Ways With Words at Dartington Hall

Ways With Words, Dartington

I first discovered Ways With Words several years ago. I came across a slightly blurry, monochrome advert for it, in a newspaper that had just been used to soak up an accidental flood of red wine. Carmine-stained pages had rippled into dunes and dales and a puddle of transparent wax was creeping towards it, but the great clock-tower and huge gothic windows of Dartington Hall were still visible. I squinted through the gloom at the disintegrating text (the overhead bulb in our student kitchen had blown, hence the candles), and pulled my laptop towards me.

After a little digging I unearthed the treasure that is their bursary-student scheme. Although you still need to pay for your own accommodation and meals, should you be 17-25 and among the lucky chosen you can attend, completely free of charge, any of the 100+ talks scheduled over the ten days the festival runs for. The equivalent for grown-ups would be a ten-day rover ticket costing £350, and individual talks are £10 per ticket, so it’s a wonderful opportunity.

Ways With Words, Dartington

Seeing as my mum actually studied at Dartington in the 70s, back when it was a prestigious performing arts college, there was no way I was going to let this one pass. I emailed off a frantic plea, not expecting any bursary places to be left so late in the game, and was absolutely delighted to receive a positive reply. You’re not getting any details out of me about the first time I visited, but suffice to say it was one of my favourite undergraduate experiences! We were an eclectic group who made the most out of our time there, attending several talks a day, gleefully interrogating the authors, and having midnight, alcohol-fuelled picnics in the grounds of the estate. A sedate Secret History if you will.

Ways With Words, Dartington

Ways With Words, Dartington

Ways With Words, Dartington

If you are aged 17-25 you should be here. It helps if you like books, of course, but the opportunity to listen to authors, poets, actors, broadcasters, film producers and explorers talk about their experiences is incomparable. I was showered with the most wonderful writing and life advice from the writers I approached, and also managed to bully cajole the then-Literary Editor of the Telegraph into giving me work experience. Sorry about that Sam, you were a good sport!

This time, nearly ten years later, I took my husband. Another English graduate (we have five English degrees between us so far, so that’s a lot of books read), he attended Hay-on-Wye earlier in the year, so was curious to see how WWW would compare. Favourably, I’m happy to report. More relaxed, more beautiful. We could only spare a couple of days so we chose the Rural Writing: Wild Ways day, and the opening of Journeys. The Great Hall talks are eclectic and the Theatre Barn’s are themed, but there will be something for everyone I promise. A day or a week of reading books in the sunshine, surrounded by medieval buildings and stunning gardens, listening to their authors tell all the stories not sufficiently PC to go into print, and acquiring signed copies and a few precious minutes of their time afterwards. “I’ve done some terrible, terrible things, but I’m quite clever so I’ve got away with it” was my favourite comment (from Springwatch presenter Martin Hughes-Games.)

Ways With Words, Dartington

A tiny, one-room chapel just behind the main hall

Ways With Words, Dartington

Ways With Words, Dartington

Bursary scheme aside, if you are enrolled on one of the hundreds of English degrees around the country then shame on you for not attending a festival like this. English Literature is by its very nature interdisciplinary, and broadening your perspective at Ways With Words can only be a positive. The limited attendance of the under-35s is shocking, in all honesty, and I would like to see every university and every A-Level English department encouraging their students to attend. Likewise parents – your children deserve to experience a festival like Ways With Words, but I only saw one child the whole time we were there. He even asked a question of one of the speakers, in front of a whole audience, so well done you young man. The summer holidays needn’t be an intellectual vacuum. Get yourselves to Devon, and prepare to be inspired.

It’s on for a couple more days, until 12th July. The programme is available here for 2015, but Ways With Words runs every summer if you miss it this year. Maybe I’ll see you there in 2016!

Ways With Words, Dartington

Does anyone else have any festival memories?

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Best Books about the Countryside

This is by no means a definitive guide, rather a varied selection across all genres. Books to dip into when you’re missing the smell of damp loam and the sound of trickling streams. I’ve selected four favourites which draw me back, their images and anecdotes equally compelling but in very different ways. There are other greats that I haven’t mentioned, like Roger Deakin’s Waterlog, and John Lister-Kaye’s Song of the Rolling Earth, but I’ve focussed on books that you can dip in and out of – flashes of inspiration to illuminate your day, however you choose to spend it.

