Tintern Abbey

Though absent long,
These forms of beauty have not been to me,
As is a landscape to a blind man’s eye:
But oft, in lonely rooms, and mid the din
Of towns and cities, I have owed to them,
In hours of weariness, sensations sweet
—Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey
William Wordsworth, 1798

Perhaps it is the sign of a weak mind to be so influenced by a few lines of poetry written over 200 years ago that I felt I must see for myself what inspired Wordsworth. If so, then I am certainly guilty, for once I knew we would be in Wales, Tintern Abbey was on my list. I have gazed at photos of the site over the years, and the combination of the skeletal yet still-soaring stonework and the picturesque setting added to the feeling that this was a place I had to see someday.

I do love old cathedrals and churches, even though my interest is purely secular. A cathedral may have been intended as a tribute to God’s majesty, but to me, it is a symbol of humanity’s spirit, perseverance, ingenuity, and artistry.

All photos by Marian Buechert.

I planned our visit for an evening and the following morning, staying nearby in one of those pleasant inns that the Brits seem to specialize in. We arrived late in the day, just in time for the magic evening light, and although we couldn’t enter the abbey (it had closed for the day) we had the exterior of the site to explore by ourselves. It was intriguing to imagine the area buzzing with activity as it would have been during the abbey’s heyday.

As the shadows lengthened, we strolled across the nearby bridge and along a walking path that followed the river to where we could view the abbey from farther away. Without modern buildings or roads to ruin the illusion, the ruins probably looked much like they did when Wordsworth composed his lines.

In the morning, we revisited the site, poking around the interior this time. “Inside,” what was once flagstone floors is now a smooth carpet of manicured greenery across which the shadows of the pillars and arches etch patterns. With grass beneath your feet, stone rising around you, and the ceiling of blue sky, you feel as if you’re in a temple to nature.

Through the site, I wandered lonely as a cloud, when all at once I heard a single voice raised in song. I followed my ears around a corner and beheld a young woman, standing alone in the centre of the abbey’s great open nave, singing a beautiful melody in a language I didn’t understand. Along with everyone else on the site, I stood transfixed until she finished, when she immediately moved off and became just another visitor again.

I would have loved to do what she did and express my reverence with music, but I feared that it would be seen as mockery, so I remained silent. But inside, my heart was singing.

Are there historic sites that inspire reverence in you? Let me know in a comment.

The Getty Center

If you think Los Angeles symbolizes everything kitschy and facile, and serves only as hub for the cult of 15 minutes of fame, you haven’t visited the Getty Center. Who would have thought La-La Land could boast a world-class museum that impresses in so many ways?

First, there’s the gorgeous location, perched on a hill, overlooking LA one way and out toward the hills of Santa Monica the other way. One is so tempted to say it literally rises above the surrounding city, but I wouldn’t stoop to such a cliché.

Second, there’s the architecture and design. They’ve created an inspiring, welcoming space to relax outdoors in the courtyard, intriguing nooks and crannies between the buildings that frame the surrounding landscape, and galleries to rival any that I’ve seen.

Portrait study, 1818, Theodore Gericault

Third, there are wonderful tours to help you navigate and better appreciate the art. After many expeditions to many museums around the world, I know that it’s all too easy to get exhausted, lost, and numbed, stumbling around like a zombie, wanting to see everything and not seeing anything properly. You can get away with doing this for a quick visit, but if you’re there for the day, you need to find a way of focusing your attention and budgeting your energy. Tours are a great way to do this: someone else chooses the pieces to view, plots out the best course to navigate the galleries, and spoon-feeds you useful information. On our recent visit to the Getty, we did the Highlights of the Collection Tour, plus the Curator’s Tour of the special exhibition, “Eyewitness Views: Making History in 18th Century Europe.” This title might lead you to think the exhibition was a real yawner and pass it by; however, with the enthusiastic and knowledgeable guidance of the person who actually envisioned and put together the exhibition, it came alive as we gained real insight into commemorative paintings.

