Sunday, 14 April 2019

Concrete Cows

The idea for this post was inspired by Emerrube's visit to Antoinette, the giant Holstein cow of Plymouth, Wisconsin. Not as large or in such good condition as Antoinette, but I present to you some local celebrities, the Concrete Cows of Milton Keynes ... 

The establishment of the new town of Milton Keynes was part of the post-war expansion of housing in England. A large area was designated for the town, which swallowed up the existing towns of Bletchley, Stony Stratford and Newport Pagnell and a number of villages, including the village of Milton Keynes from which the new town took its name. Building began soon after the Development Corporation was established in 1967 and the town is still expanding. According to Wikipedia by 2011 it had a population of nearly 250,000, compared to around 53,000 in the same area in 1961. Milton Keynes is often called a city rather than a town but this is technically incorrect as it has never been granted city status.  

In 1978 Liz Leyh, a Canadian artist working in the town, created a set of six concrete cows - three adult cows and three calves - which quickly became identified with the town. Both Milton Keynes and its concrete cows have tended to be seen as something of a joke, and people who don't know it imagine a highly developed characterless modern town pretending to be rural. In fact from the beginning the town was planned with the intention that there would be large amounts of green space. Linear parks connect different parts of Milton Keynes, and it is supposed to be possible to walk pretty much anywhere in the town without having to leave the network of footpaths (or redways) which run through these. Milton Keynes still divides opinion, but everyone I know who lives there (including my eldest daughter) enjoys the mix of good facilities and countryside on their doorstep. This article from 2017 celebrating the town's 50th anniversary lists 50 reasons to love Milton Keynes, some more tongue-in-cheek than others. 

The concrete cows have been the victims of various pranks and vandalism over the years, and there are now two sets, the originals and a set of replicas. The cows in my photographs are the replicas, which live in a field somewhere in the town (I can't actually remember where!) doing their concrete bovine thing. The originals were for some time on display in the centre of the shopping centre (mall if you are American) and are now at the Milton Keynes Museum. 

Most of Milton Keynes may be modern but once you start exploring there is plenty of history still to be found. We started the walk during which we stumbled across the concrete cows (we weren't looking for them!) at Bradwell Abbey, a former medieval Benedictine priory which is now the home of the Milton Keynes City Discovery Centre and of this statue of a medieval monk.

Later on the same walk we found the remains of Roman villa.

Typical of the Milton Keynes mix of old and new is that when we got back to Bradwell Abbey we found these sculptures by German designer and sculptor Bernard Schottlander.

It seems that some of the planners within the Milton Keynes Development Corporation were in tune with the 60s zeitgeist.  One of the town's quirks is that Midsummer Boulevard, the central road running through what is now the shopping centre and the main city park, was designed so that it lines up exactly with the rising sun on the summer solstice. 

Friday, 5 April 2019

Day Trip to Pompeii

Both H and I had been wanting to visit Pompeii and we decided it was manageable as a day trip from Rome. There are three ways to do this - as part of an organised tour, or independently by train or bus.  Using H's local knowledge from her time in Italy we decided to go with the bus option. She and her student friends regularly use Flixbus, which operates services across Europe. Their buses are comfortable and reliable, plus she gets a student discount. We booked direct from Rome to Pompeii, then a return trip from Naples to Rome. As we didn't know how long we would want to spend at Pompeii we booked our return coach for 8pm, thinking we could explore Naples a bit and eat there before heading back to Rome. Naples and Pompeii are linked by a small Metro-like local train line, which runs regularly and only takes about 30 minutes.

Our bus from Rome took three and a half hours, so we arrived at Pompeii late morning. It was about ten to fifteen minutes walk from the bus stop to the back entrance of the archaeological site. Modern Pompei seemed quite a nice little town, and we stopped off on the walk to Roman Pompeii to buy a gigantic doughnut and almost-as-gigantic savoury pastry to share for our lunch. The gate we used took us into Pompeii near the amphitheatre, at the opposite end of the site to the main entrance. I imagine that in the peak tourist season it would save quite a bit of time by avoiding the hordes of tour groups. As it was we were able to walk straight in - free! 

I had been listening to Professor Mary Beard's Pompeii on Audible so this time I did have some context for what I was seeing. I also read this Pompeii guide she wrote for the Daily Telegraph (I think you have to register to be able read it as a free article on the website), which was incredibly helpful. She advises not getting bogged down trying to identify every building, and to wander as you please and take advantage of serendipity rather than join a guided tour. She suggests six "essential sights" and we decided a good manageable plan would be to focus on finding all of these while stopping off to look at anything else that took our fancy. It very quickly becomes obvious that it is not possible to see everything in one trip. Pompeii is huge. 

We checked off one of our six sights immediately, which was the amphitheatre. The rest took a bit more hunting down. The little fresco below was an early bit of serendipity. Unfortunately I can't remember where I found it, except that it was in a villa, but I thought it was a lovely bit of detail.

The second of our six sights was the Temple of Isis. According to Professor Beard it was visited by Mozart in 1769 and gave him ideas for the Magic Flute.

Another bit of serendipity was this Roman oven in what had been a row of small shops, opposite the pavement where we sat down on a step to eat our lunch.  

After lunch we wandered through the forum and on to the  third of our target sights: the House of the Tragic Poet, best known for its CANE CANEM ("beware of the dog") mosaic. The house itself was not open - or if it was, we didn't manage to find a way in! 

From the House of the Tragic Poet we walked down to the Villa of the Mysteries, which is about as far as it is possible to get from the amphitheatre where we began. This villa is best known for its extraordinary wall paintings.  

After walking back to the forum we got slightly lost trying to find our last two sights. One was the brothel, which attracts far more visitors than it can easily accommodate so has a one way system through the small building. We found the exit easily enough but took a while to find our way round to the entrance. After filing through the brothel (never thought I would find myself typing that!) we looked for the sixth and last place on Professor Beard's list, the Stabian baths. Quite how we struggled to find these I have no idea as the baths are one of the largest buildings in the entire city. They were also only a few yards away from where we ate our lunch.

By this time we were flagging, so we explored the baths and then headed for the train and Naples.  I think we spent about four and a half hours inside the Roman city altogether, which was as much as our legs and brains could handle in one go. It would take many visits to get thoroughly acquainted with Pompeii.

Naples was generally not a success. We made the mistake of trying to walk from the station to the historic city centre. The area round Naples station is grim - very dirty and it felt none too safe. We are quite experienced, street wise travellers and blend in pretty well (H in particular looks Italian), but we were definitely uncomfortable. We should have done a bit more homework and taken the Metro to where we wanted to go. We also got our timing wrong and realised after walking for a while that by the time we got to where we were heading we wouldn't have long there before we needed to set off back to the station area if we wanted to get dinner. In the end we decided to just give up on trying to see anything of Naples and retraced our steps back to the station. The exception to avoiding this area is that there are some cafes and restaurants on the left side of the square in front of the station. We ate in one of these and had the best, proper Neapolitan pizza in a cozy and friendly little restaurant. This went some way to redeeming Naples in our eyes.

It was a long and tiring day - we left our hotel at 7.30 in the morning and didn't get back until 11pm - but absolutely worth it. If you ever get the chance to visit Pompeii, go!

Thursday, 4 April 2019

The Roman Forum and the Palatine Hill

Our (free) ticket to the Colosseum also gave us free entry to the Forum and Palatine Hill, a short walk from the Colosseum.

This is the view looking down on the Forum from the Palatine Hill, which gives some idea of its scale - this is just part of the complex.

The 16th century Farnese gardens and aviaries at the top of the hill have recently been restored and only reopened to the public last year after being closed for 30 years. This view could come straight out of a Renaissance painting.  

We could have seen a lot more of ancient Rome on the Palatine Hill, but the Forum itself was large enough to keep us occupied for quite some time, and our minds were turning towards lunch.   

The most impressive thing about the Forum was its sheer size. In its heyday it must have been absolutely extraordinary. Rome was certainly built to impress! The columns below are part of the Temple of Castor and Pollux.

The Temple of Antoninus Pius below was converted into a church in the twelfth century. Like the Colosseum, the Forum gets pretty crowded, with a lot of tour groups.

And finally, the Temple of Vesta on the left with white House of the Vestals to the right. I wish I knew more about the history and context, and should really have done more homework before we went. At least if I read up on it now I will be able to visualise the site.

As you can see, it was Roman early spring weather. When we arrived at the Forum it threatened rain, but it held off despite the grey skies, and it brightened up later in the day. We did spot the occasional tourist wearing shorts - inevitably British, clothing chosen on the basis of wishful thinking that as they are in Italy, it must therefore be hot and sunny.

Sunday, 24 March 2019

Rome: Colosseum

I have been travelling again, this time to Rome to spend a long weekend with middle daughter who is studying in northern Italy. A minor milestone was that at the ripe old age of 58 this was the first time I had ever flown alone - whenever I have travelled abroad before it has always been with friends or family. We crammed a lot into three days, so I'm going to split the trip into a few separate posts. First up, the Colosseum.

This wasn't my first visit to Rome, but it was the first time I have been inside the Colosseum. We hit very lucky, as it turned out the dates we had booked were during Italy's Week of Culture, when entrance to all government owned sites and museums was free. The Colosseum and the Forum share a joint ticket, and the queues to buy tickets on the day are lengthy at any time. We half expected the queue for free tickets would be so long we might have to give up the idea of visiting and go somewhere else but it all worked out, in part thanks to a public transport strike (not unusual for Rome!). As the metro and buses were only running during the morning rush hour, we decided to make an early start, catch the metro to the Colosseum and save ourselves an hour long walk from our hotel. This meant we arrived at the Colosseum at 8.15, fifteen minutes before it was due to open. This was the queue when we joined it. 

Once it opened the queue was pretty fast moving and we made it through security, collected our free ticket and were into the building by 8.45. There was a slight hiccup getting through the airport-style security as daughter had forgotten she had a corkscrew/bottle-opener/penknife in her jacket pocket. Oops! Fortunately they let us in.

My knowledge of Roman history is pretty fuzzy, so I can't pretend I appreciated the history of the building on anything more than a superficial level but it is certainly an extraordinary site and well worth making the effort to go inside. In its heyday it seated 50,000 spectators at a squash.

Obligatory photo of myself at the Colosseum. Rome weather in March is changeable, and often pleasantly warm in the sun and cold in the shade. Hence I was wearing odd layers including a shower proof pack-a-mac and scarf. We were lucky with weather and didn't get any rain. 

This was the best view of the arena I found, though getting to the front of the balcony meant struggling through quite a scrum of people trying to take selfies with this backdrop.

This external view was taken as we walked across from the Colosseum to the Forum. I almost managed to get the entire building into my shot. The line of people queueing to get in was pretty long by this time.

Friday, 1 March 2019

100 Books for 2018: 21 to 25

Book 21 - A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived (Adam Rutherford) [Audio]
Before I listened to this book the science of genetics was an area of which I was profoundly ignorant. I was interested in the subject matter and felt I understood a lot more thanks to this the book, but sadly I have now forgotten much of it and have been mostly left with just a slightly random collection of interesting genetic facts that have stuck in my brain. The book is in two parts - the first about how the human genome evolved, and the second about what our genome means for the people we are now. It is well written and makes the science comprehensible, but I probably need to read it again for it to really sink in. Possibly reading rather than listening while driving would have helped as I could have re-read any sections I didn't quite get first time round.
**** 4 stars

Book 22 - The Accidental Diplomat (Paul Knott)
I think this was a 99 pence Amazon Kindle purchase. The author is a Yorkshireman from Hull who more or less accidentally stumbled into working for the Foreign Office and the Diplomatic Service. His job took him to a series of British embassies, mainly in the former USSR and Eastern Europe. An easy and enjoyable read - more 3.5 stars than 3.
*** 3 stars

Book 23 - Quidditch Through the Ages (J.K.Rowling)
British schools used to give out £1 vouchers for World Book Day, and each year a few short books by top children's authors were written specially to be sold for £1 so that kids could get a book without needing to top up the voucher. I am pretty sure this was originally one of these World Book Day specials. A worthy voucher spend, but much as I love J. K. Rowling and Harry Potter, it was a bit too much detail of the rules and history of quidditch for me.
*** 3 stars (just!)

Book 24 - Educated (Tara Westover) [Audio]
Tara Westover was the daughter of a survivalist family living in Idaho. For Tara erratic home education alternated with work in her father's scrapyard business from a young age. His paranoia extended to avoiding doctors, so even after severe accidents family members were patched up by her herbalist mother. One of her brothers was violent and abusive. Tara, however, had an inbuilt desire to learn. She finally managed to attend college and was eventually awarded a scholarship to study at Oxford. Her story had me gripped from start to finish. American gun culture is incomprehensible to pretty much everyone this side of the Atlantic, so this was an insight into a completely alien world.
***** 5 stars

Book 25 - The Hard Way Up: The Autobiography of Hannah Mitchell, Suffragette and Rebel (edited by Geoffrey Mitchell)
Many of the suffragettes and suffragists who fought for votes for women in Britain came from wealthy and well educated families, but there were also a number of working class women who became prominent in the movement. The best known of these was Annie Kenney, a Lancashire mill girl who was close to the Pankhurst family. Hannah Mitchell was part of the same circle. She was born in Derbyshire, had very little formal education and at 13 was apprenticed as a dressmaker. She ran away from home at 14 and moved to Bolton, where she worked as as seamstress and educated herself. Although married with a young son she became increasingly involved with both the Independent Labour Party and the Women's Social and Political Union, also working with the Pankhursts. After the First World War she became a city councillor in Manchester and was appointed a magistrate. Her autobiography is simple retelling of her life story without a trace of self-pity, though she was rightly indignant at the hardship endured by women like herself, who were expected both to work and contribute to the household income, but also to take on the entire responsibility for domestic tasks.
**** 4 stars

Sunday, 17 February 2019

A Technical Challenge in the Kitchen

For many years now we have shared meals on a fairly regular basis with two sets of neighbours. We have an international theme, with each couple picking a random country - we wrote out the country slips after slightly too much wine, so some are very random indeed! - and providing either a starter, main course or dessert. Yesterday it was our turn to cook the main course and our country pick was Russia. One of our neighbours (technically now a former neighbour!) is currently eating fish but not meat, and the only suitable Russian fish dish I could find was this salmon coulibiac

I enjoy baking and I am a reasonably competent cook, but this was definitely out of my comfort zone! I am a big fan of the Great British Bake Off, and this was my equivalent of the technical challenge. Fortunately, unlike the contestants in Bake Off I had a picture of what the end result was supposed to look like, and a detailed recipe. Again, unlike Bake Off I did not have to make the puff pastry from scratch, which would have added a whole extra layer of difficulty. As it was it took me over an hour and a half to prepare. I was organised and got all my ingredients ready first. Instead of buying a large piece of salmon I bought six individual fillets as it worked out considerably cheaper. When it came to skinning them I may have regretted this a little. It was fiddly.

A salmon coulibiac is layers of seasoned rice mixed with hard boiled egg surrounding a salmon fillet, and wrapped in puff pastry - though I did see some recipes using filo pastry. The rice was first cooked with onion, garlic and fish stock, then seasoned with herbs and lemon before adding the chopped egg; meanwhile the salmon had to be part-baked.

Fortunately the pastry was pre-rolled, otherwise the chances of me getting it rolled to the exact size and thickness needed would have been slim! One sheet on the bottom, then a layer of the rice mixture, then the salmon ...

... and finally another layer of the rice, topped with a second sheet of pastry. I followed the instructions which said to make slits in the pastry, but I'm not entirely convinced this is how it was supposed to look. Fortunately it all held together.

And here is the finished pie. I was delighted with how it turned out, and it tasted very good. I served it with boiled new potatoes tossed in butter and dill, sautéed cabbage and green beans.

Part of the fun of these meals is that everyone has to try to guess the origin of the dishes they haven't cooked. This one came very close to defeating the guessers! They only made it to Russia with the help of a couple of clues. The starter was Moroccan (lamb kebabs, fish patties and chickpea salad) and the dessert Brazilian (a creamy mousse in a biscuit crumb case and a passion fruit cream). It always amazes us how our very eclectic country picks manage without fail to produce a three-course meal that works without any weird taste clashes. 

The combination of good food and good company always make it a fun evening. As our former neighbours now split their time between the UK and Spain it is especially good for us all to have the opportunity to catch up.

Sunday, 10 February 2019

A Little Bit of Summer: Oxford in the Sun

A week ago we had snow - just enough for youngest daughter's school to close for a snow day; now it is warmer, but wet and miserable. To remind myself that summer will be here soon(ish!) I am going to share a few sunny, summery photos from a trip to Oxford last June. I homeschooled my older daughters for several years when they were young, and was part of a lovely literature-loving support group with a mix of British and American families. Last year we held a reunion in Oxford, timed to allow us to visit the Tolkien exhibition at the Bodleian Library. People flew in from the US and Cyprus to join us and we had a wonderful weekend with much reminiscing and laughter.

I love this picture of colourful punts viewed from Magdalen Bridge. We didn't go punting this time, though I hired one with a friend and her daughter the previous year. Standing on a small platform at the end of a boat pushing it around with a pole is definitely challenging, particularly for someone like me with appalling balance. I was quite proud that I managed to manoeuvre us around the river for an hour without causing any accidents or falling in.

A slightly wonky picture of the Radcliffe Camera, which is one of the reading rooms of the Bodleian Library. 

We spent much of the morning at the Oxford Botanic Gardens. The friends I was with are both gardeners, whereas I have black thumbs and have yet to find a plant I can't kill. I could appreciate the beauty of the gardens, even if the finer points of the plants and how to grow them went right over my head!

The tower of Magdelen College chapel seen from the gardens.

And finally a view across to Christchurch - I think! I know Oxford pretty well, but can still be confused by a different angle. 

These pictures were all from our last day, which was when the sun finally came out. Oxford in the June sun has to be one of the world's most beautiful cities.