The Library: 2016

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As an ‘only child’, I spent a lot of time reading.  I learned to read fluently at the age of four and from that age I just loved books.  I must have read the full collection of Ladybird books, everything from history to wildlife; I loved ‘Wind in the Willows’ and I re-read it only last month.  The Heidi Stories were a delight and I also re-read those a couple of months ago, with equal delight.  I moved on to Agatha Christie, Georges Simeon, Gavin Maxwell and Henry Williamson until I got more serious and became a passionate follower of Thomas Hardy.  I could read in the quiet of my bedroom or in front of the television.  I never got into Enid Blyton or Arthur Ransome; I think it is difficult to relate to books about brothers and sisters or a group of close friends when you are an ‘only child’.

My mother was a reader; she was a member of the public library but she was also a member of a Book Club.  She never got rid of a book; they were displayed on book shelves, piled high.  She had very catholic tastes in books, everything from autobiographies to the novels of Compton MacKenzie, from biographies of people like Cary Grant to the battles of Napoleon Bonaparte, from the novels of Frances Parkinson Keyes to those of Howard Spring (people I’ve never read).  Over the years, I followed her habit of keeping any books that I bought and my bookshelves began to bulge.  When she died, I inherited all my mother’s books.  I had no idea what to do with them.  I just merged them with my own.  They looked very good on purpose-built bookshelves.  I have moved all the books several times, the last time 14 years ago.

But the world changes and I have to change with it.  I haven’t stopped reading, in fact, I read more than ever but I read on a Kindle.  I never thought that I would change from ‘real’ books to a ‘device’ but I did and I love it.  It makes going on holiday so much simpler, just one book rather than taking seven or eight.  I haven’t bought a novel in about five years.  I’ve managed to re-read all the classics like ‘Pride and Prejudice’ and ‘Jane Eyre’.  The best thing about a Kindle is that if you drop off to sleep at night, while reading, you don’t lose your page.

I bought this tea towel last year at the Bodleian Library in Oxford.  I just love it because it reminds me of my love of reading.  There are some great books on these bookshelves, all about girls, nothing I would have read.  The reality is that I am planning on moving home, at some point, in the near future and I have to make a decision about whether I am going to move the books once more.  I don’t read them, I don’t use them, they gather dust and they take up a lot of space so about six months ago I decided to pass them on.  But where to? Some have gone to friends like Fee and Jane, some have been sold via places like MusicMagpie and WeBuyBooks, a few have gone to local charity shops but I knew that some would not be easy to sell.  Then about a month ago, I visited Blickling Hall, a National Trust property, that has a serious secondhand bookshop which raises funds for Blickling Hall.  When I say ‘serious’ I mean a proper secondhand bookshop; it has a huge range of books in a very large area, not just a few bookshelves.  That’s it.  All my books will go there and hopefully will raise some money for the National Trust.  My mother would like that, so today that’s what I did, took most of my books, that I no longer want, to Blickling Hall.  That was nearly 500 books in about 20 boxes.  Once completed, I felt as though a weight has been lifted off my shoulders, nothing to worry about.  It’s not that I have got rid of all my books. I’ve still got the ‘coffee table’ books, some classic books, books that have been given to me as presents, books that have been inscribed and all the books about Edward VIII who was my mother’s favourite hero, someone she thought had been misunderstood.  And, of course, my travel books.

This tea towel will always remind me of my original collection of books and the journey to Blickling Hall to empty my bookshelves in order that other people can enjoy them.

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100 Years of the National Trust: 1995

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If you wanted a tea towel to celebrate 100 years of the National Trust, you couldn’t do better than to ask Pat Albeck to design it.  Pat has been designing tea towels for longer than I have been collecting them.  She has designed more than 300, many for the National Trust.  She has a clarity of design, with attention to detail.  So, this tea towel says what the National Trust is there for, in pictures not words, but encompassed within the title of the tea towel, she has been able to use images that represent the National Trust: countryside, coastal areas, clouds over a wide horizon, hedges, trees, topiary, garden flowers, wallpaper and brickwork demonstrating the different types of building that they care for – 45 degrees Herringbone and Flemish Bond as examples.  It is clever, simple and stylish.  I loved it when I bought it in Calke Abbey in December 1995 and I love it now.  I also bought two fine bone china mugs with the same design but over the years I have managed to break both of them; the tea towel still goes strong.  For me, it epitomises the National Trust and all I love about it.

