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Blog : Posts from December 2020

Another human cemetery

Not Greenbank, for a change

Another day, another cemetery, although back on to a human one this time. Back in October, Twitter user @libbymiller asked if I knew Ridgeway Park Cemetery. Although I do know it, and I’ve been foraging for brambles there frequently in summer, for some reason I’ve never taken any photos. Today I woke up, saw it was a fine frosty day, so tried wandering off in that direction.

Ridgeway Park Cemetery

Ridgeway Park Cemetery

Ridgeway Park Cemetery

Ridgeway Park is only small, but its history tracks in microcosm the history of the great urban Victorian cemeteries of Britain. It opened in the 1880s as a private alternative to the nearby city-owned Greenbank Cemetery, filled up with graves, and as it filled up and plot purchases dropped off its owners could no longer make a profit from it. In 1949 the owning company was wound up and the cemetery taken over by the city council.

Ridgeway Park Cemetery, mapped

It was built behind a grand old house, Ridgway House, which in the 1860s seems to have been the home of the private school attended by local celebrity W G Grace. The house was demolished in the late 30s, and there is now no sign of it at all above the ground as far as I’m aware, although Huyton Road runs on the line of its approach drive. Although the house has disappeared completely, the boundaries of the cemetery still follow the lines of previous boundaries. The following map is from immediately before both the cemetery and Eastville Park were laid out, but the cemetery boundaries can be clearly traced on the tithe map from 40 years earlier.

Before the cemetery was built

Unlike the still-active Greenbank, and the much-loved Arnos Vale, Ridgeway Park seems relatively forgotten as cemeteries go. The area near the gates is in reasonable condition, just with grass a little long; but as you go in further, towards the park, it becomes more and more overgrown until you are effectively in a patch of woodland with added gravestones.

Ridgeway Park Cemetery

Ridgeway Park Cemetery

Ridgeway Park Cemetery

If you’re local, this is the ideal time of year to visit somewhere quite so overgrown. If you’re not, you might have to wait a while and come back next winter. Or, indeed, in summer, when it has an entirely different atmosphere but is still just as lovely a spot.

Update, January 11th 2021: I went back to Ridgeway Park with an SLR camera and took some more photos. The new post about it is here.

A more unusual cemetery post

Or, what to do with your faithful companions if you're rich

Last night was a wild night. Howling wind, hammering rain, the sort of storm that wakes you up as it’s trying to blow your bins down the street.

I was surprised, then, this morning, to find the storm had passed and it was a bright, sunny, fresh winter’s day. Not wanting to waste it, and wanting to get some post-Yuletide fresh air, we headed out to Ashton Court. If you know Bristol, you probably know Ashton Court. If you don’t: it’s an ancient manor, already a manor before the Norman invasion, which was bought by the City Council in the 1950s to avoid it becoming completely derelict.

Ashton Court

This is, according to the internet, a much-hacked-about 16th century gatehouse. The interior of Ashton Court is a bit of a mystery, as not much of it is ever open to the public, but its enormous grounds are effectively a public park, albeit a public park that still hosts a herd of red deer. It also hosts a slightly less medieval golf course (boo) and miniature railway (hurrah).

Naturally, today, the railway wasn’t running and I’ve never seen what’s attractive about golf, so we wandered the various gardens and parkland and woods on the estate, nearly slipped over in the soggy, slippy mud from last night’s storm, managed not to fall into the waterlogged haha, and stood by the deer park fence watching the deer.

At the edge of the garden, though, we found something a little more unusual and a little more interesting: the pet cemetery of the last family to live in the house, in the first half of the 20th century. It does not, a hundredish years later, look particularly well cared for.

Pet cemetery

Presumably most of the graves are of dogs, although the headstones generally stick to euphemisms like “faithful companion” and similar. You have to assume this is the grave of a dog, not a servant.

Grave of Matthew

Some of them are in better condition than others.

Pet grave

Pet grave

If I’d known it was there, I’d have brought the Proper Camera, a sketchbook and a measuring tape. If we have another nice day, maybe I should come back again.

Grave of Sylvie

A writing dilemma

Or, where to go from here

Happy Boxing Day and all that!

Regular readers will have noticed I’ve been writing a modern day retelling of The Box Of Delights over the past few weeks. If you’ve noticed that, you’ll also have noticed I haven’t got anywhere near the end of what is supposed to be a seasonal story—I mean, we haven’t even come across the titular box yet.

Bearing that in mind, and bearing in mind my probable low speed of writing, the question is: what do I do now?

