Wednesday, 20 December 2017

At the darkest hour

In a week's time Christmas will be done and dusted and we'll be in that strange period where the retail world will have swept all festive signs away and will be into 'The Sales' and Easter Eggs, whilst the media will review everything they can and foretell the future.

Somewhat strangely, we've already past the earliest sunset and the evening light is creeping back, minute by minute. I realise the other part of the equation isn't quite there yet, but the feeling that a corner is being turned is good and prompts the odd reflection on what its all about - particularly when out and about early or late.

It's always difficult to decide which bit of the year one likes best - I actually think some part of us is pre-programmed to appreciate the season you're in.  They all feel right at the time, partly because everything we do still inevitably - even in the digital age - relates to the season. Cold and dark in the winter, warm and dry in the summer. It's when it gets out of sync we all feel everything's not right. So, reflecting, we seem to be doing about right just now; a late colourful autumn and for the first time for a few years a bit of cold and even snow before Christmas. More remarkably, the cold has briefly departed just in time to make family and friends getting together relatively straightforward.

Accordingly and - in our case traditionally - we spent last weekend with good friends who whilst not having the good fortune to live in North Norfolk do live in another wonderful bit of England, down in glorious Devon.  My daily walks briefly disappeared and were replaced with conversation, good food and the odd glass of red! It wouldn't do all the time, but just like the season, it feels absolutely right just now.

Thursday, 30 November 2017

The proof of the pudding

Following up on my last post, I am pleased to report that the lights did indeed go on here in Burnham a couple of weeks ago. Like most of the businesses, we are aware of what's going on during the day but only manage to go and have a look towards the end, having discharged our basic function - to trade.

Based on what I heard from customers during the day, it all seemed to go down rather well, with lots to eat and drink and a mix of music on stage and strolling entertainers loose and wandering around the village. The days of the celebrity switch-on are seemingly gone for good with the re-establishment of Father Christmas at the centre of things seeming to satisfy most people's Christmas wishes.

As for the lights themselves, I remember when tungsten started to give way to LED there was a noticeable backlash and a feeling that these new-fangled things were cold and clinical and not very Christmassy. They may have been, but the world and technology has moved on and Burnham has moved with it. The LED's no longer look cold to me and crucially (by and large) they work when asked to. Just as celebrity has been consigned to history so it seems has the need to check and replace bulbs. Another Christmas Tradition that might just not be missed.

Friday, 17 November 2017

Smaller then you might imagine

A couple of years ago I wrote about the hazards and pitfalls of having Christmas Light switch-on events.  Well it's that time again, and all across North Norfolk, lights are being installed, checked and day by day, switched on - even though Christmas isn't quite just round the corner.

When its cold, crisp and bright as it is today, it doesn't seem that strange, but on mild days with leaves still on the trees it does seem just a little early. For most of our neighbours, thinking particularly of Wells and Holt, the organisation and installation is, I think, if not in the hands of the local Town Council very much supported by them. Here things are a bit different; Burnham is smaller than you might imagine - we are not a town but just a slightly larger than average village. We have a Parish Council but the traditional Christmas Lights have always been a matter for the Traders Association, indeed I believe this is where the origins of that body can be found.

Each year in the time we have been here there has been a question of costs and management. There are a surprising number of businesses here but as time has gone past, an increasing number are staffed by those who live elsewhere and the original direct connections and community links have diminished. Fortunately largely through the efforts of a very few over the last couple of the years, some of the installation costs are now more manageable, but as somebody noted this week "they don't switch themselves on" and the Christmas trees themselves need to be funded, purchased and installed.

The Parish Council are of course involved but the fact remains that without the time and effort expended by one or two individuals sorting every thing out, Burnham's lights simply wouldn't happen and another little bit of community life would fade away.

Wednesday, 8 November 2017

Role reversal

In a previous world I was an urban designer. I know and I apologise, although actually some of what we worked on was good. Some of it was however too radical for conservative clients, both public and private.

Nearly forty years later, the world has now moved on. The idea of retail parks in edge of or out of town locations - closely followed by new business centres alongside - and then the explosion in online shopping, means town centre shopping is now more or less irrelevant. Niche destinations remain viable either because the destination is attractive in itself or because they offer small specialist and unique services. 

