Christmas Reads

To try to get me into the Christmas mood I’ll be reading some Christmas related books, sadly so far the only one that I have in the house unread is Silent Nights Christmas Mysteries edited by Martin Edwards and it’s a British Library Crime Classic. This is one that I didn’t get around to reading last year, but I’m half-way through it now and finding it to be a good read.

Silent Nights

This collection of short stories features the writers below, some of whom I’ve never even heard of before.
Arthur Conan Doyle
Ralph Plummer
Raymund Allen
G.K. Chesterton
Edgar Wallace
H.C. Bailey
J.Jefferson Farjeon
Dorothy L. Sayers
Margery Allingham
Ethel Lina White
Marjorie Bowen
Joseph Shearing
Nicholas Blake
Edmund Crispin
Leo Bruce

Calke Abbey – again

Back at Calke Abbey, you can see from the amount of clutter around that some of the rooms are very Victorian, I suspect that these were the ones that the family used most themselves. Why have one fire screen when you can have three?!
paintings, Calke Abbey

I love the nurseries in these old houses, more than anything a doll’s house and push along horse makes you realise that no matter how grand they were in their heyday they were still family homes. Mind you, it’s a very grand doll’s house.
toy room, rocking horse, nursery, Calke Abbey

But it’s a very long time since any children ever played in this nursery/schoolroom which obviously became a bit of a dumping ground for ‘stuff’. I think it was a good decision of the National Trust’s to leave things just as they found them for once. I like all the soot stained ghostly outlines of whatever hung on the walls.
toy room clutter 2 doll's house

nursery clutter, old toys, Calke Abbey

I suspect that the children were bathed in a tin bath in front of the nursery fire and not in the shower in the photo below. Surely there must have been some sort of oilskin curtain around it to keep the water in. I think that the water must have been stored in the cistern above and when it was empty your shower was over. You would have to be fast, unless it was little more than a trickle.
Edwardian shower, Calke Abbey

Le Testament Francais by Andrei Makine

Le testament francais

Le Testament Francais by Andrei Makine was first published in 1995 and is apparently an international bestseller, but I had never heard of it before I stumbled across it in the library, and I thought it would ‘do’ for one of my Read Europe Challenge books. It was written in French and translated into English by Geoffrey Strachan.

First I have to say that this is a really well written book, but as ever with a translation I have no idea whether that is down to the author or the work of the translator, as just as a bad translation will kill a good book – so can a good one make all the difference for the better.

I didn’t love Le Testament Francais as other readers seem to have though. It wasn’t a page turner for me and I was never dying to get back to reading it after putting it down.

The narrator is a young Russian boy who grows up in the 1960s and 70s, he learns about the experiences of Charlotte, his French grandmother through her memories of Paris and a suitcase full of old photographs, newspapers and magazines from her past. After a lot of toing and froing between France and Russia in her earlier life Charlotte had settled in France, but with the outbreak of war she ended up going back to Russia as she could speak the language and they needed her as a nurse. When she eventually wanted to get back home to France her papers were confiscated and she was stuck in what was by then Stalinist Russia.

Determined to hang on to her French identity and mainly speaking French Charlotte’s grandson ends up being seen as being French by his schoolmates and really not fitting in, eventually he grows to love Russia but after Glasnost and the opening up of Russia he settled in Paris to write books in French about his Russian life.

I suspect that the structure of this book is what is meant to impress the reader, but that would probably depend on how much experience you have of reading books that jump around between times and settings. For me it was just okay. If you have read this one, what did you think of it?

I read this one for the 2019 European Reading Challenge.


The city of Chester is a lovely place to visit if you want a wee bit of a change from the rural scene in nearby Wales which is where we were staying for a few days when we visited this place. Chester is absolutely choc full of history. We stuck to the townscape but if we had done our homework beforehand we could have visited a Roman amphitheatre and all sorts – next time maybe.

Chester was founded by the Romans in AD 79 and in the photo below you can see that there’s still quite a lot of the original Roman wall that they built around their fort still in existence.

Roman Wall, Chester

Chester Town Hall (maybe)

We didn’t take many photos as there were so many people about, but in the one below you can see the famous Chester Rows – the two tier medieval shops which are still being used as shops today. There are lovely arcades which you can wander around in, keeping dry if it happens to be raining.

Chester Rows

Next time we visit we’ll definitely be aiming for the Roman amphitheatre, which you can see here.

We did visit the Cathedral but that will be in another post.

Rosie by Rose Tremain

 Rosie cover

In Rosie: Scenes from a vanished life by Rose Tremain the author has written about her family history, going back to the memories that she had of her maternal grandparent’s home, a place that she and her sister adored visiting, despite the fact that their grandmother was remote and gave them no love. She had been traumatised by the death of her two sons years before, one was killed in World War I but before that another had died while at school when he was only 16. Rose Tremain’s mother had suffered from this unloving mother who mourned all her life for her lost beloved sons, forgetting that she still had a daughter who was alive. In fact the daughter’s very presence seems to have been a source of pain and at the age of only six she was sent away to a boarding school, despite the school supposedly not taking in girls until they were at least eight.

It’s that daughter, Rose’s mother, who went on to replicate that unloving and selfish behaviour when her own daughters were born, but the abusive upbringing seems not to have been carried on by Rose Tremain’s generation, almost certainly because for most of their formative years Rose and her sister were lucky enough to get a lot of love from their beloved and selfless nanny. Leaving the parents to get on with all sorts of bed-hopping which culminated in ‘dolly mixture’ families of step-siblings.

I’m assuming that Rose Tremain will go on to write another book about her later life, but obviously she felt that there was a lot that she had to get off her chest about her parents in particular. Her father was neglectful too, a not very successful playwright, whose existence did at least make her realise that it would be possible for her to become a writer eventually.

Rose was a good student and was expected to get into Oxford but at the age of 15 she was ripped away from her studies by her mother who was determined that her daughter was not going to go to university. A finishing school in Switzerland was what she got instead, but luckily it hasn’t held Rose Tremain back and maybe her experiences abroad and the people she met were inspiring for her later writing.

Sadly Rose Tremain’s mother and grandmother weren’t unique in viewing their daughters with disdain and dislike, determined to put as many obstacles in front of them as possible. I hope that sort of mothering has died out now – but who knows what goes on within any family. I will never forget overhearing my own mother tell her friend that there was no point in putting any effort into daughters as they just grew up to push prams!

This was quite an interesting book, it’s always good to read about the background of a writer, but her fiction is far preferrable to me.

Calke Abbey – The Chinese Bed

State bed info, Calke Abbey, Derbyshire

The State Bed at Calke Abbey was only discovered in the early 1980s, it was packed away in wooden chests which is just as well as otherwise the Chinese silk would not have been in the pristine condition that we see today.

It’s really difficult to get a good photo of the bed as it’s shut away behind glass within the bedroom, to keep it as safe as possible from damage.
Chinese silk state bed hangings, Calke Abbey

The photos don’t do it justice at all, as it’s absolutely sumptuous in reality.

Chinese silk  hangings, Calke Abbey

There’s a display case in the same room which has some smaller panels of silk in it so you can get a closer look.

Chinese silk, Calke Abbey

It’s thought that the bed hangings were probably a gift from royalty in 1734 when Lady Caroline Manners married Sir Henry Harpur. But they were never used possibly because the rooms in the family’s apartments didn’t have high enough ceilings.

Chinese silk, Calke Abbey

When the National Trust took over Calke Abbey in 1984 they discovered the silk hangings in the chests in the photo below, they are in a room just behind the bedroom. Can you imagine what it must have been like opening up these very ordinary looking chest or kists as we call them in Scotland, and finding all that silk?!

Chinese silk store chest

The Marches by Rory Stewart

The Marches cover

The Marches Border Walks With My Father by Rory Stewart was published in 2016. It’s a mixture of history, geography and personal memories and meanders through various topics. The original plan was that Rory Stewart and his elderly father would have a last long walk together, the length of Hadrian’s Wall, but it was soon obvious that his father Brian Stewart didn’t have the stamina to do much walking at all, so the plan had to be changed. This is the story of Rory Stewart’s 600 mile, 30 day journey along the length of Hadrian’s Wall and then north up to his father’s house in Crieff, Perthshire – the beginning of the Scottish Highlands. From time to time his father drives to meet up with him and we’re told a lot about Brian Stewart’s wartime experiences and his subsequent career as a British colonial official and then an intelligence officer, apparently the equivalent of ‘Q’ in James Bond terms. His father was very proud of his Scottish heritage, but sounded so southern English as they both constantly call each other ‘darling’. The closest a real Scottish man of his father’s vintage would have come to a term of endearment to his son is – son.

There are a lot of references to Rory Stewart’s time in Afghanistan, but on his walk he meets up with a lot of people as he criss-crossed the Borders several times on his route. I enjoyed his meetings with people and the landscape, but then he mentioned a ‘fact’ that I knew for certain was wrong, and that made me question the entire book. He writes: I was now standing up to my waist in the water that marked the line of the final break between the kingdoms of England and Scotland. In 1286, racing to visit his mistress, the Scottish king had fallen from a cliff….. Wrong! The king was King Alexander III and just about everyone must know that he fell off his horse and died just outside Kinghorn in Fife in 1286 when his horse stumbled in the dark as he was riding home to his wife during bad weather. There’s even a monument to mark the spot of the disaster. I posted about the monument here. No cliff involved – no mistress involved and the nearest water is the Firth of Forth not the Solway Firth which is the water that Rory Stewart was standing in.

When writing about the WWI munitions factories he tells how many Germans were probably killed by the dynamite manufactured there, perhaps hundreds of thousands, but neglects to mention the women who made the stuff and often died lingering deaths from the close contact with cordite, and often were blown up in accidents during the process.

He got William Wallace’s execution wrong too.

Apart from things like that Stewart’s political opinions got in the way, and they’re unsurprising for a Conservative. He’s against re-wilding and all for intensive farming.

He seems disappointed when he says that:
I had been walking for twenty days through one of the most remote, sparsely populated parts of Britain, and I am yet to meet anyone who has not travelled outside the United Kingdom. Nine out of ten people had apparently not been born in the village in which they now live. But almost everyone insists on their ‘local’ heritage.

That gives the impression that he expected the plebs to stay where they were born and have no inclination or ability to move or better themselves – or take a foreign holiday.

He’s surprised to meet people who are proud to be honorary Scots despite having been born in England or elsewhere, these people often turn out to be more Scottish than the Scots. It has always been like that and we welcome them all, so long as they embrace our culture and don’t try to change us. It’s strange that he’s surprised by this as since he became an MP for a Cumbrian (north of England) constituency he has obviously fallen in love with Cumbria (for the moment anyway) and if he said it once he must have said it five times – The Cumbrian author George MacDonald Fraser. That author may have been born in Carlisle but I’m sure he regarded himself as a Scot.

As you can see the book annoyed me in parts, not least because of the emphasis on his father with little mention of his mother, however he did mention at the end that his wife and his mother had wanted to keep a low profile so that’s fair enough.

I think what it comes down to is that people who have been ‘brought up’ by their boarding school instead of their family never shake off that upbringing and it has the most influence on their character. Rory Stewart went to Eton – and it shows.

Calke Abbey, Derbyshire, England

At Calke Abbey in Derbyshire I was surprised by how crowded the place was, well, I suppose it was a Saturday and a lovely day, far too hot for the end of September but I suppose we can blame global warming for that.

On entering the hall Jack spoke to the guide who asked him to repeat himself – which he did, speaking in his very best clear English with far less accent than the ‘locals’. She still said she couldn’t make out his accent. So I said in strident tones – he’s from Glasgow – which is a slight exagerration as I’m the Glaswegian and he comes from 15 miles north of there, but as I expected, it did the trick and amazingly she had no problem after that. Maybe she was worried about getting a ‘Glasgow kiss’.

Calke Abbey, Derbyshire
As you can see it was nigh on impossible to get photos without people in them, except of the upper parts of the very high walls. Someone was obviously very fond of stags’ heads.

Calke Abbey, Derbyshire

The rooms are so cluttered, just as they were left to the National Trust, that it’s sometimes difficult to see what the room was originally for. Below is probably a drawing room but it also has a lot of specimens of fossils and just things of interest to collectors of ‘stuff’.

Calke Abbey, Derbyshire, National Trust

shells, Calke Abbey

I’m so glad that I don’t have to keep on top of the housework in here.
Calke Abbey, Derbyshire, National Trust

I’d love to have the library/study though.

Calke Abbey, Derbyshire

Calke Abbey, Derbyshire

library, study, Calke Abbey, National Trust

The Jacobean coat below is a real work of art, but the Chinese silk bed is amazing. I’ll show you that tomorrow.

jacobean coat, Calke Abbey, National Trust

If you’re interested in the history of Calke Abbey have a look here.

Calke Abbey, near Ticknall, Derbyshire

It was way back in September when we visited Calke Abbey, a National Trust property which I had heard about but never seen before so when we saw it on the roadsigns we decided to stop off there, we weren’t in a hurry and it was a beautiful day. In fact it wasn’t all that easy to get there, the road to it becomes very small and twisty turny and it isn’t well signposted from there. We had to stop a dog walker to ask directions and it turned out that we were very close to it, it just wasn’t visible. I think we took an alternative entrance, one favoured by walkers. The house is in Ticknall, Derbyshire which I think might be my favourite English county.

Calke Abbey from distance

There were people all over the place, it’s obviously a favourite destination for loads of people, many of them probably just stick to walking around the grounds, there were a lot of dogs. Apparently Calke Abbey never was an actual abbey, one of the earlier inhabitants had changed its name thinking that ‘abbey’ sounded more up-market.

It’s unusual for a National Trust property in that they took the decision to leave it as it was when the owner left it to them, instead of putting it back to how it would have been in its heyday. It was a good decision I think as it had been left untouched for generations and they never threw anything out, just moved stuff into store rooms when they weren’t needed any more. When the National Trust took it over only six of the rooms had electricity and they’ve just kept it that way.

On getting close to the house we could see a row of vintage cars and lots of people about, including a couple who had evidently just got married.
vintage  cars, Calke Abbey

With the help of their very large dog.

vintage  cars  wedding party + dog

I must admit that as we had a family wedding coming up last February I had become slightly addicted to watching that TV programme Say Yes to the Dress (much to Jack’s disgust!) and I have to say that there have been very few of them that I would have said YES to, but this bride got it right, she looked so elegant in her dress – just perfect. Then I think they got in the white car and drove off, but I’m not sure as I didn’t like to gawp too much at them. I wonder if the dog fitted in!

vintage cars, bridal party, Calke Abbey

The badge on this car says Hutson. The blue plaque reads Rural Leicestershire AGM. A car club I assume.

vintage car

Anyway, that’s what was going on outside, tomorrow I’ll show you some of the inside.

Woolly hat

Cable Knit Hat

I had yarn left-over from my recent chunky jumper knit project so decided to knit a hat to keep my lugs warm. I’m quite pleased with it. I knitted it from a pattern in a book that I borrowed from the library, but the pattern had two mistakes in it! One pattern row misses a line of the instructions out completely which would be particularly confusing to less experienced knitters, but more annoying was the mistake which describes the wrong side as the right side after knitting the ribbing. I thought it couldn’t be right but stupidly decided I must be the one in the wrong. By the time I realised I WAS right I didn’t feel up to ripping it out. The upshot of that is that right at the beginning there’s a row of plain stitches which shouldn’t be there, but I don’t suppose anyone is going to be scrutinising it on my heid! I remember way back in the 1960s my mother said that she wasn’t going to knit any patterns from her weekly magazines again as too often there were misprints.

Anyway, I’m now swithering about whether I should make a bobble for my hat or leave it as it is, what do you think?