey in 1915, whilst serving as an officer in the Welsh Guards. His fellow officers asked what might constitute a suitable wedding present. “A ruin” said Clough; here it is.

Clough lived to the age of 95, always blessed with good health, fizzing energy, and a mind which was a fountain of ideas which never dried up.  He did so much in the wider world, but at the centre of all that was him was Plas Brondanw.  He wrote:  “It was for Brondanw’s sake that I worked and stinted, for its sake that I chiefly hoped to prosper ” and related how in his early years earnings from commissions were instantly translated to yew hedging or stone paving (later to the purchase of an adjacent mountain) to improve his garden.  The greatest gardens are usually the creation of a single great inspired mind and a lot of very hard physical graft.  The danger is that they decay when that inspiration is no longer there.  Plas Brondanw, safe in a charitable foundation controlled by the Williams-Ellis family, still has much of the fun and drive of its creator.  It is a remote place, but well worth the journey to get there.

Plas Brondanw is near Porthmadog in North Wales, a ten minute drive from Portmeirion.  It is open every day, 10am to 5pm, (check before travelling in winter)


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Issue116:2017 08 03: When In A Hole – Keep Digging(JR Thomas)

03 August 2017

When In A Hole – Keep Digging

HS2 will revive British tunnelling

by J.R. Thomas

Last week we looked at HS2 and what it may do, or may not do, for some of Britain’s regional cities. Preparation work has been under way for a couple of years with construction teams being assembled, tenders sent out and returned, and most depressingly for those who live only too close to the new line north-west of London all the way to Birmingham, blight notices sent out. They are not called blight notices of course; they are warnings of compulsory purchase, for the lucky ones.

The lucky ones indeed. At least they know that at some time fairly soon their agony of uncertainty will be ended, the cheque will arrive for their house, and they can move to some new home.  The less lucky ones will have been told they are on a possible route (mostly north of Birmingham or near proposed buildings for the railway) and that their homes might be required. The least lucky of all are close to the railway but not eligible for being bought out. For them, years of irritation await; the great earthmoving machinery will soon arrive across the fields or at the end of their lanes and the works will begin.  When that ends there will be a very brief pause whilst everything is wired up and tested; then the trains will begin to screech past, day and night. The HS2 project directors say that the line is carefully designed to minimise noise and that screening will be put in place where necessary, but that has not stopped those living close to the route continue their campaigning against it, or at least for as much as possible of the line to be in tunnels.

The protestors have had some success with this, though the rule of thumb would appear to be that the closer to London the line is, the more likely it is to be in a tunnel.  This does not always mean that whatever is sitting above the tunnel will be saved.  More than 100,000 people are potentially at risk of being disturbed by tunnelling underneath them – though oddly enough, most of them are not complaining at all.  That is mainly because they are dead.  HS2 will mean the removal of the burial ground at St James’s Gardens which is estimated to contain about 40,000 sets of human remains, to build a new Euston station entrance. It will also pass under part of Kensal Green Cemetery, which has around 60,000 sets of remains in it, though the line should be deep enough to avoid the necessity of any exhumation. This will be a relief to at least one resident – Isambard Kingdom Brunel, pre-eminent Victorian railway builder and builder of Box Tunnel in Wiltshire who would perhaps not be amused by the irony of being removed for a new railway. His father, in the same plot, builder of the first Thames Tunnel which ruined his health, might though see this as divine providence at work.

The Victorians were great tunnellers. The Brunels are the best known, but the greatest of all was James Henry Greathead, a South African. He came to London at the age of twenty, trained as an engineer and specialised in tunnelling matters. His first employment was for the Midland Railway but he was soon working on a second tunnel under the Thames, which proved a great deal easier to construct than Brunel’s had done, partly due to many of Greathead’s inventions, the most notable being one still in use today, the hydraulic jacking systems of edging the tunnel cutter forward inside its shield.  He also pioneered the use of compressed air in tunnelling machinery and soon made himself the expert of choice for any Victorian entrepreneur contemplating diving underground. Though that was mostly for railway reasons – much of the initial system of the London Underground railway was built under Greathead’s direction or consultancy –  a whole network of tunnels for sewage and water was also built around this time; and even a carriage tunnel, still in use, the Blackwall Tunnel.

