Friday, 23 June 2017

A Trip to Norfolk


Belton House.  Biggest adventure playground ever.  Seriously.  You start at one end with the seesaw which pumps water for a splash pad, and go past the treehouse and rope bridges, and cross over the miniature railway, and discover the giant glockenspiel and spinning wheel, and hop over some stepping stones, and it still goes on.  We gave up and had lunch without ever finding the end, and went off to draw pictures in the beautiful gardens instead.

 


And that was only a short stop on the way to the real holiday in Norfolk.  We were headed to a little house in Heacham, just a few minutes from the beach.  It was a bit cool and breezy that first evening, but you've got to paddle and dig, haven't you?




The sun set beautifully over the sea, and we tucked Toby and Theo up into their bunk bed - which according to them, was the best bit of the whole holiday.



The next day we got a perfect beach day.  We drove to Wells-next-the-Sea, where the sea was so far away that it was more like being in a desert, trudging through endless waves of dry sifting sand.  The boys spent the day excavating tracks and tunnels, endlessly absorbed.  Gradually the tide turned, filling up the river channel and spreading swiftly across the flat banks.  The buoys re-floated and some seals came swimming in to bask on the shore.




Tuesday dawned grey but initially dry, so we took the boys out on their bikes along the sea wall.  Halfway back the air picked itself up and hurled itself at us, in a hammer-blow of wind and driving rain.  We staggered back to the cottage with our hoods flapping around our faces, soaked to the skin.  Once we realised it wasn't easing up, we scurried to the car and sloshed our way along country lanes to the intriguing experience of the Thursford Collection.  Ostensibly it's a steam engine museum, but when you walk in to the large dark hall, lit by sparkling trees and innumerable glints of polished brass on the restored engines, surrounded by the glorious facades of of a dozen enormous fairground organs, it feels more as if you have entered some surreal Victorian experience.


The organs come to life one by one, playing their mechanical tunes in turn, but the star of the show is the Mighty Wurlitzer on the platform.  Robert Wolfe has been playing it here since 1981, and his performance was well worth the entry fee all by itself.  His hands and feet simply danced over the three keyboards and foot pedals, flipping levers, pushing buttons, and creating an endless flow of astounding music.



On our final day the wind still blew but the sun shone.  We walked along the beach by the bi-coloured chalk cliff at Hunstanton - white above, orangey-red below - leaping rock pools, exploring an old wreck, and gathering shells.  In the town was a memorial to victims of a flood in 1953.  I'd never heard of that January night when the cold North Sea came sweeping in, killing hundreds around the UK and over a thousand in the low-lying Netherlands.  The local hero was a US airman stationed in Hunstanton, a 22-year-old named Reis Leming.  He went out into the freezing water again and again to rescue stranded people and was awarded the George Medal for his bravery.





Inspired, impressed, and covered with sand, we headed home.


Friday, 16 June 2017

The start of it all: Derbyshire's industrial heritage

Where would we be without the Industrial Revolution? 

Derby Silk Mill c.1910, via Wikimedia Commons

The development of factories changed our world beyond imagining.  People worked in different ways, ate different food, expected different lives, bought different possessions.  The effects were so wide-ranging that it's astounding to realise that it all came back to a few men in a few places on a small island in the North Sea.  Over the couple of centuries from 1750 to 1950, Great Britain burned coal, harnessed steam power, invented machines, built mills, and had an industrial output out of all proportion to its size.  Once you try and wrap your head around the magnitude of what happened here, it's just incredible.

And Derbyshire was in at the very beginning of all that.  The first factories, buildings made just to do one job, over and over again.  The development of the idea that one water wheel could drive all the machinery in that factory.  The employment of women and children to work to the rhythms of the machines, day and night.  The disputes between those who worked and those who pocketed the profits.  The heat.  The noise.  The injuries.  And the ideas which spread all over the world.


