Sunday, 14 June 2015

The Joy of London's Open Garden Squares Weekend

I am not a gardener and never will be.  I find no pleasure in the thought of filthy fingernails and insurmountable amounts of patience waiting for the fruition of hard work that is then consumed by insects.  When I was younger, I rarely noticed flowers and greenery, perhaps taking them for granted as I grew up in a very green state (I mean I lived in one of the verdant United States of America; I don’t mean that I was particularly envious). 

But these days, I find enormous solace by sitting in a city square at lunchtime, or in a park watching water birds seem to dissipate the pollution and stress. I get livid when I hear of plans to build on Green Belt land or to plough railway lines through Sites of Specific Scientific interest, destroying habitats.  I am definitely a City Mouse, but there is enormous pleasure—and health—to be found outdoors spending time with nature and one’s thoughts, absorbing the calm, particularly when the jungle that surrounds you is concrete and the few gardens near you have been paved for parking.

So the old me paid little attention to the annual Open Garden Squares weekend each June when over 200 urban oases are open to the public, and I was surprised to learn that it had been running for 17 years by 2014.  Then at last emails to us regular attenders of the annual architectural splendour of the Open House weekend, with a small discount on the £10 ticket, tempted me to give it a try, particularly as a private Pimlico square I’ve longed to peer into was planning to throw open its gates.

Unlike Open House, you don’t have to book for gardens apart from a few exceptions such as 10 Downing Street.  But as I left it late to book and didn’t have a chance to go through the glorious guide book until the Saturday it started, I didn’t take full advantage of the weekend, but I still was surprisingly moved by the few gardens I did get a chance to visit. 

And there are gardens of all types in all areas. Medicinal gardens, wildlife gardens, skip gardens, private residential squares, kitchen gardens, nurseries, gardens in hospices, museums, vicarages, and Buddhist centres, tiny havens outside chocolate shops, allotments and garden farms, roof gardens on tall city buildings, those in venues such as the Royal Hospital Chelsea, 10 Downing Street and the Olympic Park. Not all gardens are open both days, but the website and guidebook make that clear. 

I must praise the hugely efficient guidebook and website.  The guidebook is an impressive book, not a cheap little pamphlet, full of photographs to tempt you to places you might not have thought had value. It has a substantial blurb on each garden as well as a wealth of information, including such things as whether the gardener would be on site to answer questions, whether there were plants for sale, live music and cream teas on offer and activities laid on for children, whether dogs were allowed, where the nearest toilets and Boris Bikes were, whether the paths might be too narrow for wheelchairs, precisely where to enter each garden, and anything else you could want to know.

The website has the same and a highly functional garden selector, where you can specify the time and day when you want to visit, say, wildlife gardens in Kensington that are not normally open to the public, or rooftop gardens on a City skyscraper with a beekeeping demonstration.  There is also a Smartphone app, and it helpfully gives information on other gardens open in the area at the same time, so you don’t really need to plan for ages; you could just wander.  Outer London is included as well, but I had my eyes on one particular garden in Pimlico.

I had also decided to go to several other places that looked amazing in the catalogue, but I ended up only being able to get out on the Sunday, and train delays prevented me from reaching my intended first stop of Nomura International roof gardens, which came to interest me once someone tweeted a picture of an owlet there, so instead I headed straight for Victoria.

I had long wanted to see inside the secret and stunning Eccleston Square and thought I’d only have a chance to go inside was once I had married a resident Earl or won the Euromillions lottery and bought a place on the Square.  Ever since I once walked past in early Spring and was captivated by its magic based on the stunning flowers beckoning through the iron railings beneath towering trees, I knew that right around the corner from Victoria station, there was paradise—but only for residents.

Then a welcome chance to peek inside unexpectedly came through the BBC’s coverage of the Chelsea Flower Show 2014, when Jo Thompson, designer of the Gold Medal winning ‘London Square’ garden, was given a key to the hidden kingdom of Eccleston Square, and her expert appreciation of some things I might not have noticed in my ogling ignorance created more to love, but again from afar. She praised the climbing rose on a tree that she had not expected to see there, and the irises, gardenia and rhododendron, which would have reminded me of home, as well as the ‘instant architecture’ of three silver birches planted together. She then gave us a near aerial view from a top floor balcony on Eccleston Square, and aptly said that the garden squares ‘give a sense that they’re enabling the city to breathe’, which I support. 

