Thursday, 19 December 2013

'tis the season

Saturday sees the Winter Solstice - the shortest day of the year. And yet sunset is already, just, starting to creep back, getting a minute or too later each day even before the Solstice. Even if we can't or don't notice this, it does in some ways reflect the contradictions of these last few days before Christmas.

A majority are still rushing about, without time to do what they think they have to do.  And then there are the others who did it all ages ago and are now having to pretend to be part of it all.  Expectation is, however almost universal. And yet in little more than a week's time the world will move on and that feeling will have gone. It's all over very quickly, the way we do it now.

Nature - rather like Norfolk - does it differently. We may have passed the shortest day, but winter is only just starting. Storm and tempest seem to have been in ample supply in the last few weeks, but paradoxically there has not been a lot of rain and very little cold. Just like last year in fact, and the year before.  The rain and the snow and the cold will come, and maybe if it is like last year it may stay with us rather longer than we might wish.  But the fact it is naturally out of our control is good, so different to our modern Christmas with its artificial and manufactured rush.

Thursday, 12 December 2013

After the flood

Just a week ago the Norfolk coast looked much as it had done for as long as many can remember. The storm surge on Thursday night has changed things. Not just in the physical and emotional damage wrought in the communities along the coast but also in the way we think and feel about the place.

Given the ease of recording and publishing images and thoughts there has inevitably been much posted about what happened and what it looks like. Two in particular caught my attention; firstly Paul Macro, a Norfolk photographer who posted a collection of images of the aftermath which sums up the wider impact of the event and another by friend - and also a photographer  - Janice Alamanou, who wrote about it from her home in Wells-next-the-Sea.

Closer to home, Burnham Overy was badly hit with homes and businesses being wrecked. The bank between Overy and Wells held but the stretch between Overy and Deepdale was breached in a number of places. Friends in Burnham Norton now find they have seaviews rather than the freshwater marsh they have been accustomed to, a pattern repeated along the coast particularly between Morston and Salthouse.

Much of what has been lost or damaged will in due course be dealt with. As Janice noted, they are a hardy bunch along the Norfolk coast and its amazing to see how much has already been achieved. Some locations seem strange and altered but will soon be as familiar as before. Last evening on the bank at Overy it was actually quite difficult to believe what happened. The path has a new soft topping - it's just like walking on a bed of pine needles - of material swept in off the marsh, the birds are there in numbers and the sky remains.

And then you come across strange things in the wrong place. Bits of boardwalk from Brancaster and beyond. One of the footbridges from the marsh, high and dry at the top of the bank. It's difficult to yet see how the creek and the marsh have changed but this will become clearer as time passes.

Peter Beck, long time resident of Overy and a man who probably knows as much about the place as any remarked some six months ago, that a big event - storm or flood - was well overdue and that all the groynes and banks in the world can be swept away on just one tide. Along this coast the sea has always won and that has not changed - nor likely to.

Friday, 29 November 2013

The coming of winter

These last few days of November are generally regarded as the end of autumn. In these times of weird weather - and despite the usual rash of alarmist predictions - the last few weeks have actually felt entirely autumnal without any real cold, unlike this time last year when winter seemed to be already threatening. Both morning and evenings have felt quietly contemplative, never more so than this week when my morning walks have led me down to the beach at Burnham, just below Gun Hill.  Calm, bare, beautiful - and not a soul to be seen.

There seem to be more geese about this year but maybe it's just that I've been out and about more. Certainly there have been seemingly endless skeins flying over each evening, heading east to the Holkham marshes. I am no expert and not very knowledgeable, but simply through repeated exposure I am starting to recognise some of what I see. As well as the geese and the waders in the creek, there are owls hunting across the marsh at dusk and, on my return, sounds of much owl activity in my neighbour's trees behind the gallery.

A change of air and wind direction can and will in due course change all this overnight but at the moment winter has definitely not yet arrived in our bit of Norfolk

Tuesday, 19 November 2013

Always look on the bright side?

A friend from my previous existence contacted me last week. For those who don't know, this was the world of architecture and in the case of this particular friend, landscape architecture. Having first met over 30 years ago in the slightly surreal world of London's Docklands in the period after the ships went and before the bankers arrived, John and I came to work together on a number of landscape led projects and competitions. Perhaps as a result of a shared sense of humour, or at least of the ridiculous, our friendship has endured through arty and design crises, changes of working arrangements and alignments and ultimately my leaving it all behind me.

John continues to practise his skills - his magic with landscape structure and his love and knowledge of plants ensuring that he is still in demand - and his modest and self-deprecating approach to the world. His latest project left me in awe - A Capital Aboretumillustrating the variety of trees, native and introduced, that can be found in Greater London in the early twenty first century. Even if you don't think you're really interested in this kind of thing, do have a look. It is frankly amazing.

John in his turn has subsequently gently taken me to task about my life here in Norfolk - the country lifestyle, the landscapes, the civilised towns, the restaurants, the company of intellectuals and artists as chronicled in these notes. As previously noted I am only too aware of my good fortune. However what I write tends to draw on the good things. Day to day, the realities and occasional horrors of life are here just as everywhere else. Indeed it's not that long ago it seemed that almost everybody I spoke to both locally and further afield was suffering or dealing with problems of age and ill health and it would be all too easy to see only the dark side.

