29 September 2015

Here be dragons!

Have you ever noticed that, although Wales is part of the United Kingdom, the country is not represented on the Union Jack? The crosses of St George (for England) and St Andrew (Scotland) and St Patrick (Northern Ireland) are all there but there’s no red dragon. If I were Welsh, I think I might be just a little insulted at this exclusion.

It’s not as if the fire-breathing beast is a foreign monster – the red dragon (in Welsh, he’s Y Ddraig Goch) that appears on the current Welsh flag (also called Y Ddraig Goch) is actually derived from a royal badge used by the British kings and queens since Tudor times.

So, why a dragon? Well, it seems the true origin has been lost in the mists of time. The sometimes dubious Wikipedia makes mention of the red dragon being the emblem of ancient Celtic leaders, including the legendary King Arthur – the name of Arthur’s father, Uther Pendragon, translates as Dragon Head. Another source dates the dragon to Roman times, with ‘Romano-British soldiers carrying the red dragon (Draco) to Rome on their banners in the fourth-century’. The earliest historic record comes from around AD829, from the Historia Brittonum, a history of Britain by Nennius.

King Henry VII incorporated the red dragon into his coat of arms, as recognition of the fact that he and the other Tudor sovereigns, who reigned over England from 1485 to 1603, were descendants of one of Wales’s noble families.

Nowadays, the dragon is the national icon, symbolic of Wales and all things Welsh. Not only is it on the national flag, it can be seen on almost every other item you can think of, from sculpture and statuary and coats of arms to merchandise and street art. Here are just a few examples I have photographed during my two months in Wales. There will be many many more!

Cardiff City Hall dragon
The dragon who sits on top of Cardiff City Hall is a very grand beast, shaped so that his long, serpent-like body coils around him and his wings flare out sideways. To me, he looks more Chinese than Welsh. He was sculpted by H. C. Fehr, a master of the turn-of-the-century New Sculptors movement.

Cardiff Crown Court lamp standards
Several of these lamp standards stand along the front of the Cardiff Crown Court buildings, just across the road from City Hall. Each lamp standard has two dragons and they each have different personalities, though all look rather grim and grumpy. I think that's partly because they’ve accumulated too many layers of red paint over the years so have lost some of their definition.

Cardiff Crown Court front entrance
One of these dragons sits either side of the main entrance to the Crown Court, looking quite small and dainty atop their tall ornate pedestals. With one paw raised, their stance is a bit doggish, but just look at that armoured body and the flesh-tearing teeth and those sharp claws. They may be small but they’re fierce.

Crown Buildings
Just down the road from the Crown Court and the City Hall, at the other end of Alexandra Gardens, sit the Welsh Government’s main office buildings, rather drab and unprepossessing structures, but one of them does have these magnificent lamp standards out front. In the few weeks since I first photographed these dragons they have been taken away and cleaned – the photo on the right is the ‘before’ shot, that on the left is the ‘after’. And just look at the scale-like effect on the lamp standard itself.

National Assembly for Wales
The Senedd is another Welsh government building, but this is in Cardiff Bay, several miles from the central city. And in keeping with the very modern architecture of this building, the dragon that adorns its front façade is also very stylised and modern.

Cardiff Bay building
I found this little dragon on the front of one of the older buildings at Cardiff Bay. I’m not sure of the building’s original use, perhaps as the office of one of the shipping companies that used the docks here in years gone by. I like this little dragon’s tongue and its curly tail.

All around the city
The last dragons for now (there will definitely be more in a future blog) can be found all around the central city, clipped on to lamp poles and along the fronts of many of the buildings. These are fire-breathing, devil-tailed dragons, that leave the visitor in no doubt as to which country they’re in and that the Welsh are a force to be reckoned with!

22 September 2015

In a lonely grave in Cardiff: Herbert Ivan Babbage

During a guided walk around the (relatively) new part of Cardiff’s Cathays Cemetery last weekend, I spotted, amongst the long sad lines of World War One war graves, a large flat slab embedded in the grass. The words ‘Wanganui, New Zealand’ and ‘artist’ glinted in the weak autumn sunlight and my curiosity was immediately aroused. Who was this New Zealand artist and why was he buried amongst the war graves in a Welsh cemetery? Here is what I have discovered.

