Autumn 2015: mist, colour and unnatural warmth

Autumn 2015: mist, colour and unnatural warmth

Reading Paul Evans’ Country Diary in the Guardian this morning in which he describes autumn leaves ‘fiery as metal blades in a blacksmith’s forge’, I was reminded that in recent posts I haven’t mentioned the extraordinary autumn we’ve been having this year. After an indifferent few months, summer burst upon us late, and from the last week of September through the entire month of October the weather was governed by a large area of high pressure that remained motionless over much of western Europe. Continue reading “Autumn 2015: mist, colour and unnatural warmth”

The Birthday Tree

The Birthday Tree

There was a cherry tree in the front garden of the house in Cheshire where I grew up.  Every year in spring, when the delicate white blossom would appear suddenly, as if snow had fallen overnight, I would sense that brighter, longer days were on the way. It later succumbed to poisoning from a poorly sealed-off gas mains.

The birthday tree 2
The birthday tree: pictured shortly after our daughter’s birth day

Later, after university and marriage, when we moved into our first house – which may now be our only house – there was a cherry tree that blossomed every April to coincide with our daughter’s birthday, with the consequence that it soon acquired the appellation in our household as ‘the birthday tree’.

The birthday tree
The birthday tree a few springs later

In my memory it seems that as the child moved round the seasons, every April birthday was celebrated under that tree – the dining table pulled out onto the lawn, a bunch of over-excited kids laughing and reaching for treats, and this cherry laden with pink blossom like dollops of ice cream.

These memories were provoked by listening to Fiona Stafford’s essay on the Cherry tree, part of the third series of reflections on ‘The Meaning of Trees’ she has produced for BBC Radio 3’s The Essay.

Utagawa Hiroshige, Cherry-blossom Viewing at Asuka Hill, 1840

Stafford began her talk with examples of the cherry’s association with prettiness – the truly stunning beauty of their unrivalled spring blossoms ‘a short party trick trotted out once a year’ that lasts for barely a week. I knew about the traditional hanami festival during which the Japanese celebrate the transient beauty of the flowers of the sakura as the blossom unfolds like a wave, moving from south to north across Japan as the weather forecasts track its progress. 

What I didn’t know is that a similar excitement grips the American capital every spring as 1,700 flowering cherries lining Washington DC’s Tidal Basin burst into colour in a stunning display. Fiona Stafford – who is Professor in English Language and Literature at Somerville College, Oxford – explained how the plantings of cherry trees originated in 1912 as a gift of friendship to the people of the United States from the people of Japan, when 3,020 cherry trees were shipped from Yokohama. Soon after their arrival, the First Lady Helen Taft and the wife of the Japanese Ambassador planted two cherry trees on the northern bank of the Tidal Basin. For the next seven years, workmen completed the task of planting the remaining 3,018 trees around the Tidal Basin.

The cherry has been around for a long time, Stafford informed listeners. The indigenous range of the sweet cherry extends through most of Europe, western Asia and parts of northern Africa, and the fruit has been consumed since prehistoric times. The introduction of cherries into the British diet has been attributed to the Romans, but Stafford spoke of prehistoric cherry trees excavated at the site of an ancient settlement in Ireland – suggesting that inhabitants of these islands had evidently been enjoying cherry feasts long before the Romans arrived.

Harvesting cherries in the traditional manner
Harvesting cherries in the traditional manner

Henry VIII apparently enjoyed cherries so much that he ordered the Royal Fruiterer to plant huge cherry orchards in Kent. It was there that British commercial cherry-growing really took hold, the fruit being harvested using traditional long ladders, and supplying markets all around the country.

Sadly, Stafford told how Britain’s cherry orchards went into catastrophic decline after Second World War in the face of global competition from Turkey, Germany and the USA. Ninety percent of British cherry orchards disappeared in a couple of decades. There has been a recent recovery – though these days it is usually dwarf varieties that are grown in polytunnels.