So why not? I think the answer lies not in the privileged beauty of the little bubble I inhabit but actually somewhere back in the reason why John contacted me - our long-standing friendship and as a consequence, seeing an email from someone I confess I can barely remember, but who worked with us both on a design competition over 20 years ago. Now with a family and living in California, Charlotte had contacted John to say that she is still grateful for that opportunity and how much she enjoyed it.

It seems to me that if such a fleeting contact is still remembered and regarded and is sufficiently significant in her life to prompt that email there is every reason not to focus on the darker aspects of life.

Tuesday, 29 October 2013

On the Bank

Most days I walk along the bank - or should that be The Bank - at Overy.  For the uninitiated this is the earth bank constructed to stop the North Sea having its wicked way with the grazing land between the coast road and the Saltmarsh and thus to protect the soft underbelly of North Norfolk.

On the face of it, it's not that remarkable. It's level, there isn't much variety in the view or the vegetation, and there aren't many opportunities to vary your route. What is remarkable is the light and the tidal variations. Not a day goes past that I don't bless the good fortune that allows me to live, work and walk here.

To start with I used to take a camera with me but more recently I have realised that the technology in my phone is more than capable of capturing the wonder of my daily perambulations. As some will know many of these images find their way onto the Overy Harbour Trust Facebook page, where apparently they are viewed by - to me anyway - astounding numbers of people. Last week nearly 600 people apparently looked at this photo. Who are these people and how do they come to be interested in Overy? I shall never know.

It's a sunset and it's a good sky, but it's far from unique. It happens most days. As I noted earlier in the year there is something about the location that seems to ensure even on the most unlikely of days something wonderful happens to the light or the weather.  And there has been quite a bit of that over the last ten days or so.

St.Jude was a bit of a damp squib in this bit of Norfolk at least. But even before that, my walks have varied from calm warm evenings that would have been unremarkable in June, to cold, very wet and very windy, but all none the worse for it. As has often been said, there isn't bad weather, just the wrong clothes.

Returning to St.Jude - who I feel would benefit from a new agent - in this little corner of Norfolk he turned out to be briefly torrential, with an inch or so of rain in a couple of hours (according to my rain gauge)  and was accompanied by squally winds and very rapid changes of wind direction and pressure. But it is Norfolk, it is on the coast and it is late October. And as - accurately - predicted it mostly happened in little more than 3 hours. By sunset we were back to reassuringly calm and beautiful.

Thursday, 24 October 2013

The Island

Before we opened the gallery in Burnham, I used to occasionally visit to collect cards and books from the late lamented Saltwater Gallery.  I never met Harry Cory Wright but formed a strong image  of him in my mind's eye.  An aged wiry individual with a trim beard and eccentric behaviour using a huge antique plate camera. Sometime soon after we opened I found myself talking to this young man who jogged past the door most mornings. Ten years younger than me and (nearly) clean shaven. This apparently was Harry.

Over the next 6 years, our paths have continued to cross and our conversations have rambled. Saltwater closed and Smokesilver opened and then closed. At some point, halfway down Front Street I met Felicity Binyon. To be correct, I met her again, as she had shown her work with us in Norwich when we first started.  The only thing was that this time it emerged that she was in Burnham by reason of being Harry's mother-in-law.

Sometime later Overy Staithe entered my life. Initially as the place where Burnham flirted with the sea, but then as somewhere friends lived and I walked and I looked and I wondered. Working with the Harbour Trust and the Boathouse threw more light on Harry's place in all this. And then two summers ago, Harry and Felicity shared a show of their work at home in the middle of Burnham.

For the first time I saw not his all-seeing large format photographic masterworks but minimal monochrome drawings - or were they paintings?

Whatever they were, they were clearly very Overy. The Island, Gun Hill, the marsh, the creek - all reduced to their bare essentials.  They struck not just a chord, but one which was in harmony with the place and how I saw it. And clearly not just for me judging by the reaction.

Two years on and the further development or distillation of these minimal ideas has produced Harry's exhibition with us - The Island. Some people don't get it and are at a loss as to what it's about. Most do - and many who came along to see it at the opening have returned to look again and again.  Which is a bit like Overy itself.

Friday, 18 October 2013

Outside the bubble

It's very easy to take root in this part of the world. Even though my friends and visitors come from and travel to all points of the compass I seem to spend much of life in and around the village. Just occasionally I break out and there's no denying it does change the perspective.

In just 48 hours last week I managed to take in a formal dinner in the depths of Windsor Great Park, pub lunch with my son Sam in Bristol, delivery of paintings to the far west of Devon, a curry with Gerard Stamp - no surprise there other than we were in Exeter for a change - and dinner in rather more historic surroundings with the Dean of Exeter!

By way of explanation, the formal dinner was at a construction conference and took me back to my previous existence as an architect. It all seemed a long time ago and a long way from my life today. Windsor Park did however look very good on a classic autumn morning, all misty and mellow. Lunch in Bristol was pre-planned to mark his 21 years on the planet, but my further travels were prompted by Sam who, with pleasing concern for his aged father, suggested a day off seeing friends would do me good.