Wild Swimming – Daniel Start (£13.59, available here)

Wild Swimming 2

This book is pure inspiration. How many of you swam in rivers or ponds when you were younger? Wriggled away from water-weed and slippery amphibians, squealing with pleasure, doggy-paddled around lilypads or back-stroked across plunge pools? Now, when was the last time you ventured in? If it wasn’t recently, then this book will entice you back to Britain’s wild waters. As the introduction points out, “being by and in water is more than just a pleasure, it is at the core of our human condition”.

Wild Swimming details nearly 400 magical locations where you can swim in the wild, from rivers to lakes with hidden waterfalls along the way. There are tarns at the top of mountains, and natural pools in woodland clearings. Accompanied by tantalising photos and anecdotes, they’re organised by geography, and there are maps and grid references to help you on your way. There’s also an amusingly high-percentage of photos featuring scantily-clad young women enjoying the waters… but I wouldn’t level that as a criticism!

Wild Swimming 1Extract:

Tarns – or Llyns as they’re known in Wales – are those magical lakes that appear as you’re sweating your way to the top of the mountain. Swimming in them provides total immersion in the landscape and the ultimate sense of the wild. 

My favourite is Llyn Eiddew Bach, part of a series of wild mountain lakes that is very dear to me. It’s in the heart of the northern Rhinogs, Snowdonia’s least-visited region, close to a 3,000-year-old roadway that once linked Ireland with Stonehenge. I spent some time living in the farm close by and I would always leave a bottom of bubbly stashed and chilling on the lake bottom, tied to a secret piece of string, in preparation for weekend picnics.

Death of a Naturalist – Seamus Heaney (£7.49, available here)

Death of a Naturalist 1

There are many poets who write about the natural world, but very few really understand it as Seamus Heaney does. When I first encountered Heaney I didn’t know he had garnered international fame, and won the Nobel Prize for Literature amongst many other awards and accolades, I just recognised the world as I also saw it in his poems. He lifted me out of my GCSE English classroom and back into the countryside, which was exactly where I wanted to be.

There is a power and precision to Heaney’s poetry, and a clarity of vision that is not marred by agenda. Although many of his poems have an autobiographical element, evoking memories of his rural childhood in Ireland, somehow it is often not Heaney we see as we turn the pages but ourselves. I make all my students study his work, whatever age they are. For them it is an alien-world he evokes, as few seem to venture outside of London unless they do so at 36,000 feet, but with a little guidance Heaney helps me to show them what they’re missing out on.


Death of a Naturalist

 All year the flax-dam festered in the heart
Of the townland; green and heavy headed
Flax had rotted there, weighted down by huge sods.
Daily it sweltered in the punishing sun.
Bubbles gargled delicately, bluebottles
Wove a strong gauze of sound around the smell.
There were dragon-flies, spotted butterflies,
But best of all was the warm thick slobber
Of frogspawn that grew like clotted water
In the shade of the banks. Here, every spring
I would fill jampotfuls of the jellied
Specks to range on window-sills at home,
On shelves at school, and wait and watch until
The fattening dots burst into nimble-
Swimming tadpoles.  

River Cottage Handbook: Hedgerow – John Wright (£11.99, available here)

Hedgerow 1

The River Cottage brand began back in 1998, though Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall first appeared on our screens in 1995 with A Cook on the Wild Side. Since then he and his team have become synonymous with the promotion of ethical, sustainable food production, and especially with food you’ve found yourself in the wild.

A walk in the autumn countryside so often turns into an all-consuming foraging expedition, with buckets overflowing with blackberries, pockets bulging with chestnuts, and even a trug full of wild mushrooms if you’re lucky. When Hugh’s pal John Wright began writing the River Cottage Handbooks, however, he opened up all the seasons.

I have a number of these little guides, and flicking through them – especially the recipes section – always make me glance longingly at my gumboots. The tantalising pictures are quite enough, but John also includes witty explanations of how best to eat your plunder, whether berries, nuts, seeds, roots, leaves or even tree sap.

Blackberry Whisky


Crab Apple

A fully burdened Crab Apple tree is a wonderful sight in autumn, but chiefly from a distance. The apples themselves are, as one Edward Long put it in the eighteenth century, “never admired for loveliness of aspect”. Small, misshapen, spotty and scabby, and full of pips, they do not inspire the cook. Nor are they remotely edible raw – they must be cooked. Yet when prepared properly they are a treasure. 

