Archive | August 2014

Favourite pubs: The Blagdon Inn, Blagdon, near Taunton

My family spent a lovely lunchtime yesterday celebrating our father’s 83rd birthday at the Blagdon Inn, in Blagdon near Taunton, at the foot of the Blackdown Hills in the beautiful county of Somerset.

The Blagdon Inn, Blagdon, Somerset.

The Blagdon Inn, Blagdon, Somerset.

This pub has only recently opened (in March this year; previously it was the White Lion, before that an Indian restaurant, and before that another pub), and I have eaten lunch there with my Dad some four or five times, the first time when it had only been open a fortnight. Each time the food has been exceptional and the service warm, friendly and attentive. The pub hasn’t yet found the public we all think it deserves, so I am doing my tiniest bit to publicise it.

The chef, Sam Rom, formerly worked at the famed River Cottage canteen in Axminster. The Blagdon Inn shares the River Cottage ethos in that the food is locally produced, sustainable and seasonal. The pub has land near the pub on which are kept chickens, pigs and sheep (all of which end up on the menu in one form or another), and on which much of the produce used in the food is grown. What they can’t produce themselves is sourced locally. The menu has never been the same, and each time I have the hardest time choosing as there is rarely anything on the menu I wouldn’t want to devour …. (August sample menu here).

Memorable dishes I have eaten include a pearl barley and spring asparagus risotto, kipper hash and free-range fried eggs with capers, pulled pork crumble, lamb shank in a gorgeous rich sauce, and bar snacks such as a Blagdon pork sausage roll, potted crab, a kipper and barley scotch egg made with a quail’s egg, lovely spicy roasted almonds, Kalamata olives, and garlic bread. Sam’s twitter feed has some great photos of the food served. I can’t look without salivating!

Blagdon pork sausages, chop and mash. Photo from the Blagdon Inn website.

Blagdon pork sausages, chop and mash. Photo from the Blagdon Inn website.

The attention to detail is wonderful—the bread is homemade and comes on chunky wooden boards, homemade ketchup comes in tiny preseve jars, homemade chunky chips in a white enamel mug, bar snacks on vintage china, and yesterday’s food was decorated with nasturtium, borage and violet flowers, with pea shoots beautifully draped over. Even the paper napkins are really thick and good quality.

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Eton Mess at the Blagdon Inn. Several of these got scoffed by us yesterday lunchtime! Photo from the Blagdon Inn website.

Luckily our other halves were driving, as my sisters and I guzzled several of the lovely proseccos served with fresh raspberry puree—divine!

The pub is a beautiful old building which has been lovingly restored and redecorated, and displays art by local artists, some of which is for sale.

The owner, Nigel Capel, has recently launched a wonderful new initiative in conjunction with the local RVS. It helps older gentlemen in the community who are isolated and lonely to get out and about and meet new friends—a volunteer can bring an older gentleman to lunch in the pub on the first Tuesday of each month, where they will both enjoy a free light lunch. If they are lucky they might see Nigel’s beautiful old Austin parked in the car park.

I have to give a special mention to the manager, Tim, who is an absolute star. Thanks Tim, and all the lovely staff at Blagdon.

A fissure eruption near Bárðarbunga in Iceland

After days of watching the subterranean dike gradually expanding north-eastwards from Bárðarbunga (a volcano under the Vatnajökull glacier in Iceland), today I woke to the news on the BBC (always my first port of call) that there had been an eruption there overnight. I headed straight over to my favourite volcano website, VolcanoCafé. I have been glued to it all day, and not getting too much work done. The eruption was along the line of a previous fissure eruption, part of the Holuhraun lavafield north of Dyngjujokull and south of the Askja caldera, which was formed in an effusive lava eruption in 1797. The eruption seems to have died down for now, but it seems almost certain there will be more to come. This stunning photo made my day:


The eruption in the glorious early morning light in Iceland. The volcanic cones were formed during an eruption in 1797, and are now being added to by today’s eruption. Photo by Thorbjorg Agustsdottir.