I know there are some people who feel the National Trust is about preserving stately homes, fine architecture and hundreds of acres of country parks which does not reflect the interests of the majority of the population, that it is about a class system that is outdated.  There have been arguments about whether hunting should be allowed on National Trust land or whether the changes to A303 near to Stonehenge should go ahead or will this damage a historic monument.  For me, the National Trust is about preserving examples of buildings, architecture, countryside, landscaping, farming, ancient monuments but also making them into places for learning  and understanding about our heritage.  It is not about looking at the world through rose-coloured spectacles but acknowledging what has happened and telling the truth.  People made money out of slavery; it wasn’t right, still isn’t right but you can’t pretend it didn’t happen.  You have to learn from the past, hiding it means that slavery still continues today; but it could be traditional farming methods, the mills and their poor conditions, the back-to-back houses, the life of servants who had to walk miles to carry ice from the ice house to the main house, the work of Capability Brown and how he  changed our view of the landscape, the amazing architecture of Robert Adams, the beauty of the artwork of the Arts and Crafts Movement, the discoveries of Isaac Newton, the writing of Wordsworth.  Our past is what makes our present.  That is the beauty of the National Trust.  It offers employment and volunteering opportunities; it self generates income from its membership, its holidays, its shops (including its tea towels) but the great thing about the National Trust is that it is always changing, always taking up new issues.

For me, it was the Enterprise Neptune Campaign that inspired my interest and encouraged me to join the National Trust.  Enterprise Neptune was a long term project to protect large parts of the Welsh, English and Northern Ireland coastal areas, starting in 1965 with the acquisition of Whiteford Burrows on the Gower Peninsula.  The National Trust recognised that as tourism grew in Britain there were areas of stunning beauty, and historical significance, that could be destroyed by bad planning.  This was never about stopping the general population having access to the coastal regions of Britain but it was about protecting the landscape and wild life for future generations.  The National Trust now owns such iconic coastal areas as the Giants Causeway in Northern Ireland and the White Cliffs of Dover.  The importance of Enterprise Neptune is, for me, demonstrated by the National Trust’s big failure, in 1981, to secure the ownership of Lands End for us all rather than to be the tacky tourist trap that it has been for years.  That is the importance of the National Trust.

I have been a member for many years; I probably rarely go round stately homes and admire Robert Adams fireplaces but I will wander around as many National Trust gardens as I can find, visit Dovecots and churches, mills and tracks of coast because those are my interests.  That is what is so good, there is something for everybody.

The National Trust has been one of 25 organisation of the partnership that finally, on 9 July 2017, brought UNESCO World Heritage Status to the Lake District National Park; this had been more than 30 years of hard work, three applications and is now the 31st area and first National Park in Britain to achieve that status.  This successful bid was initially launched in 2001, as a result of the Foot and Mouth Disease epidemic that decimated livestock, tourism, businesses and the countryside in the Lake District.  “It is a unique part of the world that combines a  vibrant farming community with 1000s of archeological sites and structures that gives us an amazing glimpse into our past”  The Outstanding Universal Values, necessary for UNESCO World Heritage Status, that are embodied in the Lake District, are Identity, Inspiration and Conservation: the Identity is the landscape shaped by people’s activities – farming on the uplands and lowlands, quarrying, mining, forestry, water management; the Inspiration comes from the Picturesque and Romantic Movements that flourished as a result of the Lake District with people like Beatrix Potter, William Wordsworth, Samuel Coleridge and many more and finally, the Conservation “… a sort of national property, in which every man has a right and interest who has an eye to perceive and a heart to enjoy….” (William Wordsworth).

“We are delighted that World Heritage Status recognises the Lakes as the spiritual home of the Trust and our work to look after it over the last 120 years…… The status also celebrates the ever-evolving relationship between people and nature” says Mike Innerdale from the National Trust.  Today, I read a newspaper article about the designation of the Lake District National Park as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the role of the National Trust in it, by George Monbiot who said “The designation protects sheep farming, and nothing else.  This blatant assault on nature turns the area into a Beatrix Potter-themed museum……..” and he said much more.   Personally, I prefer the views of Mike Innerdale to that of George Monbiot and my commitment to the National Trust brings together my love of both history and geography in a way that gives me much pleasure and delight and many tea towels.