Last but not least, there is the art itself, representing a wide spectrum from paintings of all periods to sculpture, tapestries, illuminated manuscripts, furniture, photography, and decorative arts. The paintings of masters such as van Gogh, Manet, Rembrandt, Goya, Cezanne, and Fragonard are all included in the Getty collection. I wandered from gallery to gallery finding familiar works that I remembered from books and discovering new pieces that I will never forget.

The tapestry rooms literally took my breath away; I’ve seen tapestries on exhibit before, but never in rooms that are designed to emulate those in which the tapestries originally would have been hung and admired.

I was equally enraptured by a special exhibition titled “Illuminating Women in the Medieval World,” which explored how women’s roles in the Middle Ages are documented in the precisely detailed illustrations of illuminated manuscripts. The brilliant colours and shimmering gold leaf bring the Medieval world to life.

Peering in at a display of Sevres porcelain took me back to my university days and a research paper on Madame de Pompadour’s patronage of the ceramics manufacturer. It gave me a quiet little thrill to actually see some of the Sevres pieces from that period.

 

When your mind is saturated with great art and your feet are sore, take time to rest and refresh in the courtyard next to the water feature, where you can sip a cool drink and admire the architecture.

After a full day at the museum, I still had not seen the garden or the villa, and there were many unexplored galleries calling me back for future visits.

The icing on Mr. Getty’s cake is that his museum is free, such a rarity for anything in the U.S. (Thank you, J.P.) They do charge a parking fee, but that’s it. Which allows you to spend your money instead at one of the cafes or at the gift shop. Another perk is that you are allowed to photograph most of the art, so Snapchat away and share your favourites with all your “friends” who think you’re visiting the City of Angels for shallow pursuits like Rodeo Drive shopping and bus tours of celebrity homes:

Jeanne Kefer, 1885, Fernand Khnopff

“Adored this little girl i spotted at the Getty! Dont u just heart culture?! ”

Do you have a beloved museum or gallery? Have you visited the Getty? Share your thoughts in a comment.

In Search of Folk Music: Princeton, BC

The Didgetary Do’s on stage at the Princeton Traditional Music Festival 2016.

Every August, I pack up my breeziest dresses, my best sun hat, and my music sheets and head to the tiny town of Princeton, British Columbia, about three hours east of Vancouver.

There’s a big, busy highway that rips through Princeton, but once you’re away from that thoroughfare, it’s the kind of place where you can lay down in the middle of the road and take a nap. A couple of pick-up trucks going in opposite directions down the main avenue will stop side by side while the drivers lean out their windows and chat for a few minutes. I’ve not yet seen anyone mosey into town riding Ol’ Paint and tie up at the pub’s hitching rail, but it’s the kind of place where you feel that just might happen.

Fiddler Michael Burnyeat performs at the festival in 2016.

Though Princeton isn’t exactly the town that time forgot, modern and trendy aren’t really the right words to describe it, either. It is, in short, a place where traditional isn’t a dirty word. In fact, it feels pretty good rolling off the tongue as part of the Princeton Traditional Music Festival.

Traditional music—as in “music so old that you don’t know who wrote it”—is not the stuff of popular radio. Instead of three minutes of “baby, baby, I love you,” you get eight minutes of anything from two crows discussing how to eat the corpse of a dead knight to a bawdy song about old men marrying young women. There are drinking songs, sea shanties, ballads about sisters murdering each other, songs celebrating sheep, mourning songs, ancient instrumentals, and, yes, the occasional equivalent to “baby, baby, I love you” e.g., “I have loved you, fair lady, for long and many the day.” There are duels, enchantments, suicides, diseases, disguises, cruelty, faithlessness, and fidelity. So much richer than the tiny palette from which modern music is painted. There are bouzoukis and banjos, dulcimers and djembes, and lots and lots of guitars.

