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Places

                               
With the sudden sunny weather that has broken out here recently, it’s been a perfect time to visit some interesting places in Oxfordshire. At the weekend, I went for a walk to the Rollright Stones, an ancient stone circle, with a walking group I belong to. After a few miles of walking through fields and woodland, with the sun blazing overhead, we eventually spotted the Whispering Knights, a small cluster of stones that mark a burial chamber, before climbing a little higher up the hill and arriving at the main stone circle. I liked the way that the circle is shaded by trees on one side and seems slightly hidden away from the world, as if you just come across them by accident. The darkness of the small grove of trees behind really adds to the atmosphere. Although there were a few other visitors there at the same time as us, including a motorcycle gang, it still felt very quiet and peaceful.

The stones themselves are very odd-looking, twisted and gnarled into strange shapes. Before the walk, I read a little about the various legends that have developed around them over the centuries. The largest stone, the King’s Stone, is a king that was turned to stone by a witch, and a little way behind him on the hillside are the Whispering Knights who were conspiring against him (also transformed by the witch!). The main circle is called the King’s Men, and there is a legend that if you try to count them, you never get the same number twice (I didn’t try this because I am too superstitious, even though I try not to be…).

Recently I have become quite interested in ancient sites like the Rollright Stones. I have visited Avebury which was beautiful, but rather too crowded for me, as it was the spring equinox. I hope to go another time when it’s quieter, maybe in autumn, when perhaps I can feel the atmosphere and imagine the past a little better. I am curious about the theory that stone circles or burial mounds were built at these particular locations because their original creators could sense they were special places. Or the reverse: that the places have become meaningful, and developed a certain ‘feeling’ that can be sensed by visitors, because of their history and the ways they have been thought of as sacred over the centuries. I would like to know more about all the writers and artists who have been inspired by the ancient pagan history of Britain.

The next day I paid a visit to a very different kind of place. My mum had come to stay so we decided to go to Blenheim Palace, an amazingly grand and ornate stately home and the birthplace of Winston Churchill. First we explored the very pretty village of Woodstock, right next door to the palace, and went inside the church there, which has a beautiful carved Norman door made of orangeish stone and some odd little carved faces peering out of foliage on the pillars inside. Then we had a lovely afternoon visiting the formal gardens and park at Blenheim.

In the gardens of the palace, we managed to find our way to the centre of the maze. The maze is quite large and takes around half an hour to complete, so that you really do feel slightly lost and disorientated along the way! What really surprised me was the end of the maze; when we reached the ‘centre’, I thought we would have to spend another half an hour trying to find our way out, but actually we just stepped through a gap in the hedge and were suddenly outside the maze. It gave me quite a strange feeling! After all this wandering, which had taken place in typical English fashion with the sun beating down overhead, we decided we needed a reward of Earl Grey and marmalade flapjack in the cafe before we headed to the butterfly house. The temperatures outside were already almost tropical, but it was even more sweltering inside the glass house where the butterfly collection is kept. There were some beautiful butterflies inside, all swooping around at high speed, brushing against people and busily feeding on all the colourful flowers: huge black-and-white butterflies, a little orangey one that we decided was a ‘ginger’, and delicate pale yellow swallowtails.

After leaving the butterflies behind, we walked through the park and saw the small Grecian temple where Winston Churchill proposed to his wife, which had a lovely view over the lake. We wandered through the arboretum, past warm red beech trees, beautiful dark cedars and silver birches, and then arrived at the main destination of our walk: the Grand Cascade, a man-made waterfall which we watched crashing down on the rocks below. I think it’s interesting the way the garden designers created the landscape, trying to improve on nature and aiming to create a certain feeling in the viewer. These gardens are beautifully designed and are well worth a visit. While wandering through the park, I was dreaming of being able to come and sit with a book looking down at the lake whenever I wanted! At least I don’t live too far away and so I will try to make sure I come back and see the park in all the seasons of the year.