Charles Babbage, 1860. (From: wikimedia commons)
Herbert Ivan Babbage was, in fact, born in Adelaide, Australia, on 10 August 1875, the fourth son of Charles Whitmore Babbage and Amelia Barton. You may perhaps recognise the Babbage surname – Herbert’s great-grandfather Charles Babbage (1791 – 1871) was the famous mathematician credited with conceiving the idea of a programmable computer. What an impact he has had on the modern world!

Herbert’s grandfather Benjamin Herschel Babbage (known as Herschel) (1815 – 1878) was another interesting character. After training as an engineer, he worked for a time on railway projects in both England and Italy with none other than engineer extraordinaire, Isambard Kingdom Brunel. Then, in 1850, a commission from Patrick Brontë, father of the famous writing sisters, resulted in The Babbage Report, which improved the horrifically unsanitary conditions that had previously caused so much early mortality in the town of Haworth where the Brontës lived. Soon after he’d helped  to clean up their town, Babbage moved to Australia, initially to perform a geological and mineralogical survey of the colony, and he then went on to explore and survey much of South Australia.

Herschel’s son, Herbert’s father, Charles Whitmore Babbage often accompanied his father on his surveying expeditions and is known to have produced some fine ink drawings of aspects of life in the young colony of South Australia so it may be from his father that Herbert inherited his artistic talent. One of Charles’s early sketch books, containing 61 drawings, still exists and is now held in the collections of the National Library of Australia.

'Pernatty', sketch by C. W. Babbage, Collection of the National Library of Australia

When he was just five years old, Herbert, his mother and his two surviving older brothers, upped sticks and moved to New Zealand, arriving in Wellington on the Union Steam Ship Company’s SS Rotomahana on 14 March 1881 (Star, 14 March 1881, p.2). It seems the family may have moved to escape scandal, as Charles Whitmore Babbage, having lost money while speculating on the stock exchange, had subsequently been found guilty of embezzling £1616 3s 10d and of forging a cheque for £9955. Much to the horror of local respectable society, in October 1876, the Chief Justice of Adelaide’s Supreme Court sentenced Babbage to seven years in prison, all with hard labour (Evening News, Sydney, 7 October 1876, p.5).

The Rotomahana as depicted on one of a set of five New Zealand postage stamps issued on 5 September 2012

Following his release from prison, Charles Babbage joined his family in New Zealand, and they eventually settled in the Wanganui area, which is why that town is named on Herbert’s gravestone. After studying art at Wanganui Technical College, Herbert also worked at the College, from 1899 to 1904, as a pupil teacher under the painter D. E. Hutton. According to Una Platt’s book Nineteenth Century New Zealand Artists: A Guide and a Handbook, Herbert then travelled to Europe, studying firstly in London and then at the Académie Julian in Paris, and painted many fine landscape and waterside subjects in both watercolour and oils.

'St Ives Harbour', Herbert Ivan Babbage, 1908
In 1909, Herbert Babbage returned to New Zealand, where he exhibited his work in Wanganui, New Plymouth and the capital city, Wellington. By 1913, he had returned to England and was living at St Ives, in Cornwall, where he worked from one of a collection of artists’ studios in Porthmeor Square

Many of his English and European artworks were displayed in local exhibitions, and Herbert is commemorated on the St Ives Arts Club Memorial.  

When the First World War began, Babbage was too old for active service overseas so joined the Royal Defence Corps and served with 23rd Company, helping to guard the railways of Cardiff and the surrounding countryside from enemy attack. 

During this time, one of the letters Herbert wrote to his family back in New Zealand was reproduced, in part, in a local newspaper (Hawera & Normanby Star, 14 June 1916, p.5):

In the course of an interesting letter, dated April 25th, Mr H. I. Babbage, formerly of Hawera, who has been doing special military duty in England for a considerable time, says that the hours are pretty long owing to air raids. The men have 24 hours on and 24 hours off, in addition to fatigue duty in the spare time. Writing of the season he says:—"We have had the worst winter in the memory of living men. It has been a regular old-timer one reads about. Early in March we had a blizzard. It snowed for two weeks on end. Then at the end of March another blizzard lasting two days, and in that time the drifts of snow were 20 feet deep and numbers of people perished in them. All trains were stopped, some snowed up, and all telegraph wires were down; the poles simply smashed off in the gale like reeds. The wires weighed tons, and were like great white ropes as thick as one's arms. Two motor busses were snowed up outside our billet in the street. It was pretty trying at night time on top of the viaduct, as they were so exposed." His picture, which gained a place at the Royal Academy, he worked at in his spare time. The snow effects, he says, were most lovely. Not only was the picture hung, but hung “on the line,” which means the best place in the Gallery. In concluding his letter, Mr Babbage says:—"All the Reserves are now formed into one, with headquarters in London, and are now called the Royal Defence Corps, as the King wanted to show his appreciation of the services of the various corps."