I thought that would be my only ‘visit’, until the wonderful Open Garden Squares Weekend.  Finally, I was able to see inside Eccleston Square myself.  When I first entered, I came upon a table where two women who seemed like they might be residents were seated, one chatting to someone about the garden, and the other ‘looking on’, as poor caption writers always say.  As neither seemed interested in checking the ticket in my extended hand, I moved towards the man beside them who may have been the head gardener, when the second woman snapped at me snootily to demand whether I had a ticket as if I was daring to sneak in and steal the beauty.
Happily, that was the only variation all day from encounters with nothing but delightful people thrilled to be sharing the experience.  And immediately before me, paradise opened, and thoughts of that woman’s unduly sharp demeanour faded away.  The square was even more impressive than I imagined from the crumbs I’d seen scattered around the outside.  To my right and left were shady paths with occasional pergolas covered with climbing roses, and straight ahead was glorious planting opening into the main garden, which revealed a sizeable lawn area to the right and tennis courts to the left.  As people behind me went elsewhere, I ventured right so I could have the path all to myself, something I hadn’t expected but frequently enjoyed; I had wrongly assumed the crowds might make enjoying the gardens difficult.  

Happily, with so many gardens to see over two days and several boroughs without set times and bookings required, that left plenty of room for us to spread out.  There was no rush either; we could stand for an age in front of a particular flower garden, or plonk ourselves down on one of the many lovely wooden benches and just sit and read a book, as some people did, as though this was our own private paradise.  

Eccleston Square was the masterpiece I expected, but larger.  It was a masterly joy of hedgerows, gorgeous planting combinations, tall twisting trees, unpolished benches looking like they’d been carved after a tree blew down, and amazing scents that made it difficult to believe it was bordered by a busy London road near Victoria station. We were even left free to peek into the marvellous greenhouse. On the edges of the garden were long, beautifully isolated hidden paths that let you imagine you were meandering through some country wood, luring you to duck under low branches just for the chance to wander off somewhere.

I won’t describe the beauty with purple prose, nor can I wow you with the scientific names—or even the common names--of the plants I admired. There were discreet markers to identify many of them,  sometimes indicating that I was looking at a ‘rare bird’, and I was frequently impressed by unusual, racy looking floral creatures. But the language of flowers is Greek to me, even when labelled, so I will just have to share a few of my photographs and hope you can get even a fraction of the sense of beauty and calm that these gardens gave.  

More than once on the Sunday, I would be thinking ‘what pretty blue against that spiky thing’ and people behind me would come up and murmer to each other, their faces deep in concentration, Greek things like, ‘Is that a Queen Anne?’ and ‘I doubt it; they only grow in China and have three petals, not four,’ or marvel that the shaggy looking green thing was a rare Wollemi pine.  People would think to brush aside glamorous puffy flowers to reveal a tiny little blue treasure in the undergrowth and say ‘You see the Latinus Floralbus?’--or some such name—“you see how it doesn’t need any sunlight to grow? They’ve done it marvellously; mine have always died.” 

But my ignorant marvelling at the bigger picture did not lessen the glory of the gardens for me. The beauty of them is that they are—well, beautiful—to the uninformed observing eye as well as the all-seeing eye, to the layman and the expert.  Everything was there to behold—pure splendour, even on this deeply cloudy day, although we were lucky not to get the expected rain (though the gardens may disagree).
The gardens I visited weren’t all stuffy fragile things of beauty with ‘please keep off the grass’ signs simply meant to be observed. They had benches along their hidden paths, well-used tennis courts that were often shielded by climbing roses and the like, as well as playgrounds for children and even, in one case, a barbecue area.  They are living, functioning gardens, as well as places of respite and calm.  Some contained miniature sections of wooded forest, stunning floral beds far more creative than the average council green with a few marigolds in an orderly pattern, some manicured lawn, winding paths that beckon you irresistibly, some tropical looking areas and the gorgeous backdrop of stunning terraces. They could be wonderful microcosms of the world, the gardeners and garden designers having achieved masterly accomplishments in small areas. Whatever the residents pay for the upkeep, it’s worth it. 
When I tore myself away, I moved just a block away to Warwick Square, thinking the garden, as another part of Thomas Cubitt’s Pimlico plan in the 1800s, would be similar but unable to top the realised joy of Eccleston Square.  However, it immediately impressed as visitors entered through a tunnel of glorious greenery, through which we could see a statue surrounded by stunning roses and lovely tall purple and white daisy-like things (sorry to wow you with science).  Bird song collaborated with church bells emanating from the picturesque steeple looming over one end of the garden.  A resident was telling someone as I entered that they usually did something jointly with the church for this event, but the new vicar hadn’t yet had a chance to get his feet under the table.   
Never mind; the setting was straight from a chocolate box.  It was a village scene plonked in the middle of Pimlico. The paths along the edge of the square were a joy to explore, generally with great vistas of the whole park, with a secret path straying off to a raised bench built from what looked like fallen timber.

