As much as we like doing our urban walks and visiting various towns and cities looking for interesting stuff to take photos of, we are just as at home out in the countryside and, as you’ll know from our Scotland trips, our toleration level of being out in the wilds is pretty high.
But you don’t have to go to the far flung reaches of the country to get up close and personal with some of the UK’s amazing wildlife. Ok so you probably won’t ever get a Golden Eagle nesting in Manchester however know what you’re looking for and Peregrine Falcons are reasonably regular sights, I watched one once from the office window flying around near the Great Northern building and I’ve also seen one from a train window as it was pulling out of Piccadilly. I can remember a few years ago a pair of Ravens nesting on Wigan Town Hall. The list goes on but to be honest just relying on these lucky glimpses can only go so far. Sometimes we need to go somewhere a bit more wild.
Up and down the country there are literally hundreds, probably thousands of fantastic nature reserves run by a huge number of organisations that for free or a small fee will give you access to all sorts of great sights and spectacles that will allow anyone to experience the sheer joy of wildlife.
One of our regular haunts is the Wildfowl & Wetland Trust centre at Martin Mere near Burscough in West Lancashire. It’s a great site, probably a 30 minute drive from a number of major towns and host to some great wildlife as well as a huge number of pens holding birds from across the world.
Autumn and Winter are probably the best seasons to visit with thousands of migratory Pink Footed Geese making the reserve and its environs their winter home. The reserve runs Dawn Watches when the geese that roost on the reserve overnight all take off at dawn to fly to nearby feeding grounds – truly remarkable and the type of thing you see on a BBC wildlife programme and think I wish I could see that – well you can. One here for fact fans Martin Mere was the site for the first ever Autumnwatch Series way back in 2006 with Bill Oddie and Kate Humble. It returned in 2007 before moving on the year after.
In Spring and Summer the reserve is alive with breeding birds, Marsh Harriers, Avocets and all sorts of other wildlife including the always delightful downy ducklings all together ...awwwww. Go to the Ron Barker hide which is a great spot for Kingfisher, the Janet Kear Hide is up close to a feeding station and is great to just sit and watch the comings and goings of various finches, tits and buntings.
And don’t worry if you don’t know a Reed Warbler from a Reed Bunting there’s always loads to see and enjoy by just sitting there and taking it all in. Sometimes even when there’s not a huge amount of birds around it can just be enough to recharge our batteries by spending some time walking and taking in the sights and sounds of nature. And there are always some other real bonuses as we recently found out during our recent visit over Christmas and New Year, when we were treated to a simply stunning sunset over the reserve.
So don’t think that these places are either out of reach or out of touch. Go along you may be pleasantly surprised, plus you’ll also be playing a part in helping preserve the world and wildlife around us.
New Year’s Eve may be the thing we have written most about over the past few years. It is not a favourite night for either of us and hasn’t been for a long time. It’s a strange night - it almost feels like all the stresses and sadness you have experienced in the year behind you will be washed away at the stroke of midnight and we will all awaken the next day to a bright shiny new world. Of course, it doesn’t take long for everyone to find out that that doesn’t happen, but we try every year to do something special for us be that a concert, fireworks, ice skating or takeaways with friends. This year was particularly poignant, after the sadness we experienced at the end of the year it somehow didn’t feel appropriate to be standing in the crowds in Albert Square to toast in the New Year. We both felt we needed to be somewhere together and just pass the night quietly with our own thoughts. As the date neared though it was hard to shake the feeling that we were just going to be sad all night and maybe needed a plan. We looked at spending the night in a city, but as we had left it a bit late the choice of hotels was meagre and very expensive – Hotel Gotham are you really worth £350 for one night?? We debated the cinema, eating out and even the International Horse show in Liverpool (neither of us are horsey people!!) but eventually we settled on a ‘big day out’!
