Thursday, 13 June 2019

Gardeners' World Live at the NEC

There's plenty to inspire visitors to the BBC Gardeners’ World Live show at the NEC in Birmingham. As well as the usual array of garden sundries, there's a series of imaginative and colourful floral displays and gardens in and around the Floral Pavilion. The show garden awards were announced on Thursday night, and two designers gained Platinum, the highest available: Alexandra Froggatt for her “Watchmakers Garden” (also named Best in Show, above) and Lucy Bravington, with Worcestershire-based landscapers DesignIt, for the “High Line Garden”. In her creation, Froggatt pays homage to the show’s host city, with the recreation of a garden typical of the back yard of a craftsman in the city’s historic Jewellery Quarter in the 19th c.
A lovely touch is the kitchen garden, crammed with heritage vegetables. It’s surrounded by cottage garden flowers, naturalistic grasses and rustic paths and fences.
Bravington’s Platinum design (above) was inspired by New York’s High Line – a beautiful garden on a bridge over a disused railway line. She’s mixed trees, perennials and ornamental grasses with industrial steel elements to create a sense of privacy. Gold awards went to Gadd Brothers in the APL Avenue for their “Getaway Garden” (designed for a young professional couple with a small linear garden), and Hana Leonard for “Here we go Round the Mulberry Bush” a garden with a circular theme that is sheltered by an airy tree.
Several of the gardens have an international flavour, among them “A Glimpse of South East Asia” by Timotay Landscapes (above). Filled with colourful tropical planting, it’s a fusion of ideas inspired by the natural landscapes of Indochina.  It features a shallow pebble pool which has beside it a large day bed and a hammock for chilling out (rather damp when I took this photo, but perfect for when the sun finally appears).
I loved the drama of the four horses charging out of the MS Society Revelation Garden, which won a silver merit, but if, in my dreams, I could chose a garden to take home, I’d go for another Gold show garden award winner, the John Lewis Home Solutions Garden created by Waitrose Partner Shaun Beale (below).
As well as mixing soft and sculptural planting, it has plenty of space for relaxing whatever the weather, with a garden office, water feature, and an eyecatching espaliered hedge for privacy.

BBC Gardeners’ World Live runs until Sunday, June 16 at the NEC, Birmingham.

Sunday, 19 May 2019

FOOD: Bigger than the Plate

Supernatural, by Uli Westphal, highlights packaging images that idealise ideas about food production.
The V&A has gone back to its roots – literally – with this latest exhibition. The museum is built on the site of the Brompton Park Nursery, founded in 1689 and once an important growing centre for fruit trees. Today, the future of our food, and our planet, is a matter of concern for everyone and the display takes a witty and sometimes provocative look at production ideas and alternative food futures.
The opening section, Compost, aims to change our perception of waste. One of the first things you see is Loowatt’s waterless flush toilet that collects excrement to be converted into fertilizer or to generate energy. Nearby, the problem of what to do with used coffee grounds is addressed by GroCycle’s Urban Mushroom Farm installation, which uses them to grow edible Oyster mushrooms, which will be harvested and go to the V&A’s Benugo cafe, to be used in selected dishes.
Farming explores how new technologies might change the way we grow and farm the plants and animals we eat. One idea is this Bicitractor L'Aggrozouk, designed for small-scale farming and which, being pedal-powered, has minimal impact on the environment.
Trading looks at the buying, selling and transporting of food. It questions the images sometimes used to make food look desirable (top) and asks visitors to think about their last meal. How did the food get from field to plate? A highlight here is the bar provided by Company Drinks, a community enterprise in east London that, inspired by the local tradition of hop picking, brings people together to pick, process and produce drinks. More than 36,000 people have so far been involved in the enterprise. The cordial I tried was a refreshing infusion of kale, rosemary, lavender, lemon balm, sugar and water, served in a paper cup.
The final section, Eating, is understandably the largest, exploring how a meal connects us culturally, socially and politically. It looks at the role of the table, the challenges we face in feeding the world, and the scientific projects, ingredients and recipes that push the boundaries of ingenuity in cooking. You can visit the pop-up food bar provided by the Centre for Genomic Gastronomy's LOCI Food Lab that makes tiny canapés to order once visitors choose three of their food priorities from a 15-strong list. My choice of a “delicious, affordable and protein-rich” canapé contained Essex chia seeds, British yellow peas and quinoa, mould microprotein and dried and powdered anchovy. The end result, below, certainly tickled the tastebuds.
The headline-grabbing feature in this section is the display of cheeses created from microbes harvested from the bodies of celebrities. You can't taste these – and quite honestly, I wouldn’t rush to try a Comté cheese created with the help of samples from Heston Blumenthal’s nostrils and pubic hair – but maybe in the future, we’ll be grateful for such delicacies. Anyhow, top marks to the V&A for addressing issues that affect us all with such engaging and thought-provoking installations. The show’s co-curators, Catherine Flood and May Rosenthal Sloan, point out that food is one of the most powerful tools through which we shape the world we live in. They say that now is a crucial moment to ask not just what will we be eating tomorrow, but what kind of food future do we want?
FOOD: Bigger than the Plate is at the V&A Museum in South Kensington until October 20, 2019. Tickets £17, concessions available.