I once again admired the multi-layered planting of remarkable combinations and heights amidst so much established greenery.  In the middle of the designed wilderness was a manicured lawn, with incredible trees towering over both sides and lovely sights of stephanotis and magnificent tall bulbous things that look like potted Daisies left bare by a game of he-loves-me, he-loves-me-not.  Robins were flitting about and singing, so much laughter echoed around the square, and people made the most of the well placed benches.  That’s an added joy; you aren’t shepherded in and forced to look and leave, with anxious people hovering over you ready to shout, ‘Don’t touch that!’.  Instead, you can stop and enjoy the garden.  People were stretched out in some gardens on the lawns chatting with friends. I chose a quiet bench by the church, hidden amidst more greenery overhead but with a clear view across the length of the square, and watched as sparrow fledglings hopped around the path at my feet. The scent of the surrounding flowers was nearly dizzying, and everything was perfect.

As I wandered around, again I was ogling beds thinking ‘oooo, pretty’ as pairs of gardening women strolled past making comments like ‘Is that a St Anne’s?‘ ‘No, it couldn’t grow here. Too acidic’ and other Greek things that made me smile.

A marvellous iron gate on the opposite side (through another tunnel topped by blue flowers) had ‘Rus in Urbe’ inscribed in the iron, or ‘country in the city’.  How perfectly stated. I gather the gates are replacements of the originals that were lost in World War II, a worthy project.  The iron gate through which we entered said ‘Paradiso Volupatatis’, which I believe means Garden of Eden, a pleasurable paradise.  The garden certainly provides for all with the different (predominantly green) terrains, occasional hiding places, a playground and a tennis court shielded by lovely planting.  This visual paradise amidst the splendid soundscape of chirping birds, church bells, the gentle pop of tennis balls at play and sprigs of laughter was certainly no disappointment after the glory of Eccleston Square, and it was hard to tear myself away.

But I did move on, and as I left the square, I found that St Gabriel’s Church benefited a great deal from viewing it with the garden in the foreground, as the foliage and flowers covered up a row of Boris bikes, busy ‘no entry’ signs and the ugliness of modern reality. 

After Warwick, it was nearly 4pm, so I had no hope of making Kensington in time to enjoy the gardens I’d hoped to see there, so I moved along to nearby Eaton Square, which I hadn’t intended to visit.  How fortunate that I made it there.

The gardens of Eaton Square were also originally laid out by Thomas Cubitt in the 1820s, and like others in the area, it was replanted in the 1950s after much disruption during the war.  (In fact, several people including the Lord Mayor of Westminster were killed there in an air shelter that took a direct hit, and cannon shells were found in the Plane tree limbs when they were pruned in the 1970s.)

This was a welcoming family-style place, as though they chose to embrace the day by throwing a party rather than issue notices warning their residents to stay away if they wanted peace.  I had just missed the Punch and Judy show (I didn’t mind; I hate domestic violence) but I stopped for a while near the fat palmetto trees to hear the steel brass band give the occasion an island flavour with jolly interpretations of those old Caribbean classics La Bamba and Sway.  The lively band was terrific fun, performing beside a fountain wall with water tumbling down it that I imagine is rather soothing on less
celebratory days.

I was handed a Tree Walk Guide as I entered, which I wanted to give back to keep my hands free and because, whilst I love there to be trees, I didn’t think I was so worried about knowing the individuals. But I was quickly pleased that I kept hold of it, as they had placed big numbers on some trees around the garden and that would have driven my curiosity mad. You could check the corresponding number on the guide to find that, for instance, that tree came from New Zealand in the 1980s, or this one’s a Chinese katsura that smells of burnt sugar (ah-hah! I’ve been baffled by that scent in St James’s Square), or it’s a Japanese dogwood with horizontal branches, or an original Plane tree and a past head gardener’s favourite. The sheet also provided the bit of historical information I mentioned above.  How grand that scrupulous historical records have been kept and that this beauty didn’t just happen with blowing seeds and bees (not that I imagined it did).