Exeter is the venue of our next exhibition of Gerard's work, so it was not chance that found us eating and drinking together within sight of the Cathedral. With the longest uninterrupted vaulted ceiling in the world and now with the West End cleared of scaffolding it's looking very good and worthy of Gerard's attention.

With an eye to economy, I contrived to use a visit to Richard Godfrey's studio as a staging post in the process of getting the pictures to their final destination in the South Hams.  Fantastic to see just how well Richard is doing and to find him hard at work on his new work.  Without giving too much away to those who know the range of his work we have sold over the last ten years, the new work has a real connection with this but at the same time is wonderfully different. Hopefully we should have some here in Norfolk before too long.  In the meantime, if you want or need any or more of his earlier work, you need to be quick.  There won't be anymore and there's not much left.

At Richard's suggestion I then called in to see another Devon potter, Tim Andrews, who each year hosts an exhibition of ceramics by a number of his friends.  Some of these - including Richard and Francoise Dufayard - already show with us in Burnham, and hopefully Tim can be persuaded to join them.

Combined with a small number of pints of Otter and glasses of Reserve du Reverend (really!), Sam's advice proved sound and life seemed quite a bit better.  On my return to Burnham, Harry Cory Wright appeared to deliver the work for his exhibition, having also just got back from a couple of days away. In his case in Marrakesh. I know my place!

Monday, 30 September 2013

Friends in the north

As has always seemed to have been the way in my life, plans carefully constructed after much thought and deliberation, are frequently subject to late and radical change. Prompted by the need to ensure the safe delivery of two pictures to the far north of Scotland, an intricate programme of business - and just a wee bit of pleasure - was on the cards for these last few days of September,

Just as everything was more or less in place, a single phonecall resulted in a fairly fundamental change of plans. We still headed north, but stopped short at Newcastle to have dinner with author, academic and probably my oldest friend, Professor Andrew Ballantyne. Not having been into the city for many years it was great to get a feel for how it now is, eating and sleeping in Jesmond, just north of the city centre. By all appearances this is where cool people - and wealthy students - hang out. Great houses in very attractive streets, sprinkled with an ample supply of bistro's, cafes and cool shops. Having been watered and fed by Andrew in some considerable style, it was back to earth with a bit of a bump the following morning with a brief visit to the Gateshead Millennium Bridge and the Baltic Contemporary Arts Centre, neither of which were in existence when I last visited!

The bridge is simply stunning, but I have to say the Baltic and its surroundings - or lack of them - didn't really do it for me. These waterside venues really do need people and activity, both of which were sadly lacking on this occasion. Couldn't help feeling I would become very withdrawn very quickly if I was one of the gallery attendants there - but maybe it was just a bad day.

Having no need to head for Edinburgh and beyond, two hours later we were in the soft south or West Yorkshire as it likes to be known. Filling another gap in my cultural experience, Salts Mill in Shipley couldn't have provided a greater contrast with the Baltic. Another conversion and also housing contemporary art - in this case the Hockney collection.

This one was buzzing with life. Art, colour, activity, food, drink - just fantastic and on the same day that not much more than a hundred miles away it all felt just a bit sad. Not just the Hockneys and not just hanging on the walls but percolating into the life of the place.

Whoever masterminds this should be very, very pleased with what they have achieved.

The sun was shining and Yorkshire was looking as good as it ever gets, and it really was quite easy to get carried away.  And it's not simply populist. On the top floor - or rather above the top floor - there is currently a fascinating exhibition 'Cloth and Memory' - which is normally the kind of thing I avoid. In what was once the largest industrial space in the world is a collection of intriguing and fascinating installations inspired by the activity that this building used to house. Anywhere else it might not have worked; here it most definitely does.

Heading on into the deep south - Sheffield - culture was replaced by more food with, this time, family. Overnight in the slightly unreal if very comfortable world of a city-centre Premier Inn and away again, this time to the cloistered world of Repton School, not for educational reasons but to collect a few pieces by one of my favourite potters, John Wheeldon. As with a number of others who show with us, I first became aware of John's raku work through the good offices of Richard Godfrey. John is currently developing a new range of domestic work so, of course, we had to test this in use, with a coffee while we talked. It was fantastic to hear from John that Richard is making real progress in his recovery and is not only making again but has been out on his travels. On John's advice we took one further small diversion into the crypt of Repton Church to view the Saxon columns in the crypt. Extraordinary where gallery life takes one.

To round off this social whirlwind, we headed first to Northamptonshire for more food and friends and finally back to my roots in Warwickshire. Walking along the canal and then the banks of the Avon into the heart of Warwick was a timely reminder of just how good England can be at this time of year.

Wednesday, 18 September 2013

The days grow short when you reach September

The natural shortening of the daylight hours seems to have come suddenly this year. Of course this can't be so, but the noticeable fall in temperature has reinforced the feeling that autumn is upon us. Haven't seen any geese flying in yet but I imagine they're not far away.

Down at the Staithe this sense of change has been reinforced by the grass cutting on the banks. Gone are the long grasses and dead heads of late summer, to be replaced by a rather austere shorn look.  Coupled with chilly winds and some rain it all feels very different to those balmy late summer days - all of two weeks ago.

However, back in the garden, whilst summer is not quite hanging on, autumn has an altogether warmer look with probably more late colour and growth than in the last few years. Whether  this is a consequence of the extended and cold spring, I'm not quite sure - but it looks good.

Whichever way you view these things, good, bad, happy or sad, there's no denying most of us quite like getting back into our routine, whatever that may be.  In the gallery as ever the number of visitors remains much as the summer months. This comes as a surprise to many when you tell them, but the difference is who they are and the very noticeable difference in style and demeanour.  In the holiday months of July and August most of us are focussed on our families and visiting galleries is probably not top of the agenda.  Come September that all changes and most visitors have got time to stand and stare and really look, free of family pressures and distractions. 

And of course, Norfolk is emptier, calmer and back to normal.

Friday, 6 September 2013

Discretion in all things

My comment at the end of Food for thought sparked (inevitably) further speculation as to who and what? As it's not happening it's irrelevant but by strange coincidence a similar situation where discretion again won the day occurred this week.

A visit – not by me – to one of the current hot spots of the eating world of North Norfolk had not come up to expectations and there was a flurry of understandable curiousity to know more.  As I have remarked before, in the food game you are at the mercy of your last customer. When – as many local places do – venues enjoy favourable reviews in the national press, there are plenty out there who it seems are very happy to indulge in a feeding frenzy on any failing, perceived or genuine.

When you look back at how both choice and standards have improved here over the last 10 years, we really have little to complain about. Yes there is the odd one who gets carried away and gets greedy or takes their eye off what they are about, but these are very few and far between, and in all cases this can easily be picked up, not through review sites, but by just looking.  If local customers have abandoned ship maybe it's time to look around – but don't give up on anywhere simply because you've had a less than perfect experience.

Coming back to where we started, the justifiably disappointed customer commendably stuck to his guns and declined to identify the venue.  They in their turn were I am sure aware of what had gone on and unless I'm much mistaken will be focussing anew on what they're about.

On a personal note, I made a purchase at a local market earlier this year which back at home I realised was past the date indicated on it. Needless to say it was delicious and I decided there was no call to make any fuss about this.  Some weeks later at another venue I made another purchase from, I thought, the same supplier and at that point mentioned what had happened. They were suitably aghast - and so was I when I later realised I was talking to the wrong person.

Saturday, 31 August 2013

Food for thought

Having opened late a couple of weeks ago in order to visit the Craft Fair again after 5 years off, I thought I would do the same this morning and pay Holkham a much delayed visit. It's the North Norfolk Food Festival, you understand.

Growing up not far from Shakespeare's birthplace, we hardly ever visited Stratford - and it's a bit like that with Holkham. I think the last time was to go round the Park with the Deer Keeper for a piece in North Norfolk Living. Suffice to say, the park looked so good first thing this morning that I now can't understand why I don't go more often.

Going early meant no queues to get in! Without going completely over the top, the Festival is a bit like going to a gentle summer party with every foody delight and temptation conceivable.

But what it did bring home is just what a fantastic range of makers,  growers and suppliers we have round about.  Even better is the opportunity to put faces to names and meet some of the people who produce the delights that I try not to eat too much of! Particularly good to meet David and Julie from Perfick Pork. Not only do they supply the key ingredient for Sarah at Brays Cottage but also Ben Handley at The Duck Inn at Stanhoe. The pork belly at The Duck last night was just wonderful.

As ever with these events, you find out things - in this case, a categorical denial from the horse's mouth so to speak regarding a widely rumoured change of ownership of one of the best known local businesses. So now I know; never believe these things unless it's already happened.

Tuesday, 27 August 2013

And ...... relax!

Even though August still has nearly a week to run, change is in the air. Even between yesterday - the last Bank Holiday of the season - and today, the change is tangible. You can almost hear the North Norfolk coast relaxing.

From an unpropitious start, the last 7 to 8 weeks have seemed like one of the best summers people can remember. Maybe it was because of the long cold spring that expectations were lowered. Indeed it changed almost from the moment that the official forecasts pronounced that it was not going to get any better and that we needed to get used to it, with summers likely to be disappointing for the next few years.

In reality it probably hasn't been that remarkable but the surprise of reasonably consistent 'summer' weather has also engendered a positive feeling about just how good life can be.  Annual events which over the last few seasons have started to seem a little routine took on a new shine. A bit more fizz and sparkle. The Burnham Craft Fair - a key event right at heart of the North Norfolk summer - not only felt fantastic but did great business and seemed to avoid some of the stresses and tensions associated with the busiest day of the year.  Watersports Day at Overy which in recent years was increasingly under threat from insurers and the Health & Safety ethos was back in its stride, blessed with just the right weather and fantastic support from local people. Reassuringly good.

On the cultural front the North Norfolk Music Festival is in the middle of an amazing programme with events sold out even when they're competing with fine summer's evenings. On one of the very few damp days, Jools Holland worked his magic at Holkham last Saturday and there is still the Food Fair to come.

And close to home, footfall and sales in the gallery are up. And that was before the opening of Gerard Stamp's latest exhibition with us.  Given the last few weeks I suppose it is not really a surprise that his unique evocations of the marshes, creeks and coast around Overy have been so well received and sold so quickly.  It is a modest exhibition in terms of number of works, but definitely worth seeing.