It was taken this morning by Thorbjorg Agustsdottir (just before she went to bed as she had been up all night monitoring the eruption). She is a geophysicist at the University of Cambridge and is lucky enough to be currently working in the area. Her twitter feed has some great photos. I am so jealous of her!

Lava flowing from the fissure, 29 August 2014. Photo: Reuters.

Aerial shot of lava flowing from the fissure, 29 August 2014. Photo: Reuters.

It seems the skies above the fissure have been busy today. Here’s a great low-level set of photos of the fissure and the tongues of lava that erupted. Other aerial shots of the fissure, taken this morning by Omar Ragnarsson and Hjalta Stefansson, a very intrepid pilot and his passenger, are equally stunning:

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A still from the first video, showing the fissure line. Taken by Omar Ragnarsson and Hjalta Stefansson.

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Another still from the first video, showing the fissure line. Taken by Omar Ragnarsson and Hjalta Stefansson.

I am very nostalgic because it reminds me of an area of the basalt desert in Jordan in which I worked in the 1980s, and in particular the Qiṭār el ‘Abd, a line of volcanic cones along a fissure:

Part of the Qitar el Abd, a fissure line of volcanic cones in eastern Jordan.

Part of the Qiṭār el ‘Abd, a fissure line of volcanic cones in eastern Jordan. Photo taken from the top of one of the peaks by me in 1989. The ranging rod is by a bedouin grave, with an upright headstone and footstone. The pecked design on the headstone is a wasm, a tribal mark.

The Qiṭār el ‘Abd runs NW-SE for about 100 km from just inside the Syrian border on the south-eastern side of Jebel al-Druze, the main volcano in the region, to the south-eastern edge of the basalt desert in the Jordanian panhandle. It looks on Google Earth like it forks at its southern end but I know nothing about it or the system that produced it, or its age. All I know is that it is a beautiful landscape feature. I absolutely adore basalt landscapes, and now I am feeling very happy-sad in my nostalgia. I had some of the best times ever in the basalt.

A William Morris alphabet

I have a tiny brooch for sale in my Etsy shop—it’s a sterling silver letter ‘C’ in a lovely ornate script, decorated with foliage and flowers. It is unmarked and I didn’t know much about it. I described it as best I could and listed it. I didn’t know who the designer or the maker was, and I hadn’t seen anything like it before.

Vintage tiny William Morris design sterling silver brooch forming a letter 'C', and made by Ortak in the 1970s.

Vintage tiny William Morris design sterling silver brooch forming a letter ‘C’, and made by Ortak in the 1970s. For sale in my Etsy shop. Click for details. (NOW SOLD).

A few weeks later I heard from Rowena, a lovely lady on Etsy, pointing out it was a letter ‘C’ (I had photographed it on its side and not realised it was a letter!), and that she thought it might be by Ortak, the jewellery firm based on the Orkney Isles off the northern tip of mainland Scotland. I have two other pieces by Ortak, so was familiar with the company’s story.

Just today I have heard from another seller on Etsy, a lovely lady called Suzanne, who tells me it is definitely by Ortak. She has a sister brooch, a ‘B’ to my ‘C’.

Suzanne's Ortak silver  'B', for sale in her Etsy shop.

Suzanne’s Ortak silver ‘B’, for sale in her Etsy shop. Click for details. (NOW SOLD).

Suzanne knew who had made it, because it came in its box, marked ‘Ortak, Scotland’. A spot of google-fu was in order, now that I knew it was by Ortak for sure.

Up popped an old eBay listing for a letter ‘P’, with its Ortak box—and the information that the design is based on one by William Morris.

Ortak sterling silver brooch, letter 'P', sold on eBay.

Ortak sterling silver brooch, letter ‘P’, sold on eBay.

I was a very happy bunny at this news. William Morris is one of the founders of the Arts and Crafts movement, and a designer of beautiful textiles, tiles, stained glass, furniture, book design and calligraphy—you name it, he probably designed it.

A bit more truffling produced a letter ‘A’:

Ortak silver letter 'A'. Photo by CAtaway on flickr.

Ortak silver letter ‘A’. Photo by CAtaway on flickr.

and I’m sure if I carried on I would have found still more. Morris’s skill at calligraphy is well known, and his illuminated manuscripts and book illustrations are gorgeous and wonderful. And here are some letters designed by Morris that might have been part of the inspiration for the brooch series above:

Letters designed by William Morris.

Letters designed by William Morris.

So a wonderful learning lesson has been had by me today. I love it! Thanks Rowena, and thanks Suzanne!

A late summer posy

I picked a small bunch of flowers yesterday as a visiting gift: I always like to arrive with a garden-grown posy, if I can. I love how as the year progresses, the colours in the garden get stronger. Spring flowers are mainly yellow and blue and white; by late summer the strong, zingy and acid colours have taken over.


A little posy from my garden. Click to enlarge.


A small late summer posy. Click to enlarge.

This posy has some bright yellow Inula hookeri flowers; deep pinky purple spikes of our native purple loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria), beloved of bees and butterflies; fennel flowers (Foeniculum vulgare); blue spikes of Jacob’s ladder (Polemonium caeruleum); Clematis ‘Polish Spirit’ with its wonderful trails of purple flowers; the very last flowers of the vivid orange Crocosmia plants that have self-sown in our garden; and the purple foliage of Euphorbia dulcis ‘Chameleon’.

It was only a small posy, but it was much appreciated and looked very pretty in its vase. So much nicer than shop-bought flowers, I think: it means more, somehow, when you have grown your gift yourself.

Favourite websites: Kittenwar

Kittenwar is another of my favourite websites. It’s a real time sink if you are a cat lover (like me): once you start looking it’s hard to stop.

Basically photos of two kittens/cats are shown side by side, and they ‘do battle’ as you vote for the cutest. The ‘winningest’ kittens and their stats are listed (hint: take a photo with your kitten’s paws and tubby tummy in full shot and you’re in with a chance), as are the ‘losingest’ (hint: if you have a sphinx or angular-headed Siamese, your darling is going to be on this list …)

I put up a photo of one of our two fudsies, Ballou, on 12 January 2006, and in those eight and a half years she has done battle 4,235 times. Her stats are a pretty steady 49% won, 39% lost and 13% drawn. I think she’s the cutest thing ever in the photo I entered, but that’s because I know she’s enjoying having her ears rubbed and is not being tortured, as it rather looks like …

Ballou. Kittenwar warrior. Not being tortured, honest.

Ballou. Kittenwar warrior. Not being tortured, honest.

Sunday stroll: south-western Wiltshire

Chap and I did a short (c. 2 mile) circuit around our village yesterday lunchtime. We went through the village allotments, and saw a clouded yellow butterfly (Colias croceus) in the wildflower/conservation area there, the first we have seen this year, as well as a beautiful bright green beetle on some mint (the imaginatively named mint leaf beetle).

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Mint leaf beetle, Chrysolina herbacea.

We startled a small flock of starlings out of a dense thicket of blackberries in the conservation area. I assume they were feeding there as 1 pm seems a bit early to roost!

Out of the village there is the Ox Drove, an old drovers’ road that is a haven for butterflies and other insects. (It was here, many years ago, we saw our first and so-far only glow worm (Lampyris noctiluca) on a summer’s evening).


The Ox Drove.

Here there were butterflies aplenty: we saw a brimstone, plenty of small whites, small tortoiseshells, speckled woods, peacocksred admirals and some rather tatty holly blues.

Speckled wood butterfly (Pararge aegeria).

Speckled wood butterfly (Pararge aegeria).

Holly blue butterfly

Holly blue butterfly (Celastrina argiolus).

We also saw a southern hawker dragonfly (Aeshna cyanea) to which I was able to get very close to photograph. I love their folk name of ‘Devil’s knitting needles’, even though there is nothing devilish about them (their larvae however are another matter when it comes to the stuff of nightmares …).