Saturday, 18 May 2019

Stanley Kubrick: The Exhibition

Kubrick on set of 2001: A Space Odyssey © Warner Bros Entertainment Inc
It’s 20 years since the death of Stanley Kubrick, one of the greatest filmmakers of the 20th century and London’s Design Museum is celebrating his achievements with a major exhibition that explores his unique command of the whole creative design process of film-making, from story teller to director and editor.

Kubrick and Jack Nicholson on set of The Shining ©Warner Bros Entertainment Inc

He was known as a perfectionist, and wanted to control every aspect of his productions. This is evident at the very start of the exhibition, where the preparations for his Napoleon project, a film that never got made because of the cost, are recorded. During his research he logged every day in the emperor’s life, creating a card catalogue of the places and deeds of Napoleon’s inner circle. You also see it displayed in the meticulous way he recreated in the studios the facade of the Oregon Hotel for The Shining, and his comments on proposals for posters advertising that film, including: “I don’t like the dots for the logo. It will not look good small.”

Dr Strangelove - The Conference Table in the War Room ©Sony/Columbia Picture Industries Inc
In all, there are some 700 artefacts including props, photos, storyboards, and even cameras and lenses, with notes on which films they were used for. Each of his major films has its own section.

A Clockwork Orange Malcolm McDowell in the Korova Milkbar ©Warner Bros Entertainment Inc
It’s a trip down memory lane. A Clockwork Orange, Barry Lyndon, Dr Strangelove, Spartacus, Lolita, The Shining, Eyes Wide Shut, Paths of Glory, Full Metal Jacket and, of course, 2001: A Space Odyssey are all there, with pivotal segments shown in mini-cinemas (with very welcome seats). It all makes for a detailed and rewarding exhibition, and is a fitting tribute to Kubrick's genius. You'll find it hard to tear yourself away.
2001: A Space Odyssey still image ©Warner Bros Entertainment Inc
Stanley Kubrick: The Exhibition. At the Design Museum, 224-238 Kensington High St, London W86AG to Sept 15 2019. Admission £16 (concessions available).

