On the Monet

monetWe had a rare (genuinely rare) treat at the weekend – a trip to Abbot Hall art gallery in Kendal to see a painting by Claude Monet.

The gallery is a lovely place to visit anyway, with a regular exhibition of local artist George Romney’s works, links to local notables such as Lady Anne Clifford, and an ever-changing wealth of more modern works. And this year, for a short time only, they have a Monet, on loan from National Galleries Scotland.

The picture, Haystacks: Snow Effect, is one of a whole series Monet painted of the effect of changing light and seasons on haystacks in a farmer’s field near where he lived. The results are fascinating, and a real insight into the methods he used when he worked. In this case, the picture shows the haystacks after a snowfall, with a hazy background, and the texture of the snow itself beautifully captured by thick brushstrokes.

Like so many paintings by real ‘masters’ of their art, it’s the quality of the light that takes your breath away. I took one look and felt a lump in my throat, not of sadness but of emotion at the skill and beauty. It felt less like a work of art, and more like a view through a window onto a scene that you could walk out into and experience for yourself.

As an interesting side-note, Dave noticed that the angle of the shadows on the two haystacks doesn’t quite line up, showing that it took Monet some time to paint each haystack individually. By the time he’d moved on to the next one, the sun had also moved, which shows that one, it took him many minutes to complete each stack, and two, he presumably painted the scene straight onto canvas rather than sketching it first. Another insight into the way a great artist worked, and not one I’d have noticed myself!

My only slight criticism was the lack of information about the painting. There was an information board in the room where it was displayed, but it only contained background information on Monet himself, and on the whole series of haystacks paintings. Usually in galleries there’s a small card pinned somewhere near the art work with the artist, title of the work, date it was painted, and a small amount of information (where this is known). In this case I’d have particularly liked to know what time of day the scene was painted, as the surreal yet beautiful pink glow on the snow could have been either sunrise or sunset. As it was, there was no card, no information, not even a sign with the painting’s title (which we eventually tracked down stencilled on a wall outside the exhibition room).

Actually, Abbot Hall seems a bit lacking in the labelling department. Another exhibition, on modern British art, had several really interesting quotes painted on the walls – but I had to ask a room warden who the quotes were by, as there was no indication. And the labels for several of the paintings in that exhibition were placed so far away from the relevant works that it became something of a treasure hunt trying to find out who’d painted what!

However, that’s a minor gripe, and we spent a really enjoyable hour wandering about, and discovering the works of another local artist, the Workington-born Percy Kelly, into the bargain. Neither of us had heard of him before but we loved the examples of his work, so that was a happy bonus – as was a quick coffee in the gallery’s newly-refurbished café (it suffered during Storm Desmond).

And if you want to go and see the Monet haystacks for yourself, it’s at Abbot Hall until 28 April this year. Admission is around £7 per person, but that includes the whole of the rest of the gallery so it’s good value for, er, Monet!


Two go exploring in Glenridding

We used to call in at Glenridding quite often, usually to go walking. There are some great paths on the lower fells between the village and the slopes of Helvellyn which dominate it, and some pretty amazing industrial archaeology left over from the area’s lead mining heritage. But for the last couple of years we haven’t been.

Partly this was due to lack of time, but also partly because the village (and indeed the whole area) was so badly devastated by Storm Desmond that it was too upsetting to go back. However, Desmond’s catastrophic floods, and the three more that followed so quickly afterwards, are more than two years ago now, and repairs have been going on in the village for the whole of that time. The Tourist Information Office, almost completely washed away, has been rebuilt, the beck which overflowed to such terrible effect newly lined with thick stone walls, and the Glenridding Hotel, which flooded four times, has been dried out and re-opened. So on Saturday we decided to go back.

It was a bitterly cold day with a wind strong enough to whip up waves on Ullswater. We started off by the water, with a coffee at the Pier House. This is really a glorified ticket office for boat trips on the lake, but it a few tables and chairs, teas, coffees and cake, a tiny gift shop, and the most amazing views.

After defrosting over our coffees we pottered round the pier, taking photos of the boats, the water and the village rooftops against a backdrop of the high snow-clad fells. It was too cold to hang round for long, though, so we marched back to the village and explored the lanes on both sides of Glenridding Beck. One leads to the village hall and a wonderful farmhouse whose round chimneys suggest a fifteenth or sixteenth century date. The other side passes the Travellers Rest pub then continues past lines of isolated miners’ cottages to the old Greenside lead mine, site of a disaster in 1927 when a dam burst on one of the reservoirs used to run the machinery and, er, flooded the village. It seems to be rather prone to that!