After leaving the slightly ‘built up’ area by the tennis court and passing the many seats for the audience in front of the puppet theatre where I saw the Punch and Judy hands out of character, I passed through a brief little woodland area where there was a log pile, good for wildlife particularly like bees.  This, in fact, was the garden’s ‘habitat hideaway’ to encourage wildlife; they even had a wormery.  A little path led to a tucked away bench on the side beside a sculpted half-sphere coffee table. 

The polished table was an example of what was tremendously special about this square: it was full of fascinating art.  There were numerous captivating sculptures, often highly reflective or patterned metal cut-out spheres, some with ‘bites’ taken out of them and a disco ball hidden in the woodland. Tucked in the planting by a path was a marvellous Anthony Gormley like copper figure holding a sundial that turned out to be a Light Sorceress.  A ‘moon dial’ sphere loomed behind a bench. These treasures emerged from the garden as though you had stumbled upon a secret stranger lurking intriguingly in the bush.

In the middle of the square, near where people were lying on the grass laughing with friends, was a green bronze that looked a bit like a model of the Gherkin (30 St Mary Axe, not the pickle) from one angle, but seemed to divide into three pieces as you walked around it (called Eveque after a Bishop’s mitre).  Another bronze Gherkin-like one on the edge in the planting was called Quill, inspired by Mediterranean pencil pines, with a pointed base and top.  I later learned the sculptures and sundials were by artist David Harber and they certainly added to the magic of the square.

This certainly more family-oriented garden jolted with joy in the welcoming party atmosphere and came prepared for the big day, even providing a bright blue port-a-loo that the eye, if not the camera, overlooked.  The rest of the square cried out to be photographed, not just the
engrossing sculptures but the lovely stacked blossoms around them, flowers of such an unusual pale blue that they seemed dipped in food colouring, some giant camellias (perhaps) in deep and pale pinks, near lovely low trees and consistently impressive planting around a manicured lawn.

The garden welcomed families of all types, as recently occupied bird boxes abounded and more newly fledged robins surrounded us.  I would normally seek the peace I found in the previous two gardens, but was easily enamoured of this wonderful place. It would have been a dreadful shame to miss it.

Around the square on lovely homes were blue plaques for Neville Chamberlain, which could be seen from the garden, and Vivien Leigh.  Vivien Leigh’s former home looked out on a part of the garden that was separated by a road from the main section, and it was closed to us.  How lovely for the residents that there are separate squares to enjoy, and presumably some offer more peace, particularly on this day.

I then passed through Chester Square on the way back to Victoria station, which looked lovely and had a spectacular tree in the middle but had already closed.  Chester Square also has a church and blue plaques, as an astonishing number of celebrities and a few important figures have lived there over the years. I passed a blue plaque for Frankenstein author Mary Shelley, and the square was in the news a few days later when it was announced that Margaret Thatcher’s last home there was going to be sold for £35 million once the developers refurbished it to include one of those ghastly multi-storey basements that I hope are outlawed soon. Surely someone would pay a ridiculous price for the house as it was just to enjoy the green treasure on their doorstep.

It’s truly so generous of people to open these gardens to us during this wonderful weekend. Why would they want the scruffy public traipsing through all day and trampling their precious flowers, even bringing dogs?  Obviously, we weren’t doing any trampling; instead we were highly appreciative, respectful admirers who acknowledged the privilege of being guests for a bit.  But if it were me, I would have worried.  Instead, most of us smiled at each other as we shared this special experience, although the gardens I went to were rarely crowded. I was always able to have a nice wander at my own pace, could usually find a bench on which to pause and absorb the glory, and I rarely had to wait for people to clear the scene so I could snap a photo to let me carry on enjoying the gardens for years.  

Although I only managed to visit a few gardens that were in the same area and a somewhat similar style, I was still blown away by them and felt my tenner was completely worthwhile.  I just cursed myself for not making the most of it by planning better and getting out throughout the weekend.
Frankly, for the low price, even if you don’t have time to do much, you should at least just get to a few gardens, whatever you can fit in.  You could even take a book and find a quiet bench and just sit for a while in a garden you would not otherwise be able to enter.  
I had big plans last year and only managed three gardens, yet I’m still talking about them a year later.  I also thought it worth reading through the 100+ page booklet that is included with the ticket after the event with a view to making a point of visiting some of the parks I knew nothing of that are regularly open.  It’s a marvellous event highlighting London’s jewels. Chelsea Flower Show is nothing compared to this—that’s just pretend and temporary.  These are the real things.