Of course, the recipe for which this tart apple is best known is Crab Apple jelly. The very high pectin content means that it will always set well, and other fruits can be added to make a variety of jellies. Cooked, strained and with sugar added, Crab Apples also make a sharp apple sauce – just use extra sugar if it takes the roof of your mouth off.

P. S. I cannot resist passing on this medicinal recipe from the early 1800s; it is for a concoction called Black Drop:

Take half a pound of opium sliced, three parts of good verjuice (from crabapples), one and a half ounces of nutmeg, and half an ounce of saffron. Boil them to a proper thickness; then add a quarter of a pound of sugar, and two spoonfuls of yeast. Set the whole in a warm place near the fire for six or eight weeks, then place it in the open air, until it become a syrup; lastly, decant, filter, bottle it up, adding a little sugar to each bottle

I am not sure what it was supposed to cure. Everything perhaps.

Country – Jasper Conran (£20, available here)

Country 1

Jasper Conran is best known as a fashion designer, but in 2010 he published a photographic essay about the English countryside. It is whimsical and rose-tinted, portraying an idealised vision of the country where people make bread and butter very slowly by hand, but it’s a fairytale you will want to be a part of. Every image is absolutely beautiful, and woven into a narrative of the seasons that proves our halcyon past is very much still alive.

Conran spent a year exploring the UK, getting to know its villages and capturing our rural pastimes as well as occupations. There are flower festivals, morris dancers, surfers, fell runners, bell ringers, artists and artisans, foxhunters and even an old-fashioned travelling circus. The seasons take centre stage as often as the people he meets though, and each building is treated with equal curiosity and reverence whether farmhouse or manor house.

Every time I dip into this book I find something new that makes me smile or takes my breath away. For lovers of the countryside, I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Conran 3Extract:

‘Country’ is an idea – a texture, a flavour, a state of mind. Close your eyes, and imagine the English countryside. What do you see or hear, smell, feel or taste? It might be a sweep of beautiful landscape or the warmth of a roaring pub fire; perhaps a porch filled with dripping coats and muddy wellingtons, the scent of ripe apples and freshly baked bread, or the hum of bees in a sleepy kitchen garden.

I wanted to celebrate that idea; to attempt to capture in words and photographs some of the many threads that, woven together, make up some of the fabric of the English countryside. To record the people and events I found during a year of exploration. The fact that I am a designer who has worked all his life with fabric, form and colour does not make me an expert on rural affairs but, when it comes to appreciating part of the texture of the English countryside, I think it may have helped.

Our world is being transformed, not only by globalisation but also by urbanisation. For the first time in history, more people live in towns and cities than in the countryside. Across the globe we are forgetting our rural roots, but country life, its values and people have never had more to offer. This is not about some imagined past, but life as it is lived today, in all its wonderful complexity. I worry these treasures can be all too easily lost. In some countries, grey urban landscapes merge from one city to the next. I hope something similar does not happen here.

Conran 2

Let me know your own favourites – what books get you excited about the countryside?

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Gang Warfare: The Sisterhood Versus The Tomboys

Arya Stark

I just read Christa D’Souza’s article on ‘The Sisterhood’ in March’s edition of Vogue, and it intrigued me. I know, I know, Vogue doesn’t quite count as a book, but I found the ideas touched upon in the article interesting, so I thought I’d share them with you lot.

The general premise is the rise in popularity of the ‘girl gang’ – women-only parties, pats on the back on Twitter etc. The article is more an exploration than a clear thesis, but it draws on the theories of a number of high-profile and outspoken women, so it’s a useful springboard to the discussion format that blogging allows.

My initial response was to instinctively wrinkle up my nose at all of this, and treat it with suspicion. It feels dangerous to say it, in the current climate, but I cannot help but be wary of modern feminism. One of my ten year old students said to me the other day that he didn’t want help with his homework from anyone, as if he did well it wouldn’t really be his achievement, so he’d be more pleased just to do okay and know that he’d done it all on his own. That’s sort of how I feel about feminism. Women are NOT the weaker gender, but saying that we need extra help only proves otherwise. I’m sure other people will disagree, in fact I’m certain of it, but my opinion is based only on my own experiences.