From exploring our appreciation of the cherry as blossom and fruit, Fiona Stafford went on to consider how cherry trees are also prized for their swirling, eye-ridden, colourful hardwood – one of the most highly-prized for cabinetry and furniture making because different grain contrasts can often be found in the same cut of solid cherry wood, with the grain lighter closer to the tree’s bark and darker closer to the heartwood.

Cherry wood
Cherry wood

Medicinally the bark  of the cherry tree offered a traditional remedy for fever, and was valued as an aid to sleep. Cherries are bursting with vitamins and are high in fibre, and current research is exploring their anti-oxidant and anti-inflammatory potential. Fiona Stafford gave several more examples of the tree’s beneficial applications. For example, since cherries are natural producers of melatonin, eating a few before retiring will ensure a good night’s sleep.

The Madonna and Sleeping Child with the Infant St John the Baptist ('Il Silenzio')  c.1599-1600
Annibale Carracci, The Madonna and Sleeping Child with the Infant St John the Baptist (‘Il Silenzio’) c.1599-1600

In Christian tradition, the cherry symbolized purity of character and was often called the fruit of paradise, the heavenly reward for a virtuous life. The pure white blossom is an obvious symbol of purity, but, as Fiona Stafford observed, it is the fruit that appears more often in Renaissance paintings of the Virgin Mary, such as Annibale Carracci’s tender painting in which Mary raises her finger to her lips to warn a cherubic John the Baptist not to wake the sleeping Christ. The cherries, of which one has already been eaten, symbolise heaven, his eventual destiny.

The Virgin with the Child, with Cherries and a Cherry Tree, Leonardo (school of)
The Virgin with the Child, with Cherries and a Cherry Tree, (school of) Leonardo

Fiona Stafford is no doubt familiar with another representation of this scene which she mentioned, since it hangs in Christ Church, at Oxford University. In The Madonna with Cherries from the school of Leonardo, ‘the entire background is’, she said, ‘a mass of glossy green leaves and even glossier red fruit’.

From the sanctity of the cherry, Stafford moved on to consider ‘the other side to the innocent cherry tree’: cherry-red lips ‘seem to say, come and play’, as the 17th century English poet Robert Herrick suggested in his famous lines:

Cherry-ripe ripe, ripe, I cry,
Full and fair ones; come and buy.
If so be you ask me where
They do grow, I answer: There
Where my Julia’s lips do smile; 
There ‘s the land, or cherry-isle,
Whose plantations fully show
All the year where cherries grow.

The cherry, commented Stafford, is the tree for sacred and profane love, and ripe cherries, round and succulent, a treat for the senses as well as the soul.

Gallery: cherry blossom in Sefton Park

The other trees whose the symbolism and  importance Fiona Stafford discussed in this third series of The Meaning of Trees were the Birch, Holly, Cypress and the Horse Chestnut, appreciated in Britain for conkers and for its majestic spread – and also as a symbol a symbol of hope, escape and the possibility of one day returning to normality for Anne Frank, writing in her diary about the horse chestnut that she could see from her window in the secret annexe.  

The Anne Frank Tree in 2006
The Anne Frank Tree in 2006

On 23 February 1944, Anne Frank wrote:

Nearly every morning I go to the attic to blow the stuffy air out of my lungs, from my favourite spot on the floor I look up at the blue sky and the bare chestnut tree, on whose branches little raindrops shine, appearing like silver, and at the seagulls and other birds as they glide on the wind. As long as this exists, I thought, and I may live to see it, this sunshine, the cloudless skies, while this lasts I cannot be unhappy.

In August 2010, the tree was blown down by high winds during a storm; it was estimated to be between 150 and 170 years old.

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A woodpecker skirmish in the park

A woodpecker skirmish in the park

This is the time of year when the morning dog walk in Sefton Park is accompanied by the loud drumming of the Great Spotted Woodpecker. It’s a handsome bird when you catch a glimpse of it, either clinging to a tree trunk or flying from tree to tree in a flash of black, white and red. This morning I heard a commotion in the branches above me and saw something quite remarkable.