At the Princeton festival, two main stages run through the daytimes of Saturday and Sunday, with a small additional acoustic performance space in the library on Saturday only. Saturday evening is given over to parties, jamming, and songcircles.

Audience participation at the festival dancing.

The festival founders like to point out that venues for traditional music are scarce, particularly in western Canada. Princeton’s event thus serves as a gathering place for both performers and enthusiasts; many attendees return year after year and greet each other as old friends. Volunteers do most of the organizing and running of the festival and musicians donate their time and talents on stage. Because of this, there’s a warm, friendly feel to the weekend that has long been lost in the big-name “folk” festivals. There’s dancing in the streets, singing on the sidewalks, and a unofficial big splash in the cool river with brass instruments and kids shrieking and who knows what else.

And did I mention it’s FREE? Yes, you heard that right. Donations are solicited and warmly welcomed, but there are no tickets and no ticket prices. So you can afford the gas to get there, stake out a tent and heat beans over a Bunsen burner, or reserve a motel room and squeeze into one of the restaurants (all stuffed to the rafters for that one weekend). Bring your little folk, bring your elders, bring your dog. Do it your way, but do it.

Under the gazebo, a centre of action during the festival.

The Princeton Traditional Music Festival celebrates its tenth anniversary this August 18-20. More information is available on their website http://www.princetontraditional.org/

 

What’s your favourite summer festival? Let me know in a comment.

Here Comes the Showboat!

As we roll into the beginning of summer, I’m once again reminded of how splendid is my own little corner of the world and how happy I am when I get a chance to spend part of the summer around here. This doesn’t mean I don’t travel, but sometimes I enjoy being a tourist in my own town with all its festivals, free events, and fascinating nooks.

The Kitsilano Showboat is a perfect example. Even though I was born near Vancouver, for many years, I had no idea where Kitsilano is. Growing up in the burbs of Port Moody, Kits was just not a place my family visited. I was in my 40s before I heard about the Showboat. They ran an ad looking for roving musicians who would stroll the nearby beaches and perform for the crowds there, with the idea of luring patrons to check out the free stage at the Showboat. The shameless exhibitionist in me jumped at the chance to go where buskers and other musicians are normally forbidden. Evenings that summer found my partner and I gussied up in 1890s costume, playing to the scantily clad throngs in thongs arrayed on the sand. Afterwards, we would head back to the Showboat to catch the show.

It’s s a classic Vancouver experience: park your keester on one of the amphitheatre’s tiered benches, look down to where the Mexican Dance Ensemble or the South Surrey Concert Band is playing its heart out for you, and then gaze past: first to the epic aquamarine dimensions of the Kitsilano Pool, which lies just behind the Showboat, next, to the waters of English Bay beyond that, criss-crossed by the white triangles of sailing dinghies and the wet-suited figures of stand-up paddleboarders, still farther to the skyline of West Vancouver, and finally to the stunning backdrop of the Coast Mountains. A little to the right of this world-class vista, rest your eyes on the white sand of Kitsilano Beach set against the skyscrapers of downtown Vancouver. Now add in a perfect summer-blue sky and some silver gulls soaring on the breeze, and you have a scene to inspire E.J. Hughes.

Discovering the Showboat was like finding out I had a long-lost great-auntie living in a Kitsilano heritage home. This auntie is a former vaudeville star, fabulously eccentric but always entertaining. You can visit her any night of the week, as long as it’s Monday, Wednesday, Friday, or Saturday. You never know whether she’s going to show up for dinner as a hula dancer, a kilted lassie, a saloon gal, or a cowgirl. She might come out playing a tuba or bring a troupe of tiny tots on stage to wave little Canadian flags. Even though she’s pushing 82, she’s still a spry old showgirl flaunting a bright new coat of turquoise paint each year.

