English stitches

When you travel to a place that’s been shaped by human culture for millennia, there are so many layers of craftsmanship and beauty it’s hard not to stand gobsmacked in the middle of it all. I’ll bet I could spend a lifetime visiting Bristol Cathedral and still find new details in its architecture and decoration to admire. I had about four hours in Bath, which wasn’t remotely enough to take in its sweeping Georgian crescents or properly imagine the Roman temple. Everywhere I traveled there was so much to take in it almost seemed futile to point my camera anywhere at all, as I’d be missing so much more than I captured.

But one thread that drew me, particularly in the churches, where so many centuries of best work have been preserved, is how that work is still going on. These places are not museums; they are living and changing and responsive to human needs and aspirations. Stones that were shaped and set eight hundred years ago are now cushioned by beautiful kneelers stitched by modern hands:


I was charmed by these humble native birds and thistles, so elevated by good composition and color choice and expert needlework, full worthy to rest among the countless artistic treasures of Salisbury Cathedral. (Pssst, want to see some astounding stained glass and learn about how it’s made? Of course you do.) Having tried my hand at a bit of basic counted cross-stitch, I know just enough to appreciate the skill in evidence here. Look at the variety of stitches in the thistles and the way the artisan has held the brown and cream threads together to give the bird’s breast more subtle coloring:


In Oxford I wandered through the University Church of St. Mary the Virgin and was struck by another piece of modern stitching. This beautiful embroidery was adorning a lectern in the Adam de Brome chapel:


This part of the church once served as a courtroom, and this hanging depicts scholars and common folk waiting for judgment. (Note the rats, who don’t seem to be waiting for anything.) Issuing from the judge’s bench at right are some of the actual decisions handed down 550 years ago: “The inspectors shall test the quality and quantity of the beer in the colleges. Beer shall not be sold before it has had time to cool.” – 12 November 1462. “Simon Marshall and John Merton shall forgive each other all past offences and provide an entertainment of goose, wine, bread and beer at St. Mary’s College.” – 10 January 1462.


My curiosity about this wonderful hanging lingered and I spent some time on the internet trying to ferret out its origins. Lo, I found the blog of the artist herself! There I was able to learn that this is machine embroidery—an entirely foreign country for me. I’d love to watch Suzette Smart at work. I can hardly imagine the squillions of stitches that must go into a piece like this and I wonder how long it takes. Plus there’s such subtlety in the shading of the colors. (Must not get too interested in this. I do not need more hobbies!)

I’m thinking a lot about the interplay of old and new as we press on through our big house project, too. Imagine, a 1″ x 5″ ridge “beam” has been holding up our roof for the past hundred years! Somehow I think of things having been built to last in the olden days—somehow they have lasted—but the contrast with the hefty and numerous slabs of laminated veneer lumber supporting the new construction is striking, and not just because the LVL is brilliant vermilion. (Everyone is to run for the east end in an earthquake.) I feel a deep affection for all the quirky details coming to light for the first time in many decades—the toothpaste green siding lurking on the wonky old interior (!) attic walls, the lath and plaster, the frail wooden beams. (I don’t think the builders have a lick of regard for the poor roof, which was so far out of parallel that they had to cut every new rafter a little differently and rough cut the plywood out of square to cover them.) Today the roofers are hard at work applying composite shingles, which is excellent in light of the forecast for rain all the rest of this week. Inspection is tomorrow, and then we can do the exterior siding, trim, and paint. That’s all exciting from a weatherproofing standpoint, too, but it’s the interior spaces I’m keen to see taking shape. I’m loving the nesting decisions—which lights, which paint, which tile? I’ve already dragged home a sturdy farm table to serve as my new work surface and can hardly wait to steal a sander from my father and set to fixing it up. We’re ever so lucky that we get to do this, to give this house just what it needs to be an ideal home for our growing family and evolving lives. My romantic side wishes we could quit work and do a lot of it ourselves, but my practical majority is just grateful we can afford to have it done quickly and professionally. The craft room, though? That’s mine to finish. After the kids go to bed I’ll be up there lovingly applying coats of the perfect grey paint, sewing curtains, building shelves in the closets, moving old things into new spaces, adding the work of my own hands to that of many capable others.