Most of the mills are quiet now.  Lumsdale Valley, near Matlock, is so tranquil that it's hard to imagine it ever being a hive of industry.  A cluster of stone buildings tumble down the slope beside a splashing stream.  Only their names hint at their previous existence: the paint mill, the bleaching works, the saw mill.  The earliest date back to the 1600s, probably; by 1780 things had really got going, and there were half a dozen small businesses drawing power off this one small section of the Bentley Brook.



A little further south, at Cromford, the entrepreneur Richard Arkwright also harnessed the power of falling water.  In 1772 he built the first successful cotton mill in the world.  His spinning machines ran 24 hours a day, attended by hundreds of women and children.  It made his fortune, and it made anyone else who was at all interested in this new technology sit up and take notice.  Everyone wanted a mill like Arkwright's mill.  And pretty soon, it must have seemed like everyone had one.



Meanwhile down in Derby, Lombe's silk mill had been running for years.  It was already a tourist attraction by the 1770s.  Making silk had been the Italians' closely guarded secret for a long time, but John Lombe had gone to work in the silk industry there, slipping downstairs at night to make drawings of the machinery, and come home to England to build his own silk mill.  The new building on the River Derwent, with its distinctive tower, was one of the first factories in Britain.  The Italians had their revenge, though: Lombe's death in 1722 was thought to be the work of an Italian assassin, sent to poison him.



Now the Lumsdale Valley is a pleasant walk, the Cromford Mills are a tourist attraction, and the Silk Mill is a museum, currently draped in poppies as a memorial to World War I.  The energy and the innovation of the Industrial Revolution has dissipated.  So has the smoke and the squalor.  But the legacy lasts, not only in these buildings, but in almost every way we live our lives.  Here was the start of it all.  And it hasn't ended yet.

Friday, 9 June 2017

It isn't that important to me...

When we went sailing a few weeks ago, I mentioned to one of the club members that I had tried sailing a topper as a teenager, and really enjoyed it.  He asked: "Why haven't you done any sailing since then?"

Well.

On the face of it, that's a perfectly reasonable question.  On the other hand, why don't we do all these many things that we would probably enjoy if we did them?

Because our weekends are already full. 
Because we don't know anyone else who does it. 
Because it will cost money. 
Because we're afraid it will take up all our time.
Because the kids don't want to.

Because, quite frankly, it isn't that important to us.

Which isn't really something you can say to someone who's been sailing for longer than you've been alive.  But that's pretty much what it comes down to.

That brief conversation, and a similar one with a tennis instructor, served to point out the difference between those who are "in" an activity - and can't understand why someone else wouldn't at least want to try it - and those who are "out", for whom the question, "Why not?" is answered by, "Why would I?"  When sailing is your whole life, it can be hard to comprehend that it's not even on someone else's radar.

Church, of course, is much more than a leisure activity - at least for those who are in it.  But there are certain similarities to a sailing club.  It's what you do at the weekend.  It's where you make friends with like-minded people.  It organises barbeques and breakfasts.  It will take over your life if you want it to (and possibly even if you don't).  It has branches all over the country.

And those who are "in" don't really understand why those who aren't, aren't.

I mean, we know, of course, that plenty of people don't go to church.  Or sail.  Or play tennis.  And we realise that this is for the same kind of reasons that we don't play bowls or join the local fishing club.  But it's still hard to get past the idea that if they just tried it, they would be there every week.

To a certain extent, that does work.  I mentioned before how impressed I was by the efforts the LTA is making to get people into tennis.  And you know what?  I could see us getting into tennis.  Not in a big way, but in a join a club, get a bit better at it, play a few fun games kind of a way.  And this is coming from someone who has never been into organised sport, and whose main memories from school are of repeatedly failing to hit the ball.  Ever.  In anything.  So they must be doing something right.

Likewise, sometimes all it takes is an invitation to church.  But it's still got to coincide with some recognition that this is important.  That it's worth the time and money that it takes.  That it provides something that is missing in our lives.

So.  Why not?  Want to give it a try?

See?  It's fun!