We decided to take the train to Windermere in the Lake District – something neither of us had ever done, but thanks to our trusty ‘Two Together Railcard’ we booked our tickets the day before and were very pleasantly surprised to find it would cost us just £25 for the whole journey. (For more info on this check out our how we did it bit at the end.)
So, 10.25am on an almost balmy December 31st found us on the platform at Wigan North Western with a 45-minute journey to Oxenholme ahead of us to catch the connection to Windermere. As is all too familiar with train travel these days, the train was already delayed before we even got on it and we had a very tight time turnaround at Oxenholme. Surely, we could make up the 7-minute delay though? Well, actually no, because once we reached Carnforth, for some reason, the train had to go at a very slow speed (tannoy announcements but no apologies…) which meant us, and all the other Windermere passengers, missed the connection by 10 minutes and then had a 40-minute wait for the next one. Luckily the weather was good and Oxenholme station is small and pretty – cue first outing for the cameras that morning!
We arrived in Windermere just before 12.30pm and then set off to make the trek down to Bowness. Bowness is a very special family place – honeymoon destination of my parents many, many years ago and the place of what feels like a thousand family holidays and trips over the years. We used to visit the famous Lakeland, home of every kitchen appliance and gadget you could possibly think of, when it was mostly famous for its plastic bags – in fact I am sure it was known then as Lakeland Plastics. In view of the current world view of plastic it was probably a good idea they changed their name! Anyway, as I said Bowness is a very familiar place to us both, but it is some years since we last visited and how it has changed!
Bowness and Lake Windermere probably pull the biggest crowds of any of the Cumbria lakes and the town is almost always full of coachloads of Japanese and Chinese tourists, families eating ice cream and chips, dog walkers, couples in love (more of that in a second!), motorcyclists and lots and lots of people having a good time and enjoying the scenery. It was also traditionally the worst place to find anywhere nice to eat for many years, but it seems to have undergone somewhat of a change with a more upmarket feel to the café bars and restaurants and a completely different style of shops. It was good to see some of the shops, which have been there since I was a child, including Hutton’s the chocolate makers (their chocolate truffles are delicious!), Lakeland leathers at the top of the hill sitting next to the gift shop I spent all my pocket money in when I was young and the jewellers where Chris impulsively bought me a lovely silver ring once.
Our day consisted of a 10km circular walk from the station down to the lake and round to the ferry and then back up. We ate lunch at the very lovely Fizzy Tarte, sat outside under heaters with blankets for our legs watching other people starting their new year early with some very exciting looking cocktails. We took photographs (bet that surprises you!), reminisced, photographed, window shopped the yachts in the marina, ate ice cream and photographed. We strolled past a couple sat at the side of the lake and were momentarily distressed to see she was crying, until Chris pointed out the sparkly new ring on her finger she was admiring and realised we’d almost interrupted a romantic proposal (never ask about my wedding proposal!).
We finished the day with a coffee in Booths, whilst we waited for our train back in the dark after admiring one of the best trees we've seen for a number of years outside Lakeland, then 20 minutes to Oxenholme, 40 minutes to Wigan – back home for 8pm after a lovely day, tea in the slow cooker, phone calls to our family and then we fell asleep by 11pm.
We might have missed midnight and amazingly the fireworks didn’t stir us, but New Year’s Eve turned out to be rather special.
We woke bright and early the next day ready for another day of eating with most of our family able to make it.There is a feeling of a new start each January 1st and of course we are all going to lose weight, drink less, travel more and exercise all the time. We don’t make any resolutions as we know (like most people!) that these will not be kept for longer than a few weeks, but we do set ourselves small goals, ones we have a good chance of achieving – save a bit more, exercise more regularly, spend more time with people we love.
In the wise words of Instagram’s @traceybell63 ‘life’s too short to wear boring clothes/to wait before I buy my camera/ to wait to visit my family/ to learn a new skill’. So, you can expect to see me out and about this year in all the items of clothing I save for best and a new camera? We don’t need one but I’m sure we could find one we wanted! Happy New Year everyone.
