Saturday, 29 November 2008


Dull and grey, and turned to drizzle shortly after these were taken, and then merged imperceptibly into dusk and thence to darkness and rain. But a brisk, two-hour trudge did me good. Plenty of time for musing.

War Horse

Woke last Sunday to the threat of snow.

By the time the children and I were leaving for Colchester Rugby Club at 9.00, it was falling fast. With tedious predictability, and despite this weather having been forecast for a week, the roads were ungritted and cars and buses were sliding backwards down hills and slipping on roundabouts.

Made it to the rugby club, only to find that all training and matches had all been cancelled. Northeast Essex was grinding to a halt. This did not augur well for the rest of the day.

SDs 1 and 2 and I were planning to catch a train to London at midday. Would the trains be running? And if they were, and the snow continue to fall, would they still be running when it was time to come home?

I sat in the rugby club, drinking hot chocolate and making calls to stations and theatres on my mobile, not one of which eased my mounting grumpfest.

Someone brought me a consoling bacon roll. I bit into it. It contained a slimy fried egg. I have nothing against eggs, per se. I just don't appreciate being surprised by slimy fried ones in the morning. Or ever, really.

I added 'feeling queasy' to my list of insurmountable trials and tribulations, along with the prospect of cancelling a long-awaited pre-Christmas treat, nursing half-frozen toes, and, most worryingly, wondering what had happened to the chin-up-best-foot-forward attitude which had been drummed into me since earliest childhood. Weep, wail, and woe was me.

Someone sensibly suggested that I pull myself together. I agreed. We drove to the railway station. The trains were running. We bought tickets. The snow turned to gentle rain. We ate some egg-free bacon rolls on the station (it was a bacon-rolly kind of a day). We boarded our train - and lo! there were seats!

We sat back and read books for the hour-long journey. Mine was Michael Morpurgo's children's novel, War Horse, which I was attempting to finish before we arrived at our final destination - the National Theatre - to see this year's revival of the award-winning stage adaptation.

My children and I are great fans of former Children's Laureate Michael Morpurgo's books (I reviewed one of last year's favourites here).

Morpurgo has written about the inspiration behind War Horse:

'I was in the pub . . . "Are you writing another book, Michael?" said the old man sitting opposite me by the fire, cradling his pint. I told him that I'd come across an old painting of a cavalry charge in the First World War. The British cavalry were charging up a hill towards the German position, one or two horses already caught up on the barbed wire. I was trying, I told him, to write the story of the First World War, as seen through the eyes of a horse.

"I was there in 1916," the old man told me, his eyes filling with tears. "I was there with the horses too." He talked for hours about the horse he'd loved and left behind at the end of the war, how the old horse had been sold off to the French butchers for meat.

I determined then and there to tell the story of such a horse. But how to tell it? I had to find a way that didn't take sides. So I conceived the notion that I might write the story of the First World War as seen through a horse's eye, a horse that would be reared on a Devon farm, a horse that goes to the front as a British cavalry horse, is captured by the Germans and used to pull ambulances and guns.'

You can read the whole of his account of the genesis of the novel here.

A million horses were taken to France from Britain in in the First World War. Only 62,000 returned. War Horse tells the story of one of them - Joey, who arrives on a Devon farm as a frightened young foal and is befriended, nurtured and trained - both as a hunter and to pull a plough - by young Albert Narracott. When war breaks out, Albert is too young to join the army and is forced to part from Joey when the horse is taken into military service and sent to France. Eventually, Albert manages to join up (under-age), and sets of for France to fight for King and country but, most urgently, to seek the horse with whom he's formed so close a bond.

Apart from knowing that the play had received enthusiastic reviews when it first took to the stage in 2007, and that it used puppets, I didn't have very much idea what to expect when we took our seats and the lights went down.

What followed was one of the most brilliantly inventive productions I've witnessed in all my long theatre-going days. The horses - brought to life by the wizardry of the Handspring Puppet Company, and each one operated (animated, in the true sense of the word) by teams of actors - are so acutely lifelike that they simply defy all expectations.

It really is quite impossible to describe their movement in words or photographs. They twitch, they frisk, they shy, they shudder and, yes, sadly, some of them die. I have not wept over puppets since I was about three. But I was not alone in finding Joey and his companion in arms, Topthorn, heartbreakingly moving. The tears streamed.

The stagecraft was mesmerising - lighting, sounds and music conveying the horror and carnage of battle so vividly that the hairs on the back of my neck were exhausted by the end of it all. It was completely involving in every respect. And I clapped so hard I raised bruises on the palms of my hands!

