Monday, April 24, 2023

Big Tops

 Last week, my friend Vix and I got together not once, but twice!

First up, a long promised visit to the Black Country's Glass Quarter, specifically the Red House Glass Cone (built in 1788-1794 and standing tall at 100 feet high) and Stourbridge Glass Museum.  I've blogged about our local glass making heritage and visit to the Red House Glass Cone before here Winter Peach Photography: Pet Cemetery and the Great Glass Mood Elevator but it was nice to see it through someone else's eyes.  For more info, read Vix's extensively researched blog here: Vintage Vixen (

After lunch at Wetherspoons in Kingswinford (also the original location of Broadfield House Glass Museum, which sadly closed in 2015), we headed to Stourbridge Glass Museum, which only opened last year and as such, marked my first visit too.  There were some rare and beautiful pieces on display from 17th century Ravenscroft... this tribute to the former museum.

I was quite taken with this little 19th century glass swan's head perfume bottle by Thomas Webb..

...and a beautifully executed bowl (circa 1905) depicting a fish above water. 

They say every day is a school day.  I was surprised to discover that many glassmakers from overseas settled in the Black Country, bringing with them their skills and knowledge.  The rich coal seams and fire clay around Stourbridge made the area an ideal place for the glassmakers (including French Huguenots fleeing religious persecution) to settle.  I had no idea that records of my home town show the Tyzack family of glassmakers arrived here from Lorraine and settled in Kingswinford in 1612 before Paul Tyzack built the first recorded glasshouse in nearby Lye two years later.  Paul's first son was baptised at St Mary's Church in Kingswinford.

We chatted to the workshop artists, who have unsurprisingly been faced with a staggering energy bill running into thousands.  

Back in August, the decision was taken to switch to electricity provided by solar panels.  It's taken until now to jump through all of the administrative hoops in order to make that a reality.

In need of refreshments, we headed across the road to The Bird in Hand, a typical "Black Country Boozer" dating back to 1886 and frequented regularly by certain members of my family (although weirdly another first for me).  

Upon entering the winner of the CAMRA (Campaign for Real Ale) Dudley and South Staffordshire Pub of the Year Award 2022, the saying "Men are from Mars, women  from Venus" sprang to mind.  We were treated like curiosities and pursued into the beer garden by a Black Country philosopher, fisherman and another who just seemed happy to sit and stare at us.  A memorable visit for all concerned!

I drove Vix back to Dudley Bus Station and gifts were exchanged. 

Vix passed to me a couple of books she knows I'll like - a Luther story by Neil Cross (we're a bit late to the party with Luther and have been gradually working through the entire 5 series every night for the last few weeks), a Philippa Gregory novel, some gem stones which are now surrounding my Aloe Vera..

and the quilted cotton bag containing said gifts thrown in for good measure.

Forty eight hours later and the four of us (Jon and Gareth included) would be meeting up in a field in the Cotswolds.  It's becoming a bit of a habit.

Rewinding a little to Saturday, we spent some time absorbed in nature on a walk in local woodland.  The bluebells were out and I was so happy to see this little beauty - a female Orange Tip butterfly.

I don't think I've ever seen these Yellow Archangel wild flowers before, but they're growing in abundance.

Google lens failed to identify this plant carpeting the raised beds outside the Roe Deer pub....Lulu can you help?

On a recent visit to the National Trust property, Dudmaston, we were surprised to see that the Gunnera had succumbed to the late frosts.  Gareth has been monitoring ours closely and wrapping them up if the forecast hovered anywhere close to zero.  As a result, our potted ones are thriving.  Look at this beast of a flower spike!

On Sunday, we met up in the idyllic setting of Frampton Court's parkland in Frampton-on-Severn.  Another day, another big top.  This time, the purpose of our visit was to see the matinee performance of Les Enfants Du Paradis, the 2023 production of Giffords Circus.

This year we had torrential rain and the scheduled 3 pm UK Government emergency alert test to contend with.  The circus had planned to work around this and in the event, I only heard my phone and a handful of others actually sound the alarm.  A damp squib indeed.  As for the rain outside, it mattered not.  We were warm and dry, cocooned in the magical atmosphere of this vintage circus.  I'll let the photos do the talking.

Vix in her gorgeous Dolly Rockers vintage dress.

