Therefore all seasons shall be sweet to thee,
Whether summer clothe the general earth
With greeness, or the redbreast sit and sing
Betwixt the tufts of snow on the bare branch
Of mossy apple-tree, while the nigh thatch
Smokes in the sun-thaw; whether the eave-drops fall
Heard only in the trances of the blast,
Or if the secret ministry of frost
Shall hang them up in silent icicles,
Quietly shining to the quiet Moon.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

The Shepherd's Calendar - April

Along each hedge and sprouting bush
   The singing birds are blest,
And linnet green and speckled thrush
   Prepare their mossy nest;
On the warm bed thy plains supply,
   The young lambs find repose,
And ’mid thy green hills basking lie
   Like spots of ling’ring snows.                                     

Thy open’d leaves and ripen’d buds
   The cuckoo makes his choice,
And shepherds in thy greening woods
   First hear his cheering voice:
And to thy ripen’d blooming bowers
   The nightingale belongs;
And, singing to thy parting hours,
   Keeps night awake with songs!

With thee the swallow dares to come,
   And cool his sultry wing;                                           
And, urged to seek his yearly home,
               Thy suns the martin bring.

There are several excerpts from John Clare's lovely poem ' The Shepherd's Calendar ' on my blog but there are still several months missing so here is another one for the collection. The photographs were taken in the last couple of days, the bluebell one isn't very good but it shows how wonderful they are this year. Gillfield Wood is only a short distance from where I live but not many people go there as the big draw locally for bluebells is Ecclesall Woods. A great many people locally don't even know that Gillfield Wood exists but the bluebells are actually even better here I think. They aren't quite in full bloom yet but in another few days they will be fantastic. Already their scent is drifting through the woodland accompanied by the the singing of the birds and the bleating of the lambs in the fields that run along the edges - it's a beautiful place to walk in the springtime.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

St George's Day

This royal throne of kings, this sceptr'd isle
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars
This other Eden, demi-paradise
This fortress built by Nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in a silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall,
Or as a moat defensive to a house,
Against the envy of less happier lands;
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England...

These marvellous, stirring words are taken from the play 'Richard II' by England's greatest playwright William Shakespeare.

Today is also the 450th anniversary of Shakespeare's birth in 1564. So those of us who are English have two good reasons to celebrate - Happy St George's Day!

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Oak Alley and Alligators

I thought I'd better finally finish the story of our trip to New Orleans! Life has been exceptionally busy recently and I just haven't had time to blog. For the last full day of our stay we booked a full day tour visiting two Plantation Houses and then spending the afternoon on a swamp boat looking for alligators. The tour bus picked us up at our hotel at 10am and we set off for our first stop at Oak Alley. We took the River Road out to Vacherie, it runs alongside the Mississipi River with the levy on one side and plantation houses on the other. Above is one of the houses we passed on the way, and it is exactly as I imagined a plantation house would look.I believe it's called Evergreen.

This is Oak Alley which gets its name from the wonderful avenue of Live Oak trees that leads up to the house - my photos of the avenue were rubbish so I have borrowed the one from the Oak Alley website.
The house was built in the Greek Revival style in 1837-1839 for Jacques Roman and was originally named Bon Sejour.The house  had several owners over the years but  by the 1920s it was very run down. In 1925 it was bought by Mr and Mrs Andrew Stewart who restored it to its original 19th century beauty.

The interior of the house has been furnished and decorated in the way it would have been between about 1820 and 1830. This is the parlour.

The dining room - the velvet covered affair over the dining table is a fan known as a shoo-fly which was operated by a young slave boy who sat on a chair in a corner of the room pulling on a strong cord.

This is the bedroom used by Josephine Stewart and remains as it was when she died in 1972, it's the only room not decorated and furnished in the style of the early 1800s.I believe that the portrait on the wall is of Josephine as a young woman.

After the house tour we had the opportunity to try the drink that is always associated with the Southern hospitality - a mint julep. It's made with bourbon, mint, sugar and water and we had the perfect place to sit and sip it - though to be honest neither Juliette nor I particularly liked it!