Founded in 1935—back in the days when the average person was much more accustomed to entertaining themselves, their families, and their neighbours with homespun talent—the Showboat relies on volunteer performers to put on a show. From the kiddies of the Hi-Kicks Dance School to wanna-be rock gods, everyone gives it their best effort, and although the talents are not always professional-level, they are never boring.

There’s a concession nearby for snacks and drinks, or, for more up-scale nosh before or after the show, drop in at the beachside Boathouse Restaurant just around the corner. Best option of all might be a packed picnic dinner on a beach blanket among the driftwood of Kits Beach.

When the performance ends, meander along the promenade and enjoy the sunset.

Hamming it up on Kits Beach with my partner a few years back.

“See the Show Boat,
Will you go?
Let me take you to the show!”
Show Boat (the musical, 1927)

 

If you grew up in Vancouver, do you have any memories of the Kitsilano Showboat? Or do you remember a similar local talent outlet from your own home town? Let me know in a comment.

 

It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown!

Awaiting their moment in the spotlight.

There’s just something about giant pumpkins.

You may rhapsodize about your royal-size rutabagas, you may hail the humungous Hubbard squash, or commend the colossal cabbage. All are worthy, but all bow before the immenseness of the Great Orange One.

Nova Scotia’s Hants County is a hotbed of oversize vegetable growing, thanks to a man named Howard Dill, who developed the Atlantic Giant variety of pumpkin back in the 1980s. Today, his namesake farm sells wanna-be growers enough seed annually to sprout around 2.4 million pumpkin plants.

Let us be clear. These are not the pumpkins you see in your grocery store at Halloween, the ones you carve and set out as Jack-o-lanterns. They’re not even the same ones your angelic child chooses as “the biggest pumpkin in the field” and poses beside for the family Facebook snappie.

These pumpkins are really, really big. To put this in perspective, I point out that Windsor, Nova Scotia, hosts an annual pumpkin regatta, in which jolly yachties hollow out examples of said squash, sit in them, and race along an 800-metre watery course. And those are the babies, the ones not big enough to compete at weigh-offs. The world record pumpkin last year tipped the scales at nearly 1,200 kilos.

Last September, I found myself in Nova Scotia, right on the border of Giant Pumpkin Country, just at the time when the big ‘uns were being harvested and trucked into local weigh-offs. There was no question of resisting the siren call of the splendid squash, despite the strange look the BnB proprietor gave me when I asked for help finding the off-the-beaten-track event.

I drove through endless orchards of picture-perfect Annapolis Valley apples before finally spotting the farm market that was hosting the event. As I puttered through to the overflow parking in an adjacent field, I had a great view of the line-up of titans waiting to be judged, each reclining regally on its own pallet board. The pumpkins ranged in colour from chalky white through greenish-yellow to deep orange. They brought to mind a ring of rotund sultans at ease after a particularly palatial repast, their bodies bulging out in unique, sometimes grotesque, forms.

I joined the crowd of giant-vegetable fanciers in dungarees, plaid jackets, and baseball hats. Forty or fifty people stood around patiently, chatting and commenting on each entry as it was weighed. There was good-natured ribbing of some of the growers, obviously well-known figures in the area. Hot dogs and hot chocolate took the nip out of the autumn air. Someone was filming the entire contest, which took a couple of hours to complete. A reporter from a farming magazine was on hand to take notes and photos. There was no hurry. It had the comfortable feel of a local event where hard-working folks took a well-deserved day off to connect with neighbors and display the fruits of their labors.

As the assistants worked a sling under and around the next competitor so it could be lifted by a frontloader, the crowd would begin guessing its weight. Due to the eccentric shapes and varying densities, this was no easy task; a pumpkin that appeared larger might actually turn out to be lighter in weight. This uncertainty merely compounded the tense atmosphere of cut-throat competition.

Before an entry was lowered onto the scale, a judge checked it underneath and occasionally used a whisk broom to clean the bottom, I suppose in case the extra half gram of dirt was the deciding factor in this battle of the heavyweights.