I was always a tomboy when I was growing up, preferring to climb trees and generally do dangerous, challenging and muddy things outside rather than play at tea-parties and dolls. Not that I didn’t like wearing pretty dresses! I still remember the battles I had with my mother (between the ages of 4 and, oh, 18?) when I wanted to wear my best clothes out to play in, and she knew they’d come back covered in mud, permanent paint, and generally completely destroyed. Being sporty and active, getting straight back up if you fall over, even if your knees are bloody, having strong opinions, subverting or ignoring societal and fashion rules… these maxims are what make a tomboy, and in the world we live in today none of these prevent you from also being feminine. Nevertheless, if you’re looking for company, it’s usually going to be boys who want to risk their lives for adventure and build dens all over the place.

I do have a handful of close female friends these days, but they’re all tomboys in their own way. They’re tough. And I love them for it. I’ve found them all over the place, often in the strangest places, so we’re not a gang as we’re all very different people on very different journeys. We all demonstrate characteristics that society typically positions as being very male though, and I think we understand each other better as a result of sharing these. Our drive, our eagerness to try new things, our ability to switch off our emotions in order to get the job done, the fact that we typically prefer male to female company!

Tom was very surprised by this side to me when we first met, and I think he still struggles to get his head around my being more comfortable hanging out with his male friends than with other women. I just find them easier to talk to! They’re not playing games, or being driven by neurosis; they won’t take offense at my many unintentionally-offensive comments, but see the intended humour instead. My gang-that-isn’t-a-gang of tomboys are the same, but we’re thin on the ground. Girly-girls often seem perplexed by us, even frightened. My instincts tell me that we’re doing just fine being ourselves, but I am vaguely curious about the benefits of being one with the sisterhood.

I’ve been organising my ‘hen do’ recently with my maid of honour (well, I’m organising it, she’s sort of cheering me on), and the issue of girls-only came up. We paused for a moment, a little stunned to realise that there wouldn’t be any men present (male strippers will NOT be invited, as I’m keeping the precise address we’re staying at under lock and key. Unless Steve Backshall wants to pop in for a cup of tea. And then, you know, if he wants to strip that’d be okay). Then I realised that, actually, I’m sort of looking forward to being part of a girl-gang, just for a weekend! I’ve never done it before, so maybe it’ll be fun?! Katy looked at me suspiciously when I voiced this thought.

One point that struck a chord from D’Souza’s article was voiced by Laura Bailey, regarding her dependence on “a virtual creative female sisterhood via Instagram”, which provides, amongst other more utilitarian benefits, “support for a friend’s cause or a new business venture, and [says] I like what you stand for, I like your style, I like your pictures (I just like you)”. Women are the experts at this form of support.  Not that we need validation for who we are, but it’s quite nice isn’t it. I see this in blogging all the time, when likes and thoughtful comments are left by people you’ve never met. They’re not just left by women though; many of the detailed and thoughtful comments I’ve been sent were from male bloggers.

What do you think? Do you have a girl-gang, or does the very idea make you run for the hills? Do women provide each-other with a very special kind of support, or are we stronger as individuals? Are we giving support to strangers more readily today than the internet-is-the-death-of-society brigade would have us realise?



A review of Alan Garner’s latest novel.

This book confused me, I admit, but I loved it. The more I try to explain it to people the better I understand it, the greater the depth of my thoughts, and the more it inspires me. I think all books are like that, your appreciation improving through interpretation and sharing, but for some this is essential in order to unlock their secrets (Ulysses anyone?) Boneland isn’t an easy book to read. Parallel narratives are explored with little indication as to why, questions are left unanswered, and the lines between reality, fantasy, madness and theory are only faintly drawn, but it is definitely worth it.

Colin, a psychologically troubled but brilliant astrophysicist, is searching for his lost twin sister amongst the Pleides (a distant constellation). No, seriously. Juxtaposed with this is the story of The Watcher, a prehistoric shaman trying to stop the world from dying. He dances a lot. Colin’s narrative is punctuated with episodes of mental breakdown, but in being interspersed with the poetic ‘madness’ of The Watcher, you begin to doubt whether such outbreaks can be labelled so easily; he may be more closely linked to The Watcher than we realise (time, of course, not really being linear. Obviously). It’s frustrating not knowing exactly what is going on, but also strangely liberating – how often these days do you come across literature that is, like poetry, open to interpretation?

