Zanzibar’s House Of Wonders: A Door On The past

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The ancient Swahili towns of East Africa’s seaboard and islands are renowned for their elaborately carved doors. Zanzibar (more properly Unguja) has some fine examples, so it’s a pity I have so few photos from our long-ago stay in Stone Town. There is a reason, however. For one thing the streets are so shadowy and narrow it is difficult to take decent shots without causing pedestrian chaos. And anyway, neither photographer, nor my then Olympus trip camera, whose back kept flicking open, were up to job.

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Here though, on the steps of Beit-al-Ajaib, the House of Wonders, there was both light and room for manoeuvre. The doors belong to a palace built by Sultan Barghash in 1883 to host ceremonial events. Barghash belonged to the dynasty of Omani Arabs who had ruled over the Swahili city states from the late 17th century, this after the expulsion of the Portuguese who, thanks to explorer Vasco da Gama, had held the territory, thus controlling the Indian Ocean trade, for some two centuries.

So it was that one set of invaders succeeded another, the situation further complicated in the 19th century by competing European interests wherein Britain saw off Germany, and proclaimed the Zanzibari Omanis’ dominion a British protectorate; the stated objective being to put an end to the Arab slave trade, though some might say this was only an excuse, since there appear to have few means to back up the fine words, and slaving on parts of the East African coast anyway continued into the 1920s.

But back to the palace. Barghash was an extravagant man and, before his death in 1888, built six palaces across Unguja island. (The Zanzibari sultans’ wealth derived both from the slave trade and Unguja’s spice plantations). Their rule did not end well. 1964 saw the Zanzibar Revolution. The Omanis, along with many Indian residents, were killed or expelled. Thereafter the House of Wonders was used as government offices. When we visited in 1999 it was abandoned, shrouded in dust and empty  but for one of the last sultan’s  cars (a candy pink saloon) parked inside the atrium just behind those two front doors. One wonders how many men it took to carry it up the palace steps. A friend who visited more recently told me it was still there.

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And finally, my only view of a Stone Town door, more gist than detail:

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Cee’s Black & White Photo Challenge: doors and drawers

Laid Out At The Allotment: Flat-Pack Cat

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There are two long-abandoned plots next to mine at the Wenlock allotments. On recent late-day visits to my polytunnel, the sun still hot, I’ve found this allotment cat (one of several feral felines who haunt the place) stretched out between two dismantled shed panels. The pose says it all: absolute bliss.

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Here’s its sibling. Both cats seem to make a living on the allotment. In fact I think they were born here and don’t seem to belong to anyone. I dare say there are plenty of rodents to hunt. And now I think about it, there are certainly fewer birds foraging on the plots. In the winter, one or other sleeps in my polytunnel.

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And here’s another regular prowler, doing a good little leopard imitation:

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June Wanderings: Windmill Hill And The Linden Field

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Two sunny Saturdays in a row and an early evening stroll to check on the orchids on Windmill Hill. First, though, there’s a spot of cricket to watch on the Linden Field: a perfect English summer scene:

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Apart from the green idyll, there’s some very big history in this view. This is the ground that hosted the annual Wenlock Olympian Games, devised in 1850 by the town’s physician, Doctor William Penny Brookes (1809-1895). They are still held here and at the neighbouring school every year. Brookes was an energetic lobbyist for all round social improvement. He was responsible for the introduction of physical education in English national schools. He also wrote letters to every literary celebrity in the land, begging copies of their books for the Wenlock Agricultural Reading Society’s library, a facility he founded to give local working people educational opportunities. But it was the town’s Olympian Games that were to have world-wide impact.

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In 1890, Brookes wrote to one Baron Coubertin who was visiting England to study sports education, and invited him to attend the Much Wenlock games, which he duly did. Brookes apparently filled him on all aspects of the enterprise, including the array of medals that he himself had designed and funded. And so it was that 6 years later in Athens when the first Modern Olympic Games were held, Coubertin paid tribute to Brookes who had died only months before, aged 86. The baron said it was down to the good doctor that the games had been revived, although it is Coubertin who is remembered as ‘the father of the modern Olympic movement.’