Greater Spotted Woodpecker
A juvenile Great Spotted Woodpecker (identified by the large red patch on its head)

Since the 1950’s these birds have become increasingly common in parks and gardens throughout Britain. Once you have spotted one, they are easy to identify, being predominantly black and white, with a patch of red at the base of the body. You can distinguish males from females because the adult male has a small red patch on its head (juvenile birds exhibit a larger red patch that later disappears). But in spring their presence is usually betrayed by the sound of their drumming.

Although many people assume that they’re hearing the sound of a nest being drilled, that may not be the case, at least early in the season. In February, before the onset of the breeding season, the male woodpecker drums to signal for a mate. Selecting a hollow tree or dead branch with promising resonant qualities, he taps rapidly on the bark with his bill, making a rattle-like drum roll that is startlingly loud and carries for a considerable distance through woodland. Males not only drum in order to attract a mate – throughout the year they will continue to drum to proclaim their territory. Each male has his own drumming sequence and stops to listen to the replies of males nearby.

The drumming’ is the sound the birds make as they hammer their hard bills against the trunk of a tree. I’ve often wondered how the bird can do this repeatedly without doing itself serious brain damage.  Here’s the answer, given on the British Trust for Ornithology website:

Hitting a solid tree with your beak so hard that splinters fly ought to cause the brain to rotate in the way that causes concussion in Man. Not a bit of it. The evolution of the bird’s drilling equipment has provided very sophisticated shock absorbing adaptations involving the way that the bird’s beak joins the skull. The stresses are transmitted directly towards the centre of the brain and do not cause the knockout swirl.

The beak is used like a combined hammer and chisel to drill into trees and branches and carve out deep nest holes. When woodpeckers hammer into wood to get at grubs they also have another anatomical adaptation designed to help them feed. The roots of their tongues are coiled round the back of their skulls and can be extended a prodigious distance to harpoon insect larvae in their tunnels.

Once a couple have paired off, the nesting hole, neat and round, is bored in soft or decaying wood horizontally for a few inches, then perpendicularly down. At the bottom of a shaft, usually from six to twelve inches in depth, a small chamber is excavated and lined with wood chips. The female lays up to seven glossy-white eggs in the dark chamber, each parent taking turns to incubate the clutch and later feed the greyish, red-capped fledglings. The young leave after three weeks. The nest hole is rarely used again, though other holes are often bored in the same tree.

Great Spotted Woodpecker
A male Great Spotted Woodpecker (identified by the small red patch on the head)

What I saw this morning, alerted by a commotion in the branches above, was the sight of two males skirmishing outside a freshly-bored hole.  I stood and watched for several minutes as they went at it with a fair amount of ferocity. I assume that what I was seeing was one male attempting to take over the freshly-chiselled hole of the other.

Woodpecker is rubber-necked
But has a nose of steel.
He bangs his head against the wall
And cannot even feel.

When Woodpecker’s jack-hammer head
Starts up its dreadful din
Knocking the dead bough double dead
How do his eyes stay in? 

Pity the poor dead oak that cries
In terrors and in pains.
But pity more Woodpecker’s eyes
And bouncing rubber brains.

– Ted Hughes, from Under the North Star, 1981

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Sefton Park Palm House at Christmas

Sefton Park Palm House at Christmas

Palm House Christmas

On our doorstep: the treasure that is Sefton Park.  At its heart: the jewel, the Palm House.  Twice a day dog and I loop around this beautiful building.  In the weeks around Christmas the filigree dome is illuminated with coloured light, and the interior decorated with seasonal lights.

Completed in 1896, Sefton Park Palm House was a gift to Liverpool by Henry Yates Thompson, whose grand uncle  was Richard Vaughan Yates who donated the land for Prince’s Park to Liverpool (the Yates were a wealthy family of merchants and lawyers, Unitarians, social reformers and prominent in the anti-slavery movement).

The Palm House is one of the country’s largest Victorian greenhouses and was designed in the tradition of Paxton’s glass houses and was stocked originally with a rich collection of exotic plants. There are nine marble statues on display inside, together with a marble bench. On plinths around the outside there are a further 8 bronze and marble statues of famous explorers and naturalists.