We didn’t make it quite as far as the mine this time but we had a good wander about and I took loads more photos of the cottages, and the fells which were bathed in dramatic, stormy light.

There are still a few scars on the village and the surrounding landscape which will take time to fade. But given the scale of the flooding, and film footage I’ve seen of the beck in spate, it’s wonderful that they’ve come this far with the recovery efforts. We’ll definitely be heading back.


Stormy light over the head of Ullswater, with the high fells in thick cloud.


Mine workers’ cottages on the way to Greenside mine.


An unusually helpful Herdwick posing to have its picture taken…


Inhumanly bad?


Warning – this review contains spoilers!

We finished watching the Marvel’s Inhumans series on TV the other night. Goodness, what a disappointment. The first couple of episodes weren’t bad – an intriguing premise, reasonably interesting characters and a nice line in confusion about who the real baddies were.

But it went downhill fast. The whole thing felt rushed (8 episodes for an entire series really isn’t enough). Too often plot strands which appeared to be going somewhere interesting were shut down in the very next episode and never referred to again, and vast developments were ushered past us so quickly we kept missing their importance. Added to that, the dialogue was mostly wooden, the special effects ludicrous, and some of the acting was terrible. The exceptions to this were Ken Leung as Karnak and British actor Iwan Rheon (above) as villain Maximus, both of whom managed to bypass the dialogue to inject a bit of feeling into their characters. Anson Mount struggled heroically with the role of Black Bolt, the mute king who had to ‘sign’ all his dialogue and mostly resorting to scowling and pointing, and several of the women were no more than stock characters (the pouting princess, the kooky scientist).

In almost every department the key words seemed to be ‘every expense spared’. The mutant ‘inhumans’ had a range of dodgy special powers which were mostly useless (a young lass with butterfly wings, someone with reptile claws instead of hands – which were so obviously rubber gloves it hurt). And in many of the crowd scenes the producers had obviously used extras rather than actors, so they simply trudged onto the set, listened to whatever was going on, then trudged back off again without so much as a word. Even if they’d all just been sentenced to death.

All of this made it hard to care for most of the characters, so when one of them died it had very little emotional impact. In fact, pretty much the only character I did care about was Maximus, the king’s usurping younger brother, which led to an uneasy conflict between caring about the baddie and not particularly liking the supposed ‘goodies’.

And the ending was really unpleasant. Maximus was clearly suffering from severe mental illness, but nobody offered him any help or treatment, just locked him in a concrete bunker for all eternity. Hardly the right message to send out nowadays; it would have been unenlightened even in the 19th century, let alone the 21st.

We were left with a strong feeling of ‘if only’. With a bit of care, some decent writing and the time to develop both the themes and the characters properly, this could have been a worthy addition to the Marvel stable, and a counterpoint to all their expensive biff-bang-wallop movies that are currently doing the rounds. Word is the series has been cancelled anyway, but even if it comes back it’s touch and go if we’ll bother to watch it again.

Windermere Christmas market

P1000011On Saturday we braved the bitter cold (minus 2c, to be precise), wrapped up in our woollies and headed to the Windermere Christmas market.

The town held this for the first time last year, and great fun it was too. It was called ‘Ja Windermere’ in a slightly odd nod to German Christmas markets elsewhere, but had very little German content and this year they’d dropped the ‘Ja’ bit. Sadly, they also seemed to have dropped most of the very stuff that made it so enjoyable. Where there’d been a good range of stalls selling local crafts, gifts and produce, this year most of those had disappeared. All that was left was hot food, and drink. In other words, a whole market full of takeaway stalls.

It still seemed very popular, but I can’t help feeling that food and drink stalls are an addition, not the main event themselves. It felt rather like going to a rock concert where the band doesn’t show up, and the whole gig consists of watching the roadies assemble and disassemble the stage. I’d hoped to buy a Christmas present for my cousin, but I didn’t really think a plastic cup of mulled wine, or a cold congealed burger, would go down too well. And there wasn’t much else. We trailed up one side of the market and back down the other in about ten minutes flat, then visited some of the other shops in the town and headed home.

It’s still early days, and I’m hoping that one, it generated some useful revenue for the town, and two, they manage to bring back the local content next year. If not, I probably won’t bother going again.

Being Me review

BeingMeThere’s a smashing new review of the ‘Being Me’ charity anthology over at Kimmer’s Erotic Book Banter. (If you’re put off by that word ‘erotic’, by the way, don’t worry – ‘Being Me’ isn’t a particularly erotic book and as the review suggests, would be suitable for YA readers as well as sensitive adults!)

I’m absolutely bowled over by the lovely comments on my own story, The Visitor, and delighted that I seem to have achieved the effect I hoped for.