If you scan the field today, you can see it has been well treed since Brookes’ time, although he was responsible for the planting of the Linden Walk (behind the conifers in the view above). He was also responsible for bringing the railway to the town. This ran directly behind the Linden Walk, with the station just beyond the field gates. Olympian Special trains would be run to bring  games participants and spectators from all over the country.

And Windmill Hill, overlooking  the Linden Field (now obscured by trees) once provided a natural gallery for thousands of visitors:

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Today this hill is one of the town’s favourite walking spots, the windmill  (probably late 17th century) a well known landmark. The grassland all around is a surviving example of a traditional limestone meadow – rich in grasses and many wild flower species. Brookes would have known all about the local flora. Not only had he trained as a physician in Paris and London, he had also studied medical herbalism at the University of Padua. During his life-time in Wenlock he created a magnificent herbarium of pressed flowers, another town treasure, although it is now kept in Ludlow Museum’s special conservation facility. It is a marvellous document of what was once growing along Wenlock Edge and what has been lost.

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But back to the walk. Climbing the hill behind the Linden Field we soon spot the freshly sprouting pyramidal orchids. To my eye, they seem to be extending their range across the hill. I’m surmising that this is due to the new management system for the grassland: the  end of season raking up of dying vegetation that has spread the tubers far and wide.

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We also found spotted orchids…

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…and, thanks to a chum who alerted us to its location, a single tiny bee orchid. They are very hard to find, their stems only a few inches tall.

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June and July are the main flowering times on the hill. Already you can see the wild thyme on exposed outcrops. Then there are briar roses, elderflowers, red clover – all four of them long used as medicinal herbs. The thymol extracted from thyme is a key active ingredient in cough syrups. Rose petals may be used to treat skin conditions. Elderflowers are particularly potent, with a host of healing properties including quercetin. Brewed as a tea they relieve colds and flu symptoms. Red clover is also used for skin and more deep-seated complaints.

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And then once you reach the top of the hill, there the views to ponder. Always something new, whatever the season.

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By the time we clamber back down to the Linden Field the cricket is over, and now is the moment for Wenlock dogs to play. We wander home beneath the conifer avenue. I always love the play of light and shadow under these trees:

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As we go there’s the waft of lime tree in the air; only a subtle scent as yet;  the tiny green flowers are only just opening. But later in the month, and as the days grow warmer, the field will be bathed in its fragrance. And so we have another therapeutic plant, one that calms and heals, although as with all herbal remedies, it is best to consult a qualified medical herbalist as to their use.

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And a final floriferous view of Windmill Hill:

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Lens-Artists: Local Vistas   This week Anne Sandler at Slow Shutter Speed  wants to see views from home territory.

Townsend Meadow: Views Spare Or Complex

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Ripening barley

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It’s pretty much a truism when it comes to prose, the fewer words the better. This is a hard lesson for most writers to learn: how much to leave in; what to cut. Of course timing is involved too, not only scene setting. To build suspense, a sense of drama, irony, mystery, you can’t rush things. But then too much detail and description can bog things down, or worse, bore.

For most of us, honing the craft of captivating verbal particularity, the sort of writing that transports readers, heart-and-mind, right to the spot takes much practice and perseverance.  And there may come a point when the attempt to conjure with words becomes too darned hard. Well, aren’t we humans, above all, moved by visual stimuli. Just think.  If Word Press blogs were solely prose, how many of us would be here?

And so to images. These are all views from the field behind our house: the things that catch my eye: light and shadow; blocks of texture; earth colours. In this space, between our garden fence and Wenlock Edge,  it’s usually the sky that creates all the drama.

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The fence at the top of the field in winter

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Over the garden fence

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Summer grasses on the field path

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After the wheat harvest

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Winter hedge-top

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Midsummer sunset

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Lens-Artists: minimalism/maximalism   Sofia at Photographias has set this week’s theme. Please pay her a visit.

Quiet Scenes On The Edge

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The hamlet of Easthope lies a few miles south-west of Much Wenlock. To reach it you travel along Wenlock Edge towards Church Stretton, then drop down a winding lane, too narrow for comfort. At the village heart is St. Peter’s church and the meadows of Manor Farm. The houses are scattered round: old limestone cottages, some ancient timber framed buildings, some modern homes built last century, a gracious rectory no longer ecclesiastically engaged. Most look out on the Mogg, a darkly forested hogsback ridge whose trees hide the the remains of  an Iron Age hillfort known as The Ditches.