  • Keep writing and publishing it here as I write, even if that means the Christmas conclusion is published in August.
  • Keep writing and drafting and publish it here next December.
  • Stop writing it, it’s not very good anyway.

Answers on a postcard to the usual address, etc. And, indeed, feel free to send in any other questions.

Right, now I shall go back to building one of the things I received to play with—feel free to guess what it might be! Merry Christmas!

Christmas present

Yuletide toys

Some assembly required

One of the sad things about growing up, at least to my mind, is that when you’re a child the toys you get for Christmas are hopefully the sort of thing that you can open up on Christmas morning and start putting together on the front room carpet. A box of Lego, for example, or Meccano, or the sort of train set that’s amenable to running on the carpet. As you get older, that sort of present becomes rarer and rarer. They don’t necessarily disappear altogether—I remember one Christmas when I was small, when my dad received a sort of complex marble-machine clock that we spent all of Christmas morning and some of the afternoon putting together—but in general such things are relatively rare. Even if I do get some sort of model kit to open, it will no doubt need careful planning and purchasing of extra materials before I can start putting it together; I can’t just open the box and crack on whilst we’re still eating breakfast.

So, when I noticed there was a new Lego shop in town, I couldn’t resist going in with The Children and buying a seasonal “gingerbread house” to put together over the holiday as a Family Project, although really it was for my own fun. The Children were insistant it be a Family Project, though, so we ended up compromising by strictly taking turns to carry out each step in the instructions. I photographed each individual step, although because I didn’t put any effort into keeping each photo consistent they can’t really be compiled into the sort of engrossing stop-motion video that can be done with Lego. I did try but it wobbles crazily all over the place; please look away if you’re liable to travel-sickness.

Wobbly Lego

Yes, I know it has last year’s date on it. Maybe I should have asked for a discount.

To do such a video properly you’d also have to bear in mind that, given you start off with just a handful of pieces and end up with an entire building, you’re going to have to work out how you’ll zoom out smoothly at some point. And generally, you know, put some effort into proper setup and lighting and everything. Me, I just wanted to play with Lego.

Nearly done

I have to say, though, it does look quite nice sitting under the tree; it would look good on the mantelpiece too but that’s already stuffed with decorations. Maybe next year I’ll be allowed to build it on my own; or maybe I’ll just buy myself a set to open and put together all by myself.

Finished

Not The Box Of Delights (part two)

Part One of this story is here.

Kay was not one for staying in bed all morning. Even though it was the first day of the Christmas holidays, they were up and about nice and early, before their dad had started work. Kay sat at the small kitchen table, slowly munching on a milky bowl of cereal whilst their dad leaned back, eyes closed, behind a large mug of tea, and their mus bustled, filing dried laundry among various baskets.

“I’m glad you’re up already,” said their mum, “you can do me a favour and go and get some quick bits of shopping for me. Just a few bits and pieces I forgot at the weekend.”

“I might have had plans,” frowned Kay.

“Well I can tell you don’t have plans,” said Mum, “otherwise you wouldn’t have said you might have. It’s only a few things, I’ll give you my card to pay for it all, and you’ll get some fresh air and still be home for lunch.”

“I suppose so,” said Kay, holding their spoon up in the air thoughtfully. “If it means I get to choose what flavours of crisps we have.”

“I don’t care,” said their dad, “as long as you don’t eat them all before the rest of us have a chance.” He took a long, slow slurp on his mug of tea, and closed his eyes again.

“There we are then,” said Mum. “And you can daydream all you like while you’re there.” Kay stared out of the window, up at the sky, before looking down at the ordinariness of the kitchen around them, the cooker, the fridge, the piles of laundry. Everything felt strangely disconnected, as if a part of the world was missing but with no sign what shape that part should be.

It was a fresh, frosty morning, the ground sparkling, the roofs of some of the houses still white. Kay walked along briskly down the terraced streets, hands in their pockets against the cold, head down. The list of “only a few things” was considerably longer than those words suggested, and Kay wanted to get to the shop and home again as quickly as they could. They hadn’t seen the Jones family properly for a couple of years, and it was several Christmases ago that they had last come to stay. Last year, Kay had gone to the effort of making a line of Jones family dolls by decorating old-fashioned wooden clothes pegs, and set them up on the mantelpiece, to make up for them not being there in person. Distant as they were—not even first cousins—they were the only relatives of any sort that Kay had ever really felt close to; and video calls just weren’t the same as seeing them in person. Kay took their phone out of their pocket whilst walking along and quickly sent a message to Peter Jones, the oldest: “You didn’t say you were coming! Wanted to surprise me?”