I’m interested in prehistoric archaeology (particularly the Neolithic period, as it has all the fun stuff like barrows and stone circles), so this was right up my street. Colin provides fascinating academic insights into this, through conversations he has with his unconventional therapist, but we are also able to explore an idea of the prehistoric mindset through The Watcher. The way these scientifically explained wonders could impact upon the beliefs of prehistoric man is considered, but we are also invited to contemplate the reverse; that science has mistakenly simplified things. Someone pompously told me once that science is the latest religion. More than being merely a metaphor for people’s blind faith in science though, this idea forces us to question the ‘truth’ and motives of science – something we often take for granted through over-confidence in our own supremacy.

It’s an interesting combination, archaeology and astrophysics, and raises more questions than the narrative alone can answer. Thank goodness! I’m getting quite sick of being told that everything has to make sense in novels, so three cheers for Alan Garner. This could never be a debut novel, of course, for that very reason, but it reminded me that it’s okay for literature to make us think.

Does anyone else enjoy ‘challenging’ fiction, or do you catch a whiff of pretension and elitism when you encounter it?

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Tags: book, review, Boneland, Alan Garner, archaeology, literature

Dangerous Liaisons – A Review of Recent Reading

Reading is a dangerous pastime. For me, anyway. I have to be very careful…

Most people are able to read for pleasure. To pick up a book, enjoy it in their spare time, then put it down when work or their social life is more important. I’m not capable of this. If I’m still reading at midnight, I’ll carry on reading until 4, 5, 6am… sleep becomes less important. I remember when I was about 14, and I stayed up all night reading The Goblet of Fire, and my wonderful mother let me have the next day off school as I’d read myself into exhaustion (I probably learnt more asleep than at that particular school anyway). After completing an English Literature MA, I left university and learnt that work is (ostensibly) more important, so I stopped reading.

I stopped reading. I really did.

Running your own business and being self-employed requires a lot more work than being employed by someone else; but running a business with your fiance makes it your number one priority. Everything you do – or fail to do – affects them. If you miss a deadline, or lose a client, it feels like you’ve smacked a kitten in the face (Tom isn’t like a kitten though, just so we’re clear, it’s just a simile.) When I stopped reading, however, a bit of my soul died, and I’m slowly starting to get it back as the business matures and is better able to care for itself. I thought I’d share with you what I thought of the novels I’ve read over the last week.

The Chemistry of Tears – Peter Carey

The Chemistry of Tears

A conservator of antique clocks suffers the traumatic loss of a secret lover she cannot openly mourn, and is given an eccentric project to distract her. As she tries to keep depression from overwhelming her, the increasingly manic behaviour of her assistant and her frustration at the hopelessness of her project’s original commissioner, whose story is conveyed through a series of crumbling notebooks, contributes to her growing dislocation from reality.

I never really connected to this novel. I used to work for the National Trust as a Conservation Assistant (‘Tour-Guide to the Past and Cleaner of Antiquities’ was my preferred title, but whatever), so I assumed I’d bond with the narrator over the grime of time and too many biscuits; but no. Her symptoms of misery are conveyed without a sense of the sentiment behind them, and a parent’s fear for their child’s health – the parallel story revealed by the notebooks – is not something this particular book helped me to comprehend.

The Conjuror’s Bird by Martin Davies utilised the ‘parallel mystery from the past that is discovered and misinterpreted in the present’ trope more effectively, and I found his characters to be more engaging. Not that I mean to critique The Chemistry of Tears. It is an intelligent book, and the narrative is well paced, but I didn’t enjoy reading it. The only aspect of the plot that caught my attention was the suggestion that the notebooks’ narrator may have been falsifying his own story, inventing multiple characters from the spliced traits of one individual, but this was not explored sufficiently to really grip me.

The Poison Tree – Erin Kelly

The Poison Tree. 2jpg

A bohemian summer of freedom ends in two murders. Straight-A graduate Karen meets Biba, a beautiful but eccentric actress, and is quickly drawn into her world. We experience the summer alongside Karen, the narrative interspersed with her handling the consequences years later, until a final death allows the past to finally be laid to rest. In concrete.