If the Victorians were great tunnel innovators, by the time of First World War the era of British deep digging seemed to have largely gone.  It was the Swiss who, not surprisingly, became the great innovators in digging deep down, though the New York subway builders were quick learners too.  Britain really only got back to the cutting edge techniques of tunnelling, a couple of new tube lines and the Newcastle Metro withstanding, in the late twentieth century with the Channel Tunnel.  That was followed by some road tunnels, the complex Heathrow Express extension which suffered a partial collapse, and then the very complicated Cross Rail (not yet better known as the “Elizabeth Line”) tunnel across, or rather, under London.  HS2, and if they happen, its northern extensions, should further develop our national ability as tunnellers, involving a great variety of below ground conditions and above ground sensitivities.  With all due credit to the Swiss, it is one thing to hew through solid rock; unknown water and the danger that the two ends won’t meet in the middle are the main risks of that.  But to dig out of central London, under the Chiltern Hills and then through bits of rural England and under the suburbs of various cities is a challenge indeed.  Clay, rock, sand, water, unexploded bombs, old mine workings under the ground; sensitive residential buildings and sensitive residents, industrial buildings and processes, offices with deep, or even worse, not deep enough foundations, above (to say nothing of overcrowded cemeteries).

Our famous business heroes now are men and women who work in the virtual world; the Buffets and Gates and Bezos of this world, the disrupters of trading patterns, not the disrupters of earth.  Tunnel engineers are like the moles they emulate; a shy lot, no names, no bragging rights.  But leaders of their profession will soon be working cautiously on one of the most difficult and sensitive projects of all time.  And at the end of it, as the trains scurry back and forth, they will be forgotten.

Brunel is admittedly not forgotten.  He died aged 53, exhausted. His memorials are not so much his tunnels, as the soaring roofs of Paddington Station, the billiard table flat Great Western Railway, and his Great Eastern steam ship, the largest built at that time.  He ensured immortality by posing in front of its anchor chain with a massive cigar, giving the abiding image by which he is so widely known.  Greathead was also felled by a heavy workload, dying at the age of 52.  He was pretty much completely forgotten for a century even though so many of us travel through his works every day.  In the 1990’s, complex rebuilding works at Bank tube station in the City necessitated a new air vent to be placed in front of the Royal Exchange. To disguise what it was, somebody thought of crowning it, ninety eight years after his death, with a statue of he who had done so much of the tunnelling underneath. So there stands James Henry Greathead, with hot air constantly blowing up his trouser legs. It’s one way of achieving immortality.


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Issue 116: 2017 08 03: A Very British Event (Lynda Goetz)

03 August 2017

A Very British Event

Open-air theatre and problematic weather.

By Lynda Goetz

Memories are often founded not on what actually happened, nor, of course, on the boring daily trivia, but centre rather around particular events.  Our memories of years past are coloured by these occasions and the weather at these fixed points can even become our memory of the weather for that entire winter or summer.  Was Wimbledon marred by rain or did the sun shine throughout the fortnight?  Were the weddings attended idyllic celebrations in glorious gardens, and how often did we get out the barbecue? This summer seemed, for a long time, to be made up of heat and of bright, sunny, if sometimes humid days.  Latterly things have changed and certainly in the West Country we have had quite serious downpours on a pretty regular basis; great for the garden, but not so good for functions or summer get-togethers and certainly not ideal for open-air theatre.

