1 June 2014

Well, if that was the summer it didn’t last very long! This week’s weather has been not very nice – wet, grey and miserable!

We had a pleasant day on Wednesday, in spite of the ceaseless and persistent rain. It wasn’t exactly a case of the rain sheeting down all day, as such, but merely an endless and miserable drizzle. Penny’s good friend Vicky had invited Ms Playchute, J and Elisa along for a sprint around the highlights of Stratford on Avon, lunch and then a visit to a neighbouring National Trust Property. For some reason, she also invited me so off we went on a damp, grey, morning to introduce Elisa to all the cultural highlights Stratford had to offer. I was somewhat confused, however, to discover that the cultural highlights the girls seemed most interested in seemed to be located in the various charity shops we passed while enroute to the birthplace, the river, the church, etc.

Lunch back at Vicky’s was up to the usual outstanding standard we have come to expect and soon thereafter we were off up the road to Coughton Court near Alcester.

Coughton is now owned by the National Trust but for the previous 600 years or so the estate was owned by the Throckmorton family, one of the more important Catholic families in England.

My photos weren’t great because of the damp and miserable weather, although I did miss one photo opportunity that would have been superb – a line-up of the “girls” (Penny, J, Elisa and Vicky) huddling under umbrellas and looking like drowned water rats outside the very impressive gatehouse.

Coughton Court

According to the web site:

Coughton Court still has many of its original features including its flamboyant sixteenth-century gate tower. It is one of the last remaining Roman Catholic houses in the country to retain its historic treasures: it houses one of the very best collections of portraits and memorabilia of one family from the early Tudor times.  Alongside family items on display, there are pieces such as the chemise reputedly worn by Mary Queen of Scots when she was executed and a bishop’s Cope, with intricate needlework, believed to have been worked upon by Catherine of Aragon.

After the death of Sir George Throckmorton in 1552, Coughton passed to his eldest son, Robert. Robert Throckmorton and his family were practicing Catholics therefore the house at one time contained a priest hole, a hiding place for priests during the period when Catholics were persecuted by law in England, from the beginning of the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. The Hall also holds a place in English history for its roles in both the Throckmorton Plot of 1583 to murder Queen Elizabeth I of England, and the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, although the Throckmorton family were themselves only indirectly implicated in the latter, when some of the Gunpowder conspirators rode directly there after its discovery.

Although I was aware of the incident, I did not know it involved the Throckmorton family but we were also able to see the Throckmorton Coat. also known as the Newbury Coat. According to the Woolroom Blog:

200 years ago on the 25th of June the Throckmorton Coat was made. Also known as the Newbury Coat. In 1811 the wool and cloth trade in England was proving a lucrative business, wool was very expensive and some say it ‘built’ England in this century. Recent developments in cloth making machinery meant that woollen garments had suddenly become big business, and the process was faster and more economical for the mills than ever before!

John Coxeter, who owned a Mill in Greenham boasted that his mill could process wool straight from the sheep into a coat in 24 hours thanks to his new equipment. So when Sir John Throckmorton heard this statement, he decided to place a bet that a coat couldn’t be made in only 14 hours (hours of daylight in a summer’s day), the price of the bet was 1,000 guineas. The seemingly impossible task was accepted by Coxeter, and the date was set for the 25th June.

At 5am on the 25th June 1811, Throckmorton’s Sheppard delivered 2 of their finest Southdown sheep to be sheared and begin the process. 13 hours and 20 minutes later, a team of carders, spinners, weavers, fullers, dyers and tailors had incredibly produced a finished wool coat!

5,000 locals of Newbury arrived to witness the spectacle of Sir Throckmorton putting on the coat and sitting down to dinner that evening.

In spite of the damp, it was a nice afternoon out and we’ll have to go again, preferably when the sun shines so that we can enjoy what are supposed to be some fairly impressive gardens, fragrant roses in particular, it seems.

We said “good-bye” to Elisa on Thursday morning. Penny took her to the railway station in Banbury and she set off on a journey to Paris via the Eurostar/Channel Tunnel. She will spend a few days in Paris before flying back to Toronto tomorrow.

Wednesday also happened to be Ms Playchute’s latest birthday and I stumbled across a strategy, new to me at least, which proved very useful on this occasion. I pass it along here as a service to other similarly inspirationally-challenged gentlemen (or women) who need some advice on how to find that perfect gift for any special occasion. It’s really simple – listen to what your sweetheart tells you! Has it really taken me more than forty years to discover this or have I just not been listening?

raku_chickensSome weeks ago, just before our most recent outing to the States, Ms Playchute and I visited every small, independent gallery in rural West Oxfordshire looking for some small pieces to present to some of the very important members of our family. In one of them, the SOTA Gallery in Witney, she spotted a variety of ceramic animals by a local artist named Richard Ballantyne with which we both fell in love.

He is best known for character animals and in particular some rather evil-looking chickens, many of which are produced as Raku ware, a technique which involves removing the glowing hot ceramic from the kiln and allowing it to cool in the open air.

While we were admiring his work and choosing some of his  evil-looking chickens, Penny said how much she adored his hares.

Fast forward a few weeks and I was able to get to the gallery again and secure one of his raku-fired hares as a well-deserved gift for the birthday girl. He’s quite a character and we’re both highly smitten with him.

So, the strategy is simple – listen (and remember!) what she says.  That way, you’ll only get it wrong three-quarters of the time.

Finally, I’ve run across Erik Johansson’s wacky photographs before, some of which I think are just wonderful. A few weeks ago, I ran across an article (I think it was probably in the Guardian but for some reason I didn’t make a note of the reference – sorry) about his photography with a link to a short TED lecture (below) on how he produces his art.

This got me thinking and doing a bit of exploring to find a selection of his work. The following all came (I think) from his web site where you can also see many other examples. Enjoy.

Love to you all,