I was hoping for another Secret History, albeit – inevitably – a lesser shade. When I reached the final page I discovered that someone has helpfully listed books that share common themes with The Poison Tree, and included The Secret History by Donna Tartt, and Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh. Sorry, but no. Not a good idea. They may share common themes, but encouraging comparison with these classics only makes The Poison Tree pall further. Biba’s house, the focus of much of the narrative and site of various pleasures and indiscretions, comes across as being more like grimy student digs rather than the temple of eccentricity and youthful awakening it is intended to be. The characters are well observed, hipster drug-dealer Guy in particular, but the intimacy and obsession requisite to the final chapter having sufficient impact to leave the reader shell-shocked is… missing.

A lot of novels claim to be of the same ilk as The Secret History and Brideshead Revisited, but I haven’t discovered one yet that actually is. So, dear publishers, please stop letting us down like this. Allow new novels to stand on their own, or they will forever disappoint. The Poison Tree is diverting, but not captivating.

I’ve not had much luck so far have I, but it’s about to get a lot better.

The Panopticon – Jenni Fagan

The PanopticonFifteen year old Anais is sitting in the back of a police car (again), this time covered in blood that isn’t her own. As we explore the traumas of her childhood, frequently warped by her intake of narcotics, her fate draws ever closer.

I admit, my attention was captured by the front cover. The old adage ‘never judge a book by its cover’ is bollocks, frankly, as that’s what book covers are designed for. As visual summary and enticement. The narrative of The Panopticon is told though wonderfully foul-mouthed Anais’s eyes, often refracted by a prism of hallucinogens. You never feel quite able to trust what she actually sees, whilst simultaneously putting your faith in her instincts and interpretation of events. Bad things happen to Anais, and to be honest she’s no angel herself, but at times she’s so normal that the horrors of her life are exacerbated until you feel desperate to help her. To reach into the pages, grab her hand and drag her out of her own story.

I found her consistent intake of drugs a little puzzling, as this so often denied her any control over her life and, well, ruined everything, without her acknowledging this or wishing to regain control. I’m not a drug addict though, so perhaps this is normal. Fagan’s ability to juxtapose horrific events with genuinely hilarious setups (the lake outing was perfectly realised, and had me giggling to myself long after it was over) seems effortless, and is highly accomplished. I’d definitely recommend The Panopticon, though perhaps not to everyone I know…

The Perfume Collector Kathleen Tessaro

The Perfume CollectorTwo narratives, of 1920s Paris and 1950s London, are linked by a mysterious will. Grace is summoned to Paris by an unknown benefactor, Eva D’Orsay, and takes the plunge into a story that slowly develops into her own.

Both protagonists are captivating, intelligent and talented, but damaged. Living in different eras they are nevertheless both subjugated, albeit one by cruelty and one benevolent misogyny. Without tarring it with the brush of feminism, this is definitely a book for the girls, and will leave you thoughtful but elated.

I didn’t see enough of 1920s Paris, to be honest, or New York, or even 1950s London, which was a disappointment. Instead the focus is on characters, and those met by Eva D’Orsay are particularly wonderful. I’d recommend this novel wholeheartedly. When I turned the last page, I stared into empty space for a long moment, before looking around for another book to devour. A sensation only the finest novels can provoke.

Has anyone else read any of these novels? What were your thoughts?

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P1080203   book cover

A Summer’s Afternoon Vintiquing in Rye

My parents live in the middle of the countryside, on the border of East Sussex and Kent. It’s a beautiful spot; a mixture of farm-land and nature reserves. They’re about twenty minutes drive from the nearest town, but this does happen to be the medieval town of Rye, so we visit whenever we can (we’re invited regularly as one of the cats has to be sedated to have her claws clipped by anyone except me). Tom and I got the train down last weekend and headed to Rye the first chance we had, to rummage through the antique shops and get some writing done in The Apothecary.