My first memory of open-air theatre was a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in Regents Park with, if I recall rightly, Brian Blessed playing Bottom.  The weather was fine, I was in the company of friends and the play was absolutely suited to the setting.  We were not organised enough after work to bring our own picnic but purchased memorable bratwurst from the on-site BBQ at the interval. Subsequent attendances at outdoor performances of various Shakespeare productions (usually the comedies are chosen) and a mixture of other plays in some superb surroundings, including the sublime setting of the Minack in Cornwall, all come with their associated memories of the picnics and the weather.  Sunday’s production of Twelfth Night by Folksy Theatre in Hestercombe Gardens just outside Taunton was no exception.

Hestercombe Gardens are historic gardens of 50 acres, open to the public, with both formal and landscape areas.  The original plan was to visit the formal areas, originally a collaboration between the celebrated duo of Edward Lutyens and Gertrude Jekyll, between public closing time at 6pm and the performance at 7pm.  As it was pouring with rain most of Sunday afternoon and continued to do so by the scheduled departure time, the decision to skip garden viewing seemed sensible.  On passing in front of the not-so-beautiful house (open as a contemporary art gallery) on our way to the performance in the Orangery, the stunning view over Somerset from the terraces made me vow to come back at a future date.  We collected our pre-purchased tickets and bought a programme from a charming, pretty girl keeping temporarily dry under a pop-up gazebo.  Moving across the lawn, we positioned our fold-away chairs behind the people who had already installed themselves with picnics and umbrellas in the ‘front rows’; before us, a classic restored Orangery with steps up to the terrace in front of it and a raised circular extra stage on top of that.  A perfect open-air venue – apart from the rain.

To the left of us a couple in sailing oilskins tucked into a picnic.  Ahead of us a group in Barbour jackets and, by their own admission, wearing long johns, enjoyed glasses of Prosecco.  In front of them a family group handed round quiche and pizza.  We joined the feast, balancing our glasses of wine on the sodden lawn and enjoying our marinaded chicken and goats cheese salad from the plastic containers whilst taking it in turns to hold up our large golfing umbrella.  A picnic rug with waterproof back wrapped around my legs stopped the rain puddling in the base of my canvas seat from soaking my jeans.

The sound of a violin drew our attention and the ticket seller, who turned out to be the lead actress Fiona McGarvey in a simple moss green dress with a violin tucked under her chin, skipped lightly onto the stage accompanied by a delicate-looking man holding a guitar.  As the rain hammered down noisily on the collection of multi-coloured golf-umbrellas below them, they laughingly performed some musical numbers whilst expressing some concern that they might not be very audible.  Upon the arrival of a collection of sailors dressed in vivid yellow oilskins (the production is in modern dress) the two musicians transformed themselves into brother and sister, Sebastian (actor, musical director and composer, Andrew Armfield) and Viola, and joined in the shipwreck.  The rain lent credence to the scene.

As the Regent’s Park Open-Air Theatre says on its website, ‘the wonderfully unpredictable nature of open-air theatre makes each visit here extraordinary and thrilling’.  Is this a universal statement or merely a statement referring to our unreliable British weather?  I am pretty certain that the ancient theatre in Delphi did not suffer from constant concern about imminent downpours during summer performances.  Perhaps it is telling that the open air theatres dotted around ancient Greece and Rome date back over a couple of thousand years rather than the 85 years claimed by Regent’s Park or the few hundred years to the original founding of the old Globe Theatre (the new one, thanks to the efforts of Sam Wannamaker, was finally rebuilt a short distance away from the original in 1996).

Anyway, Sunday’s performance was great and a testament not only to the tenacity and spirit of the slightly reduced audience, but in particular to the stalwart and continually upbeat performances of the actors, who, mainly without the benefit of oilskins, Barbours, long johns, walking boots or umbrellas, braved the unpredictable English summer to deliver, as promised, a ‘bold, fun and accessible’ performance of one of Shakespeare’s classic comedies.


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Issue 116: 2017 08 03: Nunc Est Bibendum (Chin Chin)

03 August 2017

Nunc Est Bibendum

But try to time it right.