HOW WE DID IT
More information on the Two Together Railcard can be found at www.twotogether-railcard.co.uk. We've had one for a number of years and use them all the time for our trips to London as well as local hops to Liverpool and Manchester. there are rules such as travelling with each other and an annual cost of £25 but you save 1/3 on the full cost.
We also use the Trainline for our UK rail planning - www.thetrainline.com. Always useful and they have a great app. Just be aware theres a small fee to pay on top of any tickets purchased through them. For journeys like the one above with changes between train operators (Virgin and Northern) this is the easiest way of planning though using each train operators site to book may be cheaper but a lot more complicated. Unfortunately such is the way of the UK rail network!
Normally the Christmas and New Year break is a time for being a bit lethargic without any guilt. A chance to have a lie in with no real reason to get up (unless of course you have young children when their body clocks go into reverse and they wake up even earlier than normal).
However this year for whatever reason we can honestly say we’ve done more than ever in our time off, over and above the family meals and visits. In fact, at times, it’s felt like we’ve been on a summer holiday with days out, train journeys, new places visited that have been on our “to-do” list for some time, loads of photos and videos and all sorts of fantastic ideas which we’ll be sharing over the next few weeks to whet your appetite for 2019.
The start of our travels was on Boxing Day when, after taking our son Adam back to Manchester after a home visit for Christmas, we paid the "Walking with the Snowman" art trail a visit at Salford Quays. Now unfortunately this finished on 6th January so don’t go expecting to see them but do go if you fancy a great walk around one of our favourite urban areas and one that’s constantly changing. Media City, Salford Quays, the Lowry Theatre, IWM North…the list is endless and pick the right day you can get some stunning shots.
After that we stayed local with a few canal walks then we took a trip out to somewhere that we’ve had in mind for some time – Widnes! Ok maybe not the first thought in most people’s minds but the chance to photograph the new Mersey Crossing as well as get to walk on the "old" Widnes-Runcorn bridge proved irresistible – we love our bridges! From here it’s also just a short hop along to Speke Hall, always worth a visit - and a pit stop in their marvellous cafe which we duly took advantage of.
New Years Eve and we decided we’d do something different so we got our “Two Together” railcard out and caught the train for a visit up to the Lakes. A 40 minute haul up the West Coast Mainline from Wigan North Western to Oxenholme, the connecting service to Windermere and within 90 minute of setting off we were on our way walking down to Bowness for a New Year’s Eve lunch by the lake. Some stunning shots later and we were back on the train and home for 8pm – not bad for £25 return for both of us!
A regular haunt beckoned us just after New Year's Day with a late afternoon visit to Martin Mere for the first bird/wildlife photography of the year and just in time for a stunning sunset too, no doubt the first of many for 2019 (we like them even more than bridges!).
Manchester beckoned us the day after and we paid a visit to the Cathedral – one of our go to places and as ever always something different to see. We also took the chance to pay our first visit to the new Emmeline Pankhurst statue in St Peters Square.
Then another first visit for us as we finally got around to paying a visit to the Fylde coast – Cleveleys to be specific and the Mythic Coast sculpture trail. Despite the grey clouds that seem to have been around every day of the year so far we managed to make the most of the weather and tides with a vow that we will be back – we think a sunset walk here along the coast would be extra special.
And that was it – no real chance to slob out on the couch and some teasers for some longer visits in the year as well as inspiring us to think about some other places that we really must cross off our list this year.
Look out for more on all the above over the coming weeks and much more to come in 2019.
It’s funny how sometimes something as functional and as mundane as a trifle bowl can suddenly take on a whole new meaning and just make you pause and think.
Like most families, trifle has been a staple part of any gatherings over a number of years. Both our parents – well our dads to be honest – and other members of the family (Nick Hunt we mean you) love it, and even when birthday cakes and other desserts were on offer, somewhere on the table you could always find trifle in some form or another.