Jon and Gareth

Aberdeen born Tweedy Clown, MBE

A fond farewell!  Tweedy is taking time out next year, although he will remain a consultant on the show.

Outside, I took this final shot of the circus tent

and Vix and I posed for a photo, before the heavens opened again.

I'm wearing a Dilly Grey dress with the longest raincoat I could find, giving off Victorian explorer vibes.

And if you were in any doubt as to the inclement weather, here's the dreariest window photo I took of some punters sheltering beneath their estate car doors.  The rivulets of rain on the car window and 5 mph motion of the car provided some interesting image blurring.

Eventually getting off site, we caught up with Vix and Jon at The Bell Inn in Frampton and enjoyed a Sunday roast (turkey, beef and pork for Jon, Gareth and I) and a roasted veggie pie for Vix.  Cotswold cider was consumed by me, making the journey home fuzzy but somehow speedier.

Thanks for the generous Sunday gifts and vintage clothing alterations Vix!  I will endeavour to show them all off next time.  

Now I think that's enough excitement for one week!  See you soon. x

Monday, April 17, 2023

Strange Days

 April is being appropriately unpredictable, but so much for April showers!  We've had wall to wall rain in recent days.  It's usually the case that just as our magnolia tree blossoms, the blooms are decimated by the elements.

Still, we took advantage of the brief window of opportunity offered up by Easter Saturday's sunny interlude...

...and set about creating a bark chip path from the centre of our garden, up and around the side of the pond.  As per any task in our garden, it took three times as long as it should have done, courtesy of the numerous pebbles lurking just beneath the soil in any given spot.  Gareth marked the path out and loosened the soil, I turned it over with a garden fork and then we both painstakingly pulled pebbles - large and small - out of the ground and threw them into a bucket.  Upon completion of the task, we had a bucket full.  I'll rinse them off at some point and use them elsewhere to decorative effect.

We also agreed to allow the teen of the house to throw a party over the Easter holidays, forcing us to address niggles with the interior, including re-arranging of furniture (never underestimate the joy of a fresh layout) and the removal of a now redundant fire hood from our kitchen diner fireplace, which was finished with a fresh coat of paint and the addition of a fire extinguisher lamp to light the void.

We also used a pallet to create a shelving unit.  I have big ideas for this, but on the day of the party, was permitted one shelf (the middle one) to decorate as I chose - opting to disguise the uprights with pinned postcards and photographs and adding my eclectic mix of nature finds (pine cones, granite crystal, a crow's skull), a vintage tea pot, tea lights and a crystal ball.  The boys took over the other two.  I've only just spotted a Danger Explosives sign has also infiltrated my shelf.  The booze and blow lamps will not be permanent fixtures!

Lotte wisely gave us a wide berth and slept the day away on the bed upstairs.  I prefer for her winter coat not to be left behind on my clean sheets, so use a honeycomb blanket during the day, which she makes good use of.

On Friday, I braved the wind and rain to pick up some weekend and party supplies.  On my list was "plasters" as I'd recently noticed we had none in our medicine box.  This decision must have been prophetic, as on the way into Morrisons, battling with what turned out to be a broken umbrella I'd found on the rear seat of the car, I cut my right hand index finger across the middle joint.  Initially it looked like a paper cut, but within seconds had started to bleed profusely.  I headed straight to the pharmacy and tried not to bleed all over their counter.  The supermarket's first aider provided me with a plaster and something to stem the bleeding before I was advised to clean myself up in the toilets and report back to the pharmacist so that she could assess the damage.  She thought I needed a stitch.  Having planned an evening out with Sarah to mark our recent birthdays, an evening in A&E was not something I relished.  

I promptly took myself off to another local pharmacy to track down some adhesive stitches and some bandages, which the second pharmacist thought should do the trick.  I agreed to monitor it for a couple of days.  Mercifully, after applying the stitches and adding two bandages, the bleeding seemed to slow and I felt more confident in my decision.

I met Sarah at the Thai restaurant just around the corner for an evening of cocktails and curry.  I snapped the interior of the restaurant - the former function room of the adjoining real ale pub "The Woodman" - whilst waiting for Sarah.

We were so busy catching up, that I only remembered that we hadn't taken a photograph of the occasion as we left.  Sarah took this atmospheric shot of the two of us illuminated by the pub's doorway.  Classy eh?