Bleatings from Beddgelert: 2012

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I have started to write this Tea Towel Blog on several occasions and each time hit that ‘brick wall’ that writers talk about.  I always get stuck because I haven’t got a lot to say about this tea towel and I cannot find an ending.  That changed last night but back to the beginning.  I remember buying this tea towel in a gift shop in Betws-y-Coed, a small village in Wales in the Conwy Valley.  There wasn’t a tea towel dedicated to Betws-y-Coed; however, I was attracted to this one because of the cute sheep and the ‘play on words’.  I liked it, I bought it, I didn’t think a lot about Beddgelert.  I think I vaguely assumed that it was some weird Welsh word rather than a place name.  I’d never heard of Beddgelert, I’d never been to Beddgelert, I’d never even seen a sign to Beddgelert.  What I learnt last night was that Beddgelert is a small village, with a population of about 450 people.  Two exciting things have happened in Beddgelert: firstly, on 21 September 1949, a meteorite fell through the roof of the Prince Llewelyn Hotel and thankfully nobody was killed.  Half the meteorite was sold to the British Museum and the other half to Durham University.  The second exciting thing is that a lot of the Rupert Bear stories were written in Beddgelert because the author, Alfred Bestall lived, and wrote, there for several years.

So what happened last night?  Every night, when I go to bed, I read for about an hour on my Kindle.  Last night I was reading a crime novel by Stephen Puleston, who I think is a great writer.  His novels are based in Wales with the lead character of Inspector Drake, who has OCD (the OCD is irrelevant to this Tea Towel Blog).  As Inspector Drake investigates, and follows leads, there are at least three mentions of Beddgelert, suspects living there or just going there for the day.  And, as I was reading, I suddenly thought of my tea towel; this is when I realised that Beddgelert was a place.  That stopped me in my tracks;  I needed to look up Beddgelert to find out more.  I have to say that I quite like Inspector Drake, I have several Inspector Drake novels waiting to be read and I look forward, with eager anticipation, to more characters going to Beddgelert.  And, frankly, I am pleased to have been able to cross ‘Bleatings from Beddgelert’ off my list of ‘Tea Towels to be Blogged About’.

Iconic Scottish Images (or Be Prepared): 2017

As regular readers of this blog know, this year I went to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival for a couple of weeks.  I know that Edinburgh is a Tea Towel Lover’s paradise; they have everything from the Loch Ness Monster to Robert Burns, from Highland Cows to Scottie Dogs, from the Monarch of the Glen to the Haggis.  Some are ‘tacky’ (I love a tacky tea towel), some are very artistic (quite like an artistic tea towel), some are sophisticated (I do like a sophisticated tea towel), some teach you things like Scottish words or a piece of history (and I do love to learn something from a tea towel).  Before I left home, I had a serious word with myself about only buying a tea towel if it was something very special and something I hadn’t got already.  I did see some tea towels that I thought even I wouldn’t want in my collection.  I came across one, of many, shops selling a large number of tea towels; I wandered through, casually, and saw these two.  “I haven’t got a tea towel of a Westie”, I thought and I am, after all, a bit short of dogs in The Animal World Collection.  Then I saw the Tartan Stags; I love anything with tartan.  A little bit of tartan reminds me how much I love Scotland.  It was a bit of an extravagance buying two tea towels in one shop, at the same time but, after all, I was on holiday.  They were a bargain, a lower price than most tea towels I had seen.  The fact is, I really do love them.  So I paid for them, put them in my rucksack, thus avoiding having to pay for a plastic bag, and went off to see the  next show.