And there were plenty of forms too. Some with jelly, some without, sherry or not? And what about blancmange? And then what fruit do you put in – a straight forward strawberry only recipe or a fruit cocktail - but what about the sponge – ladies fingers or chopped up swiss roll? Talk about difficult choices!
But whatever your preference it needs a receptacle. Something to serve this magnificent concoction in.
Step forward the trifle bowl.
We’re not sure when trifle bowls changed in design. If you Google trifle bowl these days the vast majority are plain glass affairs, no doubt functional but lacking in any sense of glamour and grandeur.
We’re lucky in that we have inherited our grandparents’ trifle bowls – great hefty, substantial, cut-glass beasts that you feel like you could be there for hours filling up with ingredients. Viv has had hers for a good number of years and this year after we lost dad, mum passed on her mum’s bowl, the trifle bowl of choice in my family for decades, which we used this year on our Christmas table.
Now you’re probably wondering what on earth this is about. But just think about this for a minute. That trifle dish that we used on our family table in 2018 is being used for the exact same purpose it was bought for all those years ago. It hasn’t been altered in any way. It will have been handled by generations of our family. Think of the conversations, the fun, the jokes and good times that it will have been privy to just sat there on a table surrounded by people. After use my grandma will have washed it and no doubt my grandad will have probably been relaxing, stomach full, his pipe either lit or busy preparing it, tapping in his tobacco.
It may be a humble piece of glass and may only be used every so often but there’s not that many things around in our house that are still going strong after such a long time of use. And one too with such strong physical connections to those we have known and loved and now sadly no longer with us as well as those who passed before we were born and never knew….
So to finish this little seasonal meander through our families' histories a quick timelapse piece showing off Grandma's trifle bowl with what it was designed for.
Christmas is a time for families, a time for friends, but isn’t it mostly a time for children?
The look on a baby’s face the first time they see the tree lights switched on and the screams the first time they are plonked on Santa’s knee – just remember children, don’t talk to strangers! The years when money was tight when wrapping up much needed bedding, underwear and items so very kindly passed on from friends and family just to give your children that pile of presents. The wait on Christmas Eve for them to finally fall asleep so you can go next door and retrieve that new bike secretly stashed in your neighbours’ garage – the bike you ‘put away’ 12 months ago and paid off each week when you dreamed of teaching them to ride it the following year. Trying not to make too much noise when you’re filling their home-made sack with the presents so carefully chosen and ensuring Santa will find his home-made marzipan sweets and drink of milk when he pops in later.
Christmas Eve has always been and still is our favourite night of the whole year. The traditional family afternoon of silly games and ridiculous food – we never eat chicken vol au vents or brandy snaps at any other time – a Christmas film before bed in our new pyjamas, cuddles on the couch, tracking Santa on the NORAD site and watching the skies for signs (Is it the ISS passing over or was that really Santa?) And then that hour of perfect peace when the kids both eventually fell asleep and we sat with a glass of wine, listening to Christmas music, enjoying the lights on the tree and the anticipation of the day ahead – even sometimes peeling potatoes and sprouts to save time!
Sadly, those days have long disappeared into lovely memories as they both grew up and left home. Presents becoming smaller each year– smaller and more expensive – the time spent together over the Christmas period is shrinking and no need to make Santa his marzipan sweets anymore.
So, what should we do? Home alone again its hard to remember how Christmas was before the kids arrived. What did we do on Christmas Eve back in the late 80’s? Danced the night away in the iconic Wigan Pier, paid extortionate prices to get a taxi at 2am – always double fares after midnight! Then try your hardest not to fall asleep at your Mum and Dads the next day! We probably won’t be going back to that!
