A-Z activities

A-Z countries

What's this blog all about?

Hi, I'm Nicola - welcome to a blog begun in 2012 about family travel around the world, without leaving the UK.

I love travel adventures, but to save cash and keep my family's carbon footprint lower, I dreamt up a unique stay-at-home travel experience. So far I've visited 110 countries... without leaving the UK. Join me exploring the next 86! Or have a look at the "countries" you can discover within the UK by scrolling the labels (below right). Here's to happy travel from our doorsteps.

Around 2018 I tried a new way of writing my family's and my own UK travel adventures. Britain is a brilliant place for a staycation, mini-break and day trips. It's also a fantastic place to explore so I've begun to write up reports of places that are easy to reach by public transport. And when they are not that easy to reach I'll offer some tips on how to get there.

See www.nicolabaird.com for info about the seven books I've written, a link to my other blog on thrifty, creative childcare (homemadekids.wordpress.com) or to contact me.

Tuesday, 22 October 2019

How wild can you be?

Wilding: the return of nature to a British farm is an amazing book with the potential to change everything about the way we manage nature and it tackles climate change. Words by Nicola Baird (see www.nicolabaird.com for more info about my books and blogs). 

The very beautiful cover of Wilding. Now you know
what a turtle dove looks like.
Every now and then a book shakes up your comfy ideas. Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, of course; Frances More Lappe's Diet For A Small Planet, most things by Malcolm Gladwell (I know, sorry!) and more recently Robert Macfarlane's Lost Words. And now there's another: Wilding: the return of nature to a British farm by Isabella Tree.

This fantastic book starts with Isabella Tree and her husband Charlie Burrell being forced to sell the dairy herd and all the farm equipment to keep the Knepp estate, which is near Horsham, afloat. They were £1.5 million in debt and couldn't make a living on the clay soils around their castle. The soil fertility was so dire that expensive fertilisers were making little headway, other than harm the estate's old oak trees. In many ways this is an oddity of a book - it's by a very privileged woman who marries a castle (well a man with a castle) and then the couple work hard to convince various funding bodies to provide grants to fence the outer boundary so they can return the whole acreage - bar the Repton designed park - into a wild place.

There's still public access for paid-for events (in the Repton park) and also free routes for dog walkers and riders on footpaths/bridleways. As the wilding project develops safari tourism becomes possible - and how lovely. Few of us get access to a big set of fields or understand what the owners/managers are trying to do, other than National Trust properties, so it is exciting to be taken through the wilding approach.

For starters this old idea of doing nothing to manage your land turns out to be nail-bitingly complicated. There is a place in the Netherlands, Oostvaardensplassen, that has managed to do a more extreme version, where herds of horses and deer expand during glut months and literally starve to death in the winter, but in the south-east of England that's not going to be an option in 21st century Britain. See this article about the backlash to starving animals in the Netherlands.

Grazing power
Chapter by chapter Isabella Tree (yes, she's well-named) details how grazing animals can change habitats - actually bringing back soil fertility. At Knepp they've done this with Longhorn cattle and Exmoor ponies. She also discusses how original Britain was surely open grassland with some woodland not solid trees - a scene more familiar to Serengeti safari takers than those of us used to massive agricultural fields farmed by the barley barons. And then how de-canalising a river, basically letting it wiggle and pond and slowing the flow brings insects which bring birds and a great many bird watchers.

The cover has a secretive, zebra-striped bird I've never really considered before, the turtle dove - known to most of us from the gorgeous 12 Days of Christmas carol. And in serious danger of going extinct because its habitat has all but disappeared.

She takes on all the countryside taboos - removing fencing, leaving ragwort, letting Tamworth pigs roam on a walkers' path and, whisper it, wanting to reintroduce beavers. She's not frightened of suggesting that this leave-nature-to-do-its-thing produces better management results than just managing for a particular species. She's also clear that stopping ploughing is a good way to avoid releasing carbon which adds to climate change.

It was the chapter about rivers that made me think hard. As a stand up paddleboarder I'm accustomed to using canals which have straight concrete sides and controlled water flows. Increasingly there are loads of temptations to go out and paddle rivers which I doubt does wildlife much good (especially when birds are nesting or the young are just entering the water). But if rivers are left to be more natural (but not allowed to convert to woodland) they really aren't straight - they're an untidy mess which are no longer navigable. On the plus side this creates habitats, water storage and slows fast water flow averting flood risks. But they're no longer the rivers we know... In the same way that 3,500 acres of Knepp land is becoming a different landscape. It's a Serengeti under the Gatwick flight paths!

Isabella takes this idea of right and wrong landscape further pointing out that most British people think the yardstick for what's normal should be approximately dated from the time when they were studying. So todays' leaders (eg, Boris Johnson is 55) think of the good-old-days as the 1980s - a time when insect and bird populations were crashing. When she showed around older people they recognised the wild flowers, the birds and even some of the insects.

Me too
I would like to rewild, but how can I do this living in the middle of London? My small concession is very lax care of the tree pits along the road where I live. In fact they often win prizes for their summer appearance but the times people have said they look untidy because there's grass and other wild flowers growing at the base of the tree. My logic is that if they were weeded it would simply turn these tiny nature reserves into cat litter trays. And who wants that?

My bit for rewilding is focused on sharing the book with as many people as I can. I read a library copy. And so far have convinced one book club member to buy it, one friend to listen to a podcast about the Knepp project and given a copy to my brother for his birthday (happy birthday Drew!).  I look forward to finding out what these readers think about the ideas Isabella discusses and even more to seeing if this wilding idea gets a bigger grip on the public imagination. Maybe it already has - my first contact with Knepp Castle was on BBC's Countryfile. And wow it looked fun to explore. I can't wait to visit.





Thursday, 13 June 2019

BOOK REVIEW: London is a forest

For anyone who likes exploring London this new book by @thestreettree expert Paul Wood, London is a Forest, offers a new way to look at trees. Words by Nicola Baird (see www.nicolabaird.com for more info about my books and blogs). 

Recommended reading: London is a Forest by Paul Wood.
A great guide for exploring London's trees in an intelligent way full of views and viewpoints.
======
LONDON IS A FOREST by Paul Wood (Hardie Grant, £12) 
======

I live in a forest. During May most mornings I was woken by the excited trill of a wren in the tree by my bedroom. Looking out of the window I pick out my favourite trees – usually with the bigger silhouettes. But I like the lollipop tiddlers too, and the way young seedlings suddenly burst up releasing giant-sized leaves from red stalks. 

But this forest isn’t a traditional wild wood of fairy tales. The paths are paved, the tracks are tarmac. It’s busy and polluted. In fact, it’s central London, because London is a forest according to a UN definition. Excitingly London has 8.3 million trees, which is about one tree per person, making it the world’s largest urban forest. 

The well-named Paul Wood’s new book London is a Forest is an absolute must-have. Savouring each chapter, I’m reminded of yet another friend or relative who’d be fascinated by the content. As a result my must-buy-it-for list has now grown so long that I think may be forced to recommend rather than make so many purchases. 

So what’s special about this book? 

There’s a short intro that argues the case for why London is a forest which should be required reading. But the basic content is divided into six meandering trails that pass by the best bits of green London. This isn’t just lush royal parks and Thames-side walks, it’s also via the most venerable, most unusual, and most loved trees. Despite 8.3 million to pick out Paul is able to turn any humble tree into a celebrity - and tell you which angle it looks best from...

I did wonder if reading a book of walks might be a bit dull if it was interlaced with turn left here, right there, but the instructions are provided in a different way, with phone-friendly GPS coordinates. Using the margin for GPS coordinates prevents the text from being plied with instructions. This allows the reader to follow a cohesive thread as the author walks us (or maybe cycles as these are mostly 16+ mile/27km+ routes) from tree to tree taking in trails and London viewpoints from:
·     High Barnet to Barbican
·     Erith to Canary Wharf
·     Epping to London Fields
·     Richmond Park to Westminster
·     Croydon to Deptford
·     Tower Bridge to Heathrow

I’m a north Londoner so there are parts of these chapters that are very familiar to me and others where I’m slightly stuck. But this mix of arboreal anecdote, London knowledge and the author’s asides (mostly about how that tree ended up with that limb damage or was planted there) are fascinating. Not only am I re-remembering walks with friends, but also planning where to go for my next London explore. 

By default I already hug green places as I criss-cross my bit of London, so I know many trees well. But with Paul Wood as a guide there is so much more to learn. Just using one example, the silvery bark-shedding London plane I am now aware that there’s a mix of varieties on Highbury Fields. That the avenue on Kennington Road (western side) in Lambeth harbours badges that name each tree after an astronaut (best viewed from a 59 or 159 bus). And the very oldest London Plane, known as Barney, can be found between the London Wetlands Centre and Barn Elms playing fields. This extraordinary tree has been preserved using a metal cage that its thick branches are now trying to grow through.

Paul Wood’s ability to share an interesting factlet at each tree has been well-honed by his well-followed activity on @thestreettree and subsequent walks and talks. Even on a two-street walk Paul can do far more than name-the-street-trees. He can also tell you about why the local authority planted them, when to expect blooms or fruits/nuts and even the life span. Somehow Paul does this in the most gracious and charming way, rather than harrying us with fact after fact (an occasional sin of experts who know how to categorise).

London is a Forest deserves to become a classic guide to London. At this point of climate crisis it helps us understand what trees thrive in the parks and street scape, at the same time as covering the info about what those trees have seen. My hope is that this book should give encouragement to the many other cities of Britain – and the world – who are considering doubling their tree cover. People know that trees offer valuable services – just a few include their ability to carbon, absorb noise, remove pollutants, reduce flood risk, offer summer shade, improve well-being, look beautiful, provide pollination opportunities and delicious bounty (I’ve even made N4 street tree pear jam). Recent attempts to cost these services to London calculated they are worth more than £6 billion. 