A period of decline and deterioration culminated in the closure of the Palm House in the 1980’s on grounds of public safety (I can remember the rusting metalwork and slipped panes of glass at that time, with brown palm leaves poking out of the dome through broken glass). T

In June 1992, a public meeting was held to protest the dereliction and calling for restoration. A petition of 5,000 names was presented to the City Council by what had become the Save the Palm House campaign. A fund raising campaign was established, with a ‘sponsor a pane’ programme, generating over £35,000. Eventually, the Save the Palm House campaign evolved into a registered charity, Friends of Sefton Park Palm House that is now the Sefton Park Palm House Preservation Trust.

A £2.5m lottery-funded refurbishment programme saw the building finally restored to its former glory and the building is now open to the public on most days, as well as being used for many other functions (it’s especially popular for weddings). A specially constructed performance area means that the building can be used to host concerts and performances (such as this one, with Eduardo Niebla, the brilliant guitarist from Andalucia).

So – Merry Christmas from Sefton Park, Liverpool!

Palm House 3

Palm House Christmas 2

Requiem for a tree: a ‘luminous emptiness’

Requiem for a tree: a ‘luminous emptiness’

Beech 1

Back in September, in Sefton Park on the trunk of a spreading beech tree I pass every day walking our dog, a notice appeared.  Following an inspection of trees in the park, it stated, this tree had been identified as hazardous, its continued existence posing an unacceptable threat to the public.  Urgent and drastic action was required and the tree would be felled within days.

Beech 5

Beech 4

Beech 2

It’s always sad to come across a tree laid, low in a winter storm maybe, that has fallen under its own weight or weakened by old age.  But to see a fine tree condemned to death in hours is a sad thing indeed.

Beech 3

Beech 6

Enquiries suggested that the beech had become hazardous as a result of infection spreading through the root system.  Two days later the process of felling the tree began: all the major limbs and branches were removed, and the tree remained for several more days, reduced to a bare, leafless skeletal trunk.  Then, finally, one morning’s walk revealed the end: the trunk felled and sliced up into heavy sections.

Beech 7

Beech 9

Last month Seamus Heaney died, so some of his poetry was fresh in my mind. His 1987 collection, The Haw Lantern, includes a sequence, ‘Clearances’, in memory of his mother. In his collection of essays, The Government of the Tongue, Heaney discussed this poem, of how it was inspired by a chestnut tree his aunt planted in her yard the same year he was born. Through all his years of growing, he identified with the tree and felt a deep sense of loss years later when he heard that the family that had moved into his aunt’s house after her had cut it down. Writing about his mother’s death in ‘Clearances’, the memory of the tree returned, or rather he wrote, ‘the space where it had been’ did: ‘a kind of luminous emptiness, a warp and waver of light’.

Beech 8

Writing about the death of his mother, that ‘luminous emptiness’ became a symbol of ‘preparing to be unrooted, to be spirited away into some transparent, yet indigenous afterlife’.  It was Heaney’s expression – ‘a luminous emptiness’ – that came into my mind as I took in the space opened up by the absence of the beech tree.

…. Then she was dead,
The searching for a pulsebeat was abandoned
And we all knew one thing by being there.
The space we stood around had been emptied
Into us to keep, it penetrated
Clearances that suddenly stood open.
High cries were felled and a pure change happened.

I thought of walking round and round a space
Utterly empty, utterly a source
Where the decked chestnut tree had lost its place
In our front hedge among the wallflowers.
The white chips jumped and jumped and skited high.
I heard the hatchet’s differentiated
Accurate cut, the crack, the sigh
And collapse of what luxuriated
Through the shocked tips and wreckage of it all.
Deep-planted and long gone, my coeval
Chestnut from a jam jar in a hole,
Its heft and hush became a bright nowhere,
A soul ramifying and forever
Silent, beyond silence listened for.