As somebody remarked at the weekend it feels like time for a rest.  In fact it's not really a rest but a change of pace and style that kicks in now.  More space, more serenity and eventually fewer events and activities. But this is probably how most of us who live and work here like it. Relaxed.

Thursday, 25 July 2013

Out of step

My recent musings on the significance of the River Stiffkey prompted the kind of instant multi-directional discussion that has only come with the maturing of social media - in this case Twitter - and its wider use and acceptance.

A number of points emerged. Firstly no-one actually disputed what I was saying. Secondly it seems there is a view that the sea-fret I thought was a transient and ephemeral manifestation of the divide is a reflection of a more significant  block to the transference of weather across Norfolk. Thirdly, there don't appear to be any ley-lines hereabouts!

However and as ever, not to be outdone, Norfolk instantly provided its own alternative, transforming this possible short-coming into a highly distinct and indeed superior version, the Pie-line.  Norfolk never fails to surprise, never more so than here where, within seconds, what had initially been put forward as a slightly amusing alternative designed to appeal to the lovers of the Norfolk Pork Pie, was transformed into an ancient way, the Pork Pie Road, from Beccles to Hindolveston. And just in case there was any doubt about its provenance, this it transpired had been featured in The Independent no less, some 3 years past in an article discussing Norwich's location in much the same way my thoughts had rambled over north-west Norfolk.

Now whether the absence of the inferior and common ley-lines has anything to do with it I do not know but going back to the weather, not only has this week lent weight to the blocking effect of the Stiffkey, but it has also confirmed the difference between us and the rest of the country. Monday night into Tuesday morning saw spectacular storms. "The most lightning and rain across the country since records began"  Maybe not but you know what they say. And where did they stop their easterly advance? You know the answer but just in case - half an inch of rain and electrical storms in Lynn, Brancaster and Burnham; Hindolveston? - beyond the Stiffkey and the source of the Pork Pie Road (in more ways than one) - none. And none further east. Even more strangely, whilst the storms further afield left slightly cooler air, here in west Norfolk it has been hotter and more humid than before. Do different? Yes, wherever and whenever possible - but it's actually because the world here just is different to that strange standardised one beyond.

Monday, 22 July 2013

The Great Divide

The sun shone in Burnham on Friday last, as it has done for much of the last week. At 7.30am it was shining from a clear blue sky, as it was in Walsingham and as it was at Thursford and Sharrington. But it wasn't at Letheringsett, or Glandford, or Wiveton. Neither was it in Blakeney, Morston or Stiffkey. Actually it was in Stiffkey but only just.

So where is all this leading?  I have often held that Norfolk has an invisible divide between east and west. Not an Iron Curtain or even a net curtain, but certainly something changes. On Friday it was made visible in the weather.

So what is it? Let's put it this way, if you live in Norwich, Cromer and Sheringham are on the radar and you will visit them and indeed Blickling, Felbrigg and Holt.  You may also visit Blakeney.  A bit further and you feel uneasy. Morston? maybe. Wells? unlikely. Fakenham? very unlikely. It just doesn't feel like home. Conversely if you live in Wells, Brancaster of Fakenham do you go to Norwich? Hardly ever; maybe for the football or John Lewis. You're not comfy in Holt and why go to Cromer?

So just where is the line? Starting at the coast I would put it between Stiffkey and Morston. Coming inland somewhere between Warham and Binham. Deeper still, between Fakenham and Melton Constable. And then it gets confused by the Fakenham to Norwich road which surely is the boundary between North Norfolk and the county's heartland.

And then I realised. It's the River Stiffkey, one of Norfolk's unsung heroes.  Largely ignored and pretty well unknown apart from those who live along it, the Stiffkey is Norfolk's Great Divide. More powerful than it appears, less transient than Friday's sea fret, it is the physical representation of an unconscious but deeply felt change in character and atmosphere. A change in the feel of the place.

Monday, 15 July 2013

The perils of popularity

It may be a long way from Norfolk, but a comment this morning from a friend in Gloucestershire struck a chord. As a child she used to visit a local spot on the river. It was special to her and her family and friends. They canoed there. This last weekend it was overflowing - not only with humanity but sadly and somewhat inevitably with their rubbish. This is the price of popularity and being listed in a 'Top 50 place to ... " in weekend magazines. No longer secret, special or anything else much.

Almost immediately, a friend not a million miles away here in North Norfolk was bemoaning the litter pick she needed to do this morning outside her business.  She knew what they'd had for lunch because they left all the packaging for her to deal with. As she noted, they hadn't even shopped locally. 

I know how lucky I am to be here in Norfolk, and like many, prefer it when it's quiet. But courtesy of endless marketing - blatant and less blatant - there is no getting away from the fact that it's not quiet very often these days. It's certainly no longer secret; it is still special. Just.

Sunday, 30 June 2013


Amongst my friends, there is still probably a majority who don't use social media, be it Facebook or Twitter. Personally, I now find it difficult to remember life before twitter. In business terms it's great, a really good way to network and to stay in touch and, indirectly, it does actually help sales, although that's not why I do it.