You can just see the conifer tops of the Mogg between the churchyard trees in the next photo.

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I took these photos one bright December afternoon. It was something of a pilgrimage.  My good friend and artist Sheilagh Jevons resides in this peaceful graveyard, the perfect spot for a woman so in tune with the Shropshire landscape and its liminal spaces and much in love with the Mogg. Her house and studio were just down the lane from the church and she called her home The Mogg.

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Here is another hill topped with a conifer plantation. It lies on the easterly side of Much Wenlock, and this is the view I see as I come home from the allotment, stepping out under the big ash tree that guards the unofficial ‘gateway’ through the field hedge.

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And naturally, one of the most peaceful spots in the town are the ruins of Much Wenlock Priory whose origins, in the charge of Saxon princess and abbess, St. Milburga, go back to 670 CE. The remains you see here are much later, dating from successive building phases in the 12th and 13th centuries. In its day, Wenlock Priory was among the grandest monastic houses in Europe, its monks belonging to the Cluniac order and brought here from France. It’s a mysterious thing to think of now, a French community ruling the lives, body and spirit, of Shropshire folk. All dissolved in 1540 of course, with the protecting lead stripped off the roofs by Thomas Cromwell’s team of asset strippers.

Cee’s Black & White Photo Challenge: peaceful

The Changing Seasons: May 2022

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Poppy time on  my allotment plot, the oriental perennials I grew from seed last year. I’d been hoping for a range of colours, but it looks as though they are all turning out to be tomato soup red. I should not complain. This bunch are brightening the spot in front of my shed.

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Otherwise at the allotment, the globe artichokes are going bonkers, arriving far earlier than expected. We’ve already polished off several. By contrast, the early potatoes are making a slow start, their green tops only beginning to sprout last week. Parsnips, on the other hand, have germinated well, this time sown in a large builders’ tub, and the onion sets are making their first green shoots. Beetroot, cauli and cabbage seedlings have been successfully planted out and the broad bean plants are flowering magnificently.

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In the home garden all is alliums and aquilegias, valerian and catmint. The apple blossom is long gone, quickly dispersed by May’s repeated rounds of wind and rain, but a few days ago I noticed there were lots of tiny apples forming – on the Coxes and the crab apple trees.

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Meanwhile around the town, all is lush in the fields beside the Cutlins path – shaggy sheep on one side, young MacMoos on the other, up to their knees and noses in buttercups. And oh yes, don’t forget to watch the sky. Looks like there’s another downpour coming:

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Nearby, on the Linden Field all is bursting green. The cricket season is upon us, the pitch well fettled, and lads in the nets  honing batting skills.  As ever, the Linden Walk is the favoured resort of walkers and runners and lately been proving a welcome resort out of the persistent chilling wind.

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But as you can see, the spring growth hasn’t in the least minded the ongoing coolness, and it’s certainly made the most of May’s sudden spate of unseasonal downpours. He who has given up binding books for the making of small and interesting occasional tables tells me it’s supposed to be getting warmer now June’s arrived. And yes, I think at last I can believe him. Today the sun is out, and best of all, the wind has dropped. In the greenhouse the French beans are surging out of their pots and the sweet corn seeds have germinated, and up in the upstairs garden, rose Teasing Georgia is strutting her stuff. Happy days.

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The Changing Seasons: May 2022  Brian at Bushboy  and Ju-Lyn at Touring My Backyard are the kind hosts of this monthly challenge. Please go and see what they have been doing during May.

On The Ice-Sheet Path ~ Stiperstones Revisited

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This time we approach from the west, the Shropshire border with Wales below and behind us.  The path from The Bog climbs up through sheep pasture hedged with gorse. The gold is dazzling. In sun-sheltered hollows, out of the wind, the flower-mass gives off coconutty scents. The grassland too is flushed with gold – a mass of buttercups.

After a steepish climb, the path sets off more evenly along the foot of the Stiperstones ridgeway, the quartzite tors of Cranberry Rocks and Manstone Rock standing proud on the skyline. We are making for the Devil’s Chair (header photo), but it is still invisible at this point along the path.