We may be over 50 but you will find us both trudging round in the field to pick our own Christmas tree, find the man to cut it down and just hope we don’t lose each other in the midst of all the trees! We still go out in the street to meet and greet the Rotary Club Santa raising money by visiting the area. We open our advent calendars every day and look forward to spending time with the ‘grown ups’. We find time to celebrate the birth of Christ, although we no longer have a cake with candles for him and the days of singing Happy Birthday Jesus have long gone…
And whilst we may not have small children at home to share the Christmas magic with us, that won’t stop us from embracing the season and ensuring our own family traditions continue if somewhat differently. Christmas Eve remains an afternoon of silliness although as our parents age the concentration needed for some of the games has led us to revert to such delights as ‘blowing the sprout up the turkeys bum’, ‘passing the bomb’ and even ‘snowball fights’. We make Santa’s marzipan sweets, but gift them to Grandie; have an afternoon of Nanna, Mum and daughter baking from mince pies to chocolate logs – always making too much but having fun in the kitchen together. We get in each other’s way as we all try to set the table, find the crackers, serve the food. The bottles of pop, which were a real luxury when we were small, are always hidden ‘behind the couch’ following the tradition set by my parents many, many years ago. We have Christmas Eve boxes filled with our matching home-made pyjamas and slippers, take multitudes of photographs and share what becomes very precious times as everyone grows older.
We may not have our "grown ups" at home, but we have the pleasure of their company on our favourite day of the year. This year, like many, many other families we find ourselves one person missing. One less person on the shopping list of presents, one less name to write on a card, the person who appreciated the badly decorated home-made Christmas cake each year more than any other person, no longer here to enjoy it. We expect there to be tears and sadness, but we will be together and appreciate much more strongly the time we share with each other no matter how small that is.
Christmas is a time for families, a time for friends and yes a time for children. It's also a constant in so many of our lives, a seasonal yardstick by which we measure our lives and those of our nearest and dearest - for memories past and for many more still to be made.
It’s a bit of an odd season isn’t it? First off, it’s dominated by Christmas and New Year celebrations right at the start - we’re traditionalists who see 21st December as being the proper start of winter not this meteorological season 1st of the month stuff. Then once January starts everyone’s in a rush to get to spring, lighter nights, warmer weather and, basically, everyone can’t wait to see the back of it.
We can’t really think of any other season that provokes that attitude. “Spring gah! Wish it was summer” said no-one ever.
Bit sad isn’t it?
So here’s to winter and why it’s just as special – probably more so than some of the other seasons and times of the year.
Ok so it’s cold – maybe not as cold as we may remember – but in addition to snow and ice you can also, on the same day, get glorious cloud-free, crystal clear, blue skies and sunshine. Plays havoc with your white balance and exposure, but can create some unique photos. Ok, so the glorious autumn foliage is only there …in autumn and bluebells in spring, but snow and ice is, well snow and ice!
2.DARK MORNINGS AND EARLY NIGHTS
Picture the scene – midsummer and you fancy a sunrise picture – 4.00am anyone? Or midwinter and you could still be tucked up in bed at 7.00am and still make it in time. Likewise sunsets – we’ve still been out in parts of the country gone way past 10.30pm in summer – or you could be enjoying a full on sunset at 4.00pm – not handy on a work day it has to be said, but at weekend…perfect!
Christmas – time to practice your bokeh with twinkly lights, candles and tinsel. Christmas markets – always great for street photography especially when they haven’t fully opened and it’s been raining – perfect. New Years Eve and fireworks – this actually seems to be bigger (and louder) than bonfire night now - especially at 3 in the morning!
Harsh winters aren’t great lets be honest but some bad weather can be good in offering some unique opportunities to photograph wildlife that you normally wouldn't be able to. Just as we have summer migrants – swallows, warblers etc we also have winter migrants as well and in some years if conditions are right we get great influxes or irruptions of certain species that can usually be difficult to see. Last year huge numbers of Hawfinches “invaded” the UK driven west after crop failures on their usual wintering grounds in Germany - one flock alone at Castle Howard in Yorkshire held up to 100 birds. Waxwings are always another such species, a couple of years ago we even had a flock of a dozen or so of these enigmatic visitors turn up just around the corner from home part of a massive nationwide irruption numbering several thousand birds.