It's main benefit now is that even when based in the gallery for much of the time, I feel that I'm in touch with what else is going on in the wider (local) world. To be so informed about changes in the local business world - so easily - is remarkable. And you find out about things that could easily pass you by.

For years I have driven alongside the estate wall of Bayfield, between Wiveton and Letheringsett, and have been to a number of events there. However, whilst in years gone by I used to notice signs about wildflowers I don't recall ever having investigated further. However, prompted initially by a tweet from my friend Sarah Pettegree - she of the brilliant Brays Cottage Pork Pies - about plants she bought there on Friday afternoon, followed by a generous offer subsequently from Sarah to escape the pie world and baby-sit the gallery for me, I visited there this morning.

Now trading as Natural Surroundings, I got no further than the plant sales, run by Anne Harrap. What a delight, and such a change from the increasingly corporate style and range of most garden centres. Tucked way in this idyllic corner of the Glaven Valley there is an intriguing and very personal selection of plants on offer. Without Sarah and her twitter, I 'm not sure I would have been drawn here and, sadly, probably continued to have wound my way past this unsung delight. Needless to say I will be returning and also needless to say I will be recommending it to friends and visitors to the gallery.  They - Natural Surroundings - tweet as well! @natsurroundings 

The other bonus is that despite the peace and quiet of the gallery on a warm Sunday morning, Sarah says she enjoyed it.  Even if she didn't she was very diplomatic and her presence here will have reminded the thousands of friends who love her pies and her tweets, that it's worth a visit to us and to Bayfield. And maybe eat a pie as well.  It's win, win, win as far as I can see.  The next step is surely for me to sell Sarah's pies... but I'm not sure she would trust me with that.

Thursday, 20 June 2013

Less is more

The first time I heard this, I was a very young, very naive and ill-informed (about to be an architecture) student. At the time I was unaware of the context and having had no art education to speak of it meant little. As the course progressed I came to appreciate it more and more. The idea of minimalism definitely appealed, but I discovered early on it is not that easy.  When a design or project is finalised (never completed) it's quite easy to look back and take out the elements that add nothing. But the temptation always remains - to add something or adjust something. Experience suggests that it rarely benefits the outcome.

Forty years on, the concept holds good in the gallery world, but is still difficult to achieve. Statistically one-man or one-woman shows do best with fewer pictures than most artists want to show.  It's not clear whether this is a recent phenomenon but based purely on personal experience, a growing percentage of sales derived from featured exhibitions, actually occur outside the publicised time frame - i.e after the event.

The key feature appears to be that almost regardless of the style or content, customers find it difficult to differentiate when confronted by more than half a dozen works by the same artist. And then there is the basic satisfaction we all derive from finding rather than selecting.

Our current exhibition is yet another variation on this theme. Much appreciated, lots of visitors and looking good both in reality and on the internet.

However, it is when they are separated and viewed individually they come into their own.

This is difficult for any artist who clearly like their exhibitions to be viewed as body of work but if they can overcome this,  they eventually sell more.  Which, of course, is what they and us want!

Saturday, 25 May 2013

Wagner at the Staithe

Most days after work – I use the term advisedly – I head for the Staithe. Everyday is different, people, boats, birds, skies. As the weeks go by and the days grow longer if not warmer, time constraints on my leisurely strolls have more or less disappeared and its now just as easy to go for a wander after dinner or the pub as it is before. In fact it's better; the light is usually more interesting and certainly by the time you get out to the sea there's rarely anyone else about.  To stand above the beach with just the sea and the sky, knowing in all probability there isn't anyone within a mile of you in any direction is a very good feeling.

Having said that, there have been a couple of occasions this week when it was unlikely I was going to meet anyone even at the Staithe. The spring tide had already covered the hard and, with the encouragement of a stiff northerly breeze, was eyeing up the road. It being 200 years since Wagner was born, the gods of the weather had clearly decided to serve up something special to mark the occasion. Dark clouds at sea beyond the island hinted at what was to come.

Setting out along the bank, it got darker and colder and the wind got up. However, this little appetizer was not coming my way and looking back from the sluice it had clearly decided to head towards Overy Town. 
Onwards to the  beach and proof, if proof were needed, of the power of the wind. Not for the first time, the way to the beach was blocked by a moving and visibly growing sand dune while out to sea, early signs of the next course heading in.

Back along the bank, pausing to watch a Little Egret (I think), the main course arrived at the corner about the same time as me.  From a glassy calm on the water to rushing wind in minutes. Known to some as Machine Gun Corner the next 10 minutes placed a new interpretation on the origins of this title with wind driven hail doing its best to strip not only the tender growth of the young Alexanders (these are the local wild form of celery known to the Romans) but also some of my more exposed parts.  I'm not complaining - it's good to be reminded just what really matters and who's in charge of things.  And just to confirm matters, a couple of flashes of lightning. A friend of the family, now sadly no longer with us, used to walk regularly on Dartmoor and I recollect he remained utterly unconvinced of the claims of modern 'technical' waterproof clothing. I imagine they were based on long experience of such weather.

