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!

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Tales from the Bunker (abridged)

Last weekend was the Heritage Open Days event, when dozens of otherwise inaccessible (or expensive!) historical properties fling open their doors to the general public.  This doesn’t just mean stately homes, but all sorts of smaller, less-well-known, or downright unusual venues.  In previous years we’ve visited everything from Unitarian chapels to art installations in barns, and fascinating they’ve been too.

This year there was a new place on the list – the Cold War bunker under Kendal’s County Hall.  The hall, built in the late 1930s to provide council offices when Kendal was still the county town of Westmorland, is already a listed building – partly because of its architectural style and partly because of that very history.  And for the first time ever, the council were allowing people in to take a look around.  It sounded so amazing that we cancelled all our plans for Saturday and shot into Kendal instead.

The bunker proved to be a lower ground floor, beneath the main council offices but still above ground – and it probably was amazing.  Sadly, the people who’d organised the event had completely underestimated the number of people interested in secret Cold War history.  They’d advertised on local radio and in the local press, and they’d even got the marketing department at Kendal Library to send a mail-shot out.  The result was hordes.  We arrived soon after it opened at 1pm, to find a long queue snaking through the car park, and quiet chaos inside.  And more and more visitors kept on turning up.

Where about 40 had been expected, several hundred arrived.  The building wasn’t designed to cope; corridors became clogged and the ventilation system blew a fuse.  It was packed, uncomfortable, and very, very hot.  And too busy to do more than one tour at once, which meant hanging round in the county archives room for the best part of an hour.

The staff did their best to keep their tempers, keep cheerful, and keep everyone informed.  There were leaflets, books, and maps of the bunker scattered about, and we spent some time scaring ourselves silly reading those.  (The absolute reality of potential nuclear war, back in the mid to late 1960s, was brought crashing home – a bomb on Manchester, for instance, would have wiped out my old family home.)  But in the end we couldn’t take any more.  We had a quick look round the bits that were still accessible, peering over shoulders, round heads and virtually through people’s legs.  We saw some of the control rooms, and a plan of where the 40-or-so occupants would have lived and worked, and the ‘over-pressure’ ventilation system that would have protected them from radioactive fallout and kept them safe.  And then we headed for the exit, and cooler air outdoors.

We’re hoping next year will be better.  Hopefully the organisers will realise just how popular this sort of history is, and arrange timed entry and official guided tours.  If they do, we’ll be at the top of the list, because it really was a window onto another world.  Although if current world events keep going the way we are, we might just need nuclear bunkers all over again!

A bit more exploring in Kendal

What do you do on a damp September Monday morning, when you’ve had your latest novel rejected and are feeling a bit down in the dumps?  In our case we stuck two fingers up at work and headed into Kendal to do a bit more poking about.  And had a surprisingly fun time again.

This time, we took a leaflet we’d picked up at Oxenholme station, published by Visit Kendal and called Kendal Walking Trails.  Although only small, it contains maps and fascinating facts and figures about three separate walks set in and around the town centre: one taking in culture, one history, and the third various bits of woodland.  We didn’t really have time to tackle all three, or even the whole of any one of them, but set off along one of the routes anyway to see what we could find.

Starting off up the ferociously-named Beast Banks (a former livestock slaughtering area which even Alfred Wainwright describes as “steep”), we tracked down the footpath leading to Castle Howe, the site of Kendal’s first castle.  The current ruin on the eastern side of the River Kent is well-known and plain for any visitor to the town to see.  But how many people realise there was an earlier castle on the slopes to the west of the river?  Probably not many, because it’s tucked away at the back of a load of houses, with barely a sign that it’s there.

Possibly this is because it’s not in the best of repair.  There’s a small and attractive park at the foot of the mound, but the mound itself is muddy and overgrown.  We slithered and clambered around the steep steps and rough paths to the top, and found nothing more than a strange obelisk celebrating the “Glorious Revolution”, a handful of sweetie wrappers and a stunning view.  It would have been nice to have a plaque, perhaps, giving some dates and a sense of the history of the place.  As it was, I’ve taken to Google but can’t find much information, other than that it appears to pre-date the second castle which was begun in 1206.