Special mention must go to the brilliance of the teams who operated the horses, and a deeply moving performance by newcomer Kit Harington, for his portrayal of Albert Narracott, from humble farm boy to battle-scarred soldier. Also central to the show was the 'Song Man', Tim van Eyken, whose narrative musical interludes wove together the shifting scenes quite hauntingly. Singer, melodeon player and winner of the BBC Young Traditional Musician of the Year, van Eyken's website plays some nice tracks from his album Stiffs Lovers Holymen Thieves.

You can read Michael Billington's review from 2007 here and Charles Spencer's here.

And here are Morpurgo, cast members, audience reactions and a very brief glimpse of the puppets in action:

So, a memorable day from start to finish. The bruises on my hands disappeared after a couple of days, but the bruises on my legs, where I repeatedly kicked myself (and continue to do so) for not having taken my camera with me are still much in evidence. Why in heaven's name had I imagined there would be nothing to photograph? Eejit!

The light as we walked over the Thames via Hungerford foot bridge was spectacular - glinting on the London Eye through the complex structures of the adjacent railway bridge. I saw hundreds of photographs begging to be snapped!

And then there was the South American jazz band, playing a witty version of Jingle Bells, with a big yellow plastic barrel for a drum. And . . . the Christmas fair on the South Bank; skateboarders leaping against a backdrop of spraycan art on concrete; the wonderful Dazzle exhibition of jewellery and other delights; the children, eating chocolate cakes whilst enjoying the fabulous foyer music of Errol Linton (vocals and harmonica) accompanied (quite thrillingly) by Jean Pierre Lampé on double bass - kind of blues with a reggae feel
. . . so many pictures I could have shared. Ah well. I won't make that mistake again!

Here's Errol Linton doing his stuff:

Oh, and finally, our grateful thanks to Jane at Books, Mud and Compost, without whose timely tip-off about tickets going on sale I should never have grabbed our three seats for War Horse many months ago. Thanks Jane!

Friday, 28 November 2008


Mild and still and very, very wet.

(For another islander's take on walking TBTM with a black labrador (and there are a lot of us about!), see James's photo-essay here. )

Tuesday, 25 November 2008

Saturday, 22 November 2008



It was a bright and sunny morning, but bitterly cold, and it was easy to believe that tomorrow's forecast snow was not far away.

While trudging eastward, enjoying the sight and sound of so many Brent geese, newly returned to the island for the winter, I spotted an interesting circular piece of sea glass - the base of a bottle or jar, I supposed. In fact, a fair bit of tugging by me and further excavation by Boy revealed that it was an upturned codd-neck bottle, nearly intact. T Wood, Mineral Water Works, Wimpole Lane, Colchester. So it hadn't travelled very far in distance - but in time, it had been on or near the beach for a century at least. I am irrationally pleased with it! A nice companion for my biggest piece of Mersea sea glass.

A brief bit of Googling hasn't revealed anything about the factory in Wimpole Lane (now Road), but I shall conduct some further researches and report back.

Friday, 21 November 2008

Friday Interview - James and Maggie Weaver of the ArtCafé, West Mersea and Colchester

The subjects of today's Friday Interview are James and Maggie Weaver, proprietors of two local ArtCafés - one on Mersea, the other in Colchester.

I visited the West Mersea ArtCafé earlier today, in order to chat to James and Maggie about their passion for food, art and coffee, while Jonathan took many of the pictures which appear below. And then I made the most of the opportunity to sink into a squishy sofa and drink a latte, while reading the morning's papers and enjoying the artwork on display: a very pleasant way to occupy a Friday morning!

* James and Maggie, the ArtCafés have such a lovely ambiance – which was your principal inspiration when you started out, the art or the coffee?

J&M: When we set up the first ArtCafé we really just wanted to work together, you could say our principal inspiration was combining what we are both interested in (art and food), into one business. To be honest, we also got fed up with James having to stop painting to drive the ten miles to Colchester just to get a decent cappuccino. As for the lovely ambiance, we think it’s probably the result of us enjoying what we do here.

* You have two choice locations – just opposite the Parish Church in West Mersea and in Colchester’s Trinity Square – was this sheer chance or did you have to wait ages for exactly the right premises to become available?

J&M: Our first location at Mersea was a real piece of good fortune, but we’d had our eye on the Colchester premises in Trinity Street for a few years. The café/gallery came about as the result of a chance meeting, at an exhibition of James’s paintings, with Simon Butcher and Annette Bell, in which we’d discussed our idea to find a waterfront studio/gallery. Briggs Art and Bookshop (as it was called at the time) became available and so we decided to put our search for a waterfront location for a gallery on the back burner and put all our energy into this new venture. We’ve been delighted with the success of this first business and it’s reassuring to us that people like our real homemade food and original art formula.