The viaduct Babbage mentions in his letter was the Goitre Coed Viaduct, engineered by his grandfather’s former colleague Isambard Kingdom Brunel, and the painting that was so highly esteemed by the Royal Academy was entitled ‘The Viaduct’, ‘a snow scene taken after the last blizzard, and shows the dark viaduct looming up amongst the snow clad hills, with the river below’ (Auckland Star, 20 June 1916, p.9).

It seems the severity of the conditions in which Herbert Babbage was serving were, eventually, to cause his death, on 14 October 1916, aged just 41. The Manawatu Standard of 24 October 1916 (p.7) reported as follows:

Mr Herbert Ivan Babbage, son of Mr C. W. Babbage, of St. John’s Hill. Wanganui, and a well-known artist, was in England when the war broke out. He joined the Duke of Cornwall’s Light infantry, and was continuously engaged in home defence. A short time ago he broke down under the strain, and had to undergo an operation, from which he never recovered, word of his death having just been received. Mr Babbage held an exhibition in Palmerston North a few years ago and a number of his pictures were purchased by local admirers.

Herbert Babbage’s artistic skills have not been forgotten in his adopted country of New Zealand. A collection of his watercolours, painted between 1898 and 1905, is held in the Alexander Turnbull Library, in Wellington; three of his oil paintings are with the Hocken Library at the University of Otago in Dunedin; and Wanganui’s Sarjeant Gallery has eleven works by Babbage in its permanent collection.

'Bateaux des Pommes, Paris', Herbert Ivan Babbage, 1908

In a few weeks, it will be 99 years since Herbert Babbage died as a result of his service during the First World War. It is important that he, and all those who have died in the service of their countries, are remembered and honoured, and I am glad that I have been able to uncover and share a little of the story of Herbert’s life.

His gravestone in Cathays Cemetery, Cardiff, reads as follows:

In Loving Remembrance

21 September 2015

Meet Dexter, the airborne pest control officer

When it comes to a battle between a bird of prey and a herring gull or a pigeon, no prizes for guessing who wins.

They are natural enemies so what better way to control the ever-increasing numbers of pigeons and gulls that are finding a home scavenging amongst the human litter that seems to accumulate constantly in our big cities than to scare away those scavengers with birds of prey.

In the main, companies like Falconry Services use two types of bird, the Harris Hawk (Parabuteo unicinctus) (below) and the Saker Falcon (Falco cherrug) (above). The Saker Falcon came originally from Russia and central Europe but is now hand-reared in the UK, while the Harris Hawk is native to the Americas and a specialist in flying in the close confines of a city landscape.

Animal lovers don’t despair, the birds of prey don’t actually harm or kill the gulls and pigeons. Their mere presence in the skies above the city buildings and the ear-piercing cries they emit are enough to advertise that this territory belongs to them.

Part of Cardiff Castle

Here in Cardiff, sites like Cardiff Castle, the Millennium Stadium and Cardiff Central Library all employ specialist falconry companies for just this purpose. The falconers fly their birds over and around these landmarks, in the process deterring those pesky gulls and pigeons from feeding and, worse, nesting at those places.

Cardiff's Millennium Stadium

Not only does this prevent damage to buildings from bird droppings (the acidic nature of their excrement corrodes building materials), but it also prevents the blocked drains and obstructions to chimneys and gas flues caused by nesting materials. Pigeons also carry diseases, some of which are potentially harmful to humans, so discouraging their increasing urban populations is a very good idea.

Meet Dexter

During a recent visit to Cardiff castle, I had the privilege of ‘meeting’ Dexter, a magnificent but extremely noisy Saker Falcon, and two of his much calmer and quieter feathered friends, a pair of Harris Hawks. I hope you enjoy these photographs of them.

And next time you see a hawk or falcon flying over the city skyline, remember it might not be a wild bird. Instead, it might be carrying out essential pest control work: gulls and pigeons be aware, your presence is not welcome here.