The Mint

Mermaid Street

The High Street

Country Ways

The Strand Quay

Cobbled streets, worn brickwork and eccentric, crooked buildings are what you first notice about Rye. Originally located on a huge embayment of the English Channel called the Rye Camber, it’s now two miles inshore due to the channel silting up, but still has a small fishing fleet that bring in a daily catch. The whole town remains largely un-tarnished by modernity. Tweed, leather and antiques are for sale in every other shop, but there are also a few New Age jewellery and crystal shops, an old-school sweet shop, a second-hand records store, and the usual smattering of charity shops. It really is a wonderful place. There are vintage, second-hand and antique shops everywhere, hidden down alleyways and camouflaged as tea rooms, but I’ve highlighted a few of my favourites below:

  • Needles Antiques is primarily a clutter of glassware and costume jewellery, but you can also find an eclectic range of ornaments and vintage fashion accessories dotted around. I purchased the carved wooden table here that I mentioned in a previous post, as well as various vases and a strip of handmade lace.

  • One cabinet is stocked with Chinese snuff bottles and other oriental delights, and Tom also unearthed the following horror a while ago:

  • Pale & Interesting isn’t an antique shop, but does fit with the quirky, vintage theme. As well as floral cushions, storm lanterns and other decorative odds and ends, I’m always intrigued by the collection of medicine jars, poison bottles and bell jars displaying animal skulls, collections of speckled quail-eggs and sea-urchin skeletons.

Pale and Interesting 1

  • Cinque Port Antiques is another of my favourites, as you’re guaranteed to find something intriguing there. The couple who run it have led very interesting lives, and are always willing to chat. They run the shop more as a hobby than a business, so you also feel more relaxed poking around and discussing the provenance of their wares than in other shops.

I was quite taken by these silver cockerels…

… and Tom was rather pleased with this hat. Even if it didn’t fit.

I was also keen on these his-&-hers picture frames, but Tom dragged me away.

I previously bought the most wonderful lamp here, pictured below. A white ceramic coy-carp base, with a huge lotus-flower shade, crafted from pale-pink tulle and stretched over a frame. When I first saw it I dragged my mother over to exclaim at how dreadful it was, but then I realised that I was IN LOVE WITH IT, and promptly bought it. It took a long time to win Tom over, but he’s just about accepted it now.

  • Strand Quay Antiques sell a variety of furniture and decorative items, a large proportion of which are sourced from dealers in France. A number of different dealers share the space, so there’s a variety of objects available. I bought a 1920s top hat from Harrods here once, and we’ve unearthed some beautiful paintings in ornate gilt frames over the years.

I had my eye on the blue vase above, but got distracted dragging Tom away from the rusty farm tools below, and forgot to buy it.

  • The Quay Antiques & Collectibles is located virtually opposite Strand Quay Antiques, and always has a fine collections of weapons that Tom makes a beeline for whenever we’re in Rye:

I also found an excellent collection of vintage, cobalt-glass bottles there this time, perfect for pink tea-roses or sprays of yellow wattle.

The Apothecary

After a lazy wander around the shops we were ready for some tea and crepes, and habit led us to one place only.  The Apothecary is one of my favourite cafes, of any I’ve encountered. Sunlight floods through the curving, 18th century bow windows, and small, round wooden tables are complemented by dark leather chairs. Leather-bound books in antiquated jewel tones of scarlet, amber, azure and ochre line the oxblood walls, and the odd skull or medicine bottle reminds you of the cafe’s origins. They have the most wonderful cakes displayed under bell jars, and a good selection of teas like nettle and sweet fennel. It’s the perfect spot to sit and watch passers-by in winter, when the glass panes steam up around the edges, and patrons tumble through the door shedding scarves and coats: but is equally relaxing at any time of the year. You’ll find a lot of mothers and daughters having tea and cake together, and distinguished elderly gentlemen reading the newspaper. And us.

fabulous cakes and crepes

wonderful tea

… and me, sitting in the perfect spot for watching people wandering up and down the highstreet.

We finished off the day at The George, where we shared a plate of huge oysters, each shell the size of my hand, scallops, and a whole lobster. The perfect end to a perfect day.

A quiet lounge just off the bar, overlooking the high-street, where we had a couple of drinks before dinner

The restaurant at The George

There’s a lot more to Rye, and looking online it seems to be a blogger’s paradise, so I’ve added links to a few others below:

Junk Shop Bride

Decorators Notebook 

Love and Lilac 

 Pretty Much Penniless

Patchwork Harmony

Does anyone else love Rye as much as I do?! Let me know.

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London’s Private Clubs

Or, Where’s That F***ing Books Post You Promised Us?