The darker side of the sugar plantations was of course that they used slave labour and above we see the slave quarters which lay at the back of the main house - something of a contrast to the luxury of the plantation owners lifestyle.

Life as a slave was decidedly spartan - these two photos show the two sides of the one room cabin. The Oak Alley plantation had 113 slaves including children in 1848 - 20 house slaves and 93 field slaves.

This is an original sugar kettle which was used to boil the extracted juice out of the sugar cane - apparently it went through four boilings each one in a smaller kettle than the previous one. Several of the old kettles are now used as planters.

Our next stop was the Laura Plantation house - a rare example of a Creole raised house - the house had a raised brick basement which not only helped when the Mississipi flooded but also helped to keep the house cool in the hot, sultry summers.

This was a much less grand house but it was also older dating back to 1805, it eventually stood at the centre of a sugar plantation of over 12000 acres. This is the dining room - much smaller and less opulent than Oak Alley. I have to say that our tour here was very rushed as we were apparently running late so our guide fairly sprinted round both the house and the grounds.

There were some interesting old household artefacts in the kitchen area but no time to really look at them. I liked this little display set out on an old wooden table.

Having to race round the outside areas was even more disappointing since it was really interesting and I would have loved to spend more time exploring. The photo shows one of the slave cabins - one family in each side. These were much more interesting than the ones at Oak Alley as the Oak Alley slave quarters are reconstructions whereas these are the original buildings which were still being lived in by workers until 1977.

This shows two of the slave cabins each of which had a small vegetable garden, a chicken house and/or a pig pen. Laura also had a slave infirmary so I think that perhaps the slaves here were less harshly treated than was generally the case.

The inside of one of the cabins - there were two rooms here rather than one.

There was a display of pre-Civil War photos of slaves from this plantation, again I would have liked longer to really look at these. However we had to leave for our lunch stop then on to our swamp tour. The less said about lunch the better, I will just say that I'm not used to eating at the sort of place we were taken to and judging from the faces of the others I don't think they were either!!

By the time we arrived at Manchac Swamp it had turned really cold - too cold for alligators unfortunately. The captain of our swamp boat told us that they excavate a depression in the ground and go into a period of dormancy when the temperature falls below a certain level.

The swamp is a surprisingly beautiful and tranquil place though - at least most of the time. It wasn't very tranquil just here - this graveyard is supposedly haunted! The story is that a Voodoo Queen named Julie Brown lived in the little town of Frenier on the shore of Lake Pontchartrain - the Manchac Swamp separates Lake Pontchartrain from Lake Maurepas. Apparently she used to sit on her front porch singing a song that went ' When I die I'm going to take the whole town with me'. Well, in 1915 she did die and as she was being buried a huge hurricane swept through destroying the town of Frenier and sweeping her coffin and the 50 mourners at her funeral into the Manchac Swamp. The graveyard you see in the photo is where they are all buried in mass graves and the victims still haunt the swamp. I'm glad I didn't know that when we set off!! If you click on the photo to enlarge it you'll see the rough wooden crosses that mark the graves.

Here is one of the only two alligators that we saw - the other was a baby lying on a log and by the time I spotted it we were past so I couldn't get a photo.

A primitive camp which I gather our captain often uses. Like all the captains in this company he is a Cajun and very familiar with and knowledgeable about the wildlife in the area.

This shows very clearly the 'knees' of the cypress trees that grow in the swamp - these help to buttress and stabilize the trees in the soft muddy soil of flood prone places. On the right is the ubiquitous Spanish Moss.

I must say that the swamp itself wasn't at all as I imagined - there is much more open water than I'd expected, I thought we'd be going down narrow channels and be hemmed in by the undergrowth but it isn't like that at all.

Finally the bit that Juliette was really looking forward to - we got to hold a baby alligator! George is 3 years old and will eventually be released back into the wild. He won't be fully adult until he's about 15 years old.

My turn to hold George:) By the way I had a warm sweater on under my flannel shirt, I needed it too! This was a nice way to end what was a really great holiday, the following afternoon we flew back to Savannah and stayed overnight before flying to Washington for our overnight flight back to London. I really hope that one day I shall be able to go back to the Deep South.