If you haven’t booked ahead of time, you can book online and get an e-ticket and electronic version of the guidebook, and the website and related apps really tell you everything you could possibly need.  Otherwise, you can get a ticket at certain participating gardens. (See list.), or at the City Information Centre on the river side of St Paul’s Cathedral, and you will be handed the marvellous hard copy of the guide book (or collect it by showing your e-ticket). 

So if you’ve made no plans yet, there’s nothing to stop you going out for a wander for the price of three cups of coffee, and children under 12 go free.

You could say that the more gardens you get in, the better value you’ve created, but I would have been thrilled with just the first one I visited; the others were icing and a cherry on top.  It’s a treasure of an opportunity you really shouldn’t miss.  The gods of weather seem to agree and are smiling on you this weekend.

There’s a complete list of gardens here and you can search for ones in your area  Just go!

Tuesday, 11 November 2014

Fields of Battle in the Park

On the warmest English Halloween on record, and the last expected lovely day, I made certain I wandered out at lunchtime and into a park, St James’s Park.  As I admired the manicured gardens along the path, I was curious to see a big square of midnight blue amidst the greenery.  As I neared, I saw it was a painting.  And behind it was another, out in mid-air.

Surprisingly, there was a whole gallery outside in the Park by the Guards Memorial across from Horse Guards Parade.  One thing I love about London is stumbling upon public art, particularly in unexpected places, and this was particularly unexpected, as rather than a statue or painted Paddington Bear, it seemed a whole art gallery had been installed in the Park but the walls and roof had fallen.   Consequently, it sucked in people like me who initially had other plans in the Park, but was charmingly part of the park, with the beautiful blue sky behind the often dramatic timber-framed images, and people stretched out on the grass beside them.
The exhibition was one of some often glorious photography of battlefields as they appear now, but with some particularly engaging and informative caption panels beneath each one.   I wandered from one picture to another, belatedly realising that there were three photographs in a triangle so I had even more to explore, and quite a few intriguing facts to learn.  The informative board beneath each picture described where the picture was taken, what battle took place there, why the subject was significant, and presented information on how local people were affected by the war at the front and at home.

‘Fields of Battle 14-18’ is a touring street gallery exhibition featuring the work of Michael St Maur Sheil, ‘based not on the horrors of war, but on how over time, nature has healed the battlefields, creating a link between the modern day and the personal dramas and stories these peaceful landscapes now hide,’ according to its website.  Michael St. Maur Sheil spent the past seven years exploring the fields of battle trying to capture the history and emotions of this dramatic period, so the project embodies the spirit of the centenary in honouring those who fought. Rather than try to explain the history of the First World War, it ‘seeks to introduce people to the subject by revealing some of the landscapes of battle and illustrating the stories of the people who experienced those battles.’  
The thought-provoking and oddly enchanting photographs showed rusty helmets on posts in Marne, France; a lovely German memorial at dusk in Ardennes, France; a giant crater at  La Boisselle, France; a German artillery turntable beautifully damp with water reflecting tall trees in a distorted circle; aerial shots of land still scarred by trenches and shell holes; the sun streaming beautifully through the trees on the marshes of the River Ancre at the Somme…..all looking innocent and lovely, but where many people struggled and died. 

One shows an  old football in a ploughed field at Loos above a caption panel about London Irish Football, telling of a Captain who had kicked a ball towards the German barbed wire to encourage his men at the Battle of the Somme, where he was killed (the ball survives in a museum). There was a glorious photo of a rainbow on a darkening day over a ploughed field in shadow in West Flanders, Belgium. Beneath it was a caption panel on explosives, with a ‘fun fact’ that when there was a shortage of artillery shells in 1917, schoolchildren hunted for conkers (Horse Chestnuts), 3,000 tonnes of which were used to make acetone for the propellant of shells and bullets.  Another oddly beautiful photograph in Flanders showed a snow-covered war graves cemetery, with a panel on how Boots, the nation’s chemists, brought out new products to aid soldiers, and displayed an old Boots poster for the Sick and Wounded Fund. Medical luxuries included brandy, cocoa, and Oxo.
A favourite for me was a spookily scenic moss-covered cemetery in a forest in France, with a sad explanation beneath it telling how most people during the war learned that they’d lost their loved one. First, there was silence in that the letters stopped.  Frankly, I’ve always found it astounding that you could send letters from foreign fields when fighting wars back then, but the panel said that letters from the trenches usually arrived within two days.  That's astonishing, given that’s how long it would take my neighbour in North Carolina to receive a posted invitation from me when I lived across the street.