The small town 'shopping centre' built in the 60's and 70's has by and large had its day. Nobody wants them and fewer and fewer go there. All across the country there are towns and cities desperately trying to reverse the tide.  Funding and re-branding ain't going to fix this. As one of my colleagues memorably advised one of the regeneration agencies we were working for way back then, "it's like a dog chasing a motorcycle - it wouldn't know what to do with it if it caught it". History suggests there is some truth in this - sadly the country is littered with regeneration schemes that didn't actually fail but just spluttered and subsided back from whence they came.

The answer is to change the way we see these unloved towns. Nobody wants to shop there so we need to reverse things - live there. Convert the unloved shops to residential and community use, maybe put care facilities in the centre so those in need don't depend so much on others to take them there. It's worth remembering this is not rocket science; historically it was done the other way round with housing being displaced for retail. 

Towns are increasingly like Polo mints - with a hole in the middle. Instead of building further and further out making a bigger and bigger hole we need to abandon our perception of 'town centres'. In many cases they already simply don't exist. We need human scale development to live in at the centre with the other stuff round the edge. The latter part has already happened but so far we've failed to act on the consequences of this.

Tuesday, 31 October 2017

Great expectations

Sometimes weeks come and go with not a lot happening outside the daily routine in the gallery and then occasionally it all happens together on the social front. Last week was just one of those weeks and it prompts me to note just how expectations on eating out locally have soared in the last few years.

Restaurants go up and down but the choice round here is impressive and almost without exception you can be sure of a good evening. Of course if you look on the review sites there is always someone who seems to have a shockingly bad experience and who wishes to tell the world all about it.

In the course of visiting three of my favourites in as many days last week, the food and cooking was about as good as I can remember and in each case service was exemplary. The one that sticks in the mind definitely came up with the goods on the food front - partridge (new to me) that was just beautiful - but which also inadvertently provided the most entertaining evening watching the team deal unflinchingly with a set of customers that they surely hoped not to have at all, let alone in one evening.

To be clear these people were not offensive or worse, just really difficult to please. It was half-term but I'm not sure that really made much difference. Firstly, there was a pleasant looking chap who wouldn't have booked if he'd known he was going to sit on a dining chair; he expected arms and it was really going to spoil his evening. Then was another man who felt it quite inappropriate that there were children present after 7. In their defence they were well-behaved and utterly unobtrusive. Then a family group who weren't quite sure where they wanted to sit, with the alpha male making sure everybody knew that. And just to complete this collection, a large entirely male group, all in later life who didn't seem to all arrive at the same time and seemed slightly puzzled by how they were accommodated.

Nobody shouted, nobody swore - although I imagine some of the team serving them may have been quietly going outside to vent their spleen - and I'm pretty sure that at the end of the evening they actually enjoyed it. It wouldn't be a surprise though to find maybe one or two will have written less than positive comments up for all to see. Social media is a terrible thing.

Some of you who read this will know where and when... and should any of those who cooked for us or brought it to us read it, you know who you are and we do appreciate what you do!

Thursday, 26 October 2017

10 years on

Our anniversary was at the start of October, but somewhat typically the actual date passed almost un-noticed by us. Anyway, it is now 10 years since we opened our second generation gallery here in Burnham Market.

Blowing our own trumpet it seems listening to our visitors and customers that many of them now think of us as a "must-see” when visiting North Norfolk - so we must be doing something right. Galleries come and go; one of our artists, sadly now passed on, once said his experience was that they had a 'shelf-life' of around 7 years, and told me how and why this happened. He then said, "of course, you're different" which comment I never quite got to the bottom of. Anyway we're still here, 15 years from when we originally founded Grapevine in Norwich in 2002, and it's wonderful to find more and more people appreciating our values and coming back year after year.  