WordPress does a great thing. It shows you statistics. How many people have visited your blog each day, and how many page ‘views’ you’ve had. Even their country of origin, and your most popular posts and topics. Through these wondrous statistics, that every new blogger pores over, intrigued and enraptured, I’ve discovered that my second most popular topic is Books. ‘Well duh, Jade’, I hear you say, rolling your eyes and huffing in irritation at the opacity of my tiny mouse-brain. ‘Everyone likes books’. I know they do, I know, but the reason this is of note is because I haven’t actually written about books yet, not a specific ‘BOOKS’ post anyway, so this suggests that everyone who clicks on my blog is going straight to the ‘Books’ page I’ve created. Only to be disappointed, horrified and disgusted at my lack of posts about books, I presume. Sorry! Sorry, everyone. Sorry.

I would quite happily read a book a day if I had the time, frowning (I frown when I concentrate) myopically (I actually have very good vision, but like the idea of going blind from reading too much) at crumbling pages. However, I have a job, two jobs in fact, and a fiancé,  and a wedding to plan, and a novel to write, and now a blog! All of which takes up a lot of time. Writing a blog puts your lifestyle choices under greater scrutiny though, so I’m going to use its existence as an excuse to be a better person (read more books. Same thing, right?)

book cover

At the moment I’m reading The Gentlemen’s Clubs of London, by Anthony Lejeune. Partly out of curiosity, partly as research for the novel I’m writing, but also partly because it has nice short chapters with lots of pictures to dip in and out of. It’s a beautiful book, full of photos and anecdotes from history and literature. The history and background of each club is outlined (though their inception rarely strays from a gang of tweed-clad moustaches deciding to start a club for all the bishops/ writers/ army generals/ gluttons/ spies/ delete-as-appropriate  they happen to know), but as much attention is paid to the individual atmosphere and identity of each institution. The most well known are probably The Athenaeum, Boodle’s, Brook’s, The Carlton Club, The East India Club, and White’s, but there’s also The Arts Club, The Beefsteak Club, The Farmer’s Club, The Traveller’s Club, and so on and so forth.  A horde of other private clubs like Shoreditch House also exist, though they rarely require sponsors so are both more inclusive and more hazardous. The Establishment is less important here than money and a recognisable face.



The gentlemen’s clubs of Lejeune’s book are intended to be a home from home, where you can visit or stay and be looked after; sort of a cross between a hotel and a (fancy) home. They’re expensive, membership fees typically ranging from £700-£1200 per annum, and exclusive, as two existing members usually have to sponsor your application. Beautiful architecture, beautiful decor, and a guest list from Who’s Who characterise most. Oil paintings, antique wooden furniture, plush carpets and a swish staircase are essential. Most are located in St James’s, or ‘clubland’ as it’s often referred to (really, I’m not making this up), near Green Park tube station.



I’m not a member of any of these clubs but I have friends who are, and have dated ‘gentlemen’ (a loose term, in some cases) who were club members. Everyone revels in being allowed where others are not. It’s exciting, and intriguing. You feel as if you’re being let in on a secret; as if you may just fall down a rabbit hole or into a painting. Stepping through an unmarked (if not entirely secret) door, whether it leads to a bar, party or a private club, always makes what’s on the other side of the door that bit more thrilling. Some clubs are more relaxed, and allow guests to find their hosts, whilst others have polite doormen guarding the entrance, who will escort you to where you are expected. I prefer the former tactic, as it sets you at ease and feels more welcoming, creating a more pleasant atmosphere. Then again, it, er, would be easy to take advantage of such a lack of austerity!

Arts Club entrance


My curious friends suspect private clubs of bearing witness to various shenanigans, but, sadly, I’m unable to substantiate most of the (lurid, I think is accurate) fantasies they propose. The Gentlemen’s Clubs of London does evoke certain… incidents… from the past. Evelyn Waugh’s “unseemly fracas” when a servant failed to hail him a taxi, and Lord Glasgow throwing a waiter through the window of his club (a brusque “put him on the bill” from Lord Glasgow closed the episode). Nothing salacious from the present is rendered by Lejeune though, so you’ll have to rely on your wicked imaginations instead.

It’s an interesting book, beautifully illustrated with photos and anecdotes. As a veteran club member himself, however, Lejeune isn’t giving any secrets away!

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