Southern hawker dragonfly (Aeshna cyanea).

Southern hawker dragonfly (Aeshna cyanea).

The berries and fruits are splendid this year. The elderberries are positively dripping off the trees, the haws are colouring up, wayfarers and guelder roses have their bright red berries, there are loads of blackberries and best of all a pretty good sloe crop—not the best there’s ever been, but enough to pick a load for sloe gin and sloe vodka without damaging the birds’ winter larder.

Elderberries (Sambucus nigra).

Elderberries (Sambucus nigra).

Haws ripening (Crataegus monogyna).

Haws ripening on a hawthorn bush (Crataegus monogyna).

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Wayfarer berries (Viburnum lantana).

Sloes (Prunus spinisa).

Sloes (Prunus spinosa).

We walked through lovely countryside of low rolling chalk downland. Our part of south-western Wiltshire is given mostly to arable farming, often in very large fields (often made out of several smaller ones by ripping out the ancient hedgerows, sadly). Most of the crops have been harvested, but nearer to home there were still a couple of fields of wheat, barley and flax waiting to be brought in.





Chap doing his Maximus Decimus Meridius impression in a barley field.

Chap doing his Maximus Decimus Meridius impression in a barley field on the way home.

Jersey tiger moths

I have been in Devon for the past week, and during my visit I saw a moth I have never seen before. It was flying during the daytime, fluttering around some water mint (Mentha aquatica) that was in flower. Its flight was very flappy and fluttery and lollopy, almost as if someone was bouncing it around on a string from above. I knew it was a tiger moth of some sort because of the red flashes of the hind wing, similar to those on the scarlet tiger moths which frequent our garden. It was very bold and unafraid, flying very close to me.

I didn’t have my camera with me, curses, so once it settled on a mint flower and started feeding I made an effort to remember the beautiful patterning on its fore wings. Google was my friend, yet again, and told me it was a Jersey tiger mothEuplagia quadripunctaria.

Jersey tiger moth (Euplagia quadripunctaria) on Hemp agrimony (Eupatorium cannabinum). Photo by Rosenzweig.

Jersey tiger moth (Euplagia quadripunctaria) on Hemp agrimony (Eupatorium cannabinum). Photo by Rosenzweig.

What surprised me was that the range of this moth is ‘widely distributed in Europe from Estonia and Latvia in the north to the Mediterranean coast and islands in the south. It is also found in West Russia, South Urals, Asia Minor, Rhodes and nearby islands, the Near East, Caucasus, South Turkmenistan, and Iran.’  So what on earth was it doing in south Devon?  I read on.

Settled with its fore wings covering its hind wings. Photo by Hamon jp.

Settled with its fore wings covering its hind wings. Photo by Hamon jp.

Until fairly recently, this moth’s only presence in the UK was in the Channel Islands. This raised questions—as northern France is not listed in its range (‘Mediterranean coast’ could possibly include southern France), how did it get to the Channel Islands? Was it an introduction there, either deliberate or accidental?  It takes its English common name from the largest of the Channel Islands.

In Victorian times, apart from its presence in the Channel Islands, it was very rarely known in the UK, occurring mainly in one locality in Devon. Since then it has spread to Cornwall, Dorset and the Isle of Wight, with an outlier population in Kent. Another breeding population became established in London in 2004. The moths are gradually spreading northwards and eastwards from their West Country base. Fabulous!

It was very exciting to see a new and such a beautiful moth species. I wonder how long until they arrive in Wiltshire?

Update: They’re already here! On 12 August last year (2013) the second ever recorded Jersey tiger moth in Wiltshire was photographed at Trowbridge, which is north of us. So we might well see one sooner than I had hoped!

Jersey tiger moths on UK moths website.

Hambledon Hill

I’m a few days late to the news that the National Trust has bought Hambledon Hill, an Iron Age hillfort in North Dorset, for £450,000, thereby securing its future, for ever, for everyone.

Hambledon Hill, Dorset.

Hambledon Hill, Dorset.

The ramparts of the Iron Age hillfort at Hambledon Hill.