On a personal basis becoming part of the village - these things take time in Norfolk - gives me a lot of pleasure. The friendships formed both in the business community and from artists and customers are a privilege denied to many in today's fragmented and changing world. Our location right at the Holkham end of the village - Burnham Ulph rather than Burnham Westgate - has over the years prompted all kinds of comments. Burnham Market is actually an amalgam of smaller historic communities and inevitably there will always be a few who come to the village who probably never find us. Visitors in the gallery regularly comment that they had expected Burnham to be larger, and it then transpires that having arrived from the Holkham end they not unreasonably think our group of Church, pub and shops is it.

We didn't have a 10 year celebration exhibition as such but have - almost inadvertently - marked the anniversary by showing work by Gerard Stamp, who showed here for our opening exhibition in 2007, including now for the first time, oil paintings alongside some of his recent watercolours.

As recent visitors will hopefully have noticed, the paintwork on the front of the gallery has finally been re-painted and we’re very much looking forward to the next 10 years here in what is still one of the best bits of England!

Tuesday, 22 August 2017


Since first showing Fiona French’s paintings at Grapevine in Norwich in 2003, we have hosted four further exhibitions of her work, and they now feature in a number of significant collections across the country.

Every one of her works is different and distinct, but all reflect her love of colour and all display consumate technical skill. Internationally known for her prize-winning book illustration – variously inspired by the organic lines of Art Nouveau, stained glass and subsequently by mosaic – her earlier paintings seemed to be, at least in part, her response to the world of op-art and illusion, where for a time she had been one of a small team of assistants working in Bridget Riley’s studio.

The work in this latest exhibition records a transition in both style and content, starting with further development of her exploration of texture and colour typified by Weave and Mother-of-Pearl, through Lark Ascending and Daffodil to the inspiration of lights in the deep ocean of Primordial arriving at the realism of Stody Gardens and Sheringham Pines.

Fiona has never been one to explain her work, choosing not to constrain the free flight of our perception, but this new collection reveals a new direction in her thinking.  The most recent paintings in this exhibition are far removed from those of the early 2000’s – still characterised by verve and dynamicism – but now exploring the interaction of light and the natural world.

Transition opens on Friday 1st September at 6pm and runs until the 30th but with a closure mid-month from 14th to 18th inclusive

Wednesday, 9 August 2017

Happy returns

There are good things happening all around if you care to look. In the last week two of our favourite pubs have re-emerged from periods of closure. Firstly, one of the best - the Hunworth Bell - opens its doors again this evening and this time in the safe hands of the team from the Duck at Stanhoe. A wonderful location and with a tradition of good food and drink serving a local community, the preview last night confirmed that all the stuff I remember from its previous life is still there, but with some good adjustments and the promise of some great food to come.

I understand that this is not meant be Duck 2, but building on its former reputation and learning from the Duck, offering a menu based around locally sourced ingredients with classic English dishes reflecting seasonality. If the preview night is anything to go by - the place humming with locals pleased to see their pub back as well as those who've followed the team in their progress round North Norfolk – it feels just right.

Secondly, and just a bit closer to home, I learnt last night from Claire and Nigel – the owners of The Control Tower, the wonderful and highly individual vegetarian B&B at the former North Creake RAF Airfield, that another one-off, The Three Horseshoes at Warham has just re-opened. Just serving drinks and barbecued food for the first couple of weeks, it should be back fully towards the end of the month. Always one of the truly individual pubs left in Norfolk, this really sounds like great news.

Which just leaves the Lord Nelson in Burnham Thorpe........

Monday, 31 July 2017

A morning out

One of the few downsides to life here is the difficulty in escaping to visit events in the local art world, as - somewhat inevitably - they tend to be open at the same time as the gallery here. Prompted by various recommendations - and also by the fact that it was the last chance - yesterday morning found me in Holt, visiting just 3 of the attractions of the Festival.

First port of call was 'Benton End & Friends", an exhibition of Loan paintings and sculpture telling the story of Cedric Morris and Lett Haines, their informal art school on the Suffolk/Essex borders, the gardens inspired by Giverny, cookery, visitors, and their artistic friends and their art and influences. 