By Chin Chin

Sometimes new research touches the very fundamentals of our lives and the conclusion reached by the University of Exeter, that we remember more if we have a drink or two after the event, is certainly in that category.  Take buying drinks, for example.  Now most of the people with whom I go to the pub make it a rule not to drink on their own round. That isn’t because they are skinflints: dear me no, nothing could be further from the case.  They are hospitable people who always like to spend their hard earned money on drinks for others.

Still, look at the result of their generosity.  As the academics at Exeter University have confirmed, drinking after something happens locks the memory of it in place – because, as I understand it, the drink blocks subsequent impressions and allows the old ones to “embed”, rather like toes in those surgical sandals now so fashionable in high society.  The result is that people only remember the rounds bought by their friends and not their own.  You might think that that meant that they would end up offering another round too soon, but that would be to underestimate the resourcefulness of the North Londoner. No, they appreciate the problem and deliberately compensate for it.

“Oi, Chin, it’s your round,” someone will call out.  But I don’t fall for that one.  I am sure that I must have bought hundreds of rounds which I simply cannot remember because I didn’t drink after buying them.  My friends are just trying to take advantage of my abstemiousness.  I won’t have that although, rather than face them out, it is easier to slip off to that loo which has the convenient door to the car park.

From many points of view it is useful to have the rule that “alcohol preserves facts” officially recognised.  Suppose, for example, that you have been arrested for an affray outside a pub and your evidence differs from that of the police;

Defending counsel: “Tell me Constable, in what state did you find the accused when you arrived?”

Policeman: “I’d say he was rat-arsed, Sir.”

Counsel: “Very drunk, do you mean?”

Policeman: “Yes, he was still drinking hard when I apprehended him.”

Counsel: “And were you drinking, Officer?“

Policeman: “Certainly not, Sir, I was on duty”

Counsel: “Then do you accept, Officer, that in the light of the new research from Exeter University, the accused is likely to have a better recollection of events than you have?”

There we are.  Case dismissed.  The truth pickled in alcohol like a fly in aspic.  The cleverer criminals will always carry a flask of spirits in their pocket so that they can fix their version of events beyond reasonable doubt.  It will be their answer to the video cameras worn by the police.

But for the scientist, the important thing to note about the Exeter research is that there are two sides to it.  Someone who has had a drink is more likely to remember what happened before the drink, but on the other hand it is correspondingly harder for him (or, let’s be fair, for her) to remember what happened later.  The timing of the drink is therefore crucial.

Imagine you are revising for an exam.  A glass of wine early in your evening’s revision will reduce your recollection of what you read later.  Defer the glass until after you have finished and it will seal into place all that you have learnt as though you had a photographic memory.

There are implications too for the Shaw Sheet’s more criminally minded readers.  There you are, about to commit a fraud; let’s suppose it is the full Sir Jasper and will result in women being forced to make their living on the street and their children searching for scraps in the gutter.  Well, if you have had a large drink before you begin, it will be relatively easy forget the details afterwards.  Soon they will become fuzzy in your mind and, before long, it will be possible for you to persuade yourself, and any investigating authorities, that you were motivated by the most charitable of instincts and that the results were merely a sad mistake, the lamentable consequence of others not living up to their responsibilities.  Result: no conscience and holidays at expensive hotels in the South of France.  Do it the other way round, however; have your drink after you have signed the forged papers and the guilt will be etched into your brain.  You will toss and turn at night, waking in your tent to see queues of those who you have defrauded processing past, twitching nervously whenever the word irregularity is used, and ending up with a maudlin plea for forgiveness from your victims spoiling an otherwise very elegantly written suicide note.  And all that because you had your drink at the wrong time.

“Eat, drink, and be merry for tomorrow we die,” but we will die with a better conscience if we remember to do the drinking bit at the beginning.


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Issue 115: 2017 07 27: Made In France? (Chin Chin)

27 July 2017

Made in France?