Recently I spent a few days in Cambridge, which is one of my favourite places in the world. I lived there while I was doing my degree, and I still feel more at home there than any other city.

I think it’s a combination of the beautiful green spaces, the many interesting little independent cafes and shops, and the huge skies and windswept flatness of the Fens that makes me love Cambridge. I especially love its remoteness and slightly austere atmosphere, the gothic architecture and the freezing winters, all of which prevent it from being just a pretty tourist town.

As I went there mainly just to relax, I spent quite a lot of time sitting in the sun in parks or cafes. The cafe highlights are Indigo’s (a tiny but lovely place with good coffee, hidden away down a side street opposite King’s), CB1’s (a cosy, relaxed internet cafe full of books to peruse), and the Rainbow Cafe (a warm and friendly vegetarian restaurant that serves truly delicious food). It was really nice to walk up to Mill Road (where CB1’s is to be found), an interesting street just a little beyond the city centre, with some of the more unusual shops and restaurants; in a way, it’s the equivalent of Cowley Road in Oxford.

I also sat by the river in my old college…

…looked up at the window of my old room…

…went for a gorgeous sunny morning walk along the Backs…

…and wandered round the Fitzwilliam Museum admiring its architecture, paintings and mummified Egyptian cats.

Now I just have to plan when my next visit to Cambridge will be.

 

I haven’t done much reading lately, mainly because I have been away for a few days in St Ives in Cornwall, where I’ve been going on holidays since I was four months old. So, instead of a book-related post, I thought I’d post some photos I took while I was away. There are some beautiful beaches in the area, and I spent lots of time just wandering around the sea-front.

In the first photo, you can see an ancient chapel (which has been there for ‘time immemorial’ according to the plaque on the wall), which is a perfect place to sit and look out over the sea.

St Ives is also a good place to visit if you are interested in art, as it’s been a home to many artists over the years, such as Barbara Hepworth, Ben Nicholson and Alfred Wallis. While I was there, I went to Barbara Hepworth’s studio and to the Tate Gallery, where I saw the summer exhibition.

One of my favourite works in the exhibition was Martin Creed’s ‘Half the air in a given space’. The artist had filled exactly half of the gallery with white balloons. If you visit, you are allowed to enter the gallery, which has huge windows overlooking the sea-front, and swim around among the balloons! Another of my favourite exhibits was a piece by Roman Ondak, in which visitors are invited to have their height measured and recorded against the walls of the gallery. After a few days, the bare white walls had become full of scribbled names, heights and dates, creating a portrait of everyone who had visited the gallery. It was nice to be a small part of the artwork and to leave a memento of myself behind, at least for a while.

Cornwall has some very beautiful landscapes, as I found out on a walk along the cliffs from Zennor.

On the end of a wooden bench in the church in Zennor, you can find a carving of a mermaid that’s over 600 years old. I like it when churches have carvings illustrating more ancient myths and legends, like the green man or mermaid. While in the church, I also saw a reminder of a visit to Cornwall I made years ago to see a total eclipse of the sun. It was nice that this event had been commemorated in knitted form!

I did do some reading while I was away, and finished a book of short stories by Amy Bloom called Where the God of Love Hangs Out. I’d never heard of Amy Bloom before but was attracted by all the praise in the reviews quoted on the back cover. All the stories are about everyday life and the relationships between families and couples. The characters are both very interesting and very realistic; I really felt that they were people I might meet, became intrigued by their lives and wanted to know what happened next. The book is rather unusual because several of the stories revisit characters who’ve already appeared in other stories. So there are four stories about William and Clare, a couple having an affair, and four about Lionel and Julia, a boy and his stepmother. There’s a snapshot of their lives in one story, then the next story returns to the same two people anything from a few weeks later to fifteen years later. I actually really liked this idea, because I didn’t want to say goodbye to Amy Bloom’s characters after only a few pages. The self-contained stories are equally good though. One that sticks in my mind is Permafrost, about a social worker who is helping a young girl in hospital, just because it was so sad! I’ve definitely discovered an author I’d like to read more of.