On the Norfolk coast, squalls often pass quickly. This it seemed was not such a squall. Crunching along the bank over lying hail, the now exposed hard and anybody foolish enough to walk across it was being given a thorough working over. Back in Burnham, the roads were white over with small drifts pleasingly arranged against the front of the gallery. Early the following morning the hail was still in evidence on roofs in the village. Pleased to say that the numerous fledglings lurking amongst the pots on the patio all seem to have survived the onslaught. A bit damp, a few ruffled feathers but otherwise business as usual. That's nature for you.

Wednesday, 15 May 2013

Words and Music

In just 3 days last weekend I enjoyed great poetry and sublime music. Friday saw the opening of Poetry-next-the-Sea, that fantastic feast of poets and poetry at Wells-next-the-Sea. Organised pretty well single handed by Burnham Market's remarkable patron, Fiona Fraser, the star of the show was undoubtedly the late lamented George Barker. Kicking off with an extraordinary and very moving archive video of the great man reading some of his work towards the end of his life - accompanied by booze and fags lit from a candle -  it was followed by readings of his work from Oliver (brother of Jeffrey) Bernard. Now in his late 80's, Bernard's performance, for this is what it was, was a tour de force and a fitting tribute to possibly Norfolk's greatest poet. Barker's rehabilitation was confirmed by tributes and readings from his daughter - and now author - Raffaella Barker followed by a powerful tribute to her late husband from Elspeth Barker.  A stunning evening and, I would have thought, a very hard act to follow. I shall certainly be looking out for next year's festival.

Just two days later, courtesy of my former business partner, I headed east to Ludham, St. Catherine's Church to be precise, for an evening of sublime music from the Academy of St.Martin the Fields. A programme of Elgar, Britten, Arvo Pårt and a new commission by Sally Beamish combined to make the trip on a dark and damp evening more than worthwhile. Elgar's Introduction and Allegro never fails to please and excite, whilst the Sarabande in Britten's Simple Symphony came as an unexpectedly moving high point. Pårt's - to me unknown - Cantus in Memoriam Benjamin Britten proved mesmeric in the darkening Church. More Britten in the shape of his Variations on a Theme by Frank Bridge provided further proof of the quality of the performance and that we don't need to go to London to hear the best.

Wednesday, 24 April 2013

It's not wrong, but it is happening

North Norfolk is blessed with great places to shop and eat. No question about that - and clearly they're wanted or they wouldn't keep opening. But are they? When a new supermarket is proposed, a predictable uproar ensues.  The death of the High Street. The growth of anonymous standardisation. The loss of money cycling within the local economy.  But what about the growth of the farm shop and the garden centre?

On the face of it, what possible objection could there be? Local jobs for local people and all particular to the area.  But the reality is possibly different.  What starts as a shed selling locally grown fruit on a seasonal basis, realises that it can expand its business year round by diversifying what it grows, or (very quietly) buying in.  They have space, crucially they have parking and they're not seen as incomers or corporate big bad business.  There then follows a cake shop, because we all like home-made baking.  Then a butcher. Then a country clothes shop - and so it goes.

We all know them.  They're great places to go, the right people go there. The fit-outs get trendier, the cafe's start competing with local pubs and in some cases start their own restaurant. But at what cost? Not surely the sacred High Street?  This is creating new demand or so the story goes, but I'm not so sure. It's great to see local outlets supporting local makers and suppliers but it doesn't stretch the imagination to see that the local butchers, bakers and delis with the overheads and limitations of village and town locations will start to feel the pinch - maybe even relocate themselves - and the rural High Street (if such a thing exists) will have gone. Just as the Banks, Post Offices, and Pubs have largely gone to be replaced by sensitive residential conversions - 'The Old Bank' - so my guess is that the remaining food shops are next.  Leaving the convenience store if you're lucky...  and people like us.

It's not wrong, but it is happening because thats the way we live now. Just saying.

Sunday, 21 April 2013

Spring in my step

Living and working in one of Norfolk's best bits, I find myself in a dilemma each day. Where to walk? Top two are rather obviously Overy Staithe and Norton.  This week it's been a narrow victory for Norton  - but more of that next time. This week started with fantastic light at the Staithe.

Looking the other way towards Holkham and, almost by chance, an almost japanese image of what I now know is an Egret in amongst the reeds and reflections.

And just to round it off, a sunset. Routine, normal for Norfolk.

Tuesday, 9 April 2013


It seems we might just be seeing the end of one of the most drawn-out winters, with the prospect of double-digit temperatures on Sunday. In actual fact we seem to have got away quite lightly here in Norfolk, particularly because we missed out on the heavy snow a couple of weeks ago.  That said, it's clear that not only is new growth in the gardens, trees and hedges noticeably late, there look likely to be high numbers of plant casualties.

Before the cold it was the wet, with seemingly nowhere exempt from an excess of ground water. The last few weeks of persistent dry cold have changed that and nowhere is the rapidity of recovery more noticeable than on Norton Marsh, where the paths have dried out to be replaced by a hard and cracked crust.  Despite reports of the impact all this has on life and business, visitors continue to head our way - although there have been moments when it's been hard to conceal surprise that there's anyone out there for pleasure. However, my daily perambulations at the Staithe and out to Gun Hill always serve to remind just why they continue to come.

Not many are lucky enough to have this on their doorstep - and that's on one of the coldest days. On a good day it's just extraordinary.