Kay spotted Peter had read the message right away and had started typing back, which is why they were not looking out when they walked around the corner of the street and bumped straight into the middle of a man dressed in several layers of thick tweed. “Why, hello there!” he said.

Kay looked up, into the intense, sparkling eyes of Redwald Johnson. They noticed for the first time just how bright and sparkling his eyes were, as if he had captured a part of the night sky they had both looked up and stared at, and kept it to look out from forever. For a moment Kay let themselves suddenly realise just how strange the whole experience had been, but quickly pushed the thought down to the back of their mind. “Oh! Sorry!” they said, and froze, unsure how Redwald would respond.

“Sorry to interrupt your conversations!” said Redwald, his face breaking into a broad smile. “You must have a lot of holiday treats and capers to plan. Meeting long-lost friends is joy indeed.”

“I suppose it is,” said Kay, still somewhat flustered and confused.

“Oh, most certainly,” the man replied, “and it hurts greatly that there are so many long-lost friends in my life who I will never see again, not to mention the ones I might but can not. In fact—” and here he raised a finger like an actor trying to point to a hypothetical cartoon lightbulb above his head—”you could just be the person I need, to help me send a message to one of them.”

“You mean, run an errand?” said Kay. “This isn’t…anything dodgy, is it?”

Redwald frowned a little. “It’s a message, my dear Kay,” he said, “a few words, nothing more. Nothing that might see you arraigned or indicted or convicted, at least not by the forces of the law. I would never promise you sa—”

“And, you can’t message them?” interrupted Kay.

The man sighed. “I dare not use a phone for this,” he said. “You might think me paranoid, I can see why you might, but if you are unlucky you will discover why I am. Indeed, on that particular subject, i would be very grateful if you would be careful not to mention this to your friend Peter via your device. Tell him to his face, by all means, when you see him this afternoon, but do not let him know about it beforehand and do not talk about it online in any way. You should easily have time before the train arrives, to do this for me.”

“I don’t even know what time they do arrive,” said Kay.

“Ah, no matter. She will be there—my friend, I mean. Go to the Plough and Blackbird on Bly Street, on your way to the station. Inside the public bar, look for an old woman with bright, sparkling eyes. Tell her that if she sees someone, tell them that the circle will break. Have you got that?”

“If she sees someone, tell them the circle will break,” Kay repeated.

“Exactly that”, said Redwald. “Now, mind how you go. And remember, only tell people about this when you are outside together with them, face to face, without any blackguards and card-sharpers listening in. I will hopefully see you again later—I still must introduce myself to your parents at some point.”

“See you later, I guess,” said Kay. “Tell them that the circle will break.”

At least when Kay did reach the shop, the shopping didn’t take too long to do, despite the length of the shopping list. “When are you lot getting here?” Kay asked Peter whilst wandering around the supermarket.

“About four,” he replied. “If the weather’s good can we get your telescope out?”

“Sure,” answered Kay. “Ok, I’ll see if Mum will let me meet you at the station.” They started to type “Got to” but remembered Redwald Johnson’s strange warning, and deleted the last couple of words without saying more.

The house was warm and inviting when Kay came home with the shopping. Kay’s dad was upstairs in his study, typing away and tapping his feet as he listened to music; their mum was in the kitchen, preparing some vegetables for later. “Mum,” said Kay, “can I go and meet the Joneses at the station? You and Dad’ll be able to stay here and get everything else sorted out before they get here. Peter says their train comes in about three.”

“I suppose so,” said Mum. “Be careful though. I suppose you’ll be OK with all of you, but make sure you come straight back.”

“Mum, don’t worry so much,” Kay said. “It’s not like it’s far.” Kay looked out of the kitchen window, down at the garden falling away from the house and over the fence at Redwald Johnson’s overgrown, bramble-choked plot of land, but nobody was there aside from one of the neighbourhood cats silently prowling.

“Dress up warm,” said Kay’s mum. “The weather says it might snow later.”

Kay looked up at a pale grey sky: it did indeed have the look of snow that wanted to fall.

By mid-afternoon, though, the city streets were still cold but dry. Kay humoured their mother by adding an extra scarf, and set off. The light was pale, as if the sun was tired and only part trying, but most houses had twinkling, flashing fairy lights in their windows, either pale cream or multicoloured, brightening up the quiet streets. Some had large Christmas trees in their front bay window; Kay liked to judge the style of each tree. A few were tastefully restrained with every lamp and ornament in the same matching shade of magnolia, but most were a more varied mixture of colours and styles. A few were riotous over-the-top combinations of every colour and type of ornament imaginable, the tree laden and wrapped in lights and tinsel until hardly any branches or needles could be seen at all, and these were almost always Kay’s favourites.

