We were at St Fagans the other day, in the blistering heat and popping into the wonderful bakery. I love St Fagans with its collection of historic buildings saved from all corners of, well, Wales actually. It is the Museum of Welsh Life and its worth a visit any time of year.
It’s one of those places where you can time travel. The fires are lit in Winter and there is always the idea that you’ve just stepped into someone’s house while they were out. If you like rollercoasters and white knuckle thrill rides then it probably isn’t going to float your boat but if, like me, you like history, then Boom.
Funny thing, history. There are certain periods of time that appeal to me greatly. Don’t misunderstand me, I studied history, I’m aware of the horrible social conditions and the lack of welfare state of the past. I have no illusions that things were ‘better in the past’, far from it. They were interesting and they had better clothes. Hats, in the main, there are not enough hats these days.
Where were we? Napoleonic. Regency. I feel at home in a Georgian house and by that I mean one that is open to the public, not one that someone has torn the heart out of in order to instal a modern kitchen. I’m not into modern kitchens. I like a scullery and a turnspit. Kitchens are my favourite part of any visit to any stately home. If you want to get in touch with history then the kitchen is the place to do it. Imagine it bustling with people, poorly paid servants, think of them dragging buckets of hot water up to slipper baths and you start to get a real feel for history.
Victorian. Good grief, how any student of history shakes their head at the idea of ‘Victorian Values’. Yes, they were innovative and inventive and they put style and panache into their public buildings but they did this by paying my great grandfathers tuppence ha’penny to cut timber and glaze windows. That said, I love the feel of Victorian buildings, from the grand public spaces like the V&A and the Pitt Rivers to the more personal spaces of well, say for instance, my living room.
I live in a Victorian house. Only just. It was built at the tail end of the era and it was very welcoming on the day that I first viewed it and said to my husband ‘I think I’ve found the house’. We were, at that point, living in a Victorian terraced house, another lovely, warm welcoming place. My kitchen there was tiny, a galley kitchen par excellence. I loved that little kitchen and the yard beyond.
I grew up in a Sixties box house. My dad bought it when it was a patch of dirt and Mr Potter said ‘This is what it will be like.’ There were many happy years in that house. Light, bright, picture windows and, best of all, a hatch through from the kitchen!
Tudor/Medieval. I can go with that. It’s a lovely walk from Stratford on Avon town centre out to Anne Hathaway’s cottage and you feel as if you’re coming home.
Castles. I think we all know my thoughts on castles.
Iron Age/Roman/Bloody Long Time Ago: Skara Brae, say no more, the Neolithic spread for Country Life, complete with ‘stone dresser’, yes folks, dresser.
1930’s/1940s. Nope. Can’t go there. I’m being serious. There is something about that era that makes me shiver. In museums please do not expect me to walk through the 1930s exhibit of the drapers shop or air raid shelter.
At St Fagans they have a small terrace of mining cottages. They are dressed in different times, from the earliest 1805 to the last one 1985. The one I dislike the most is the 1930s cottage. There is something about the furniture, the mantelpiece and fireplace, the squareness of an armchair, the antimacassar. What is going on? I feel cold and uneasy. This is not the first time this has happened to me.
What I feel is unease and fear. My writer head suspects that in a past life the 1930s was not the best place for me and that if was to be regressed back it would not be a great recollection. There is a recurring dream folks and a house in that dream that holds something undisclosed and terrible. Guess which era the house is from?
The 30s and 40s were turbulent times, you might say, possibly it is the idea of war and destruction, but then so was the Civil War and I’m quite happy wandering the tents and battles of any re-enactment from Richmond Castle to Chalfield Manor House.
Who knows what is behind my irrationality, all I know is that next time H G Wells decides to pop in and suggest a Day Out, I’d better watch where the dial is being twiddled to on the Time Machine.
The pic, btw, is Wentworth Woodhouse, near Sheffield, well worth a visit too.
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I find it odd sometimes when I stroll around Bath. That’s not to say that the city is odd, far from it, Bath is, as anyone who has ever visited will acknowledge, a serene and beautiful place. Packed with tourists, yes, but genteel and refined.
No. What I find odd is the legacy of Jane Austen.
In Miss Austen’s day the social hierarchy was strict and uncompromising. Academics and the literati often describe Jane Austen’s novels as if they were some delicate piece of embroidery, twee and romanticised. I always find them the opposite. If they are pieces of embroidery they are stained with blood from pricked fingers. The needle that she uses is sharp, the stitches often cross. She is adept at depicting her society, warts and all. There are tough times and hard hearts throughout Austen.
Her own life was not without its low points. Her progress through the city of Bath from Sydney Place to the terrors of Trim Street is a geographical representation of the family’s social decline. In Sense and Sensibility the Dashwoods are evicted from their home on the death of their father thanks to the inheritance passing down the male line. The same fate is in store for the Bennett sisters of Pride and Prejudice. Jane Austen lived this. Her cousin inherited Chawton and was kind enough to find lodging for Jane and her mother in the small cottage on the estate. Kind enough. Eventually.
