28 December 2015

Grave matters: The time of angels

Angels are a common sight in Christian cemeteries, carved in stone, standing tall at the heads of graves, carrying the wishes of the deceased’s family that their loved one has gone to heaven to dwell in peace forevermore.

Most of the angels guarding the graves at Cathays Cemetery in Cardiff are female, though depictions of two particular male angels are not uncommon elsewhere and can be indentified by the objects associated with them, Michael with his sword and Gabriel with a horn.

The female angels also appear with objects, often wreaths or flowers, or in specific poses with symbolic meaning. Some angels appear to weep, expressing grief over a life too soon cut short, others gaze sorrowfully skyward, perhaps appealing for God’s mercy. Occasionally, an angel will be shown carrying a child, or perhaps embracing the dead person as they escort them on their final journey to heaven. Angels can be young or old, and a grouping of several angels together is said to represent heaven itself.

Just as we would choose a particular type of headstone from a catalogue today, so the Victorians chose their grave markers from the catalogues of monumental masons. It is quite common, therefore, to find almost exact replicas of angel statues in one cemetery, as you can see from the photograph below. Usually no attempt is made to individualise these statues – most are ‘off-the-rack’ creations – but, occasionally, the faces are different. Whether these are an attempt to recall the deceased person or simply a reflection of each mason’s artistic skills, I’m not sure.

Without meaning to seem disrespectful to the dead, statues of angels always remind me of the television programme Doctor Who and one of its scariest alien races, the Weeping Angels. Resembling the stone statues of winged angels in draped clothing that are so common in Victorian cemeteries, these creatures have the ability to move metres in the blink of an eye, as long as no one is looking at them.

Doctor Who is recorded in Cardiff, and various locations around the city have been used in the filming of outdoor scenes, including Cathays Cemetery. So, I have just one piece of advice for you when looking at the photographs in this blog … don’t blink!

The features of the angels shown in the centre and at right appear more individual than most

25 December 2015

The year of the Cheshire Cat

This stamp is one of a set of 10 issued by Royal Mail
to mark the 150th anniversary
The world-famous grinning cat turned 150 years old in 2015. Not bad for a literary creature that was originally imagined simply to amuse a small girl named Alice (daughter of Henry Liddell, the Vice-chancellor of Oxford University and friend of author Lewis Carroll). Since its publication in 1865, Carroll’s masterly tale Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland has never been out of print and, in the subsequent 150 years, the work has been translated into more than a hundred languages.

Carroll, born Charles Lutwidge Dodgson on 27 January 1832, spent his early years in the village of Daresbury, in Cheshire, where his father Charles Dodgson was the vicar (from 1827 to 1843) of the local church, All Saints’.

Not surprisingly, Daresbury is proud of its famous son. In the church, Carroll is commemorated in a special stained glass window. As well as a Nativity scene, the window also depicts scenes from Carroll’s life: the Cheshire Wheatsheaf, representing the country where he was born; the shields of Rugby School and Christ Church, Oxford, where he was educated; and a pair of compasses and the Lamp of Learning, symbolising his considerable skills in mathematics. And, at the bottom of the window appear some of Carroll’s unforgettable fictional characters, including the Mad Hatter, the Queen of Hearts, the mad March Hare, the Mock Turtle, the Dormouse sitting in a teapot and, of course, the inimitable Cheshire Cat. (Unfortunately, I haven’t yet been to Daresbury but you can see the window here.)   

I’m sure it will also come as no surprise that the whole of Cheshire celebrates its name being associated with the famous grinning cat. There are Cheshire Cat public houses in Christleton and in Nantwich (its signs appear in the photograph below), a company of that name provides themed parties and events, and you can enjoy tea and cake in the Dormouse Tea Rooms in Daresbury.

The inspiration for the fictional Cheshire Cat character is claimed by several places. There is a 16th-century sandstone carving of a grinning cat on the west face of St Wilfrid's Church tower in Grappenhall, a village very close to Daresbury, but there is also a cat carving in Croft church, where Carroll’s father was rector for 25 years, and a cat gargoyle in St Nicholas Church in Cranleigh, where Carroll used to visit.