The downside to the apparent farewell to winter is, of course that it's less likely that you get it all to yourself!

Thursday, 28 February 2013

The quiet wrecking of Norfolk

Even if you're a non-believer in terms of global warming - and there is plenty of evidence out there that does not align with the main-stream view - there is good reason to be concerned about future energy supplies.  Whatever you think, the sad fact is that much of the landscape of Britain is being changed in the name of responding to this.

Much of the high and formerly empty spaces in Wales, the West Country and the Northern Hills have fallen to our new idol - wind power. Sadly Norfolk seems to be heading the same way. Recent planning decisions suggest that even with growing misgivings about finance and carbon footprint, the quality of the landscape and the wishes of local communities still do not figure much at the end of the day.

Having lost the battle at Stanhoe, a large area of open 'high Norfolk' is soon to change with the construction of six 100m plus turbines. Less obviously intrusive but significant in its own way, Planning notices have just been posted for a solar farm at Bunkers Hill on the 'Dry Road' from Fakenham to Wells. It could be argued that this site impacts on few neighbours, but it does mean change of use from agricultural to industrial with attendant security fencing, buildings and all the necessary infrastructure - and it is another loss of the few big empty spaces in Norfolk.

Tellingly, the first results of an internet search for solar farms are all adverts for operators seeking sites. "Earn top arable yields from pasture. We won't waste your time", and "Farmer? We farm too - call us." and "Premium rental for land suitable for solar farms in England & Wales"  The message is pretty clear, I think. Couple this with the NFU conference trumpeting how farmers can save us all from impending energy armageddon and its a pretty gloomy outlook for beautiful empty Norfolk.  Or anywhere where money might be made.

Saturday, 16 February 2013

Mud, mud, glorious mud

It could be spring, but we all know it isn't that simple. Today the sun's shining, the wind's dropped and we're feeling fine. Just 3 days ago it was rather different and in another 3 days it probably will be again. However, talking to visitors it doesn't actually make that difference to most, and indeed there is a sizeable contingent who come to enjoy whatever North Norfolk chooses to throw at them.  This week it seems the dominant experience was not wind or sleet or even sun - but mud.

There is to be honest quite a bit of it about at the moment. But there's mud and mud.  There's the stuff that people find on their winter walks and which at the moment they are tending to slip and slide on and then there's the stuff in the creeks and on the marsh.

It isn't hard to understand why so many of us love these marginal areas.  Just as you don't need to be particularly religious to appreciate and enjoy the beauty of ancient churches, you don't need to have a boat to enjoy the North Norfolk creeks, and in both cases you would be in the majority. What is less easy to appreciate is that there is a substantial cost attached to managing places like Overy Staithe.  The fact that Cathedrals fall down if they are not cared for at considerable cost is more readily appreciated than the fact that these creeks would silt up and disappear if they were not cared for - also at considerable cost.

Traditionally, the groynes - these are the banks of stone you see in the creek at Overy - were maintained as a matter of tradition and routine in order to direct the currents and maximise the scouring effect of the  tide. With the decline of working boats this traditional pattern of care and maintenance passed into history and the channels become increasingly shallow.  Ultimately, without maintenance, the groynes would pass into history and so would any navigable channel. Life and landscape would change - not as a result of activity but of inactivity, and there would be more and more mud and less water. Whatever we think about the current state of play it is hard to find anything particularly good about such a change. The question is how even maintaining the status quo is to be funded.

Sunday, 27 January 2013

Is that it?

Two weeks ago, it was wall to wall blue sky and the garden was looking like it might be thinking about spring. Indeed, the fennel was well into new growth. As ever this has proved to be somewhat of an illusion and a dusting of snow overnight on the Sunday was followed by some more significant snow on Monday evening.
As ever, the roads in north west Norfolk seem to be admirably cared for by the gritting teams - for which they seem to get little praise - and there was no problem in leaving for London on the Tuesday morning.  The difference between dealing with snow on lightly trafficked rural roads and busy urban ones was highlighted later the same day, when Norwich quickly became gridlocked during a heavy snowfall in the early afternoon. Predictably there was a very British outcry but if the roads are already full of traffic there is little any gritter or snowplough can do.

Further snowfall, heavy and light, forecast and unforeseen coupled with some low temperatures has punctuated life both in London and Norfolk over the last two weeks with dire consequences for the optimists in the garden as well as the number of visitors to both galleries.  
Hardly surprising in the case of the latter for even though Norfolk's roads have been pretty good, the pavements have been a somewhat less attractive proposition.

Yesterday, the predicted sting in the tail failed to materialise - in Norfolk if not on the M6 - the garden heaved a gentle sigh as the snow began to melt and the visitors returned - en masse.  An overnight thaw produced a miraculous transformation today - back to blue skies and very hard to find even a trace of the white stuff.  A brief excursion to the recycling centre was a delight. Fantastic light, no traffic to speak of and the north Norfolk coast looking fabulous as ever.

One point of note, the River Burn which I had confidently reassured visitors about only 3 weeks ago is looking pretty full. Which is probably good news... but, as the last couple of weeks has shown and as we found last February, that is probably not the end of it.  My guess is a couple of weeks of wind and rain, and then maybe just a little more cold before the Fennel can be back about its business.