The next show was ‘Be Prepared’ by Lesley Stone.  This was a very funny, and clever, show about Lesley’s love of the Girl Guides, Guiding and Collecting Badges.  Purportedly having been a Girl Guide in her youth, Lesley’s ambition was to set up Girl Guides Reunited, for people too old to be a Guide and who wanted to rekindle their youth.  Girl Guides Reunited would have a whole new set of badges to collect (like the Hip Replacement Badge) and as a group could determine whatever badges they wanted.  There were some great tales and innuendos from the past.  Audience participation was encouraged with the opportunity to sing “Ging gang gooley gooley…….” one more time.

I couldn’t help thinking of my friend Jean who had been a Girl Guide, a Ranger, a Guide Leader and a member of the Trefoil Guild.  She would have loved the show.  The audience participation meant we all had to work hard to gain our Community Singing Badge; as we left the auditorium, at the end of the show, Lesley was standing at the door to hand out the Community Singing bade which she stuck on our jumpers (I still have mine, not on my jumper but on the front of my Tea Towel Blogging Book, as a reminder of what a great time I had).  I tweeted Lesley to say how much I enjoyed the show and could I suggest one badge for Girl Guides Reunited could be for Tea Towel Collecting (and would want to nominate myself as the first recipient).  I didn’t expect to get a reply.

After the next show, Liz and I went for a meal, still wearing our Community Singing Badges.  As we were pondering on the menu, the woman at the next table said, enthusiastically, to us “You’ve been to see my show.  What did you think?”  I hadn’t initially recognised Lesley out of her Guiding Uniform.  I explained that I had sent her a message, via Twitter, saying how much I enjoyed her show and my suggestion of a Girl Guides Reunited Badge for Collecting Tea Towels.  She looked slightly bemused but this could only lead to a conversation (or maybe a lecture) about the Tea Towel Blog and the Virtual Tea Towel Museum.  “What is your favourite tea towel?” she asked.  My response always, and genuinely, is  “I don’t have an overall favourite, my favourite is always the last one I bought”.  “What’s that?” she asked.  This is where, with a flourish, I produced my two ‘Iconic Scottish Images’ from my rucksack.  She laughed.  Photos were taken and she pondered how she might include a tea towel in her sketch.  It was only when I was describing my unique cataloging and storage system, out loud, that I realised, once again, just how weird and slightly bizarre this is (but then I’m not creating a Girl Guides Reunited with a Hip Replacement Badge to collect; we all have our quirks!).

At this point, I invited Lesley to be a Guest Tea Towel in the Virtual Tea Towel Museum and she accepted, once she got back home and had recovered from the Edinburgh Fringe.  I look forward to receiving her article in due course but in the meantime these two tea towels will remind me of a great show, a lovely, unexpected and funny meeting over a fish pie and the receipt of another Guest Tea Towel in the Virtual Tea Towel Museum.  Below is my Community Singing badge, can’t wait for the Tea Towel Collecting one!

Friendsheep: 2017

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My friend Fee has been mentioned in many tea towel blogs; she was the person who advised me that I should rethink how I photographed my tea towels and suggested that laying them on the back of an armchair was not very artistic.  She was definitely right and, having done that, it inspired me to open the Virtual Tea Towel Museum.  She was my first Guest Tea Towel in the Virtual Tea Towel Museum.  As someone who has never bought a tea towel for herself, and actually only owns five (mostly bought by me), I am privileged that she reads all the tea towel blogs and actively comments.  She also has contributed to my collection, reluctantly at first, but now with more enthusiasm.

I have known Fee for nearly 25 years, first as a student of mine, then an employee and latterly as a colleague and friend.  Our friendship has survived her moving many miles away, the sort of friendship where we can pick up where you left off the last time we met.  If I was asked to describe Fee there are lots of words and phrases that I would use: ‘radical’, ‘feminist’, ‘strong’, ‘campaigner for justice and women’s rights’, ‘political’, ‘individual’, ‘weird eating habits’, ‘smoker’, ‘gobby’, ‘highly intelligent’, ‘passionate’, ‘enthusiastic’, ‘eccentric’, ‘knows her own mind’, ‘independent’, ‘hard working’ and a lot more but never, ever, would I describe her as ‘fluffy’.  Last Christmas, she bought me the Emmeline Pankhurst tea towel from the Radical Tea Towel Company.

So, I was absolutely delighted with the tea towel that she bought me for this birthday – Friendsheep.  It is ‘so unlike Fee’, except the word missing from that list is ‘great sense of humour’; I could imagine her buying this, probably on the internet, and thinking ‘that will teach her to collect tea towels’.  It came with an amazing book called ‘The Trouble with Women’ by Jacky Fleming, something I suggest all women should read!  A good accompaniment to Friendsheep.

I think this is a wonderful, and very different, addition to my collection, and it has good absorbancy; I will always associate this with Fee and her willingness to buy me a tea towel even though she thinks the collection is somewhat eccentric.  Thank you Fee.

British Owls: Date Unknown

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I have had this tea towel for a long time; it’s just been part of my collection, gets regularly used but I have no idea where it came from.  It looks like the sort of thing that might have been sold in the National Trust shop many years ago; I may have inherited it from my mother but I don’t remember it as being a gift and I am not sure that I would have bought it myself (but then, memories can fade).  It’s linen, has good drawings and it is nice.  An Owl Sanctuary is not my first choice of place to visit and I certainly have no desire to go to one of those places where you can handle owls; it’s not ‘my cup of tea’.

However, a week ago something happened, something that I was not expecting and I suddenly thought of this tea towel.  I was visiting my friend, Jean, who, at 91, now lives in a Nursing Home in Aberdeen; I don’t get to see her as often as would like but when I am there I like to spend time with her, chatting, looking at photos, having tea, taking part in chair exercises (definitely not my favourite past-time).  On this occasion, the staff were saying that they were waiting for ‘the Owls to come’; seemed like an odd thing to say in a Nursing Home.  It may have been odd, but it was true.  Suddenly, there was a flurry of excitement with staff saying “the Owls have arrived”; definitely sounds like the title of a bad film.  But, lo and behold, in walks a man with a Snowy Owl on his leather-encased, arm mesmerising all the residents.  I’ve never seen such a reaction.  This was Bob’s Buddies.  Bob’s Buddies is an Owl Therapy and Education organisation that uses hand-reared owls in a fun, educational and therapeutic manner, with a strap-line of ‘Branching out to help you’.  That’s what they do, visit places where people with additional needs or who have mobility problems can experience the birds, touch them, hold them, learn about them.  Everyone knows about canine therapy, this is the same but with owls.  The one problem with owls, that you do not have with dogs, is that they are not house trained.  The staff have antiseptic wipes on hand for cleaning up any mess, at all times.

The residents seemed to show no fear or disquiet, many wanted to hold the birds on their arms or just stroke them.  The murmurings of delight were a pleasure to watch.  The first bird that met the residents was Gizmo, the Snowy Owl.  I hadn’t realised what an odd looking bird the Snowy Owl was.  William, the owner of Bob’s Buddies, certainly seemed to have an amazing relationship with Gizmo.  Gizmo was taken to meet all the residents; when Jean was asked if she wanted to touch Gizmo, she shuddered and said “No, I don’t like all those flapping wings” and visibly cringed.  There was a long discussion about the reaction that people have to birds flapping their wings.  I don’t know why Jean would have an aversion to birds flying around; she had lived with a succession of budgies (usually called Chirpy or Cheeky and occasionally Joey) for many years which were allowed to fly around the living room.  Jean eventually confessed that her sister Myra was the lover of the budgies and Jean just put up with it and cleaned the cage.

Gizmo had left a ‘reminder’ of his presence on the brand new carpet, which was quickly cleaned up.  Gizmo returned to his cage, only to be followed by Leo, the Long-Eared Owl (clever name, eh what?).  A smaller, brownish owl but equally beautiful.  Leo decided that a Zimmer frame was the ideal place to sit, much to the amusement of all the residents and staff.  All the residents were offered a thick glove so they could hold Leo, and many chose to do so.  Jean admitted that she really liked seeing the owls, as long as she didn’t have to touch them.  The Barn Owl, Bob, was also a hit but he was too heavy for residents to hold but they could touch his very soft feathers and admire his beautiful colouring.  While all this was going on, William was telling people about how these owls were reared, what they ate, how long they lived, what sort of work Bob’s Buddies did.