Second, there would be the official notification. Apparently, only officers’ families would receive a telegram when they were killed. Other ranks’ families received a form with the appropriate words stamped coldly into the blanks. like a mortifying Mad Lib.  I suppose it was necessary given the huge numbers they sadly were having to process.  Families, we are told, had to pay for the return of any possessions.  How devastating to be too poor and thus unable to retrieve what little your loved one had when he died, giving his life for his country.  The panel mentioned that one woman wrote of receiving her brother’s cap in a folded mangled state, with a blood-stained tab of his braces. Families did not learn until after the war where—or whether—their love one had been buried.
The role of dogs and the story of Sgt Stubby is featured beneath one photograph.  Sgt Stubby was a bull terrier cross hero of the US army, a stowaway who became more decorated than his owner, wearing his medals on a specially made chamois jacket.  Highly trained dogs would carry aid to men wounded in No Man’s Land.  A War Dog Training School supplied messenger dogs, originally from Battersea Dogs’ Home, but people also donated their pets to the war effort. Which made me feel a bit uncomfortable, but I guess if your sons and brothers are out there, too…..

Carrier pigeons played an even bigger role than I imagined.  One panel told the story of the Lost Battalion in  October 1918, when 550 American soldiers were isolated and surrounded for five days in a forest by the Germans, with little shelter, water and ammunition, while under constant fire.  Air support helped 200 survive, working on coordinates delivered by carrier pigeons, and delivered the first aerial supply drop in military history.  By the end of this war, there were 22,000 pigeons in service with British forces.  One pigeon, Cher Ami, was awarded medals and her stuffed body is in the Smithsonian Institute. The board showed a sign about Regulation 21A, proclaiming that killing, wounding or molesting (?!) homing pigeons was punishable by six months imprisonment or a £100 fine (about £4K today perhaps?), and a £5 reward was offered to people ratting on pigeon shooters. 
Horses, as we know, also played a significant part in the war. They were used to tow guns and supplies before trucks were commonplace, and the British Army even requisitioned racehorses and pets.  More horses were brought in from North and South America, Spain and Portugal.  Approximately 900,000 horses and mules did not return, most having died from enemy fire, malnutrition, disease and exhaustion.  Those that survived were sold locally or destroyed, which is a cruel tragedy itself.  Meanwhile, Germany increased its ratio of horses to men by having state-sponsored stud farms.

As horses were so commonplace then, perhaps it should not have been a surprise when I read on another board that it was difficult to find men to operate tanks because few outside the ‘ruling classes’ had experience of mechanised vehicles.  It turns out that tanks even had a gender: the male tanks had the six pounder gun; the female tanks had different equipment.

One caption panel described the need for Ordnance Survey maps to help the accuracy of artillery, and also naturally to map the area.  As an example of how busy the roads around the Somme were, we are told that one point was passed in a 24-hour period in July 1916 by 26,500 men, 3756 horse drawn wagons, 5400 riding horses, 813 trucks and many more vehicles.
I learned (under another stunning photograph) about the Defence of the Realm Act 1914, nicknamed the friendlier sounding DORA, which ‘gave the Government powers to control a citizen’s life’. Along with censorship and many things we have heard about, DORA prohibited people from buying binoculars, giving bread to horses or buying brandy in a railway refreshment room.  Nor could you light fireworks (hurrah, I say, exhausted by this time of year’s constant bangs and the terror it brings to wildlife and pets) or whistle for taxis. Another new but vaguely familiar fact to me is that British Summer Time was introduced in May 1916 to save coal.