After four years we felt brave enough to take on the Trinity Street premises in the centre of Colchester when it became available, having been an antiques business for some twenty years. We laboured for three really cold winter months on this ancient building to make it ours and at Easter 2007 we opened the second ArtCafé.

* You seem to be constantly busy, serving breakfasts from 9.00 in the morning, then lunches, and then teas until 5.00pm, seven days a week.

J&M: Yes, constantly busy, that’s us! We’re open seven days a week in West Mersea and six days a week in Colchester, doing breakfast 9-11am, lunch 11am-3pm, and afternoon teas 3-5pm.

* Maggie, has cooking has been a lifelong passion?

M: I have been in the catering/hospitality business for thirty years now, starting out in North Cornwall ant the age of 21, with no previous experience or training. I worked with my sister in the hotel we had bought, figuring that, even with no experience, we had to be able to do better than the offered menu of tinned ravioli on toast amongst other ‘delights’ … it was a very steep and at times disastrous learning curve. It was called ‘The Trebarwith Strand Hotel’ and, with our restaurant ‘The House on the Strand’, was after a few years a very successful business.

Upon moving to Essex, I was chef at The Whalebone in Fingringhoe for seven years where, with my boss and friend Viv Steed, we created a great and popular place to eat. Now with the ArtCafés I’ve discovered that my passion is giving people real, not ‘mass-produced’, food in a relaxed atmosphere’ - definitely café not ‘caff’ but not quite a restaurant … yet!

* What are the top favourite items on your current menu?

M: My favourite thing on the menu at the moment is Toasted Chili Bread, spicy and delicious and so very simple.

J: My favourite is Liver and Bacon on Crispy Bubble and Squeak with a Rich Gravy and Seasonal Vegetables.

J&M: As for our customers, our Fry-Up is a perennial favourite, with local butcher Arthur Cock’s sausage, free-range egg, bacon, bubble and squeak, mushrooms and tomato.

We do our best to use local suppliers wherever possible and really do make almost everything on the menu ourselves.

* Are your famously delicious cakes baked to secret recipes or are you prepared to share one of them with us here?

M: When asked this question by customers, as we often are for our recipes, we’re usually guarded and will reply 'if we tell you we’ll have to shoot you!'. However, we’d like to share just one with Musings readers. So, here is Maggie’s Victoria Sponge Recipe:

This is the easiest recipe ever, and makes either one stonking great sponge or, if you split each layer, it makes two.

Grease two 9-inch, deep-ish round tins

Oven 180C / G4 10oz Butter (softened)

10oz Caster sugar
10oz Self-raising flour
2 tsp Baking powder
5 Eggs
1 tsp Vanilla essence

1. Put all the ingredients in a bowl together and, using an electric mixer, beat the living daylights out of it until it is nice and loose.
2. Divide between the two tins.
3. Pop into the oven for about 35-40 minutes.

4. Do not open the oven (even for a peek) during this time or it will sink.
5. Fill with whipped double cream and strawberry jam.

* Tell us about some of the artists whose work is featured in the ArtCafés at the moment

J: We have lots of interesting artists exhibiting worth a mention here, most are local to us, but not all. We have quite a stock of lovely etchings by Elizabeth Morris, a fellow Mersea artist and printmaker, whose work beautifully reflects the environments of both Mersea Island and Heir Island in West Cork.

We have another Mersea artist, Audrey Davy, whose atmospheric pastel seascapes, saltmarsh, and east coast sailing boats paintings are proving very popular.

There’s David Britton’s oil paintings too,

and prints and cards by Leafy Dumas, two more artists who live and work on the island.

There’s myself of course!

And from farther afield we have some etchings and woodcuts by Anita Klein, whose work is now becoming very collectible indeed,

and Melanie Wickham from Bristol, whose lino-cut prints and designs made us both smile the moment we saw them.

* But it’s not only paintings that you sell, is it?

J: From the outset we wanted to sell a wide variety of work with a strong emphasis on the hand made and local. This currently includes jewellery, glass, ceramics, driftwood sculpture and some photography as well as painting, of course.

Pru Green, a Wivenhoe ceramicist has her colourful and sought-after pots, mugs, cups, bowls and jugs on sale with us.

Julie Pettitt from Colchester designs and makes quirky and unique pieces in porcelain.

In addition, we stock a wide range of greetings cards and quite a few local interest books.

Those worthy of special mention are the range we have from Jardine Press in Wivenhoe.

I also have to plug my Mum’s book here - From When I Can Remember, her memoir of growing up on Mersea Island.

Something we’d really like to do in the future at the ArtCafé is hold exhibitions highlighting the work of just one or two artists at a time, with a preview evening with all the trimmings.

Ever since we first opened our doors, we’ve wanted to showcase artists who both live and work on Mersea Island (in fact we think there’s potential to start some sort of guild or group around this idea).

Another strand we’ve begun to work on is an online gallery/shop as part of our website, where a lot of the work we exhibit will soon be available to view and purchase online.

* And of course, as you've mentioned, you are an artist in your own right, James. How long have you been painting?

J: I’ve loved painting and drawing since childhood and after leaving school I went to the Colchester School of Art for four years. I actually studied graphic design and not painting, gaining membership to the (then) Society of Industrial Artists and Designers, and I worked in graphic design for about ten years.

When we moved back to Essex, I decided to paint seriously full time, supplementing this with other part-time work which afforded me the time to experiment and develop. Our children were small then and I had no studio, so after breakfast and the ‘school run’, I’d clear the breakfast things and the kitchen table became my studio until home time.

* Beach huts seem to be a recurring theme!

J: I had no idea at the outset that I’d be using beach huts as a subject for so much of my work. I was drawing and painting a lot of the boats and saltmarsh around our island at the time and the beach and beach huts (of which we have hundreds) increasingly began to fascinate me.

These modest pieces of seaside architecture are so very colourful and quintessentially British, and from the waterline here seem to stretch for miles and miles. The foreshore is littered with colourful shells and shingle which I find visually stimulating, and dissected by groynes at intervals that naturally lead the eye up the beach … all of which I find a joy to paint, especially in watercolour.

* Do you have a studio now?

J: Yes, I’m now fortunate enough to have a lovely little studio at the end of our garden. It’s separate from the house, which I feel is important, as well as being warm and dry.

It’s actually a ‘fancy shed' bought from the proceeds of an exhibition a few years ago, with larger windows than your average garden shed and also has electricity to it, so it’s quite cosy in the winter months and, unlike the kitchen table, allows me to work on several pieces simultaneously.

* James, you were born and brought up on Mersea, weren't you?
J: Yes, I was born on the island, at home, in Victory Road, probably one of the last few, and can trace my ancestors back here several hundred years. I had a very happy childhood, with summers mucking around the muddy creeks in boats and playing on the beach. When referring to Mersea, I can genuinely use the old cliché: 'I remember when all this was fields'!

During my late teens and early twenties, like many young people living in small communities, I became a bit disenchanted with the place and took myself off to Cornwall and there Maggie and I met and married at Trebarwith Strand, on the rugged north coast. We lived there for about five years before returning to live in Langenhoe in 1991 and then in 1999 I brought my family back home to Mersea Island.

* So, Maggie, how do you enjoy living on Mersea Island? - it's a far cry from the Cornish coast!

M: When we moved from Cornwall with our three young children I felt quite unable to appreciate that there was anything attractive about Mersea Island. Where we’d moved from was either rough seas and wild weather or a beautiful tranquil mile long sandy beach. In contrast, the tide here seemed to just slide in and then slide away again.

Then we moved onto the island and I gradually noticed the beauty of the birds, huge skies, sunsets and even the mud, having its own shiny charm! Since opening the ArtCafé I have really started to feel at home here and love the community life. It’s quite different for me to live in a place where everyone knows each other.

* Finally, what are your future plans for the ArtCafés?

J&M: There are things we’d really like to do to expand the ArtCafés, but for the immediate future we are going to get our online gallery/shop up and running, organise our Winter and Spring menus and, for 2009, plan some exhibitions of selected artists.

Most important for us will be maintaining our homemade, handmade, local-as-possible ethos.

My thanks to James and Maggie for taking time out from their busy ArtCafé lives to talk to me, and to staff-members Jess, Will and Lee, for so cheerfully putting up with having a camera pointed at them while they were getting on with their work.

You can find the Mersea ArtCafé here and the Colchester ArtCafé here.

Keep an eye on the ArtCafé website for the forthcoming online gallery (I'll post an update here on Musings when it goes live).

Meanwhile, do visit James and Maggie's regularly updated arty/foody/Merseacentric blog, The Artist and the Tartist.

(Thanks also to Jonathan for the fab photos!)