Sefton Park through the seasons

Sefton Park through the seasons

Good news yesterday that Sefton Park has given Grade 1 listed status by English Heritage. The 235-acre site is regarded as a prime example of the municipal parks created in British industrial cities in the19th century. English Heritage said that the park had been listed because it had remained essentially unchanged from its original layout and was one of the first to introduce French park design to England. It was built by Liverpool City Council and opened in 1872. Sefton Park was designed by Liverpool architect Lewis Hornblower and landscape architect Édouard André who also worked on parks in Paris. The park also features the grade II* listed Palm House, erected in 1896.

Sefton Park 70

Most days of the year dog-walking duties mean two circumnavigations of the park, and with every circuit I give thanks to the vision of city councillors who, in 1867, voted in favour of the Council borrowing £250,000 to purchase 375 acres of land for the development of the park from the Earl of Sefton. Some at the time thought the outlay was extravagant and wasteful. but what won the day was the case for clean, fresh open spaces where those who lived out their lives in narrow streets and courts that lacked sanitation or running water could walk and breathe freely.

So land that had once formed part of the Royal Deer Park of Toxteth did not disappear beneath the streets and houses of the expanding city.  The open fields and the winding courses of the Upper Brook and the Lower Brook that I walk each day remained, a miraculously-preserved landscape of meadows and woodland that might easily have disappeared.

Sefton Park 2

A pleasing aspect of Sefton Park is that, although its overall plan is formal, there are many parts where (both as deliberate policy to encourage wildlife and, I suspect, due to spending cuts and reduced staffing) it has been left to grow wild, so you can walk through glades and along paths that feel like open countryside.

Sefton Park 17

Each morning, joining the confederacy of dog walkers, I have enjoyed hearing birdsong and watching birds and animals for whom the park is home.  Each spring we watch families of swans, geese, coots and moor-hens as they grow; the small but noisome flock of bright green parakeets seems to have grown through the years, too.

Sefton Park 65

On summer mornings, after barbecues, we marvel at the ingenuity of crows and foxes that have scavenged the rubbish left behind by picnickers to leave it strewn across paths and borders (marvel, too, at the ignorance, of humans who leave their detritus where they sat, making no effort to bin it or take it home).

Sefton Park 65b

But, miraculously, the park recovers.  At the end of August, tens of thousands poured into the park for the first Liverpool International Music Festival – an event organized so efficiently that 24 hours later the park was immaculate, without trace of rubbish.

Sefton Park renovation work in 2008

At the turn of the millennium, the park was in a sorry state: the waterways had all but dried up, and the lake too.  The cafe was shoddy and dilapidated, and the bandstand paint was peeling. But the park underwent a £7m restoration in 2005 which included a refurbishment of the watercourses, the renovation of rockeries, a new play area and the restoration of monuments. In 2009, I wrote about the improvements, and added a little bit of park history.

Sefton Park 12

Now the park – with its statues and beautiful Victorian buildings such as the bandstand and palm house  – is restored to its former glory.  To celebrate its new status as grade 1 listed, I’ve put together photos I’ve taken over the years in the park, images that present Sefton Park through the seasons. We are so fortunate to have this space to breathe right on our doorstep.

Slideshow: Winter

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Slideshow: Spring

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Slideshow: Summer

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Slideshow: Autumn

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The Christians in Sefton Park: ‘blue up in the sky, a song of hope’

The Christians in Sefton Park: ‘blue up in the sky, a song of hope’

Christians 1

Oh bliss! Scorching Bank Holiday sun, a fair field full of folk, and great music.  Our doorstep has been a little crowded this weekend as the Liverpool International Music Festival was blessed with a weekend of perfect weather for its inaugural outing, replacing the Mathew Street Festival which had deteriorated into an expensive, drunken mess.

The new festival has offered a varied programme of music – the Liverpool Philharmonic conducted by Vasily Petrenko kicked things off with popular classics and fireworks on an overcast but dry Friday evening; there were the usual Beatles tribute bands on Saturday, and musicians from all corners of the world on Sunday.  The Monday afternoon highlight for me was The Christians, Liverpool’s own socially-conscious soul band.