This prompted fond memories of the late Michael Parkin, the original stimulus for my fascination with 20th century British art and who, a dozen or more years ago, set out to remedy my parlous lack of knowledge of the period. Before Michael's involvement, Cedric Morris was to me, completely unknown, alongside many of his other passions including Claughton Pellew and Kathleen Hale. With hindsight it is amazing our friendship survived such an unpromising start. A reflection of this ignorance was such that on one occasion, at Michael's behest, I collected two unwrapped paintings in central London and put them, unsecured, on the back shelf of the car, to drive back to Norwich. Only subsequently did I learn that these were two works by Cedric Morris which can now reasonably be assumed to be 'significant' and worthy of rather more care and attention. Michael, of course, was unimpressed by my after the event concerns.

This small exhibition typifies the breadth and depth of the Norfolk art scene; discreetly located in a Holt backwater and of real interest and quality but so easily missed. To prove this last point, in conversation with the curator, I learnt that around the corner in a similarly discrete location was another Loan Exhibition, this time featuring East Anglian master, Edward Seago. Much of what was to be seen there was I think on loan from Norwich Castle Collection, but of particular interest because of its departure from 'typical' Seago.

Lastly, just a mile down the road, and disconcertingly deserted was an exhibition of the shortlisted entries for the Sir John Hurt Art Prize in the foyer of the Auden Theatre. 

As ever with these competitions it's fascinating to see what has been selected, what wins and in the case of selling exhibitions, what sells. The winner this year was Chloe Steele with her work "Beginnings End', and amongst a very variable group of work an understated pastel of Cromer from Malca Schotten, an evocative linocut from Vanessa Lubach and a very striking oil of the quayside at Wells by Susan Isaac - a pleasingly confident approach to this much painted scene - were the works that stood out for me.

Thursday, 27 July 2017

Simply sublime

Another feature of summer life here in North Norfolk is the range of musical events on offer within a very short distance. In the last 10 days or so without very much effort you could have heard and seen a wonderfully vital performance of Handel's Susannah at South Creake, joined the throngs in Holkham Park to see the great Tom Jones, listened to Piano Trios by Beethoven, Shostakovich and Ravel, taken in a little jazz/funk at the Hoste, or been transported back to the 16th century in Salle Church.

I chose the latter and what a delight. Not for me the the masses trying to get in and out of Holkham, but rather the sublime choral music of Byrd and Orlando Gibbons in the quintessentially English setting of Salle Church. Superb, truly divine music. Stunning singers, the William Byrd Choir, in a stunning setting - a cricket match taking place earlier, just across from the West end.

One of the true glories of Norfolk, and dating from the 15th century, the Church of St.Peter and St.Paul is amongst the finest in the country, built in Barnack stone transported from Peterborough in the early 1400's, the tower is a landmark for miles around, and the focus of a number of paintings by Gerard Stamp, perhaps captured best in his powerfully evocative 2012 watercolour.

And as ever, there's more to come; Diva Opera this weekend followed by the rising star of the Southrepps Music Festival and then the jewel in the musical crown with the North Norfolk Music Festival from the 15th August. 

Thursday, 13 July 2017

Loose connections at Cley

Each year at the start of July, North Norfolk sees one of the more interesting initiatives in the local art world, bringing contemporary art in all its forms to an area where there is no public contemporary art gallery. This year, as last, the event is in the beautiful setting of St.Margaret's Church above Cley-next-the-sea.

Going along to the opening evening last week, I was immediately struck by the difference between last year and this. Each year the curator is different and accordingly different criteria are applied to the selection procedure. This time, the theme is 'Connectivity' and whilst I appreciate the thinking behind this, to me this was not particularly evident in some of that selection. The word 'local' could be equally applied and of course at this point you enter the world of many, if not most, of the galleries along the coast. That said, the exhibition is well-worth a visit - there is some superb work here and much that would not be readily found elsewhere.

Purely personally, it is the ceramics and textiles that are the most interesting - and as is often the case it is the more thoughtful and less obvious works that leave the deepest impression, and it is here you sense fundamental connection.

The two dimensional work - other than those few who have used stone and earth for pigmentation and texture - seemed to struggle to achieve any real sense of connectivity and I was left puzzling in a number of cases as to why they had been selected; nothing wrong and very competent but why? I obviously need to go and have another look. In practical terms, the impression at the opening was that there were maybe fewer present than previous years - but maybe that is the price of selecting fewer of the local 'names'. Certainly the Norwich art community seemed to be less in evidence.