18 September 2015

Rugby World Cup 2015 is here!

Today’s the day!

From tonight’s opening ceremony to match number 48, the Rugby World Cup final on Saturday 31 October at Twickenham, rugby fans around the world – and in Cardiff – will be shouting themselves hoarse at matches (if they’ve been lucky enough to get tickets) or screaming at their television screens at home. In pubs, over a pint or three, they’ll be debating the merits of players and dissing the decisions of the referees. In tearooms and canteens, at smoko and over lunch, the only topic of conversation will be whether Steve Hansen’s chosen the right 31-man All Black squad or Warren Gatland’s Welsh boyos can beat Uruguay in their first Pool A match.

The Welsh love their rugby almost as much as my fellow New Zealanders do, and Cardiff’s world-class Millennium Stadium is the venue for eight World Cup games, beginning tomorrow night, when Ireland plays Canada.

Cardiff is abuzz! The flags of all the participating nations are flying in the streets.

And this morning Cardiff awoke to the news that the ‘Rugby World Cup 2015 has touched down in Cardiff with a BANG!’ Overnight, an enormous rugby ball had ‘smashed into the wall of Cardiff Castle’!

It’s fake, of course, but an extremely well done fake by UK-based company, Wild Creations, who specialise in making props and displays for television and film productions, retail displays, exhibitions and more. The huge ball was the talk of the town today, it was being photographed by everyone who walked past (including me), and the tag #ballinthewall was trending on social media.

The Millennium Stadium is bedecked with its gigantic World Cup banner and the flags are flying high.

Even the graffiti has a sporting theme!

So, even if you’re like me and you’re not actually a big fan of rugby, like as not you’ll be feeling the fever over the next six weeks. Here’s wishing all the teams the very best of luck, though, of course, being a Kiwi by birth, I can’t help but hope the All Blacks win! And, as I’m now living in Cardiff, I’m picking Wales for the runners-up!

16 September 2015

Cheshire: pubs and their signs 7

Considering this is my seventh blog on pubs and their signs in Cheshire, you could be forgiven for thinking I drink rather a lot, maybe even attend regular meetings of AA. But, no! My fascination is with the pubs’ signs and their histories, not with the alcohol served within, though I do admit to having downed a half of cider at one of these taverns and enjoyed a rather scrumptious meal at another. So, let’s begin …

The Badger, Church Minshull
I just happened to be driving through Church Minshull one day with a friend when I screeched ‘Pub sign’ and she slammed on the brakes – I have her well trained! After a complete renovation in 2011, The Badger Inn is looking very sleek and proud of its long history. Their website explains:  

The Badger Inn was built of brick at the end of the 18th century, probably 1770 and was first called The Brook Arms, after the Lords of the Manor, who had just purchased the estate. There was almost certainly an Inn on the site previously, which makes The Badger one of the first buildings in the village to be rebuilt by the Brooke dynasty. The Brooke family crest was of a brock, better known as a badger, hence the change of name to that of the present day. It was an old coaching Inn and the two storey part of the building was a coach house before it became a garage with a single petrol pump. This was later converted into a restaurant. Bare knuckle fighting was a regular sport here. In 1916, Mr Tite, the landlord, who hopefully did not take his name too seriously, died and moved next door to St. Bartholomew's Church, which he had always actively supported. The Inn was pebble dashed in 1934 and is listed as 'of architectural merit'.

Cock o’ Budworth, Great Budworth
Though the pub’s website says it’s a former 18th century coaching inn, the Cock o’ Budworth is, in fact, a century older. The Historic England website says it was originally a farmhouse and barn, dating from mid 17th and early 18th centuries, and this earlier construction date is confirmed by the pub’s inclusion in a work of rhymed Latin and doggerel English verse called Drunken Barnaby’s Four Journeys to the North of England, written by poet Richard Braithwaite and published in 1638. 

Here’s what ‘Drunken Barnaby’ has to say about the Cock:

Thence to th’ Cock at Budworth, where I
Drank strong ale as brown as a berry:
Till at last with deep healths felled,
To my bed I was compelled:
I for state was bravely sorted,
By two porters well supported.

Hopefully patrons in the 21st century don’t end up quite so inebriated!

The George and the Dragon, Great Budworth
Just along the road and up the hill from the Cock is this perfect example of the English village pub. The George and the Dragon sits at the heart of Great Budworth, directly opposite the beautiful Church of St Mary’s and All Saints and nestled amongst the traditional heritage-listed cottages of this picture-postcard village.