Plus don’t forget the familiar garden birds that all need food as well as the magnificent geese and swans that have migrated south to the UK plus the famous but increasingly rare Starling mumurations – only at winter!
Ok so daylight is in short supply but what a perfect time to get the fire on, grab a brew (or something stronger), do some tidying up of your photos, get around to looking at some forgotten stuff, look back on the past year (or maybe forget it) and start to plan ahead.
Ahh winter and why you should be as loved as much as all the other times of year despite you throwing all sorts of stuff at us! Sliding across sheet ice in a car isn’t the top of most people's to-do list, but, taken with care and proper clothing there’s no better feeling than being the first to walk through a familiar landscape that’s been magically transformed by an overnight snowfall.
Beat that spring, summer and autumn!
The weekend of 10th and 11th November 2018 had been marked in our diaries for some time. Following our visit in 2017 to the Remembrance Day parade we vowed that we would return in 2018 to mark 100 years of the Armistice ending the First World War. The fact that the 11th fell on Remembrance Sunday was one of those calendar quirks that made for a fitting and emotional way to not just remember all those that fell in 1914 – 18 and conflicts since, but , at a very personal level, our own family members too.
Obviously with such a milestone there were a series of other events and commemorations being held over the weekend.
First on our list was the “Shrouds of the Somme” installation at the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park. An early Saturday start saw us arrive at the Olympic Park taking in the sights of the stadium and aquatics centre, not quite sure what to expect.
Over the years we have been to various memorials to fallen soldiers and the war dead but nothing has ever had an impact as “Shrouds of the Somme.” The sight of 73,000 small bodies in shrouds across a huge area was simply breathtaking. It is difficult to put into words the impact, the experience of this and indeed how it was displayed. It was simple but effective - massively so. The video below explains more and gives a brief glimpse of the power of this stunning installation.
In addition to the main display was a broad crescent of crosses each with a date marked on it representing a “calendar” of the First World War and with it a second number marking the number of soldiers killed on that date.
We have 5 relatives that didn’t make it home in 1918 and we took the opportunity to seek out the crosses that corresponded with the dates that they died. Very sobering and something that brought our various trips to their individual resting places abroad together like nothing has done previously. The slideshow below brings their final resting places into context with the others lost on the day they fell.
This was an emotional experience and as we left the Park we reflected quietly on what we had seen.
Next stop was the Imperial War Museum in Lambeth and the “Weeping Window” poppy installation we had last seen in Perth in 2016. Having caught up with “Wave” at the IWM North in Trafford it was great to make the match with its sister installation a few weeks later. As ever it was difficult to photo but its impact was just as great.
After a stopover at our hotel, Saturday evening saw us arrive at the Tower of London for “Beyond the Deepening Shadow” a display of 10,000 lanterns in the moat, lit every night by volunteers and marking the 100th anniversary of the Armistice.
The short video below gives a great feel for this moving experience, made all the more sombre by some drizzle and, at times, heavy downpours. We were fortunate to have bought tickets that allowed access to the moat itself so got a grounds-eye view of the lanterns – stood in and amongst them. A great decision to buy them and something that made it even more special.
So an exhausting and emotional day but that was just the start.
Sunday saw us in a once in a lifetime position of taking part in the Nation’s Thank You march past the Cenotaph in Whitehall part of a 10,000 strong contingent drawn by a ballot process from across all parts of the UK.
Meeting up on The Mall on a cold clear November morning complete with our wreath commemorating our 5 fallen family members was a sobering experience. And, despite a 3 hour wait to start the march, emotions remained high. With many people staying on to watch the march after the formal ceremony had ended it was nothing if not bizarre to be marching down The Mall, under Admiralty Arch and down Whitehall following a pipe band to the Cenotaph watched by thousands of spectators. A volunteer took our wreath off us and laid it down at the Cenotaph – quite moving really and in a way completing the circle started years ago when we first visited Ypres and visited the graves.