But this isn’t just about me. There are also glowing mentions for at least seven of the contributors, all of whom have written stories that are full of emotion, understanding and acceptance.

If you’re looking for a collection of lovely, inclusive stories and a stocking-filler for Christmas, then you can find the book here. And you’ll be contributing to a really good cause in the process.

Two go exploring in the sleet

Saturday brought a nice crisp sunny morning with snow on the high fells so we ditched the chores and shot out to take advantage of it. We headed to Coniston again because it’s not too far, and perfectly situated at the foot of the magnificent Coniston fells so there’s plenty of options for photographs.

Although everywhere looked stunning there was a knife-like wind blowing sleet flurries across the valley and the outside temperature was only about 2c, so first port of call was a café for a hot drink. This time we chose one at the far end of the high street, which used to be called something cosy like Daisy’s or Mrs Tiggywinkles, but is now the Green Housekeeper. Sadly, the welcome was rather chilly, and the assistant sneered when I chose not to make use of the loo in an unheated outhouse. Given the selection of other warmer and more cheerful establishments, I don’t think we’ll be hurrying back.

Onwards to the lake. The village of Coniston is set back from the water’s edge, so it’s a half mile (or so) walk along a lane and by the side of a tumbling beck. This leads to the rather grandly named Coniston Pier, really just some open ground with lovely views across the lake, some boat moorings, and a lovely modern café called the Bluebird after the boats the Campbell family used to set speed records here.

Annoyingly, the minute we got the maximum distance from the car the heavens opened with torrential, diagonal sleet. Dave had a hood but I didn’t, and had left my brolly in the car. We sheltered at the boat tour ticket office for a while, then set off on a long wet trudge back to the village, during which I got absolutely soaked. And the minute we got back to the main street, it stopped and the sun came out. Typical!

Never mind, I did manage to get some nice shots of the water in the mist, and of the snowy fells. We also came home with some sticky cakes from the Bluebird café, and some amazing artisan bread from a new little baker we’d not tried before. And very moreish they all were too.

Coniston (lake) in the sleet, still managing to look beautiful:


A snow-covered Coniston Old Man looming over the village rooftops:


Ghostly science

There’s a fascinating article in the current New Scientist magazine about research on the physical and psychological phenomena that may be behind sensations of haunting.

Apparently a former member of the Most Haunted crew, parapsychologist Ciaran O’Keeffe, wants to build an immersive video game that will test people’s responses to various scary scenarios, in order to find out what scares us most, and when, and why. There’s also research being done on the effects infrasound – sound below the normal level of human hearing – and electro-magnetic fields can have on human senses, and in particular the feeling of not being alone.

Needless to say, some of the results are pretty underwhelming – sensitive people are more likely to be scared by spooky situations, as are people who already believe in ghosts. But there are new and interesting lines of enquiry springing up, such as the role of synaesthesia – the ability to use more than one sense at once – and the phenomenon of sensitisation of different areas of the body at once, which may lead to a feeling of being touched.

I found all this really interesting. It’s always good to see research putting a rational, scientific spin on previously inexplicable events. However, the one thing that saddened me was the lack of any possibility whatsoever that some of these paranormal events are just that – paranormal. In my case none of the arguments put forward in the article help to explain things I myself have experienced. Yes, that could just be because we don’t yet understand the science behind them. But it could also be because they were real. Surely we need to research this whole subject from both directions – one, that it can all be explained by science, and two, that it can’t. And wouldn’t it be exciting if we could find proof of the latter, as well as running after the former?

Two go exploring in Keswick

We had a lovely crisp sunny autumn morning yesterday, so hopped in the car and headed for Keswick nice and early before too many crowds got there.

Keswick is one of our favourite Lakeland towns. A few years back it suffered badly during the Foot & Mouth crisis, and it’s been hit by flooding several times as well. Luckily it’s managed to bounce back, and is now home to a wide range of shops and cafes, many of them on the artisan side. On top of that the scenery is stunning, with a walk down to the shores of Derwentwater, and the Skiddaw fells looming over the rooftops.

We started with a mooch round the Saturday market stalls, then had a quick coffee at the Wild Strawberry (not so much wild as livid, to quote the old Not the Nine O’clock News sketch), and then walked to the lake. Here, instead of going to our usual spot by the landing stages, we turned off over some National Trust land to get a different range of views/photographs. I also managed to snap a few interesting bits and bobs around the town, which will no doubt turn up on my Instagram account in the days to come!

By now it was getting pretty crowded and we were running out of time on the car park ticket, so we grabbed some nice grub from the market and set off through yet more sunshine and scenery for home.

Strange wicker sculptures framing the view across Derwentwater:


Seagulls perched in a line: