The stories of my life on a little island in the middle of the Mediterranean sea ... and my occasional adventures beyond these shores.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Dunster village and its castle

Some friends of ours recommended a visit to Dunster and I have to say we were not disappointed. Dunster can best be described as a quaint little village, its streets lined with cottages in a variety of pastel shades, one next to the other, like so many flavours in an ice-cream parlour. The village has its origins in medieval times, although Iron Age remains have been unearthed in the surrounding hills, and it is mentioned in the Domesday Book that was published in 1086. Dunster is situated within Exmoor National Park and is surrounded by sweeping hills which boast a diverse range of wildlife. The village used to be an important centre of cloth and wool trade in Somerset but, after the decline of that industry in the 18th century, Dunster was locked in a time warp - which enables the visitor to fully appreciate its medieval architecture while ambling along its picturesque streets.

Dunster, West Street

High on a hill (called a tor) overlooking the village is Dunster castle. This is where we started our visit, so this blog post will follow our footsteps around the castle and the village.

Dunster Castle

The first castle, which was made of timber, was built by William de Moyon (or de Mohun) around the time of the Norman conquest of England in 1066. The castle remained in the hands of the de Moyons until the 14th century, when the family sold the castle and its land to the Luttrells. The Luttrell family lived in the castle, making countless alterations to it, for 600 years until they handed it over to the National Trust in 1976.

Dunster Castle

Entrance to Dunster castle is via an arched entryway. Immediately to the right of the entryway, one can find the stables. The next stop after the stables is up a small flight of steps that takes you to the dank and dark oubliette dungeon. The oubliette, from the French oublier (to forget), is literally a place where prisoners were chained and then conveniently forgotten.

Dunster Castle - Oubliette

In fact, no traces of the oubliette can be seen since access to it is through a trap-door in the floor. The place gave me the shudders but such was the reality of the past. Perhaps its not the most auspicious place to start the tour but, moving on to the castle itself the oubliette was, well, quickly forgotten.

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Once inside the castle's outer hall, the tour took us to the Drawing Room followed by the Inner Hall and the Dining Room. (Thankfully, photography was allowed). As I glanced at the beautiful objects on display, the crystal and china, and the hand-crafted furniture, it quickly became apparent that Dunster Castle was not some austere fortress but a once much-loved, comfortable family home. My thoughts instantly travelled several thousand miles to California, as I knew that Elizabeth (whom we all know as the Vintage Contessa) would have enjoyed touring Dunster Castle as much as I was going to.

Dunster castle - Drawing roomDunster castle - Drawing roomDunster castle - Dining roomDunster castle - Dining room

Dunster castle - Grand Staircase

The second floor of the castle is reached by the Grand Staircase - carved entirely out of solid blocks of elm in 1680. Up on this floor are the Morning Room, the bathroom, a number of bedrooms and the Leather Gallery. The Leather Gallery used to be the banqueting hall and gets its name from the leather hangings depicting the story of Anthony and Cleopatra covering its walls. Leather is apparently ideal for a banqueting hall as it does not hold the smell of food in the same way fabric tapestries would.

Dunster castle - Leather GalleryDunster castle - Leather Gallery

My favourite bedroom was the King Charles Bedroom, simply because this was the bedroom a young Charles II stayed in when he had visited Dunster Castle. The room comes with its own secret passage, which further adds to its allure.

Dunster castle - King Charles BedroomDunster castle - Secret passage

Another staircase leads back downstairs to the less formal Gun Room, Billiard Room, the Office and the Library. The office (called the Justice Room, as Mr. Luttrell was a Justice of the Peace) seemed like the perfect place to call one's own and I could really imagine myself sitting there and writing eccentric stories or endless letters to wonderful friends. As for the Library, well, who wouldn't love to sit in this sumptuous room with a good book, and spend a couple of hours having a quiet read while the butler, footmen, cook et al got the tedious tasks done?

Dunster castle - The Library

The castle tour ends in the Conservatory which leads off of the  library and visitors exit the building on the south terrace which overlooks the lush Somerset countryside.

Dunster castle - The Conservatory

The castle grounds abound with blooms of all types and colours and make for a really pleasant walk. Needless to say, Dunster Castle has its own resident ghosts and we learnt a bit more about them in the crypt, which was the last stop for us before we exited the castle grounds. From there we walked to the bottom of the hill and took the road on the left which leads to the Water Mill.

Dunster Castle

 Dunster Castle

Dunster castle

Dunster castle

The Water Mill

It takes a good 20 to 30 minutes (depending how fast you walk) to get to the water-mill. The road goes through the woods and leads downhill all the way. The vegetation was so profuse and the leaves on the plants so huge, that this woodland area reminded me of a tropical forest. Coming from an island that in summer is akin to a desert, all the abundant greenery made me giddy with pleasure.

Dunster

I almost wanted to get lost forever amongst the fifty shades of green that surrounded me. To be honest, I did wander off and lose my way for a few minutes, but then, in true English style, it started to rain, so I made my way to the water-mill past an old foot-bridge that crosses the river at this point.

Dunster

The Water-mill (also known as Castle Mill) is a restored 18th century mill. The current building dates from 1780 - although a mill has stood on this site since medieval times. The mill is still used to grind flour and is powered by two overshot wheels which may be viewed on the mill's upper storey. The adjacent wagon house and stables have been converted into a cafeteria and the ground floor of the mill houses a National Trust shop that sells products created by artisans from the area.

The water-mill, Dunster

The water-mill, DunsterThe water-mill, Dunster

On leaving the mill, we immediately came to Dunster village.

 Dunster Village

Dunster

It is hard from someone like me not to fall madly in love with a place like Dunster, which couldn't be prettier if it were the figment of someone's imagination. The villagers seems to have conspired together to make sure that anyone visiting Dunster will not easily forget it.

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The village streets are lined with brick houses, some in their natural state, and others gaily painted in pastel shades that seemed to be trying to compete with the profusion of blooms that spill over every window-sill and carpet every garden.

Dunster

I admit that I also loved peeking into some of the house windows because of the unusual objects that greeted my curiosity. The winding lanes spill out onto West Street, which is just around the corner from the Priory Church of St George.

Dunster

Dunster

 

Priory Church of St George

Dunster, Priory Church of St George

The current edifice is from the 15th century but evidence of workmanship from the 12th and 13th century remain. This small country church has a beautifully carved wooden wooden ceiling and a carved rood screen that separated the parishioners from the monks. I found its sombre interior, in sharp contrast to the more flamboyant Maltese churches, perfectly suited for prayer and meditation.

Dunster, Priory Church of St George

I also absolutely loved the graveyard located just outside the church, with the grass-covered graves and ancient headstones pock-marked with moss and lichen.

Dunster, Priory Church of St George

It was absolutely impossible to find anything about Dunster that I didn't like. From the church, we made our way towards High Street.

High Street

Dunster, High Street

High Street is where most of the artsy little shops are located. Unfortunately, since it was Sunday when we visited, a lot of them were closed. One store that was open was David Deakins' Studio. We were mesmerised by his colourful paintings which seemed to exude their own particular light, as if the bright Mediterranean sun was shining on these very English scenes - truly remarkable pieces of art.

Dunster, High Street

Dunster, High Street

We continued walking along High Street, peering into the shop windows and enjoying the mild weather till we got to the Yarn Market.

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The Yarn Market

The Yarn Market, at one end of High Street, is a wooden octagonal-shaped building that was at the centre of the wool and cloth trade in Dunster until the 18th century. It was built in the early 1600s to protect traders from the elements and is still in almost perfect condition to this day. From the  Yarn Market, Dunster Catle is clearly visible, high up on its hill, seemingly surveying the village below.

Dunster, Yarn MarketDunster, Yarn MarketDunster, Yarn MarketDunster, High Street

All the walking around Dunster village and the castle had made us hungry. So we stopped for a snack at the Chapel House Tea Room and Craft Shop. I had cheese scones with smoked salmon (I can never resist smoked salmon when it's on the menu) and a cream cheese spread on a bed of crispy salad, washed down with Sicilian Lemonade. It was a simple meal but very delicious.

Dunster, Chapel House Tea Room

The Chapel House Tea Room is quite eclectically decorated, with mis-matching chairs in vibrant colours and tablet topped with prints of maps or board games, which I thought were all very charming.

Dunster, Chapel House Tea Room

The adjacent gift shop had a number of unusual and wonderfully-crafted items for sale but I contented myself with buying some cards (I can never resist cute stationery either) which were prints of original paintings by artists Rose Eddington and Jess Trotman.

And that brings me to an end of this (rather long but I hope enjoyable) tour of Dunster. I hope you all loved it as much as I did.

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Saturday, August 27, 2016

A tribute to a special woman

Her name was Rose and she was my maternal grandmother. Today would have been her 100th birthday and I could not just let it pass without a small tribute. She was born to Maria and Francesco in 1916 at the height of the Great War, the eldest of nine siblings. As a little girl, I spent many days with her and, with that inherent inquisitiveness of childhood, I would ask her a thousand questions about her life as a child. So she told me about her father, who had fought at the Dardanelles; about a brother and sister who died in infancy - from whopping cough, if I remember well. She explained how few children were lucky enough to go to school in those days and she soon had to stay at home to help her mother with the babies that kept coming every other year or so. But in the evening, when her chores were done. she went to the nuns and they thought her to embroider, crochet and sew, which seemed like no mean feat to someone like me who never had the patience to pick up needle and thread.

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My Nanna with her brother Joseph

It seems like that's about all I can remember about her childhood, which is strange, because I spent countless days in her little kitchen with its blue and white cupboards and polka dot teacups. What I do recall is that she married my grandfather on February 4th, 1940 and went on to have six children, two of whom, my aunt and my mother, were born during the worse months of WW2. It was a life of hardship, of constant air-raid sirens (Malta was the most bombed country in WW2) and of long hours spent in the underground shelters that were hewn into the limestone. Though she was never ambitious for herself, she dreamt big for her children, encouraging them to get an education and supporting them beyond secondary school. Three went on to become teachers and one a nurse,f while the boys preferred to take up a trade.

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My grandparents with their children in 1945 (my mum is the one of the right)

My grandfather died when she was 49, which to a 6 or 7 year old, seems like a grand old  age, but now that I've almost reached that 'venerable' age, I realise how relatively young she still was. Yet not once did I ever hear her complain or bemoan her fate. She found joy in the little things, constantly, and never ceased to focus on what she had, rather that on what she had lost. Which does not mean that she ever forgot about the husband she had lost, wearing her wedding band and engagement ring (her 'consent ring' she used to call it) until the day she died.

If anyone had to ask me to use just one word to describe my Nanna, I would say that she was kind - which may sound like a very little word for someone who was so much more. But in a world where acts of kindness are becoming so few and far between, her constant thoughtfulness on behalf of others, not least myself, stand out like a beacon of light on the dreariest night.

Time is a cruel thing. Not only does it take away those we love, it also slowly subdues our memories of them, until we are left with fragments, bits and pieces of a jigsaw puzzle with several missing parts. But there are moments and particular traits that we will never forget - like the mischievous twinkle she would get in her eyes when someone caught her eating cookies or a slice of cake (she had adult onset diabetes) or slathering her toast with too much butter; or the motto to never put off until tomorrow what you can do today (sort of the complete opposite of Scarlett O'Hara), a motto that she embraced and followed diligently until the end of her life; or the radiant joy she always felt at celebrations like weddings, baptisms or graduations. We miss her physical presence at moments like these but I do not think she is ever too far away,

Memories may become faint with the passing years and photos fade away but there are things that not even time can take away from us. And today, as I stumble over words that don't quite convey what I would like to say, I think about a characteristic of hers that will stay with me all my life. Because when all is said and done, when we can't remember little details like what her favourite colour was and the name of her cat (it was Smokie), we will always remember her smile. That smile that lit up her face and made her eyes sparkle and that embraced us in its warmth and love. The smile that made it feel like everything would be all right.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

A day in Bath

Bath is not a huge city but there are enough attractions to fill up the best part of a day. If you're travelling by car, the best way to see the city is to park, ride and then walk around. The must-see attractions are situated at a leisurely 30 minute walk from each other and one day will give you ample time to see and experience what Bath has to offer.

The Roman Baths

Bath is an ancient city that was inhabited long before the Romans came to Britain. Although its original name is lost, during the Roman occupation of Britain the town was know as Aquae Sulis (the waters of Sulis) - Sulis being the name of the deity worshipped by the ancient Britons at the place where a hot spring bubbled forth from the earth. Never ones to pass a good idea if they saw one, the Romans merged the worship of Sulis with that of their goddess Minerva, and Sulis Minerva was born. A great temple was built in her honour right next to the hot spring and huge baths were erected in the vicinity of the temple.

Entrance to the Roman Baths, Bath

Entrance to the Roman Baths and temple

Entrance to the baths is via a a 19th century building that is adjoined to the Great Pump Room constructed about a century earlier. Are the Romans Baths worth a visit? For anyone who loves ancient history, they certainly are. An audio-guide is provided with the entrance ticket and the information on the audio-guide together with the large number of information boards spread around the complex  provide a fascinating insight into life in Roman Britain and into the baths and temple themselves.