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The tors’ rubble spill  (stone runs) makes them look more like man-made spoil heaps than natural phenomena. And of course this was an industrial landscape across nearly two millennia:  from Roman times to the early 20th century. Although back then the activity was mostly hidden from sight in the deep mine shafts and caverns dug for the extraction of valuable lead ore.

The tors, though, are their own work, their response to environmental pressures – the fractured tumble created by the freeze-thaw cycles of the last glaciation when the Welsh ice sheet nudged up against the hillside, but did not cover it. In fact, as we follow the path, we must be walking over terrain where the ice would have lain feet deep, the far edge below the tors ebbing in surface melt-water in summer, resuming the deep-freeze lock-down in winter.

It’s surely not too hard to imagine?

For as we walk here under the sun, the bright gorse and lush new bilberry bushes, bleating of lambs, distant mew of a buzzard, I note that even now in late May, the wind still has a piercingly icy edge.

It reminds me, too, that for some reason most of us have decided, on the basis of nothing in particular, that the planet has somehow done with ice ages; that they must be a thing of the past. Yet the last ice sheets only retreated 10,000 years ago; we are presently in an interglacial, the Holocene.

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Within interglacial periods there are phases of warming and cooling. E.g. It is generally accepted that around 6,000 years ago that the northern hemisphere was much warmer (Holocene thermal maximum) than it is today (NOAA National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration US). There is likewise evidence from analysis of pollen and other prehistoric deposits in peat bogs across Europe of  periods of dramatic climatic decline e.g. the Late Bronze Age Britain (from around 3,000 years ago) when it became much wetter and cooler. Yet by the time the Romans had taken over the land, there was another warm phase. And again in the Medieval period, this before the general descent into the Little Ice Age of 14th-19th centuries for which there are also historical accounts. (I mentioned the London Frost Fairs of the Little Ice Age in a recent post on chaotic weather.)

The cycle of ice ages and climatic variation within interglacial phases is apparently dependent on shifts in the inclination of the earth on its axis, plus associated so-called ‘wobbles’, together with variations in the sun’s energy output. In other words, there can be  no doubting that here we have in play planetary cycles that are stratospherically beyond humanity’s capacity to control. Anyway, it’s making me think that hanging on to the woolly jumpers and thermal underwear might not be a bad idea.

And talking of woolly jumpers, as the Devil’s Chair comes into view I find myself the subject of ovine scrutiny…

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And now for the Devil’s Chair, long the subject of Shropshire myth and witchery:

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And the view from this spot, back towards Cordon Hill, the border and Wales. Remember that ice sheet. This was the land that it covered. At the glacial maximum around 22,000 years ago the ice was estimated to be up to half a kilometre deep. Sheffield University has produced some interactive maps.

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The dark tussocks are heather which will bloom in late summer. The bright green bushes are bilberries, locally called win- or wimberries – our native version of blueberries, ready to pick around August time, but presently flowering. The little rosy bells are hard to see, but the bees are finding them:

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As we retrace our steps to The Bog where we’ve left the car, I’m stopped in my tracks by  the sight of a mountain ash tree seedling. There it is, growing so strongly atop a weathered gate post. It makes me smile. It seems like a sign: the earth, the real world, has much to teach us when we choose to pay attention.

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Every Little Thing

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Out on the line – an unexpectedly good drying day in February

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This week at Lens-Artists, Amy asks us to show her things that make us smile. So here are some of the happenstance little-big things that, at various times, have caught my eye or otherwise brightened my day:

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A neat little cloud traversing Townsend Meadow

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Finding I’d grown a rather good cauliflower at the allotment

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Spotted in the garden sage bush

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Spring sun-catchers: crab apple flowers…

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…that in autumn become perfect tiny apples

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The Linden Walk in full summer leafiness

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Lens-Artists: Every Little Thing

Dads And Lads At The Severn Valley Railway

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This week Cee wants to see tender moments. Here are some that caught my eye on a couple of visits to Shropshire’s Severn Valley Railway.

They make me wonder too: young dads sharing their passion for steam trains; little lads not quite big enough to be sure. Which is also touching.

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And quite another take on the topic…

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A case of sore feet and

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a tender behind… (I know, it’s an old joke)

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Cee’s Black & White Photo Challenge: Tender Moments