The march finished in St James’ Park and we made our way back across Horse Guards Parade – now deserted in the mid afternoon sunshine with a hint of rain on the breeze. Quite poignant and a continuation of the emotional journey we had been on – packing a huge amount into 2 unique days.
We returned home with a renewed vigour to go back to the graves and continue our own personal journey remembering those who still lie in corners of foreign fields.
Does anyone manage to get through their lives without experiencing the sadness of losing someone they love? Loving and caring for people leads to great pain and sorrow when they leave. Without love there would be no sorrow, no loss, no hole in your life, no tears to cry but isn’t it worth it? The precious time you spend with that person be that 88 or 23 years, 2 weeks or even a matter of minutes, far outweighs the grief and the hurt you feel at their loss. There is comfort in remembering a snatched bag of chips, your first dance together and even the times you disagreed; the love in their eyes as they look at you and the warmth of their hugs and kisses.
Time almost stops when a loved one departs. It’s almost impossible to grasp that you have seen them for the last time when their home still smells of them, their slippers are at the side of their bed, their reading glasses still rest on the football programmes they were reading the day before..
The world is a constant loop of retelling, reliving, remembering they’ve gone. Kind words from friends and family, meeting people who knew them but not you, spending long periods of time talking to priests and funeral directors…
Platitudes to ease your pain, eyes avoiding having to express their feelings. Maybe a hug is all that’s needed. Maybe he did ‘have a good life’ he probably has ‘ gone to a better place’ and yes 88 years is a ‘good innings’ but still he is no longer here. The sadness at his loss is not eased. The sorrow at the gap he leaves remains.
“After you’d gone
I saved your favourite cushion
Setting it gently to one side,
and full of care
so as not to lose the shape of you
Your lasting impressions
as it were…”
Tony Walsh ‘Hollow’
from the book ‘Sex & Love & Rock & Roll’
Available to purchase from ‘Longfella’ himself just £10.00
Thank you for all your kind words, love and support.
There can be no other flower that evokes an emotional response like a poppy.
Since 1921 the poppy has been the symbol of remembrance for the fallen in the First World War and subsequent conflicts since.
Obviously as every November comes around and the poppy boxes appear public awareness is heightened and this year it will probably more in people’s minds than ever as it will be exactly 100 years since the Armistice was signed to end the “war to end all wars”.
For the last 4 years there have been several major events held commemorating various battles and milestones that devastated a generation and also helped shape the world we live in now.
We have a lot of family history tied in with events in Northern France and Belgium from 100 years ago. Between us we have 4 members of our families buried in France and Belgium and Viv’s great grandad commemorated on the Tyne Cot memorial - his body never found after Passchendaele in 1917. Over the years we have paid several visits to where they lie and where they fell – the poppy a constant companion and reminder.
On our travels, we’ve been to the medical station just outside Ypres that John McCrae worked at and where the idea for “In Flanders Fields” first originated, its first line so evocative – “In Flanders fields the poppies blow, Between the crosses row on row…”. It’s a peaceful place now and those crosses have been replaced by the all too familiar Portland stone headstones at the site of the Essex Farm Commonwealth War Cemetery where, amongst the 1200 graves of British Servicemen is one for Rifleman Valentine Strudwick. His “claim to fame”? He had lied about his age when he signed up to do his bit for King and country…..and was killed in action just 15 years old…….
It was “In Flanders Fields” and that opening line that first gave rise to the imagery of the poppy as being used to represent the horror of war and which was picked up as a symbol of remembrance.
First taken up in America then used in the UK from 1921 since then it has become synonymous with the toll of war on those who didn’t come back, their families as well as the ones that did make it back but may never be the same ever again either in mind or body.
There is so much that the poppy stands for and we should never forget. It’s great that the last 4 years has seen some outstanding events take place, from the “Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red” installation at the Tower of London, the ongoing tours of “Wave” and “Weeping Window” and the sale of the poppies used in the installation all reinforcing the symbolism of this simple yet instantly recognisable flower.