Beneath the costume drama prettiness of bonnets and petticoats there is a dark heart at work. The flashes of light through Austen are always, to my mind, the glint of sunlight on a rapier blade. I think there is a bit of a misconception that because Miss Austen wrote about the middle and upper classes, that somehow that isn’t as tough as being dirt poor and therefore is somehow less worthy, less real. It was all too real for Miss Austen and her family.
In her lifetime Jane Austen was neither famous nor rich. At one point she suffered a fate of many writers, and certainly female ones, in being robbed of her rights and royalties by a publisher, a turn of events which befell the Bronte sisters some years later.
I don’t have to imagine the machinations, the social politics, the snobbery of her life in Bath, she has put it all on the page for us. No one in the city would have thought Miss Austen and her family to be of the slightest consequence. She was neither pretty nor rich and intellect and imagination were not considered commodities of any great worth in her lifetime, certainly not if you were female.
What I find odd is that in the 21st Century Bath is Jane Austen’s city. Of course the Romans have their part in the proceedings, hovering in the corner there with the Baths and Sulis Minerva keeps a watchful eye. Reference is made, here and there, to Bladud and the ancient history of the restorative hot springs, but the engine of Bath, in terms of tourism, is Miss Austen.
She has her own museum and tea rooms. Her image is to be found all over the city. There are tours of ‘Jane Austen’s Bath’. Only the other week I dragged my daughter up Sion Hill to Lansdown Place on our very own Jane tour. I walk in the streets where Jane walked, strolling up to Beechen Cliff although she would not have known the Victorian houses that crowd around there now. Each September there is a Jane Austen Festival involving a Promenade through Bath where Spencers and breeches are the order of the day. If you can time your visit for this it is worth it, a real spectacle, people of passion putting care and detail into their historical garb and all, all mind, in honour of Miss Austen.
The oddity for me is that I wonder what she might have made of it all, not simply the success of the books and the lasting love that her readers feel for her characters, but the actual commercial enterprise that is Austen’s Bath. She owns the city in many respects. She is an interwoven part of its history, outshining even that most illustrious of personages, Beau Nash.
She might look up from her work, perhaps, with a wry smile.
The thing about cats is they remember they were Gods. They don’t really care if you remember this fact, for they will not forget it and will adjust their behaviour accordingly.
We had two cats when I was growing up. The first, Snowy, pure black fur of course, had a temperament that owed more to temper than anything else and consisted of snarling, scratching and a propensity to bring home big game. Where other people’s cats popped a gift of mice or the ever popular vole on the doormat, Snowy would drag home war torn badgers, dead dogs, muntjac deer. In the end he proved no match for the traffic.
Sophie was a true goddess cat, sleek and calming, her favourite place to sit was on my dad’s shoulder as he played the piano. His heart broke when she too failed to practice the Green Cross Code.
I did not wish to own a cat as an adult and my children, now in their 20s feel they have had a deprived childhood. ‘We never had any pets’ my son moaned the other day and I reminded him of the cannibal hamsters. I wonder who cleared up that skeletal little mess? Hm? No, sorry, the delights of a cat litter tray were not on my household agenda. My husband didn’t want a dog either, he does not see the appeal of poop-scooping or fleas. We caught fleas once from my mother in law’s dog. She insisted it was the other way around. Lovely.
Instead the brats have had to make do with second hand cats. There was a tortoiseshell type one, very pretty, that they used to feed scraps of chicken and ham to on occasion. Our neighbour’s cat is white and requires no extras as it manages on all the blackbirds it can scoff when I’m not pursuing it with a water pistol.
They lounge about, cats. They swagger and stroll their way through the neighbourhood, parading along my fence as if there are no boundaries. In our old house we were visited by a half feral monster that I called One Eyed Jack. If I left the kitchen door open he would wander in at will and stare at me with that scarred eye until I left, or made an offering, a chicken leg, a haunch of venison, something small and godworthy.
The other day I looked out and almost fell over. There was something swanning around by the raised beds. It was tall, probably a foot high and it had lynx ears, the ones with the crossed spikes of fur. It was grey but that doesn’t really cover the depth of this colour, it was blueish in the sunlight, the deep rich hue of Welsh slate in the shadow. The fur itself was fluffed and extravagant, I’d even use the word flamboyant. I have never seen such a huge cat. It wandered for a while, prowling for the wood pigeons who, for once, had more sense than to get down from the fence. The cat decided to get onto the fence. There was a flurry of wood pigeons and the cat did an impersonation of Blondin, patter footed, tail, extreme fox style brushy tail, flicking with perfect balance and timing. It loped onto the shed, possibly an unwise move since all that is holding up the shed is the cobwebs and the ivy. It sat there for some time surveying its kingdom, as Gods do.
I had to google it of course. It turns out it is a Maine Coon Cat, a rather expensive specimen going for something north of £800.
She doesn’t pop in very often but when she does I generally bow and give up my seat on the bench.
Or hide in the summer house, whichever is quicker.
This glorious pic is by Robert Sijka, check him out: