Tag Archives: Kew Gardens

On Kew Trees and Medieval Christmas….70/100

dsc_0084_4Christmas is not my favourite time of year. It never has been. Easter I love, and theologically speaking, that is the better choice. Handel’s Messiah was originally written for Easter. Really, it was. But Christmas hijacked it. And, along with overly-rich plum pudding, has become a “tradition.” “Bah Humbug,” I say. “Scrooge,” you may call me. But I am not Scrooge. I don’t want to be Bob Cratchit, Tiny Tim, the ghost of any Christmas or those dancing relatives either….in fact I don’t want to be any of those Victorians….and there it is! It isn’t that I don’t want Christmas, I don’t want Victorian Christmas. I don’t want Christmas cards (though I have sent them by the tonne in years past), I don’t want Christmas trees (though I have one this year and last year had 4! And I have an enormous collection of historical ornaments that would take several 12 foot trees to display completely), I don’t want overdone meals with desserts no one but me likes or insipid Christmas songs sung by pop stars (groan.) And I really, really, really don’t want anyone to tell me that any of the above has religious significance. Because it doesn’t. The Victorians reinvented what had been a pagan holiday in an effort to make themselves forget, albeit it briefly, that life was pretty horrible for most. I don’t want the desperate shopping (the Black Friday spending binge, is there really anything more repulsive) or the Coca-Cola Corporation’s fat, red Santa, or that hideous recent addition of The Elf on the Shelf (seriously?). And all that peace on earth blah, blah, blah is particularly disingenuous. You only have to look at one photo from Aleppo to see how little we mean any of those platitudes. All the faux seasonal joviality just makes a mockery of the reality of the state of the world.

Then there is the stress, the stress that comes with trying to live up to an unattainable level  of perfection. Because a perfect Christmas is what we all want. What we all need. What we all have to have. Right?  Just look at the packs of exhausted women and their overwrought children filling the pavements. The endless rounds of Christmas parties with burnt out colleagues. Extended family, under one roof, for days at a time. Or crushing loneliness.

dsc_6108-2And it was in this state of unfestive gloom that I took myself up to York, my favourite English city after London, and realized it isn’t Christmas that I don’t want. It is Victorian Christmas I don’t want. But a Medieval Christmas, a proper yuletide festival, like the one I saw in York, with a modern twist, that would be ok.  Fun and games led by self appointed Lords of Misrule and Abbots of Unreason and lazy time with family. Greenery, holly, ivy, box, laurel, yew  brought in from the cold and lots and lots and lots of flowers. Flowers in red and white and gold spilling out of every container in every corner of the house. A permanently burning Yule log would be great, but probably not such a good idea in a no-longer working fireplace, so candles, a virtual log of candles. And lights on trees. Not trees that have been cut down and dragged into homes to die slow needle-dropping deaths, but glorious living, breathing, gigantic trees covered in electric colour.

dsc_0076_5And for this, you can ask for no better place than Kew Gardens. In a moment of trying to plan something Christmassy, I had bought tickets to Christmas at Kew weeks earlier, something we had never been to before. I didn’t know what to expect. WOW. I should have known it would be fantastic. It is Kew Gardens after all. 300 acres of growing glory. The gardens are a wonderous, magical, fantasy land of light and shadow. And we walked through together as a family, a long walk, in the dark and the cold, dsc_0101_4looking at beautiful things. No gimmicks, just loveliness. We had a calm, happy, wonderful time.

What else would I want in my modern Medieval Christmas? Christmas crackers, Victorian I know, but I like the jokes. And I love carol concerts. So to my fantasy I add many, many sing-along carol concerts lead by gospel choirs in which the women wear angel wings. I will wear angel wings too. And will belt out every song that feels good to sing, seasonally appropriate or not. And our Lord of Misrule (my youngest would relish the role) will lead us in harmless fun without any deeper meaning or import than that it is a bit of joy at a dark time of year. And we will enjoy ourselves. And enjoy each other. Yes, I think that is the way forward.

So what about this Christmas story then?  The one that has absolutely nothing to do with shopping and postage stamps and tediously long queues for everything and cakes that no one eats. The beautiful, simple tale of a  teenage girl, pregnant and unmarried and her frightened young boyfriend, bringing a child into the world, not in December, more likely in the spring, in very unpromising circumstances.  Yet this child becomes a figure of incredible influence. He changed the course of history. And offered the promise of a new humanity. Sadly, that hasn’t really worked out so well, we are just as awful as we ever were. The first 5 minutes of the BBC news this morning confirmed that: Aleppo, Berlin, big banks punished for their role in the financial crisis, pedophile football coaches, government snooping and this little beauty on the front page of the newspaper: “Civil servants who dole out foreign aid billions pay themselves more than any other ministry.” dsc_0108_2-2For shame!  The truth is, 2,000 years on we have a lot more Herod in us than shepherds or wise men. And that, my friends, is something we should think about every day of the year. Not just for Christmas.