Each grower—young and old, man or woman—was encouraged to pose for a photo beside their entry as it rested on the scales with the weight clearly showing in the background. I imagined a farmhouse wall covered with these snapshots stretching back years, perhaps with an occasional ribbon tacked alongside.

Top prize that day went to a 1202-lb behemoth; not exactly world-record class, but certainly the biggest darn vegetable I’d ever seen. As they loaded the Great Pumpkin onto its owner’s truck for the triumphal journey home, I toasted it with my hot chocolate and wished it and its mates all the best. The winners would move up to compete in the county fair and perhaps to even greater glory at the provincial level. The losers might still contribute to someone’s closely guarded pumpkin breeding scheme.

I carried back from Hants County my own sample single-seed packet of Atlantic Giant. Someday, I may find the perfect spot—the most sincere pumpkin patch—to nurture that seed. It may look just like any other pumpkin seed, but I know it has the potential to bring forth a champion.

What have you discovered by exploring rural backroads on your travels? Share your story in a comment.

 

Sky Candy

I once took a balloon ride over the farmlands that surround my home. Floating hundreds of feet in the air with no roaring jet engine to assault my ears and nothing between me and the earth but a layer of basketry is probably the closest I’ll ever get to riding the winds like a bird. You expect it to be silent up there, but it’s not; the burners beneath the “envelope” flame noisily at regular intervals, and you can actually hear many sounds from the world below—dogs barking, cars honking, trains whistling. Above you is a rainbow canopy of brilliant colour. You gaze down at the patchwork of fields, roads, rooftops, and streams and it’s enchantingly surreal.

That’s the experience from the top down. Now, when I stand with my feet on the ground, looking up at a hot air balloon wafting by, I can feel that sensation of freedom again. Multiply that pleasure by a hundred times and you’ll start to understand the thrill of the Bristol International Balloon Fiesta.

Granted, the conditions the afternoon we attended were absolutely perfect: one of those rare English days with plenty of sun, blue skies, and almost no wind. We drove for miles through the countryside, searching for Ashton Court Estate, the location of the festival. Once again I thanked the patron saint of travelers, St. GPS.

The site was huge and grassy, with a few shade trees around the edges. A busy fairground with rides and games kept the youngsters happy while their elders staked out picnic blankets around the launch field. We sprawled on the gentle hillside and soaked in the sun with ice cream cones in hand to watch the entertainment. RC airplanes and stunt pilots in ultralights twisted and dove a few metres above the ground.

Eventually, the field cleared and the balloonists began driving out, trailers in tow. With practiced teamwork, they unload their baskets, unroll and hook up the envelopes (that’s the balloon part of the airship), and start up the burners to fill the envelopes. At this stage, the balloons look like a giant’s laundry spread out on the grass to dry. But as the air flows in, they come to life, big bubbles of trapped gas transforming flat into 3-D.

Slowly, each envelope grows, starts to rise and take shape. You recognize the traditional rainbow stripes, a multitude of corporate colours and logos, and, to everyone’s delight, the “special shapes.” An enormous one-eyed Minion grins at the crowd, while a pair of penguins (boy and girl) and the “Up” balloon—based on the animated film—carve out their unique silhouettes against the sky. There’s even a square balloon with a dragon wrapped around it.

Finally, like a child’s helium-filled toy accidentally released, the first balloon launches, followed by more and more, until the sky is filled with over a hundred gently ascending lighter-than-air vessels. They drift away, dandelion puffs at the mercy of the wind, gradually shrinking in our view until they disappear over the horizon.

And oh how I envy their crews! I want to see again what they see: ant-like people and cars,  little puffs of green that are trees, the houses no more than Lego blocks. I’m tired of being an ant, so look for me at the next balloon festival I can find. Maybe I’ll be able to hitch a ride.

“Up, up, and away in my beautiful balloon…”