Happy Birthday to ME!

April is over and has given way to the showers and sunshine of May. The trees are showing their bright spring raiment, the birds never seem to cease their singing and the cherry blossom and magnolias are giving way to apple blossom, the daffodils to bluebells. Easter and the 100th anniversary of Anzac Day have been and gone, and we have a brand new baby princess.

Toby and I have been amazed by the beauty of the English spring. The blossom trees, in particular, have been so beautiful. Trees that for the rest of the year are insignificant suddenly explode into glory all over Oxford and the countryside, wearing white (or pink) for Eastertide, as Houseman said in his wonderful poem. There’s a wonderful example in the Oxford High Street, just at the entrance to St Mary’s.

And here is a magnolia outside Hertsford College

We had some glorious spring days here in Iffley. This is the magnolia at the end of our terrace, and some flowers, almost iridescently pink, on a fence nearby.

Unfortunately, I was ill in bed all Easter with a virus that, luckily, did not cause asthma. So I spent the time re-watching the BBC Pride and Prejudice and some of the Australian drama, Seachange, on my laptop. It’s amazing how much better one feels after a long session of Mr Darcy.

I was sent photos of my novel in the bookshop at Sydney Airport and in a bookshop in Busselton, which also cheered me enormously.

In April Toby and I began to go into Oxford in the afternoon to work in separate reading rooms in the Bodleian Library. I’ve got access to all the libraries because I’m an Oxford graduate, and Toby has access as a researcher. The New Bod has just opened after a major renovation and I’ve been writing my novel in the top floor reading room, which is bright and very new:
http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/news/oxfords-new-bodleian-library-has-had-a-radical-modernist-makeover-10109194.html

The weekend before my birthday was the first of my birthday surprises, a trip to London. We stayed in Bloomsbury, in a 200 year old Georgian townhouse, now a B&B, which used to be the home of the painter Sir John Everett Millais. Our room was at the very top of the house – yes, one of those little windows above the parapet!!

From our window, we saw the former Dillon’s bookshop (now a Waterstones) but still a mish-mash of rooms, and more books than you could imagine…

On the Monday, we took the number 24 bus to Westminster. Route 24 runs between Pimlico and Hampstead Heath. It dates back to 1910, when it ran between Hampstead Heath and Victoria station. In August 1912 it was extended to Pimlico and has continued in that form until the present day, making this the oldest unchanged bus route in London.

I’d asked Toby if we could do touristy things I’d never done before, and because it was my birthday treat, he agreed. First, we saw the Changing of the Guard in the Horseguards Parade. I’ve included a selfie to prove I was there!

Then we had a tour of the Banqueting House:

before lunch in the cafe at the rather splendid Methodist Central Hall

The afternoon treat was a tour of the Houses of Parliament, and because the government is in recess until the election next week, we were able to see all over. It was absolutely fascinating. Many of the buildings were reconstructed in 1870, after a fire destroyed much of the complex in 1834. The House of Commons Chamber was rebuilt again in 1950, after it was destroyed in the Blitz during the Second World War. We had a particularly good guide, and I was enthralled by his stories.

In the evening, we went to the South Bank to eat burritos at the Mexican Street Kitchen (a favourite of ours) and see the new Tom Stoppard play – The Hard Problem, which I adored.
http://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/shows/the-hard-problem

On Friday 17 April we caught up with friends for lunch in the cafe at the top of the Ashmolean Museum and had a wonderful time with Kate, John, Rosemary, Jill and Jock. I’ve known them since we were all on a fabulous walking trip in Italy in (we think) 1997.

Sunday 19 April was my birthday, and the day before Toby drove me to a super secret location, namely the beautiful village of Lower Slaughter in the Cotswolds for a birthday weekend.

On the way we stopped in at Bladon to see Winston Churchill’s grave:

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We stayed at the Slaughter Country Inn, which was luxurious and charming.

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That afternoon we enjoyed the sunshine and spring flowers on a walk beside the River Eye and across the fields to Upper Slaughter:

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The village of Lower Slaughter is built on both banks of the River Eye, which also flows through Upper Slaughter. At the west end of the village there is a 19th-century water mill.

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There is a ford where the river widens in the village and several small stone footbridges join the two sides of the community. Most of the 16th and 17th century homes in the village use Cotswold sandstone.

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That evening we had dinner in a little restaurant in Stow-on-the-Wold, and came back to our suite as twilight fell into a chilly night.

The following day was my birthday. We walked to Bourton-on-the-Water and had lunch there, fighting the tourists:

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before we returned to Lower Slaughter for a delicious dinner in the Inn’s restaurant. I had a lovely birthday.

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On the way home we stopped at Batsford Aboretum, which has many flowering cherry trees. Like Houseman, I felt that there were too few springs left to me not to take every opportunity to see the cherry tree in bloom:

Loveliest of trees, the cherry now
Is hung with bloom along the bough,
And stands about the woodland ride
Wearing white for Eastertide.
Now, of my threescore years and ten,
Twenty will not come again,
And take from seventy springs a score,
It only leaves me fifty more.
And since to look at things in bloom
Fifty springs are little room,
About the woodlands I will go
To see the cherry hung with snow.
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Batsford Park was the former home of Lord Redesdale, father of the infamous Mitford sisters who lived there during World War I. The house’s former grounds, which give stunning views of the Evenlode Valley, are now one of the finest botanical collections in the country. Much of the landscaping in the arboretum is thanks to Algernon Bertram Freeman-Mitford (Bertie) – later the 1st Lord Redesdale and grandfather to the Mitford girls.

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We managed to catch the last of the magnolias in full bloom:
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And we finally got to see a field of the rare and delicately exotic-looking fritillaries (an English wildflower):

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As we’d seen Winston Churchill’s grave on our way to Lower Slaughter, on the way back to Oxford we went to Blenheim Palace, his place of birth, and did a tour of the state rooms:

This year it was the 100th anniversary of Anzac Day. We attended the special Church Service at St Mary’s on the High Street. One of my birthday presents from Toby was this gorgeous lead-light plaque of a poppy, which we bought from the maker in the Lower Slaughter Village Hall. She was Japanese, and she used traditional Tiffany methods.

We got up very early on Friday morning to walk to Magdalen Bridge to take  part in the May Day ceremony. It was very crowded, but everyone was good-natured and the sun shone on Magdalen Tower just as the choristers competed with the birds to celebrate the spring.

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Choristers at Magdalen Tower

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Finally, to finish this rather floral-centric entry with more flowers, Toby and I went to Nuneham-Courteney Arboretum this week because I wanted to see a bluebell wood. It was glorious:

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