Christians 2

It was grim up north in the eighties: Thatcher, recession, factory closures, rising unemployment, the miner’s strike, and here in Liverpool the Militant-led city council’s ill-fated rate-capping rebellion and illegal deficit budget (the only time I’ve been made redundant).  Shining light in the darkness, though, were The Christians.  Their debut album The Christians in 1987 was packed with great songs, and there were more on the follow-up, Colour.

Christians 4

The only remaining member of the original 1980s line-up is lead vocalist Garry Christian. The other members of the original band were Russell and Roger Christian (the latter died in 1998) and songwriter andkeyboards player Henry Priestman. The line-up in Sefton Park consisted of Garry Christian (lead vocals), Neil Griffiths (rhythm guitar/vocals), Joey Ankrah (lead guitar/vocals), Lionel Duke (drums), Cliff Watson (bass guitar/vocals) and Mike Triggs (keyboards/vocals).

Though they may be a shadow of the former band in terms of personnel, the new line-up gave us 45 minutes of note-perfect renditions of Christians greatest hits, plus some great cover versions.  They kicked off with ‘Forgotten Town’, those lyrics instantly taking me back to those troubled times in this city thirty years ago.

No life we’re living when there’s no time for giving
No sign of loving in this age of push and shoving.
Another boy with a broken heart
Can’t you see the pressure tearing me apart?
Oh there’s so much for me to overcome
Should I stay and fight?
Well where else is there I can run?

They followed that with ‘Born Again’, another great Priestman lyric that perfectly captured the sense of alienation, boredom and lives wasting away in a dying city:

I used to wake In the afternoon
When the sunshine finally cut through the haze.
I really don’t remember that much I just know I wasted a thousand days.
We need protection from this infection
Something to ease this cruel disease
A ray of hope in a new direction.

It was strange hearing these songs in the glorious setting of Sefton Park on a sunny summer afternoon.  The words are relevant to now: their time has come around again. But something felt different.  This city, for all its losses and trials, is a different place now.  The old problems are back, but the mood has changed.

Next up was ‘Greenbank Drive’.  It’s good to hear a song inspired by a place you pass by every day:

At last I see an open road
And I think I’ve found a meaning and an answer
Lightened of such a heavy load,
Suddenly I’m dancing on air.
And I feel so alive,
Walking Greenbank Drive

Christians 3

Garry introduced the next song as perfect for the day, and written by one of his favourite Liverpool musicians: ‘Here Comes The Sun’.  This was followed by another cover – of Gil Scott-Heron’s ‘The Bottle’. Then it was the soaring lyricism of ‘Ideal World’:

In the ideal world
We’d be free to choose
But in my real world
You can bet we’re going to lose

Your money fills their pockets
Fear fills their tiny minds
At last the world is talking now
This ain’t no way to treat mankind

Here’s a memory-jerking video of them performing it on Top of the Pops in 1987:

They were only supposed to play for 30 minutes, but were allowed to continue for ten more minutes. A chance to hear another of their great 1980s singles, ‘Hooverville’:

And they promised us the world,
In Hooverville,
Said the streets were paved with silver and gold,
Oh Hooverville,
And they promised us a roof above our heads,
In Hooverville,
And like fools we believed every last word they said

We believed every word they said… They finished with their cover of the Isley Brothers ‘Harvest For The World’.

The Christians have a new single out on 23rd September – ‘Inner City Blues (2013)’. It’s a variant on Marvin Gaye’s song, and you can watch a video of it on their official website. Or here!

Afterwards I strolled around the park, getting a sense of the extent of planning and organisation that had gone into this event.  Efforts had been made to make it family orientated, with plenty for kids to do – a packed story-telling tent run by the Black-E, a kids’ climbing wall, food, drink, a funfair, a train making the rounds of the park. There was more music on another stage, and a rock’n’roll band playing at the bandstand.

I’ve never seen the field so packed – it was solid with people camped out on the grass from edge to edge. Fellow Liverpool blogger Ronnie Hughes has done a great job of documenting the four days of the Festival at a sense of place, but here is a gallery of photos I took on Monday afternoon.

Gallery: Bank holiday Monday afternoon in the Park

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