The ramparts of the Iron Age hillfort at Hambledon Hill. Photo by David Squire.

I have a very soft spot for Hambledon Hill: it is where I went on my first archaeological dig, 35 years ago. Roger Mercer, then of Edinburgh University, was directing the excavation of part of the Neolithic causewayed enclosure on the hill. The causewayed enclosure is a barely-visible part of the earthworks on the hill: the much later hillfort banks and ditches are the best-preserved and most obvious features. I spent a month that summer hoeing and trowelling chalk in the interior of the enclosure (as a green volunteer I was not allowed near the one large archaeological feature—the enclosure ditch—that was being excavated by experienced archaeologists), and finds were few and far between, but I loved it—summer on the chalk downs, with larks singing overhead and independence for the first time in my teenage life. We camped in a field, washed using water from a tap over a cattle trough, and ate meals cooked by a lovely lady called Grace in the Iwerne Courtney village hall.

(The first ever dig I went on was a Sunday spent at a rescue excavation at a site in the area of the proposed Empingham Reservoir, in 1970 or 1971. The reservoir was later built, and renamed Rutland Water. I found a sherd that I was told was the best found that day. I rather suspect they were being kind to me, but I glowed, and wrote a ridiculously long essay about my archaeological triumph at school the next day. Until that point it had been a toss up between dinosaurs and archaeology. That sherd decided it for me, and set me on course for my career.)

I now live not too far from Hambledon, and Chap and I visit there every now and then. It’s a beautiful spot, and one full of very happy memories for me.

Mystery tile revisited: Iznik?

I’ve done some poking about since I last wrote about my mystery tile. (Click on all photos to enlarge).

The mystery tile.

The mystery tile.

I had discounted it being Iznik as most Iznik decorative floral motifs I had seen were flowing and sinuous, rather than angular and geometric, as in my tile.

However, a late-night spot of google-fu brought me to the official blog of the Glessner House Museum in Chicago. In the mid 1880s Iznik tiles which date from the mid-16th century were used to decorate the fireplace of the newly built Glessner House. The photos on the Glessner House website are very similar to my tile:

Iznik tile from the Glessner House

Iznik tile illustrated on the Glessner House blog. Pretty good match, no?

However, it is not clear from the blog whether this is one of the 1970s reproductions that is mentioned, or one of the three original tiles that survive from the Glessner House collection. (Update: this very tile is for sale at Anthony Slayter-Ralph Fine Art, Tile 70 of the Lockwood de Forest II collection, 21.6 x 19 cm (8.5 x 7.5 in.), so I am not sure how accurate the Glessner House information is. The sale description says it can be compared to two tiles in the V&A, accession no. 1227-1883, but sadly there are no photos with the V&A’s collections database entry for these tiles).

This tile differs from my tile in that the interior of the flower spike is painted to delineate the fish scale-like sections, whereas mine has a bumpy, textured interior and the sections are more circular. The Glessner ones are said to be some 6 inches square (although the one above is 8.5 x 7.5 inches), whereas mine is a tad over 8 inches square. Plus my underglaze background colour is a blueish white, whereas the Glessner House ones are a cleaner, crisper white.

Iznik tiles in the dining room fireplace in the Glessner House, before their removal in the 1930s.

Iznik tiles in the dining room fireplace in the Glessner House, before their removal in the 1930s.

The Glessner House blog provided a photo of similar tiles in the tomb of Muhi al-Din Ibn ‘Arabi in the Sheikh Muhiddin Mosque in Damascus. Another quick google told me that he was properly known as (deep breath) ‘Abū ‘Abdillāh Muḥammad ibn ‘Alī ibn Muḥammad ibn ‘Arabī (also as Muhiddin(e) ibn Arabi), an Arab-Andalusian Sufi mystic, poet and philosopher who died in 1240 AD, and was buried in Damascus. Centuries later his tomb was decorated with these vivid Iznik tiles. They too have the painted fish scale-like interior divisions of the flower spikes.