British propaganda was described on another board as having many functions including  ‘to present civilians with a Government-approved version of the war’,  with some excellent writers of stories in that vein including A A Milne, Arthur Conan Doyle, Rudyard Kipling and H G Wells. Anyone caught taking a photo of the war who was not an official war photographer got the firing squad.  Well, people then didn’t have a steadycam smartphone that they were prone to hold up to capture all the hideous suffering and death, so I suppose it didn’t often happen.  The gallery showed a recruitment poster ‘to the young women of London’, designed to shame them into ensuring their boyfriends were in khaki or joined the army now.  ‘If your young man neglects his duty to his King and Country, the time may come when he will neglect you’, and that they shouldn’t pity the women who were alone because they could be proud that their boyfriends were fighting for her and her country ‘and for you’.
There were panels on poets Wilfred Owen and ‘Mad Jack’, aeroplane development—initially the Naval Air Service--and monster zeppelins, all including fascinating archive photos.  I learned that a ‘brass hat’ was a high ranking officer and ‘Big Bertha’ was a name for a German artillery gun, that magnetic compasses were invented in China around 221 BC, and that the gravestones of Muslim soldiers would be angled to face east.    I learned that rum was the only alcohol given to soldiers, unless they were unlucky enough to have a teetotaller commander who would not allow it, and sometimes it was a substitute for the highly chlorinated water that had an unpleasant taste. 

One panel showed a picture of the postcard Edward Penfold had found on a dead German soldier he was burying, containing Christmas greetings from his wife, although it wasn’t translated until a century later. All that he saw during service traumatised Penfold, and he died of shock in the Blitz. Apparently, his daughter hopes one day to return the card to the German soldier’s family.
Somebody had left a paper poppy on the board about military hospitals and Shell Shock, with a local story about Ian Fraser, an MP and Governor of the BBC who was blinded in World War I and became Chairman of St Dunstan's, the charity for blind servicemen. The poppy was just beside an archive photo of J R R Tolkien, writer of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, who fought at the Battle of the Somme and fell victim to Trench Fever.

I was thrown a bit by a lovely photograph of an icy exterior, like sloping snow-covered alps with a rock tunnel peeping out, as there was a big ladybird in the middle of the snow…..which I then realised was a ladybird sitting happily on the picture.  I don’t know if the pictures were rose-flavoured, but ladybirds clung to several of them, and as I moved around the exhibit, I found myself under siege, with ladybirds on my handbag, my arms, my suit….  They’re probably one of the few insects where a person in that position doesn’t leap up and screech in horror, swatting at them while shouting ‘get them off!’  We’re brought up to think of them as gentle creatures, even more nature joining in with the nature that appeared in these pictures of former military sites. (Isn’t that a gruesome rhyme we learn as children, though: when you think about it, for a children’s book? ‘Ladybird ladybird, fly away home. Your house is on fire, your children shall burn!'  I hear it’s been toned down for the more sensitive modern youth.)
In my short sojourn, I had learned a great deal.  Above all this interesting information was, of course, striking photographs.  Some were of magnificent vistas, ignoring what had gone before, and others were more ominous, with shell casings still to be found, abandoned tunnels, bomb craters, barbed wire protruding from the snow like a horrid old animal trap vying to clamp onto its poor prey.  These former battlegrounds all offered a view more interesting, in any case, than the unofficial tour of American Civil War (or War Between The States, as we were taught to call it in the South, since the southern states had succeeded from the Union) battlefields that my ex-husband insisted we take as newlyweds driving between North Carolina and Atlanta.  All of them were just grassy parkland or fields, indistinguishable from the piece of grassy parkland or fields nearby that had seen no action.  But then I don’t wish to see blood stains.

Scattered around these dramatic images in St James’s Park were people lying on the grass, dreaming in the unusual warmth of the glorious sun this late in the year, by the fountain in the water with Buckingham Palace in the distance, and the Horse Guards parade behind us.  At the edge of the water were trees whose leaves were finally turning, and the sort of angry and disappointed-with-me geese that make me always kick myself for entering a park without thinking to bring any bread or birdseed.  I had come to the park expecting to see just that sort of thing, and was thrilled to swell my mind with a bit of culture and knowledge instead, whilst still enjoying the unusually late warmth, stunning sky and glorious greenery. 
The exhibition comes with a mobile Education Centre where you can buy books of the photographs and other linked items.  I didn’t have a chance to go in, but the people leaving looked appreciative.  On its side was a map of World War One Allies.

The gallery leaves St James’s Park in London after Armistice Day, 11th November 2014, and has already been to Paris, but will continue to tour until November 2018.  It is sponsored by the Royal British Legion.  If you miss the exhibition, visit the website to see some of Michael St Maur Sheil's entrancing photographs (and you can see how you can bring the exhibition to somewhere near you).   It’s worth a look. 

(Apologies that technical issues meant this was first published without the photographs and rather late on the last day of the exhibition in London.)