We slithered back down again and poked about Beast Banks some more, finding a fascinating sign celebrating the life of local architect George Webster, responsible for many of the town’s finest buildings, and a small statue of him perched on a rooftop clutching a scroll of architectural plans.  We also trotted along Garth Heads, a recently restored medieval lane cutting across between Beast Banks and Gillingate, with some intriguing-looking stairways and even narrower lanes to explore another day.  Then it was off to Brew Brothers café for a well-earned lunch.

This time, annoyingly, I forgot my camera so there’s no photos to share.  I’ll try to remember it next time and we can always retrace our steps.

Two go exploring in Kendal

Saturday was a day of what’s optimistically described as ‘intermittent showers’, which means it alternates between thick drizzle and bucketing.  We didn’t fancy kicking our heels round the house all day, so buzzed into Kendal with our brollies to do a bit of poking about.

Although the town is only around 10 miles away, and although we pop in and out like the sun on a showery day, we’re usually too busy heading for appointments, or rushing round the shops, to bother exploring.  However, every now and again it’s worth taking the time for a closer look, as this is an ancient and fascinating place.

There was a settlement on the River Kent nearby in Roman times, and the town easily dates from the early Middle Ages.  The market charter dates from 1189, the church is over 800 years old, and the town (often called the ‘auld grey town’ because of its beautiful soft grey limestone walls) still retains its medieval street pattern of high street, market place, and dozens of old ‘yards’.  The latter are a real feature, often opening up into hidden spaces containing old warehouses, cottages, or alms-houses.  And everywhere you look, there’s intriguing details: artwork, old milestones, intriguing signs and plaques, and a plethora of blue, green and brown plaques placed by the local heritage society to mark places of special interest.

This time I deliberately took my camera, and spent a morning (in between showers) happily snapping away.  I took around 30 photos and have barely scratched the surface, so there’s plenty more material for future visits.  Here’s a couple of pictures to give you some idea of the town.  Top is the steep section of Branthwaite Brow; middle is the ‘New’ Shambles!  And the third is the Highgate Hotel, with its wonderful inscription which reads in full ‘To the dwellers in this place God grante peace’.  I’ll be posting more soon, on my Instagram account.

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Woolly things

a-wool_herdy_teddy-4716This morning we pottered in to Kendal to visit the Woogathering festival for the first time since we moved up here.  Every year since we’ve managed to miss it, either through ill health or through being somewhere else in the country the one weekend it was on.

This year, we were determined to go, and go we did.  It’s by no means the largest festival in the world, but we were surprised by how much was on offer, and by how popular it seems to be.  People were turning up to the main venue, K Village, in their droves.  Or should that be herds?

Puns aside, there were whole rooms full of stalls selling wool, knitting accessories, sheepy things and yet more wool, as well as gifts made from wool and gifts you could make yourself from wool.  In the main aisle of the mall were two rather unusual visitors – alpacas, making themselves thoroughly at home.  And in a tent outside there was a pop-up café doing lamb burgers, right alongside a display of real, live sheep.  Perhaps not the most tactful arrangement ever, but the sheep didn’t seem to be complaining.  Not even the Ouessant, an ancient Celtic breed which are apparently the smallest in the world.  Next door to the sturdy Herdwicks and Rough Fells, they looked like specially-bred lap-sheep.

A short walk along the river to the Museum of Lakeland Life took us to the other main display, this time of hundreds of knitted and hand-crafted sheep made by local school children and dementia sufferers, which are due to be auctioned for charity tomorrow.  They were exceptionally cute, but we suspect rather fleeting.  It rained a lot overnight so the organisers were late putting them out (flocking across the lawn outside the museum), and as we left it was starting to drizzle again.  Since none of them had been provided with knitted umbrellas, they were probably herded straight back indoors.

All in all it was a really fun, lively event, and lovely to see people er, flocking to K Village again which has been rather tumbleweed-y of late.  And the event is still on tomorrow, so if you’re anywhere near Kendal, do pop in and fuzz a sheep!