The origin of the Cheshire Cat, though now largely associated with Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, does, in fact, predate the book and it seems Lewis Carroll merely elaborated on the idea of a grinning cat when concocting the mischievous character for his tale.

During the six months I lived in Cheshire earlier this year, I searched for the famous grinning cat but never found him. The cats I encountered never displayed that famous grin and were, on the whole, rather taciturn. Certainly, none shared any pearls of wisdom similar to those uttered by the fictional Cheshire Cat, which are what I love most about the character. I’ll leave you with some of my favourite quotations:

‘I myself don't need a weathervane to tell which way the wind blows.’

Every adventure requires a first step. Trite, but true, even here.’

‘Those who say there's nothing like a nice cup of tea for calming the nerves never had real tea. It's like a syringe of adrenaline straight to the heart!’

‘Only a few find the way, some don't recognize it when they do – some ... don't ever want to.’

‘If you don’t know where you want to go, then it doesn’t matter which path you take.’

And, my particular favourite, ‘I’m not crazy – my reality is just different from yours.’

19 December 2015

A celebration of trees: December: My 2015 favourites

If William Blake was correct when he said, ‘The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing that stands in the way. But to the eyes of the man of imagination, nature is imagination itself,’ then I must be a (wo)man of imagination because trees have moved me to tears of joy many times during my 2015 project to photograph a tree (or trees) every day for a year. (You can see the full album of photos here.)

The trees have inspired me with their beauty, encouraged me through their strength and resilience, sheltered me from rain and sleet, fascinated me with their history and stories, lured me along trails and pathways, and provided colour on grey days.

To close the door on this year of trees I thought I would share some of my favourites. The selection process hasn’t been easy and these are not necessarily my best photographs, but rather trees or moments in time that have touched me more deeply.

Though my project will soon end, trees will definitely continue to feature strongly in my photographic choices, and I will always treasure the time I spend amongst them.

This tree was a favourite during the time I was living in Cheshire, close to home and perfectly positioned for stunning sunsets.

This long lime avenue at Great Budworth looks beautiful in all seasons but is magical under a dusting of snow.

This is another favourite tree, perfectly positioned in the landscape, growing in a field above Pickmere lake.

Ah, Arley! I walked by this lake so many times, in all seasons, and always paused in this spot to admire the view.

This was another favourite walk, across fields on my way home after a pleasant hour or three birdwatching in the woodlands and the hides on the edge of this lake, Budworth Mere.

Though this was taken for its scary feel – the ‘Little House in the Woods’ – these woods are anything but scary, as you will see from another photograph of them below.

This was another early favourite and, once again, both close to where I was living and on a regular walking circuit.

This beech avenue at Tatton Park was originally planted in 1739 – such stately ancient trees they are.

Imagine what tales this enormous Horse Chestnut could tell. It's another of the glorious old trees at Tatton Park.

The greening of the woodlands at Marbury Country Park was a joy to see after the long cold days of winter.

Admittedly, the tree here features less than the vibrant yellow of the rape flowers but what a happy scene. It always makes me smile.

From my 10 weeks back in New Zealand in May/June/July, I’ve chosen this enormous Moreton Bay fig tree in Cornwall Park. It’s not a New Zealand native but I couldn’t resist its grandeur.

One of the many beautiful places I visited when staying with friends in Wisconsin in July, with stunning trees and the bonus of a covered bridge.

And so to my new life in Cardiff and this superb avenue of ginkgoes that runs from the castle to the mews. As you saw in my November tree blog, I have photographed these often since I moved here.

Another wonderfully geometric avenue on one of my walking circuits – these trees run across Pontcanna Fields.

This section of the Taff Trail is another of my regular walks, yet I never cease to be amazed by the beauty of the trees and the river.

From a short visit back to Cheshire and a quick re-walking of my favourite trails. These are the same trees that featured in the ‘Little House in the Woods’ above. Not at all scary now!

The towpath alongside the Trent and Mersey Canal is such a pretty place to walk, especially in the leafy green of late summer.

Back to Cardiff, to the magnificent Bute Park, to the gorgeous colours of autumn …

One final vibrant burst of colour from these trees alongside Cardiff Castle and a glorious end to my year of trees.

If you want to take a look at my monthly tree blogs, here are the links: January (one particular favourite), February (about lime avenues), March (on the subject of forests), April (about the greening of the trees in the British springtime),   May (on the New Zealand pohutukawa), June (about some of Auckland’s most notable trees), July (honouring ten wondrous trees from my international travels), August (following pathways through forests and woodlands), September (about dead trees that have been given new life), October (the beautiful colours of autumn in Cardiff), and November (the gorgeous avenue of ginkgoes in Cardiff’s Bute Park).

13 December 2015

Cheshire: pubs and their signs 8

‘Keep your libraries, your penal institutions, your insane-asylums ... give me beer. You think man needs rule, he needs beer. The world does not need morals, it needs beer ... The souls of men have been fed with indigestibles, but the soul could make use of beer.’ ~ Henry Miller

Here are some more of the pubs in Cheshire that would make Henry Miller a happy man!

The Bricklayers Arms, Altrincham
Now sitting on the outskirts of Manchester city, Altrincham has long been a thriving market town, though it really took off in the 18th century when canal and railway links greatly improved transportation. The Butchers Arms isn’t quite that old but does date to the beginning of the 19th century, so perhaps was built to take advantage of Altrincham’s growth.

The sign is interesting. It shows a variation of the coat of arms of the Worshipful Company of Tylers and Bricklayersone of the ancient Livery Companies of the City of London. Members of the Company would once have held a monopoly over all roof and floor tile- and brick-laying in London but, like all the Livery Companies, now exists only as a charitable body to promote excellence in its associated industries. The mottos read: ‘In God is all our trust’ and, the one I particularly like, ‘Let us never be confounded’.

The Axe and Cleaver, Dunham Massey
This is one of the few pubs I’ve blogged about that I’ve actually had a drink at. 

Sitting in the garden on a hot summer’s day, sipping on a rather delicious thirst-quenching pint of cider, was perfect after a long walk along the Bridgewater Canal.

The Axe and Cleaver dates from around 1880 and was originally a private house whose owners held a beer licence. It has since been modified and added to, though the coaching-inn-style outbuildings are original and are listed buildings. 

The setting is delightful and I’m told the food is hearty so it’s a great way to end a day out at the National Trust property at Dunham Massey, which is close by.  

This public house is around 300 years old and is one of the meeting places for the Cheshire Hunt, so is aptly named. And, though I don’t approve of hunting hares with hounds, I have included it here for its interesting signs. The one showing the frantic hare being pursued by eager hounds is the usual image associated with this type of hunting but I much prefer the image on the other sign, where the hare sits calmly in a clump of grass on one side of a stream while the two hounds stand thwarted from their blood-thirsty work on the other side. One up for the hare!

The Tunnel Top, Dutton
According to its own website, the Tunnel Top

has stood above the Preston Brook Tunnel on the Trent & Mersey Canal since 1903. The pub has seen many changes over time yet has remained at the heart of a local community for many years and is still inviting for passing travellers and canal users throughout the year. Many local walks can be commenced from the pub, for those interested in rural history.

This public house was formerly named the Talbot Arms, after its landlord Mr Talbot, who retired not too many years ago at the grand old age of 93. And, as the website says, it is perfectly situated for a beer at the end of a countryside stroll.

This is another public house where I’ve enjoyed a drop of the local cider, as it is alos perfectly situated, on a quiet side road off the A9 and just along from a charming old country church that is also worth a look. 

The Arms is said to be 400 years old and is a charming maze of tiny rooms and alleyways. 

The coat of arms on the sign comes from the Chetwode family, the most famous of whom was Sir John Chetwode (1764-1845), who was born in Cheshire, in Stockport, and served as Cheshire’s High Sheriff in the late 1780s before commencing a parliamentary career. 

I’m not sure of the family’s connection with this particular pub – perhaps they owned the land hereabouts at some point.

I grabbed photos of these last two pubs during a very brief visit to Sandbach to see the town’s famous 9th-century Anglo-Saxon crosses, and I was so charmed by the bear on the roof of the Old Black Bear that I forgot to take a close up photo of the pub’s sign.

As you can see from the photo, this is a very old building, dating from 1634, and a wonderful example of the half-timbered properties to be found in many of Cheshire’s market towns. Not surprisingly, this is a Grade II listed building, with plenty of heritage features: the moulded wood mullions, the gables and (restored) bargeboards, exposed ceiling beams and framing timbers. And what a superb job the thatcher has done of the new roof!

This public house is much more recent than the Old Black Bear, built in 1890 at the request of Lord Crewe to provide a shuttle service for travellers to Sandbach Station, according to Joan Alcock in her book Cheshire Inn Signs (The History Press, Stroud, 2008). Apparently, it also served as the headquarters for the American GIs who were billeted in this area during World War Two.

I haven’t discovered the origin of the pub’s name but a wheatsheaf would’ve been a common sight in the fields surrounding the town in the days before modern harvesting equipment, and the sign is a lovely example of the art of signwriting.

11 December 2015


Elaborate floral design on chapel door at Cathays Cemetery
The hinge is a bit like the wheel or the zip – it’s one of those everyday objects we take for granted yet where would we be without it? Unhinged?

The origin of the hinge is obscured by the mists of time. Archaeologists have uncovered metal hinges from cultures that flourished between 4000 and 5000 years ago, and it’s likely there were even earlier ones, made from perishable materials like animal leather and wood, that simply haven’t survived.

The Romans even had a goddess of the hinge, Cardea or Carda, one of the three gods who attended to all doorway matters, though this was more to do with the Roman rituals surrounding the definition of boundaries and sacred spaces than with the physical hinge itself. 

Interestingly, the goddess’s name survives in modern language: it is the origin of the word cardinal (think pivotal member of the church hierarchy) and in the geographical term cardinal point (the cardo was the main north-south road in a Roman settlement, the road that served to align their terrestrial and celestial spaces).

Simple, yet elegant hinge design at Cardiff Castle
In the earliest days of metal production, all items were expensive and labour-intensive to produce, so only the rich and powerful could afford elaborate hinges on their doors and gates. As metal alloys were developed and knowledge of metalworking spread, the more basic hinge designs were adopted for use by ordinary people, though the most ornamental hinges remained a privilege of the wealthy through to modern times.

Another simple design, on the rear door of the yet-to-be-restored belltower at Cathays Cemetery
Lots of metal, yet a simple hinge, on this old door at the Bishop's Palace, in Llandaff
Many of the hinges that survive today from medieval through to Victorian times are on public buildings like city halls, museums and churches, and on the manor houses, mansions and castles of the very well-off. They are works of art, fashioned by skilled craftsmen – usually blacksmiths – into wonderfully ornate designs, embellished with scrolls and curlicues, and nature-inspired branches, leaves and flowers.

St Andrew's Church, Cardiff, with an ornate design for the front door and a more simple hinge for the side door
You might think I’m ‘unhinged’ for even noticing the door hinge but how could I not when there are so many beautiful examples on the buildings here in Cardiff. Even the more simple designs are noteworthy for the very fact that they were almost certainly handmade, while the most sophisticated designs deserve to be celebrated in art galleries and museums for their exquisite artistry.

I give you the hinge!

On the front doors of the Trevithick Building at Cardiff University (with beautiful wooden carving above)
Two old churches in Cardiff city
On the entrance gate to the West Lodge at Cardiff Castle
The main entrance door to Llandaff Cathedral
Llandaff Cathedral: left, a close-up on the main entrance door, and, right, a side door
The side and front doors of St Margaret's Church in Roath