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The Great Bath

The current city of Bath is about 4 metres above the town of Aquae Sulis so, apart from the Great Bath, which is open to the elements, the remains of the other parts of the Roman Baths and the remnants of the temple are on a subterranean level. At the end of the tour, visitors can sample filtered mineral water from the spring which has made Bath so famous for over two thousand years (be warned that it tastes very metallic). Exit is through a National Trust shop that sells a variety of interesting souvenirs. The shop is also directly accessible from the street.

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Bronze head of Sulis Minerva

 

Bath Abbey

Another building that shouldn't be missed on a day trip to Bath, and situated right next to the Roman Baths, is the Abbey Church of St Peter and St Paul - more popularly known as Bath Abbey. A church has stood on this site since the 7th century but it was destroyed and rebuilt several times. Following Henry VIII's infamous quarrel with the Church and the subsequent dissolution of the monasteries in 1539, Bath Abbey was in ruins until work on its restoration started in the 1600s.

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Bath Abbey

Large parts of the current abbey were added to the 17th century building by architect Sir George Gilbert Scott in the 1860s. The present abbey of Bath is a splendid example of Victorian Gothic architecture. It boasts a wonderful fan ceiling and over fifty windows of stained glass.

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Fan ceiling in Bath Abbey

Bath Abbey is famous for having been the place of coronation of King Edgar in 973. It stands right next to the spot where the ancient Romans had built their temple to Sulis Minerva and one of my favourite views  of Bath Abbey is its reflection in the water of the Great Bath: history - layer upon layer of fascinating juxtapositions - that's why it's a subject that will forever fascinate me.

The Great Bath & Bath Abbey

The Great Bath & Bath Abbey

 

The Circus and the Royal Crescent

Throughout the centuries, Bath had is fair share of popularity and misfortune. Following a period of decline, the city became popular again in the late 18th century when fashionable gentry travelled there to 'take the waters'. It was during this time that an architectural revival took place that led to the construction of, amongst others, the world-famous Circus and Royal  Crescent. The houses at the Circus and the Royal Crescent are perfect examples of Georgian architecture in the grandiose Palladian style. The sweeping arcs of the Royal Crescent in particular, bring to mind a palatial residence - although in actual fact the Crescent is made up of 30 separate houses whose exterior is repeated from one end to the other to create a  uniform style and the illusion that one is looking at a single residence.

Which the Royal Crescent is shaped like an arc, the Circus is a perfect circle. Architect John Wood (the elder) designed its diameter to coincide with the dimensions of Stonehenge. Number 17 used to be the home of painter Thomas Gainsborough and was used as his portrait studio.

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The Circus

The Shops

You're probably wondering what shopping has to do with history and architecture and, of course, the answer would be nothing. But, in my opinion, you cannot travel to a city and not stop for a while to discover its shops.

Due to its compact city centre most of the the shops in Bath are within easy walking distance of each other. Apart from the usual high-street stores that you'll find  in every major town and city across England, Bath boasts a large number of independently-owned stores and boutiques selling everything from the quirky to the eclectic.

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Outdoor stalls dot the city streets, some of them, like The Chilli Hut, selling produce that I would not usually expect to find in the historical centre of a city like Bath.

Just round the corner from the Royal Crescent, a pedestrianised street (that appears to be known as Margaret's Buildings) is lined with delightful little shops. On the corner at the upper part of the street, Bath Old Books is a must-stop shop for all book lovers. This shop stocks a wide array of books on specialised subjects together with a large selection of Jane Austen novels and children's books. I had barely stepped inside the bookstore when my nostrils were tickled with the unmistakable scent of old books, all crowded together but in an orderly manner. I inhaled deeply and didn't want to leave.

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Bath Old Books

Literally just a few steps away, Off The Wall Antiques offers a veritable treasure-trove of excellently curated objects from around the world. This store felt more like a well-travelled person's home than a run-of-the-mill antiques store. I just wish I'd remembered to take some photographs.

Other shops worth a mention are Bath Aqua Glass - a glass company specialising in stained glass, glass blowing, glass jewellery and decorations; Gallery Nine - an art gallery that offers a selection of jewellery, ceramics and original prints; The San  Francisco Fudge Factory - for handmade fudge, chocolates and other sweet treats; and Vintage to Vogue - a clothing shop speciliasing in quality men's and women's vintage clothing. Unfortunately, there's never enough time to check out all the shops that I would have liked to but you can take a sneak peek at a few others here.

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Bath Old Books & Gallery Nine

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