Parts of the pub date back to 1722, as witnessed by the original stone bar and its inscription 'NIL NIMIUM CUPITO', ‘I desire nothing to excess’. In 1875, local lord Egerton-Warburton commissioned architect John Douglas to restore and update the simple three-bay Georgian inn – the architect’s drawing is shown above left. Douglas is responsible for the addition of the mullioned windows, the tall chimneys and the steep pyramidal turret. The pub sign is a beauty! According to Historic England, the cut-out pictorial sign was made in Nuremberg and the long wrought-iron bracket from which it hangs was made by the Arley estate blacksmith in the 1880s.

The Leigh Arms is the white building behind the bridge

The Leigh Arms, Acton Bridge 
I had been for a lovely long walk alongside the river Weaver the day I visited the Leigh Arms, and was feeling rather peckish. Unfortunately, the restaurant was fully booked – it’s obviously a popular place with the locals. The Leigh Arms sits conveniently between the River Weaver and the Trent and Mersey Canal so, in the summer months, it’s also popular with boaties and with walkers who enjoy the trails beside both waterways.

Dating from the 16th century and formerly called The Bridge Inn because it sat adjacent to the old stone bridge that crossed the river at this point, the Leigh Arms was also a steam packet inn, serving patrons who sailed the route from Northwich to Liverpool in the early 1800s. Though many of the original features have now disappeared, the pub does still have some wonderful stained glass, including this panel protraying Fat Thomas Forshaw promoting Threlfalls’ and another jovial character advertising Silver Buckle Ale.

The Riverside Inn, Acton Bridge
On the day of my Weaver walk, when we couldn’t get a meal at the Leigh Arms, my friend and I drove a short distance across the river to this place, The Riverside Inn, a Marston’s public house. It sits in a picturesque position right next to the river so is another popular place for canal boaters during the summer months, and the food was certainly very tasty.

I’ve since discovered that The Weaver Refining Company, which used to make glue and gelatine by rendering down the carcasses of cattle, had its factory not far from this place and the factory’s office block was on the site of the Riverside Inn. Thank goodness that factory’s long gone – the smell would be enough to put you off your dinner, let alone a nice pint of ale.

13 September 2015

Cheshire: The changing seasons

‘Winter is an etching, spring a watercolor, summer an oil painting and autumn a mosaic of them all.’ Poet Stanley Horowitz wrote that 18-word poem more than 30 years ago and, since it was published in the November 1983 Reader’s Digest, his words have apparently been quoted more than 1,630,001 times on websites around the world (and that count was back in November 2011). Well, Mr Horowitz, I’m adding one more website to your list because I truly appreciate the wisdom of those 18 words.

One of the things I noticed most during my recent return to Cheshire was the late summer lushness everywhere I walked. And the differences, when I compared what I was photographing in early September 2015 with the images I had taken during my previous visit, the six months from late autumn November 2014 to early spring in April 2015, were quite simply phenomenal.

The moat around Holford Hall, in winter, spring and summer
Now, some of you might think, ‘So what? It’s the seasons. It happens every year.’ Well, let me tell you that, when you come from a more temperate climate like that in Auckland, New Zealand, where the seasonal changes are much less noticeable, the variations in the seasons in Britain are nothing short of sensational.

Those of you who live in harsh climates, where the seasonal changes are very pronounced, probably take all this for granted. Well, you shouldn’t! You really need to open your eyes and appreciate the beauty that each passing season brings. Admire the etching of a single winter-bare tree in a snow-touched landscape. Cherish the miraculous watercolour of wildflowers emerging in springtime. Applaud summer’s brash and brazen oils painted in bold strokes upon the earth. And marvel at the miraculous mosaic of autumn trees.

As Spanish philosopher, novelist and poet George Santayana famously wrote, ‘To be interested in the changing seasons is a happier state of mind than to be hopelessly in love with spring.’

I hope my photos give a taste of what I’m talking about …

Autumn, winter and summer in a cultivated woodland near Pickmere

Spectacular autmn colours, winter (with partly frozen lake) and summer at Tatton Park, Knutsford

Winter, spring growth, then summer lushness on a track leading up to a railway bridge near Holford Hall

My favourite: winter snows, spring daffodils, then summer leafiness at the lime avenue at Great Budworth