Regrettably the one thing they didn't miss was the opening itself. My hearing is not perfect by any means, but standing relatively close I - and apparently those around me - couldn't hear what was said. Speaking in Church is itself an art form and this eluded those who spoke; too fast for the echoes and given we couldn't hear, too lengthy. Of the shouty alternative 'critic', the less said the better.

Cley 17 continues until 6th August

Wednesday, 31 May 2017

Village life in an age of uncertainty

Even in the bubble of North Norfolk, life can sometimes feel uncertain and far from stable. The last few weeks have seen a curious lack of visitors with even the main road through Burnham seeming unnaturally quiet. It's easy to put this down to the way the Bank Holidays fall or the sometimes shocking events around us - or even as the British like to do - the weather.

All these could be true but,  prompted by the need to establish the date of a particular event, looking back at diaries and notes of activity over the last 10 years here, remarkably little has changed. Pulling back even further, when faced with the all-too-frequent comment that everything is different it's worth bearing in mind the view of a visitor who was born here over 70 years ago and who has subsequently lived all over the world, that in fact this village is still very recognisable and much remains very familiar.

Of course there are many changes but not all are bad. The trees we all take for granted on the Green and which so exercise opinion when they need to be cut back, are in fact recent additions in the overall scheme of things and were not significant in the visitor's memory of growing up here in the early 50's. The shops have changed - but they are still here - and yes there is now more traffic and we do have a car park. In this last respect it's now largely forgotten how long this took - generally accepted at over 50 years - and the price was the addition of new housing that in general does not relate to the needs of the local community. But, yet again, it took a visitor's positive comment about this to remind us that at least the new houses look a lot better than much that has sprouted across the country in the last 10 years; and indirectly they perhaps mean Burnham is still seen as a good place to trade. There will always be naysayers but as the much travelled returnee noted, can anyone identify anywhere that has not changed in the last 70 years?

Returning to the many possible causes of the current uncertainties, the weather yet again stated it's case last weekend, with the following photos all being taken within 30 minutes of each other.

And just to prove that all this doesn't affect business - or maybe it does - this storm shower was closely followed here by a good sale, paid for in slightly damp banknotes, the customer having found themself caught on the beach during the downpour. As they noted, there are unexpected benefits from the new washable currency.

We were tempted to try the equally wet pieces of plastic but on consideration decided this might adversely affect technology.

In the gallery things change all the time, which of course is the reason we are here; over the years we have found it surprising the number of occasions that a customer is disconcerted to find the work they saw last year is no longer available. Not only do we sell different artist's work, but each artist's work in turn changes and moves on. We have two such instances currently on show. Firstly, Norwich artist Richard Bond has been working with fellow artist and popular book illustrator Susan Field on paintings of Norwich and Venice. Arguably very different to Richard's individual paintings en plein air, these joint works already seem to appeal to a rather different and possibly younger audience.

Secondly, we are seeing a new direction for another of Norfolk's own, Gerard Stamp. Best known for his vast serene watercolours he has, since our exhibition last year in Ely Cathedral, moved on to work in oil. Initially revisiting his distinctive church interiors, he has now returned to another love, the ethereal light of the Norfolk Saltmarsh, where sea and sky are inextricably entangled.

Going back to the question of if and where is there somewhere that has not changed in the last 70 years, just maybe this is the answer; - it does of course change all the time, with tides, seasons and weather, but.....

Thursday, 30 March 2017

French connections

They say timing is everything, so with an eye on the wider picture, we left these shores for the first time in some years last week and headed for La Belle France. The south west - the Dordogne to be more precise. Contrary to scurillous rumours this was not to replenish the cellar but to see old friends who have foresaken Angleterre for good.