The Plough & Blackbird was only a short detour off the most direct route between Kay’s home and the station. On a street corner, it looked much like a larger, more solid version of the standard brick-built terraces filling this part of the city, with red brick walls and windows and doors picked out in pale cream stone. In the gloomy afternoon, the yellow light in its misted-up windows seemed homely and welcoming, a place of safety and warmth. It was the sort of pub that served hearty meals and tried to appeal to all types of families, so even at this time of day it was not hard for Kay, if they walked boldly, to nip through the front door and roam around the various alcoves that made up the interior of the building. A handful of old men were sitting on stools by the bar; most of the other clientele seemed to be tired-looking young parents trying to persuade small childen to finish up their puddings and return toys to the pub toy box.

In one corner of the building, wood was burning in an open fire. A hunched figure was sat close to it, covered in layers of muted woollen shawls, turned towards the hearth and soaking up all the warmth of the flames. As Kay approached, the figure turned, and they saw an old, deeply-lined face, with two diamond-bright eyes almost glittering in the dim light.

“I have a message!” said Kay in an urgent stage-whisper. “Someone said to tell you. If you see someone, tell them. Tell them the that the circle will break.”

The old woman’s face moved almost imperceptibly, taking on an expression of the deepest sadness. “Thank you,” she said, with a quiet, serious voice. “Tell your neighbour to stay safe from the darkness.”

“I will do!” said Kay.

“And be careful,” the old woman continued. “They are always watching, now.” She turned away, her eyes back to the bright, warming flames. Kay hesitated, unsure if the conversation was over, before turning and swiftly heading back outside.

To be continued…

Cloudy skies

And not much we can do about it

Sadly, I didn’t get to see the Great Conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn, at least not at the closest approach that would have been visible. We had heavy rain here this afternoon; and after sunset the sky was a uniform, undifferentiated cloudy mass with not even the moon visible.

Oh well: we had clear skies last night, at least, and I did see them both, maybe only about 10 minutes or so apart in the sky, just over the horizon after sunset. I tried to take a photo on my phone, but although Jupiter was clearly visible on it, Saturn was only really spottable if you already knew it was there. Maybe it’ll be clear skies tomorrow, when they are parting again.

The solstice has passed too, of course. Politically this country might seem be descending into some sort of nightmarish fimbulvetr right now, but at least the heavens don’t know that.

Photo post of the week

A trip to Blaise Castle

What to do on a Saturday just before Yule? We went for a wander around the Blaise Castle estate, its forests and woods and caves. The museum in the estate’s mansion is not just closed for the winter, but all the windows are securely boarded up; but plenty of people were still climbing up to the folly at the summit of the estate, as ever looking more like a castle than any real castle ever does.

Blaise Castle House

Blaise Castle Folly

Blaise Castle Folly

I spotted wild mistletoe in the branches of a tree as we walked under it; I can’t recall ever noticing it in the wild before. We stood back, and realised there were great bushes of it high up in the branches of most of the bare trees in the wood.

Mistletoe

Mistletoe-filled woods

Christmas craftalong (again)

In which the shocking news is that I have finished a craft project

The other day I mentioned a Christmas social event at the office: an organised crafting event for any colleagues who were interested to do a small cross-stitch kit together. Amazingly, in just over a week, I’ve managed to finish it. I would say that’s a personal record at finishing some sort of craft project for me, but it’s rare enough for me to complete one at all.

Christmas robin

Personally I think it’s a bit scrappy; I can see lots of uneven and slightly wonky stitching, whole patches where the threads are making strange knots insted of neat crosses.

Moreover, if you compare this to the previous “in progress” picture, you can see I did get annoyed enough to go back and redo an entire section. Misunderstanding the instructions and the nature of the thread, when I started I started off stitching the red breast with only a single thread, not doubling the thread up as I was supposed to—my excuse is that each of the “single threads” are actually spun from two threads twisted together. Unpicking all the red also involved accidentally unpicking some of the orange too, so if you know where to look you can see a few places where stuff has been redone a few times.

Will I go on to do more cross-stitch? Well, it was a fun way to spend a few evenings. Maybe if I can find some more kits that aren’t irredeemably twee, I might do.