The Cornish flood

By Chin Chin

What caused it then?  Rain poured down on the streets of Coverack in Cornwall on a scale not seen since Noah.  Was this a direct punishment by the Almighty?  Were there, among the rubble swept into the sea, the remnants of altars to Baal?  Did a modern Elijah stand on the hills, staff outstretched, bringing down the furies of the Lord to discourage the evil practices of the Cornish?

However overdue such an intervention may appear, it seems not.  Apparently the divine scourging of the Cornish has been postponed to another day and last week’s floods had a far more mundane cause.  Yes, you have guessed it, a build-up of hot air over France.

The generation of too much hot air across the channel has been a danger ever since the election of Mr Macron to the presidency.  Calling his party “En Marche”, a name which shared his own initials, was the first sign.  The passionate holding of President Trump’s hand reinforced the impression.  This is a man who likes gesture politics, who burnishes his image and who can produce hot air until the cows come home.  There is nothing wrong with that but the question is: is there enough behind it?

French leaders have always been rather grander than ours (compare the Louvre with our own Buckingham Palace) and generally they have had to be.  France is a difficult country to reform because its institutions are powerfully embedded and supported by a population which is jealous of its privileges.  That is both a good thing and a bad one.  It puts a brake on populist politics, which may be needed in the 21st-century.  On the other hand it makes it difficult to push through any changes which are needed.  Sometimes that can be disastrous.  For example a long series of monarchs tried to reform the tax system by removing the exemptions for the nobles and the clergy.  They never managed it, leaving the burden with the middle and lower classes.  The effect?  The French Revolution.  The successful defence by the unions of the Labour laws has held back economic progress since the war.

It takes a very powerful reformer to take on these interests, however grand their public image might be.  Napoleon managed it, of course, combining an unmistakable taste for grandeur (Mr Macron’s use of initials is perhaps reminiscent of Napoleon use of the letter “N”) with considerable ruthlessness, and famously driving back popular protest with “a whiff of grapeshot”.  If that is what is needed, and it may be, does Mr Macron have the stomach for it?

From this side of the Channel, it is extremely hard to tell.  Certainly he has tapped into French dissatisfaction with the French system to create a new political force.  That, though, is what demagogues do and you could say that Mr Farage had achieved much the same in the Britain.  It is a long way, though, from successfully using that force as an engine of reform, and over the next few months we will discover whether he can do that or not.  His first clash, with the military, bodes well.  Although it led to the resignation of General Pierre de Villiers, the head of the armed forces, on the basis that the proposed cuts would not leave him with sufficient funds to guarantee France’s defences or support French ambitions, Mr Macron stood his ground.  In the context of the forthcoming struggle with the unions that is probably more important than being right.  Well done, Macron.  Un point to the cause of reform: nil point to the French resistance to change.  So far, so good!

And yet there is something which makes one uneasy about it all.  Politicians who rise suddenly on the wave of public acclaim can fall suddenly too.  Look at the astonishing rise and fall in the popularity of our own Prime Minister, or Boris Johnson come to that.  It is often the ones who work away quietly in an unspectacular manner who achieve the most.  Attlee, rather than Churchill, just after the war.

It is easy, with the current tensions over Brexit, to hope that things go wrong in France.  After all, they are on the opposite side of a tough negotiation and will take little account of our interests.  “A plague on all the houses”, you might say.  If it all goes wrong there will be schadenfreude a plenty for us to enjoy.  Yet that is too narrow a view.  Failure by Mr Macron is likely to mean a triumph for Marine Le Pen next time around and a boost for the European nationalist right.  Political movements like that have a way of spreading and, although our approach is different from the French, the Channel is just a thin piece of water.  We have seen a major European economy turn to the far right before and it was not a happy experience.  For the moment then we can only watch the hot air rise from France and hope that it is not the harbinger of something worse.  Oh yes, and dig more flood drains in Cornwall.


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