Despite being served by one of the better low-cost airlines, the area seemed largely free of the English influences found elsewhere in France. Whilst realising that late March is hardly peak season it seemed pleasingly quiet but - importantly - not remote. Their house, just like St.Andrew's here in Burnham, is hard on the village street but the traffic is much less intrusive. The absence of the over-sized lorries serving our agriculture was really noticeable - being able to lie abed in the early hours without being shaken awake. A rural idyll? Perhaps, but somewhat counter-intuitively it seems death stalks the rural communities in a way that I'm not aware of here. It may be that the more evenly distribution of the population changes the way these things are noted but then who really knows?

With the growth of farmers markets here at home, it's easy to forget how central the market is to day to day life away from Paris and just how much choice - and competition - there is. No selection of stalls here, with walnuts, goats cheese and dried plums seemingly available at much the same price from so many stalls. Quality is all.

Given the time since we last visited we did, of course, partake of generous amounts of hospitality and we did, inevitably visit (and purchase from) one of the numerous Chateaux littering the landscape. They really have the art of selling down to a fine degree; it would be a truly hard-headed visitor who enjoyed d├ęgustation and departed without a purchase. I feel some thing along those lines might be about to creep back into the gallery world.

Back in the mists of time, before gallery and even before architecture, I worked as a gardener. I now know that it is in my blood, with at least some of my ancestors working as jobbing gardeners in Cumbria around 200 years ago, possibly even on one of the great topiary gardens at Levens. So with pleasing synchronicity (and with no knowledge of the foregoing) we were taken to the wonderful garden at Marqueyssac, high above the Dordogne. I now know these are one of the main attractions of the area, but somewhat unbelievably we had them to ourselves. A damp Friday towards the end of March has much to commend it. Sculptural planting is definitely my kind of thing.

Back in the gallery on Monday, further evidence of synchronicity, when in conversation with a customer who commented favourably on our selection of ceramicists and their work I mentioned that we had spent an enjoyable hour in discussion with a potter in Monpazier - one of the best Bastide towns - before making modest purchases. It emerged that not only had my visitor taught one of the potters on show here, but now lived and worked in France, not many kilometres from where we had been. Suffice to say, his work will hopefully be on show and selling here soon. Watch this space.

Tuesday, 14 March 2017

Spring is in the air

In theory at least, March marks the start of Spring. This year it actually feels like it just now with new colour and growth much in evidence. Ironically - or perhaps inevitably - Easter falls late this year and it seems as safe as any prediction in our turbulent world that by then we'll probably be beset by sleet and hail. In the meantime our visitors are enjoying it and appearing in pleasing numbers.

As much as we have a season, most people assume it starts around Easter and this year we're marking this by showing a new collection of Ruth McCabe's work as the main attraction of our exhibition running over the Easter period. A finalist and exhibitor in the Sunday Times Contemporary Watercolour Competition, her work has been exhibited at Royal Watercolour Society Contemporary Competition and featured on Sky TV's Landscape Artist of the Year. 

Following up on her highly successful introduction to our portfolio last year, her work will be on show from early April.

Visiting artists in their own environment is one of the perks of the job, and selecting work from Ruth's studio was no exception. This less than onerous task did, of course, necessitate my first trip out of Norfolk for some time, as well as presenting an opportunity to revisit haunts from earlier years including Aldeburgh and Southwold.

Although it must be some 5 years since my last visit much seemed familiar and little changed, even the shops. Similar though somewhat larger than Burnham, Aldeburgh is still blessed with a surprising range of individual shops, and just like here, clothes, food and art are in the ascendancy. It does though have a remarkable bookshop, confirming that there is a future for them given enthusiasm and commitment.

Again like some days in Burnham, there were remarkably few people in evidence - but they clearly must be there to support such businesses.

If Aldeburgh seemed little changed, Southwold presented a rather different picture. The harbour area and round the Greens seemed unchanged, but sadly the High Street did not have the remembered flavour or character, with the presence of national chains rather too apparent. Adnams of course continue and are still the bedrock on which the place was built. However subtle changes - the move of their retail and cafe operation away from the centre - seem to have impacted rather more than one might expect. There is a lesson in this which Burnham might well take note of.

Tuesday, 28 February 2017

Village walks

Since the New Year my routine has been to walk - sometimes before, sometimes after the working day - around the village. With the sea and the marsh just along the road, it's very easy to miss what is actually on the doorstep. No cars were involved.