Friday, 3 May 2019

Writing: Making Your Mark

Ancient Egyptian stela 1600 BC c British Library Board

One of the first objects you see in this new exhibition at the British Library is a small limestone stele on which, 3,600 years ago, a scribe carved a hymn to the Egyptian god of the underworld, Osiris. It’s the Library’s oldest treasure, written in hieroglyphics, and although the hymn was known, this version is especially precious as it contains passages not recorded elsewhere. Today, just by tapping these words into a computer, I am following in the scribe’s footsteps, continuing a tradition that began some 5,000 years ago, in several different locations around the world. Mesopotamia, Egypt, China and the Americas all independently developed their own writing systems. These revolutionised society and are one of humankind’s greatest achievements. This limestone monument, more than two metres high, is covered in Maya hieroglyphs from Belize, and dates from 647 AD.
Large Maya limestone stela, Belize, 647AD c British Library Board
It's a fascination and thought-provoking exhibition, looking at the origins and evolution of writing - styles, materials, and  technology - as well as people’s relationships to it. More than 40 different systems are on show, ranging very early cuneiform on a clay tablet (listing offerings made to a Mesopotamian temple) to digital typefaces and emojis.
Caxton's printing of The Canterbury Tales c British Library Board
You can see how the alphabet developed, look at Britain’s earliest book, Caxton’s first printing of Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales from 1476 (above), and wonder at a 2.44 metre-long papyrus scroll recording what must have been a very complex sale of property in Italy in 572 AD.
Ravenna papyrus 572 AD, c British Library Board
The many  items on display also include a Thai folding book, Chinese oracle bones, Burmese tattooing instruments and a 1905 petition signed by 60,000 people, protesting about the partition of Bengal.
Ancient Egyptian shabti 664 - 332 BC
Some of the objects were created for religious reasons, or to name or claim things. The inscription on this Ancient Egyptian figurine (above), designed to act on behalf of the deceased in the afterlife, reads: “Here I am, you will say, when called to work, cultivate fields, or irrigate the riverbanks”.
Schoolchild's homework in Greek, 2nd C AD c British Library Board
There are also some intriguing personal objects that resonate over the centuries. A wax tablet (above) shows how, almost 2000 years ago, a schoolchild struggled with his homework. His teacher had scratched two lines of Greek for him to copy. He does this twice, and each time makes mistakes, missing letters and running over the margin. Did he give up after that? Was he punished? We will never know. There’s also a quill pen used by the poet, Alfred Lord Tennyson, which he threw away after the nib got bent (perhaps damaged in the throes of inspiration?).  And a touching final entry to the diary kept by Robert Falcon Scott, written in the Antarctic when he knew his expedition was doomed: “For God’s sake, look after our people.”
Printing presses not dissimilar from those of Caxton were used for hundreds of years; this reproduction of an 18th C one employs much the same technology. Today, we have more choices about how to communicate than ever before – pictures, videos, voice recordings, emails and text, and technology seems to be moving these on at an every-increasing rate. The exhibition ends with an interactive display and a question: How will we send birthday greetings in 50 years’ time? I left pondering that and wondering: would anything written today still be read in 3,600 years’ time?

Writing: Making Your Mark is at the British Library until August 27, 2019. Admission £14, concessions available, children 11 and under free. 

Sunday, 28 April 2019

Bluebell Open Day at Perivale Wood

A short walk from Perivale underground station in west London is a wood that's open to the public just once a year, when the forest floor is carpeted with more than five million bluebells. Dozens of people make a note of the day, and journey to see them.
Perivale Wood takes in 27 acres of ancient oak forest and meadow, a remnant of the forest that once covered all of southern England. It was one of the UK's first nature reserves and is owned and managed by the Selborne Society, founded in 1885 to commemorate the 18th c. naturalist Gilbert White. In 1957 it was registered as a site of Special Scientific Interest and the Society began an intensive management programme to restore its fragile habitat, which had suffered from neglect during and after World War II.
The bluebells are all English, with stems that curve over - if any upright Spanish ones appear, they are quickly removed. The wood is carefully managed. We saw signs of coppicing on the larger trees, such as this hazel (below) and a programme of planned felling is creating clearings where seedlings have a chance to develop and rejuvenate the forest.
The first Open Day was held in 1970, initially in May, but now it's on the last Sunday in April as global warming means the bluebells are flowering earlier. The carpet of blue was actually just past its best this year, but the colour and scent from the flowers was still wonderful.
The reserve is also home to 24 species of trees, among them two oaks, at least 400 years old, and planted to mark the boundary between Perivale and Greenford (above). As well as the bluebells, there are banks of wild flowers, three ponds, two streams and glimpses of the Grand Union Canal that runs along part of the wood’s border. The Open Day is on the last Sunday of April. Entrance is £1, and no booking is necessary.

Tuesday, 16 April 2019

Celebrations for the 200th anniversary of the Cardigan settlers' voyage to New Brunswick

This Easter, the west Wales town of Cardigan is staging a series of events to mark the 200th anniversary of a mass migration that saw some 160 local people leave for British North America. There'd been a series of poor hardships, economic depression and unemployment was rife, and all were hoping to find a better life on the other side of the Atlantic. Among them was Elizabeth Bowing, daughter of the local Earl. She'd fallen in love with their gardener, David Saunders. had eloped and been disinherited. They and the rest of the group set sail on April 19, 1819 on the brig Albion and, having risked danger and death, 60 days later finally made landfall at St John, New Brunswick. While the young quickly found employment, it was a different story for some families who knew nothing but farming. With little or no money to buy land, they were reliant on help from the settlers already there, who were bemused by the strange language (most spoke Welsh) and the women's tall hats and shawls. Their first winter was very hard; cold and malnutrition claimed several lives. But they persevered, and were eventually granted land near Fredericton. By the 1830s the settlement they founded, a second Cardigan, was a thriving farming community, and descendants still live in this part of Canada. David and Elizabeth did well. Having been given land, he helped establish the Baptist church and one of his sons, Thomas, formed the first school.  New Brunswick will be celebrating the epic voyage on August 10 and 11. The Welsh events are being held for ten days over Easter.
 Details at