Iznik tiles in the tomb of 'Abū 'Abdillāh Muḥammad ibn 'Alī ibn Muḥammad ibn `Arabī in Damascus.

Iznik tiles in the tomb of ‘Abū ‘Abdillāh Muḥammad ibn ‘Alī ibn Muḥammad ibn ‘Arabī in Damascus. These have the painted fish scale divisions within the flower spikes.


Ibn Arabi’s tomb, Damascus, Syria. Photo from

So the question is, is mine Iznik too? Is it genuine Iznik, older than the ones at Damascus? Is it genuine Iznik, younger than the ones at Damascus? Was it made by another pottery centre, apeing the Iznik style? Is it a modern reproduction? I don’t think it is the latter as it simply looks and feels too old: it was made in a fairly crude way, the glaze is very crackled and crazed with age, and it has had a life with all its breaks and stains. But I could very easily be wrong.

Time for some more research ….

UDATE: More developments here.

Filming locations: Saltram House

Today I watched the 1995 Ang Lee directed film of Sense and Sensibility again. I haven’t watched it for years and had forgotten what a good adaptation it is, and how sumptuous the filming locations are. It was mainly filmed in various stately homes and estates in Devon, Somerset and Wiltshire—my favourite part of the world (along with Dorset), so there’s no way I’m not going to love this film! I wrote a previous post about how I was lucky enough to watch just a tiny bit of the filming back in 1995, outside Mompesson House in Salisbury. In spring this year we visited one of the other filming locations, Saltram House, while Chap and I were staying with my younger sister and her hubby in Devon. To our shame Chap and I had never visited before, despite having driven past it too many times to mention. Like Mompesson House, Saltram is owned by the National Trust.

In the film, Saltram House stands in for Norland Park, the home of the Dashwoods before they are forced to leave after Mr Dashwood’s death.

Saltram House, just outside Plymouth in Devon. The stand-in for Norland Park in the 1995 film Sense and Sensibility.

Saltram House, just outside Plymouth in Devon. The stand-in for Norland Park in the 1995 film Sense and Sensibility. Photo by Chilli Head.

Saltram House.

Saltram House. Photo by Wigulf.

We took a long walk around the grounds but didn’t have time to look around inside the house, so I have no idea whether the interior scenes set at Norland Park were filmed at Saltram too (given that both the interior and exterior scenes of Mrs Jennings’ townhouse were filmed at Mompesson House, I’m guessing it’s likely that they were).

The grounds are beautiful, if perhaps a little spoiled by the road noise from the nearby A38, and go down to the River Plym. Margaret’s wonderful treehouse in the film is no longer there, but the estate is beautifully kept, with many old and interesting trees.

Margaret Dashwood's treehouse int eh film Sense and Sensibility, filmed at Saltram House,.

Margaret Dashwood’s treehouse in the film Sense and Sensibility, filmed at Saltram House. The avenue beyond leads to the house.

The avenue leading to the house. Margaret's treehouse is at the end of this, and Elinor and Photo by Adrian Platt.

The avenue leading to the house. Margaret’s treehouse is at the end of this, and Elinor and Edward Ferrars go for a walk along it in the film. Photo by Adrian Platt.

The orangery was filled with citrus trees in pots, and pots stuffed full with clivias. The stables, where in the film Elinor almost gets a profession of love from Edward Ferrars (drat his pesky sister for coming along just when she did), were alive with the twittering of nesting swallows: a really joyous sound.

The stables at Saltram House. The swallows were nesting under the arch.

The stables at Saltram House. The swallows were nesting under the arch. Photo by Derek Harper.

We arrived in style. My brother-in-law is a Rolls Royce nut so this was our transport:

1929 Rolls Royce. Sadly the Spirt of Ecstasy at this point was in brother-in-law's pocket because if she was left on the car she might well have been pinched!

1929 Rolls Royce in the Saltram car park. Sad sign of the times: the Spirit of Ecstasy bonnet ornament at this point was in brother-in-law’s pocket, because if she was left on the car she might well have been pinched!