We’ve even seen a dramatic art installation that used the left over sheets of card after the poppy petals had been cut out – Corneila Parker’s war room. And we’ve also come across them on our travels too at war memorials the length and breadth of this country and beyond.
Our last visit to the battlefields was in 2014 a couple of weeks before the official start of the 100 year commemorations. We’re probably overdue a visit back and despite knowing so much about our family that lie in various corners of foreign fields there is so much still to tell. From their own personal stories, to finding and visiting their graves or memorials. From the great work the Commonwealth War Graves Commission does to all the stories like Valentine Strudwick that you come across and hear about that bring home the brutality of the conflict. One of the most shocking, the death cells and execution post at Poperinge just outside Ypres where they used to shoot deserters.
But even here, where our own troops shot each other and countless other places where we need to pause and reflect on what went on then and since the poppy can be found. Different forms, different styles but all saying the same thing……remember them.
One morning in July this year the city centre of Manchester woke up to an invasion.
No it wasn’t some form of alien threat or menace but an awesome swarm of multi-coloured bees all part of a major art installation – “Bee in the City” that saw 101 large bees and 131 smaller bees on display right across the city and beyond – in libraries, art galleries, shop windows and even in a hospital, all forming a unique art trail.
Working in the city and it being a regular destination for various visits we are used to seeing street art of all shapes, sizes and colours – anyone wandering through the Northern Quarter for example will have to work hard not to see the famous graffiti spots, however the bees were different and on a whole new level to anything else we can remember seeing.
After being trailed for a number of months – giving time for local businesses to sponsor bees and to allow a series of gifted artists to finish final designs the bees arrived literally overnight at the end of July.
The first weekend coincided with our visit to the Manchester Jazz Festival and a couple of nights stayover in the city centre which gave us an early opportunity to take advantage of a glorious summer evening (remember those?) to have a wander around some of the bees on display across the squares in the city centre. It was clear then that the bees were causing a real buzz of excitement (couldn’t resist that) with dozens of people all taking photos and a corresponding boom on Instagram and Twitter of all sorts of images of the city’s latest residents.
There were apps and maps and all sorts of ways that people celebrated the bees with some very creative photos and some straightforward selfies too.
With holidays and other things we didn’t get as much time as we wanted to get in all of the bees so we topped up our photos over a series of visits.
With them creating such a level of interest it was difficult to come up with something different taking advantage of some outstanding artwork and some great and not-so-great positioning. It was also great to do a bit of reading up into the artists and designers and also look at how the various designs wove in the city – it’s landmarks, people, sport, music, history and culture.
There’s no doubt many people first registered the bee as synonymous with Manchester following the tragic events in May 2017. However the history of the bee and Manchester goes further back than that – way back to 1842 when it was first officially incorporated into the coat of arms and represented formally for the first time the industrious and collaborative nature of Manchester, its workers and entrepreneurs, in kick-starting and promoting the Industrial Revolution. Since then it’s become part of the city’s DNA and it’s a fitting symbol for the resilience of the city too – something that has been tested over the years.
So altogether a great subject for a massive art installation and also one that offered a myriad of different designs and ingenious creativity. Some were ornate, some made you think, some seemed alive but each one had it’s own personality and characteristics – almost impossible you may think but it just worked.
Like all good things though everything comes to an end, well sort of.
On 23rd September the bees disappeared overnight as quickly as they had appeared. The next time they’ll be on show will be in October when they’ll be auctioned off for charity and they’ll all be together at the Velodrome (or should that be Velodrone?) for one last time. The community sponsored ones such as the LGBTQ+ Queen Bee will stay in situ and the smaller bees will all go back to the schools and organisations that designed them.
The Summer of 2018 will be remembered for all sorts of things – the weather, the world cup, moorland fires, but I’m sure for many people it will be the year they remember that the bees came to the city for a unique two months of accessible public art representing the very best of the past, present and future of Manchester.
To everyone connected with this – thank you!
Life and other