I can see why this is called Owl Therapy.  Residents were intrigued, fascinated and mesmerised by the presence of the owls (and they loved William).  As soon as they had gone, residents were asking when they would be back.  They were entirely focused on the owls, listening to the information and repeating back facts; they were enjoying the experience with their friends, something real and different to talk about and engage with.   I felt privileged to have been able to share this experience, even though, along with Jean, I didn’t want to hold an owl!  A brilliant day, highly recommended and brought to life a tea towel that didn’t have a story to tell until then!

PS: This is a picture of Jean looking aghast at the idea that she might have to hold an owl and Leo on a zimmer!

Bass Rock: 2017

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If you stand on the seafront in North Berwick, near the Seabird Centre, looking out to sea, there is a very strange looking rock emerging from the sea.  The little boy next to me said to his mother “Is that rock covered in snow?”; this was on the hottest day of the year.  I looked at it again, it wasn’t an unreasonable question, it is white.  Somehow, it doesn’t look as though it should be there; it doesn’t fit in with the surrounding islands which are lower, elongated and with some greenery.  This rock looks stark, arising sharply to 351 feet at its highest point.  It is of a similar rock formation to the North Berwick Law.  This is Bass Rock, home to 75,000 pairs of nesting gannets, the largest colony of Northern Gannets in the world, what David Attenborough described as “one of the wildlife wonders of the world”.  The little boy was right; it is white and it is white for two reasons.  It is covered with thousands of gannets sitting on nests which from a distance just seems like a white covering.  Where there are a large amount of birds, there is a large amount of bird droppings.  If the rock doesn’t have a gannet nesting there will be gannet droppings.  It is said that Bass Rock is now ‘full’ and that there are some places where gannets have built a nest but there is only space for one parent, rather than the two, so they have have to take turns at being on the nest.

There are boat trips to Bass Rock.  As you approach Bass Rock, you expect to see gannets flying around.  I was beginning to get disappointed but then, as I looked up,  I could hardly see the sky for the number of gannets flying around, preparing to dive, diving, weaving in and out amongst other gannets.  There were thousands, gannets that you could see up close, not bothered by a boat, getting on about their business.  The quantity of gannets in the sky made a bright day a little dimmer by obscuring the light.  It was a stunning sight.  As the boat drew nearer the rock, I could see what was meant by it being ‘full’; gannets looked very precariously balanced on the edge of the rock, I could also see what the little boy meant, it was just white, a solid white.  Fantastic.

As you circle the Bass Rock, you can see the lighthouse, built by David Stevenson in 1902, perched on the cliffs.  You ask yourself how on earth did they transport the materials for its building?  Who would want to staff it for 80 odd years?  But is that the ruins of a chapel? And a castle?  Yes, St Baldred lived here in 600AD.  There is also a well.

A week after my trip to Bass Rock, I walked down to the beach at Yellowcraig, about three miles north of North Berwick.  It was a fabulous day, hottest day of the year, the sea was a brilliant blue, not a cloud in the sky.  You could have been on a Mediterranean beach (except the water was a bit colder).  I looked to the right and there was Bass Rock.  This time it looked as though it was in a mist; how could that be? The sun was so bright, the sea so blue but then I remembered the ‘whiteness’ from the gannets and guano and that was it, the sun reflecting off the white.  From here I could see the silhouette of the lighthouse, protruding from the side and saw how the rock looked as though someone had shaved a slice off Bass Rock.  It’s strange how from this distance you cannot see a single gannet flying but, having been close to Bass Rock, you know they are there.

Standing there, pondering on gannets, it took me back to 1973.  I had shared a house with 11 people, five of whom were called Dave.  Dave Knight, doing a PhD in Chemistry, was a great folk singer and guitar player and he had a stuffed gannet which had pride of place in his room.  It was the days before there were restrictions on what you could ‘stuff’; gannets certainly wouldn’t be one for taxidermy.  I have no idea where he got it from but I was so envious; I don’t know if he still has it.  I have been round secondhand shops where there are loads of ‘stuffed’ animals in glass domes: squirrels, stoats, pheasants, tiny birds, owls but never a gannet.  But hey, I have the memories of Bass Rock and the small furry (as opposed to stuffed) gannet that Liz bought for me at the SeaBird Centre that will accompany me on all my caravan journeys.