Monday, 15 April 2019

D-Day: Interception, Intelligence, Invasion - a new 75th anniversary exhibition at Bletchley Park

Fifteen years ago I was part of a BBC team covering the 60th anniversary of the Normandy landings. We crossed the Channel in the Royal British Legion’s chartered vessel, the MV Van Gogh, along with some 450 veterans and their families (above). Halfway across we watched as a Lancaster bomber flying overhead dropped a million poppies in memory of those who lost their lives in that operation and stood in silence to remember them. Later, the Queen, who attended the Normandy ceremonies along with 16 other heads of state, described the 1944 invasion of France as “one of the most dramatic military operations in history”.

What many of us didn’t know at the time was that its ultimate success owed much to a group of code-breakers many miles away in Bletchley Park in Buckinghamshire (above). For 18 months they had worked in shifts around the clock, decrypting enemy messages that helped build up an exact picture of the defences the Allied forces were likely to meet, including the likely level of resistance, the location of landmines, and even the height of fences. They had also fed out false information which convinced Hitler any invasion would be further down the coast at Calais, and as a result, he had stationed the bulk of his troops there. D-Day: Interception, Intelligence, Invasion tells their story.

The unit had been set up in 1939, when the Government bought Bletchley Park to house the 150 or so staff of the secret codebreaking and intelligence efforts of the Government Code and Cypher School (GC&CS). As more staff were recruited, huts were built in the grounds. Eventually more than 9000 people worked there.

The first major success came in 1941 when they managed to break the codes used by the German Enigma machine (above). This later featured in the 2014 film, The Imitation Game, with Benedict Cumberbatch as computer scientist Alan Turing. But official secrecy meant the public knew little about their later achievements.
D-Day exhibition © Andy Stagg
This exhibition, housed in the complex's restored Teleprinter building, restores the balance and gives a picture of the build-up to D-Day with original decoded messages such as the German naval one (below) that alerted Hitler to what was happening. “Immediate readiness”, it says. “There are indications that the invasion has begun.”
Intercepted message ©Bletchley Park Trust
A 12-minute
immersive film, shown on a 22m-long screen, tells the many stories of Operation Overlord, including how the 15,000 men of the 82nd US Airborne Division had their drop zone moved just a few weeks before D-Day to avoid a German division, thanks to Bletchley intelligence.
D-Day film ©Andy Stagg

The code-breakers' work was relentless. Intercepted communications came from secret listening posts all over the country, and each one, whether a request for aviation fuel or details of a troop train, was logged, indexed and cross-referenced. Sometimes the most innocuous message contained a vital clue. An application for leave from a German soldier in a unit in Russia was rejected by Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt, who was in Paris. From this the team in Hut 3, the main reporting centre for messages, deduced that the unit was now under his command and was being moved to his territory in the west. Hitler never knew about Bletchley Park or that his top-secret codes were being broken. Cover stories to disguise the origins of information were used, such as 'a reliable source recovered a flimsy bit of a message in the wastepaper basket of....'. On occasion reconnaissance aircraft were sent out, just so they could be spotted by the enemy.
Mavis Batey © The Batey family
The exhibition also honours some of the key code-breakers, among them Mavis Batey, above. (Three-quarters of the staff were women.) Her team reconstructed the wiring and encryption settings of an Abwehr German Intelligence machine, making it possible to tell to what extent the enemy believed Allied deception messages, both before and after D-Day.

The exhibition forms part of the wider Bletchley Park experience. Exploring the grounds, you can visit the Library (above), once home of the Naval section, see wartime vehicles in the garages, tour restored huts where the code-breakers were based, and learn about their experiences through an oral history project. Cipher machines, including Enigma, are on display in the museum. Winston Churchill visited Bletchley in 1941 and dubbed the code-breakers “the geese that laid the golden eggs .... but never cackled”. It’s only now, 75 years after D-Day, that thanks to recently declassified documents and to remaining codebreakers ending decades of silence, the full story behind the landing is emerging.

Admission to D-Day: Interception, Intelligence, Invasion is included in Bletchley Park admission tickets: £20, valid for a year. (Concessions available; children under 12 free.)
An excellent book by Bletchley Park’s research historian, Dr David Kenyon, D-Day: Interception, Intelligence, Invasion accompanies the exhibition.