Over the weekend, having exhausted most of the National Trust properties in our area, we decided to head out to Wenlock Edge to visit a more unusual property, namely Wilderhope Manor.  Wilderhope is a grade one listed gabled Elizabethan manor house built from local limestone for one Francis Smallman in 1585.  So far, so generic National Trust.  Except it isn't.  If you come expecting walls weighed down by works of art and rooms stuffed full of antiques, you will be sorely disappointed.  The manor remained in the Smallman family until 1734 when it was sold to Thomas Lutwyche.  However, it is not believed to have been used as a main residence after this time and by 1936, was in a poor state and unoccupied.  In 1937, the property was purchased by W.A. Cadbury trust and soon after, John Cadbury donated Wilderhope to the National Trust on condition that it was used for a Youth Hostel...and so it remains to this day.

It was at this point, I realised that I'd committed the ultimate photographer's faux pas and failed to check I had a memory card in the camera.  I hadn't.  I therefore relied on my smart phone, which turned out to be perfectly adequate for my needs that day.

Once inside, the atmosphere changed.  With no one there to greet us, the place appeared to be deserted, apart from one other couple who disappeared through the doors heading towards the upper floors.  Were they visitors like us?  Did they volunteer there?  Unsure how to proceed - it is a Youth Hostel after all - we tentatively moved through the building, trying to make sense of the strange vibes the property was emitting.  I knew very little about the property.  The guidebook mentions that the manor is Elizabethan and a Youth Hostel, but little else of note.

I loved the faded grandeur of the bunting against peeling plaster and the sixteenth century fireplace.

There was some impressive plasterwork on display, just visible in this photo.  For obvious reasons, we felt like intruders and I think this was reflected in my photos.

In a room empty apart from a couple of chesterfield sofas, there was what appeared to be a portrait of a former feline resident on the window ledge.  No explanation, just a framed photo.  The place had an air of mystery.

We headed into the corridor and took to the winding staircase, an incredible feat of workmanship, carved out of solid blocks of oak....

...passing windows framing moody looking landscapes, the majority glazed to this day with their original 16th century glass.

The upper floors were a maze of corridors and dormitories, including one named after Thomas Smallman himself, a major in the Royal Army and whose ghost is said to haunt the property.  There have been numerous sightings of Thomas.  Allegedly there is a second ghost, a young girl who greets those she encounters with a friendly smile shortly before following up with a blood curdling scream.

I have only ever stayed in one youth hostel and that one is certainly eclipsed by Wilderhope in terms of style and comfort.  It soon became clear that no one was in residence this weekend.

Check out the master suite and bathroom.  Impressive!

I was also fascinated to learn that the Youth Hostel is available for exclusive use hire (including the kitchen) at a price of £700.00 per night.  Given that the property sleeps 40, it would make an amazing party pad! YHA Wilderhope Manor Hostel | Cheap Shropshire Accommodation & Camping
The property is off the beaten track, with footpaths and commanding views over the fields and valley beyond; a really remarkable place.  However, the spectre of Thomas Smallman looms large in the area.

The story goes that Thomas was on horseback, tasked with delivering despatches to Royalist headquarters in the market town of Shrewsbury.  In hot pursuit were Cromwell's men.  Once on the edge, Cromwell's men gained ground and Thomas was forced to take a leap of faith, jumping off a precipice.  Little did he realise that there was a drop of some 200 feet beyond.  Luckily for Thomas a large crab apple tree broke his fall and he survived to tell the tale.  His horse however, was less fortunate.  On one of the myriad walking routes on Wenlock Edge stands a way marker bearing the name "Major's Leap."

Even without this knowledge, we had a sense that a night spent at Wilderhope is not for the faint hearted.  Gareth and I were separated for a short time and I felt an inexplicable sense of unease.  We reunited near the staircase and Gareth, having passed this bedroom only moments before, noticed that the light near the upper bunk was now switched on.  The other couple had long since left.

We headed back down the winding narrow staircase, wondering what these walls would have to say if they could talk and, more to the point, would we want to hear?

Even without the knot gardens, galleries and ornamentation such properties usually display, Wilderhope is by no means lacking in atmosphere.  Now, if I could only get 20 or so like minded people to agree to my mad scheme to party here for a night.  Wouldn't that be something?


It's been a curious week of unexpected connections, conversations, sights and sounds, underpinned in some shape or form by panic. I was ...