English memories

England. Oh, England. I had nearly three weeks divided between Bristol and Oxford, with sightseeing tangents hither and yon. I went to sing. For a glorious, hardworking week, my choir took up residence in Bristol Cathedral. (That link will take you to a virtual tour, a far better way to get a sense of the place than my camera phone could offer.) It was a little hard to lift our voices in our modest American cathedral on Sunday morning without feeling a pang for the skyward, soaring sound and the dance of the music amongst the vaults and arches. Here we are waiting in the beautiful portico to sing our final evensong:


Nearly every day (or at least the spaces left between rigorous rehearsals) was packed with excursions to take in the wonders of Stonehenge, Salisbury, Old Sarum, Bath, Berkeley Castle. But fascinating as those places were, I most enjoyed simply walking the city of Bristol. The hotel provided us with an ideal walking map—how I do appreciate a good map!—and mine was quickly creased, ragged, and annotated with use. I fell more than a little in love as I tramped up and down the hills to Clifton Village, cutting through Brandon Hill Park—I met what must have been the same fox, or perhaps one of a pair, every evening after dark—in the wildlife refuge beneath Cabot Tower, admiring the street art, following a likely café sign through a narrow passageway into a hidden garden and coming upon an arts education center serving up good food and free wi-fi as well as the beautiful results of a recent etching workshop, watching participants in the hot air balloon festival rise and drift over the city, shooting very bad late-night pool with merry companions, sampling excellent West Country ciders, crossing the river to St. Mary Redcliff after supper on the rumor of a free concert that turned out to be an anti-war symphony with three choirs and orchestra to mark the centennial of the outbreak of World War I (the church was packed with sober faces of all ages, including a striking percentage who must have felt all the effects of war and its aftermath in a heavily bombed city during their own childhoods)…and home again afterward amongst giddy young things out for an evening’s revelry. We were made wonderfully welcome by the cathedral’s hospitality team, who served us tea every day and sent us off with the best luncheon I can remember having eaten, all home cooked, including the bread.

Once my family arrived, we made ourselves familiar with some good pubs, restaurants, and playgrounds. Mum and Dad kited off to Wales for a few days of grown-up travel; my foursome hired a comically dilapidated cargo bike, popped the kids into an unraveling wicker basket held together with spare inner tubes (don’t worry, we all brought our helmets), and pedaled off around town for adventure. Mr. G wrestled manfully with that sorry machine as it slipped its chain on every hill and refused to stay in any gear but the highest and lowest. The kids were sports, never complaining about bumping along like sardines in a tin and instead loudly singing “Yankee Doodle Dandy” wherever we went, as if we weren’t attracting attention enough. We went for a practice run and a picnic on the Clifton Downs. Jolly fell asleep slumped on his sister’s shoulder. “I don’t mind,” she said cheerfully, giving him a pat. “He’s lucky to have me, isn’t he?” We got thoroughly “sogging wet,” as Ada says, in a sudden rainstorm. (The weather, all the locals told us, was shocking.) But the next day we were back for more, venturing across the suspension bridge to Leigh Woods. Knowing all about the cargo bike’s wily ways, we intended to keep to the high ground. But we couldn’t resist a look at the grand old Ashton Court manor house, now owned by the city, so we followed directions from dog walkers and joggers and soon we were juddering down through the woods on rocky, slippery trails suited only to mountain bikes. But at the bottom we were rewarded with a glimpse of the deer herd and a cup of tea from the café. The children cavorted on the lawns. A dog snatched half my cheese and chutney sandwich when I wasn’t looking. Bristol’s jewel-bright row houses winked in the distance over the river. The sun was warm and this time the heavy-bellied clouds stayed continent. We tried not to think about the ride back up to the altitude of the suspension bridge. In the end it wasn’t necessary; as we couldn’t get back up through the special gates in the deer park with the bikes anyway, we figured we’d have to go down to the river and cross elsewhere, and in doing that we smoothly ran straight onto a cycle path that brought us to another fine playground within easy distance of the bike shop where we needed to return our steeds anyway. (A few photos from our cycling adventures went on my shiny new Instagram feed, if you’re curious.)

Even weeks later, the replay of every hour of time in that city is super saturated. Do you ever have a feeling that a place you’ve traveled isn’t done with you, that it will gently but inevitably reel you back? That’s me and Bristol.

(I didn’t even get to visit what looks like a first-rate wool shop, for instance, and you know how that’s going to chafe…)