The shape of the sky

Or, confusing perceptions

This is an astronomy post, but it’s also not really an astronomy post; it’s more a post about me and the way I think.

When I was small, I was terrified by the size of the universe. I can remember, about seven or eight or so, really struggling with the concept that the universe might be infinite and might not be, and I can still remember the mental picture I tried to come up with of a universe where the stars just, at some point, stopped; and beyond there was just blackness.

It probably doesn’t work like that, but still in my head somewhere is the concept that it might do. Moreover, I have trouble with another, broader concept, which is that—assuming you can travel between both hemispheres—we can “see” all of the observable universe.

“See” is in quotes there because, well, you can’t see everything for practical reasons. Most things are too faint, firstly. At any given time half the sky is too close to the Sun, too: you can’t see Mercury right now for example. But in theory, barring things being too faint, barring you having to wait for the Earth to move a bit or having to travel from one side of the Equator to the other, the whole universe is up above some point on the planet’s surface at any given time.

This probably seems tediously self-evident if you think of the planet as a ball spinning through space. For some reason, though, the whole concept still catches me by surprise occasionally. I still think that things must be able to, I don’t know, hide around a corner or something like that. I think I must have picked up the idea from a book I had as a child about Halley’s Comet, which included diagrams of where you would be able to see the comet in the sky in 1986, and talked about how comets appeared and disappeared in the sky. That’s the general tone when talking about comets and asteroids and so on: they appear in the sky and they disappear again. So it took me a long time to realise that all of the comets and all of the asteroids are up there, in front of us, all along; we just can’t see them right now. Halley’s comet doesn’t just pop out from behind a tree every seventy-five years: it’s up there in the sky the whole time, just not visible.

Halley’s comet is maybe a bad example for this. Because it’s so famous, and because of the light-gathering power of modern telescopes, we can now track it through its entire orbit. According to Stellarium it’s currently at coordinates 8h26m/+1°46’, but as it’s only a few years from perigee it’s an incredibly-faint magnitude 25.5 so will appear as a just a fuzzy handful of pixels on any photo. Nevertheless, if you go outside tonight and look up at the constellation Hydra close to its tripoint with Monoceros and Canis Minor, up there it is. As are all the others. Everything in the sky that you’re likely to see in your lifetime is already up there in the sky, just invisible and unrecognised. And despite the fact that I know this, that I know on a rough, superficial level how the mechanics of cosmology work, it still feels a little strange to me. It still feels in my mind as if there should be some patch of the sky that we can’t see, that is hiding around some sort of galactic corner.

Whenever I see diagrams of the whole sky that say “this is the whole universe”—cosmic background radiation maps, for example—I’m slightly disturbed that in some sense the whole universe fits into one small image. “Surely it must be bigger?” my mind ends up thinking. The edges trick me: that’s not the edge of the universe, it’s just an artifact of plotting a spherical sky onto a flat piece of paper, just like any sort of atlas. The mental disconnect, though, leaves me feeling deeply uncomfortable.

Really, what I feel I should inspire me here is to take away that the night sky is far more mysterious and secretive than we know. It’s not just laid out flat in front of us as it appears to be: it’s full of unknown things and unanswered questions, even though all of them are genuinely sitting right there up above us somewhere. I don’t know if I’ll ever manage to change the way my head thinks about the night sky, but if I can, there is a whole universe of wonder concealed but fully within sight.

The stag cry and the slaughter

Or, the turning of the year

A few weeks ago, I read on Twitter—sadly I seem to have lost the reference—that the Welsh Hydref, used for either the month of October or autumn as a whole, originally had the literal meaning of “stag-cry”. From that, it turned into “stag-rutting season” and hence autumn. Geiriadur Prifysgol Cymru lists “stag-rutting”, but not “stag-cry”.

Moreover, November, mis Tachwedd, literally means “the month of slaughter”. Together, I think they make a beautifully evocative phrase. The stag-cry and the slaughter. Winter is setting in.

I spent a while sitting outside on clear nights over the past week, hoping to see the Geminid meteor shower. Nothing much, sadly, came of it. On Saturday, though, I did see a handful of meteors in the night sky. I’ve always looked for summer meteors before, flashing across the sky in a razor-thin line; but these were relatively slow-moving, fat things. I say “slow-moving”: they still crossed my field of view in little more than an instant. Their light was a much broader line, though, tapering at start and finish. If nothing else, it gave me good inspiration for the story I posted yesterday. Hopefully I’ll have better luck when the Geminids come around again next year. This year, though, is now nearly at an end. The stag-cry and the slaughter, and winter is upon us again.