On love songs in C….bees in The Hive 60/100

DSC_0003_7Bees hum in the key of C. That is such a wonderful fact I am not sure I need to say anything more. Except to add that my beloved Frank Turner reminds us, “…we write love songs in C. ” Now I could just drop in a few stunning photos and…..voila, latest post finished.

Oh, but I can’t help myself. I WANT to drone onDSC_0010_6 (ha ha, little pun there) about The Hive, the gorgeous and heartwarming installation at Kew Gardens, in celebration of the humble and extraordinary bumblebee. And the buzz of scientific research (ha ha again) that has gone into creating something that is not only beautiful to look at, incredible to experience, but is a statement on the future of our existence on this planet.

Built for the 2015 Milan International Expo, the theme of which was “Feeding the Planet-Energy for Life” the UK committee knew it needed something extraordinary. In part of their pre-planning research, the committee polled non-UK nationals as to the UK’s reputation. Hannah Corbett, UK Milan Expo 2015 Commissioner General & Director, discovered that the UK was considered “unusual in its preference for eccentricity and its love of the quirky.” Well, eccentric and quirky have always been positives in my book, and The Hive delivers magnificently on both. Another was that the UK has a long, solid history of engineering brilliance. Just think of all those amazing things the Victorians DSC_0005_7built. Railways, bridges, greenhouses. Yes, greenhouses. Which revolutionized their influence on worldwide food production. Suddenly seeds and plants from vastly different environments could be cultivated and studied, it was the impetus to re-inventing Kew Gardens in the 1840s…., from a place of elite leisure to one of serious science, which continues today.

But let’s get back to the bee, the lovely, precious bee, which we have taken for granted for so long we now find ourselves in rather a panic about its demise. The reasons are varied but with a common denominator. Us. Climate change, industrial farming techniques that prefer one crop over a variety, the widespread use of pesticides, the invasion of other bee varieties. Many types of bees feed on just a tiny selection of plants. Remove them and the bee population will soon follow, or vice versa. As 3 out of 4 of plants rely on animals for pollination and of that 75% is done by bees, well, they are rather important. Albert Einstein did NOT predict that humanity was done for without the bee, but an Belgian Nobel prize winner by the name of Maurice Maeterlinck did. Maybe the attribution was reassigned to give the quote more weight. Because it may not be far from the truth. But don’t fear. There are lots and lots and lots of bee champions out there and beekeeping has suddenly become the “in” past time. We are rather keen on self-preservation after all. I am an optimist.

DSC_0014_6The Hive is one more method of awareness raising, and a spectacular one at that. It sits nestled in a wildflower meadow at Kew, rising magnificently skywards like the most fantastic Meccano built greenhouse, without the glass. Instead the Hive offers lights and music, lights and music that are controlled……dramatic pause…wait for it, wait for it….a real hive at Kew. The bees humming and movement activate the light and sound sensors in the installation, waxing and waning throughout the day and seasons. The experience is amazing. It is like standing inDSC_0008_6 gorgeous, non-reflective hall of mirrors with invisible walls of sounds, not unlike waves, crashing all around you. Does any of that simile work??? Suffice to say it is a marvelous, beautiful sensory overload. And an Instagrammers” dream. From all levels and angles.

DSC_0018_5Back to bees. They communicate through vibration, rather than hearing, as we do. You are welcome to imitate the affect by “listening” holding a wooden stick between your teeth. The sensation is rather like being at the dentist. But the Hive is filled with sound we can hear with our ears as well. I started this piece by stating that bees hum in the key of C. The artist approached a team of musicians to “work” with the bees to create an orchestral accompaniment to their humming, in the key of C, using cello, voice, piano, mellotron and steel guitar. The musicians didn’t impose their own playing, rather reacted to what the bees were doing in a sympathetic manner. The result is a stunning, often haunting soundtrack. So much so that it has gone on tour, even making an appearance at Glastonbury, and the album ONE is available to buy.

The artistic genius behind The Hive is Cumbria born, Nottingham educated Wolfgang Buttress. Known for being someone comfortable outside the box, he was concerned, and I quote, “how could one produce a response beyond something glib and tokenistic.” It had DSC_0017_6to be meaningful, but not boring and earnest. It needed real wow factor. And wow, did Buttress deliver. But like all masterpieces, it wasn’t a one man job. Bee specialists, musicians, engineers, landscape architects, contractors and gardeners all played roles in this extraordinary installation. “It was a true collaboration in that egos did not restrict us, instead our different disciplines enabled us to let go where necessary and create when required, ” explains Buttress. Oooh, if only more groups of people could think this way, what a happier (and perhaps more productive) place this world would be.

Have I convinced you to visit? What if I tell you that Kew Gardens is thinking of hosting adult evenings in the Autumn with drinks and the chance to experience The Hive at night, lights and sounds shining and buzzing and humming to our heart’s delight in the Autumn air. Well sign me up, certainly.

And see, I wasn’t just using bees as an excuse to quote Turner, as if I need an excuse, we really do write love songs in C. The bees perhaps writing the greatest one of them all.


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