My hunch is that we all need to be more knowledgeable about our trees and at times shout loudly for them. Past threats have often been road expansion and building. On London’s clay soils insurance companies dealing with subsidence claims have a tendency to put their blame squarely on the trees nearest to the subsiding house. If this habit remains unchallenged there is a risk that despite the Government getting us to plant more urban trees we will actually reduce the number. As Paul Wood’s book makes so clear, simply through the amazing variety of trees he introduces us to from the Atlas Cedar (Chiswick) to wingnut (Bermondsey) sometimes it’s not just planting trees that counts, it’s the size of what you plant. Some trees offer far more eco-system services, especially veterans.

London is a Forest will also look good on your book shelves as the cover art work – a green ringed log with the line of the River Thames flowing through it - is stunning. I’ve noticed that recent Hardie Grant books (part of Quadrille), have particularly good covers as well as rather fab nature thinking,so whether you judge a book by its cover, or its content, London is a Forest is a total win. My tip is to go add it to your wish list now.

Other books you might like:


Friday, 29 March 2019

Country Living - and mum - at Alexandra Palace

Here's a recommended trip - visit the Country Living show whenever you can. Here's a review of #clfair spring fair 2019 at Alexandra Palace. Words by Nicola Baird (see www.nicolabaird.com for more info about my books and blogs). 

Living the dream: at the Country Living show
(c) Around Britain No Plane
We’ve found something we love doing, mum and me – a trip to the Country Living show.

Each year there are two big shows – at spring and Christmas in a range of venues. This year the spring 2019 Country Living show is at Alexandra Palace, so despite having gone to loads of these shows at the Business Design Centre in Islington, it feels very different and we both love it. I’m really proud of my mum as she’ll be 80 in a few weeks’ time but she’s happy to take a train to London and then switch to the mainline stopping at Alexandra Palace station. We manage to sync arrivals and then use the Country Living courtesy bus (find it just outside the train station and also Wood Green tube) to whisk us up London’s most scenic hill to the show.

Ali Palace was built as a people’s palace and is a regular meeting point for very different tribes. Inside there’s a clear Egyptian theme with a striking palm court entrance. 

Loads of stalls at the Country Living show at Alexandra Palace.
(c) Around Britain No Plane
My last Ali Palace visit was with my husband and two daughters for the musician Frank Turner’s last night of his Be More Kindtour. It is thus very exciting when Mum and my first stop chatting to an exhibitor at Country Living’s show is at a needlework stall boasting a “Be Kind” design hanging at the exact spot where my daughters were dancing in a rather sticky-floored the mosh pit. This sunny March spring day the light streams in from the glass roof and huge round stained glass windows revealing a squeaky clean, covered floor. Much better! Unfortunately I don’t think a sewing kit is a dream gift for my soon-to-be 21-year-old daughter (instead I buy several fab £1 flower garlands for both girls that will surely be a festival hit from Elin Syensson on poppydaisy.com (A48) and my mum does the honourable grandparent thing and gets one for her 9-year-old grandchild) .The Frank Turner gig was back in February so is old news anyway… Now it’s all about the next four days, from 28 -31 March, Ali Palace is taken over by Country Living gentility. 
  
The main tribe on the first day are older women (so much so that I feel in the younger demographic). I’m sure Country Living magazine didn’t start out like this, but that’s how it seems today. You do after all need a house to fill with many of the delights on offer – furnishings, stoves, garden furniture. But what Mum and I are interested in is it worth the planning (2 letters, 3 phone calls, a couple of emails!) and schlep to this year’s show. The answer is a definite yes. 

So cute - holiday draw.
(c) Around Britain No Plane
I live in London, but grew up in the countryside and adore being in homes that have a country feel – crafts, décor, perhaps a bit of shabby chic but definitely the chance to have-a-go at making and repairing things. If that’s something you love too, then a trip is recommended, ideally with a patient friend or someone who knows you well (a relative!). Mum and I are soon cooing over the Cherolais- and Tercel-cross lambs (triplets or orphans) fed on the hour which do their gorgeous lamby job (sleep, eat, bounce, repeat) extremely well thereby helping their owners from Kirkwood, Lockerbie tempt us to stay at www.realfarmholidays.co.uk in Scotland. Believe me, we are both tempted… (W17)

The makings of a star.
(c) Around Britain No Plane
Opposite is a stall with some very splendid chickens (W19) who seem to be happy to be stroked and are in no way phased by the Brass Band playing in the courtyard.

The main hall (I’m still thinking of Frank’s gig) is rammed with fab stalls run by ladies (mostly) who are keeping artisan skills alive. Show favourites this year include Annie Sloan who specialises in chalk paint, Carved Angel’s jams, Love Beauty & Planet’s vegan bath bombs and Sophie Allport’s bone china mugs – the rabbit designs are perfect for Easter. 

There are seedballs, bee talks, live music, stall holders to talk to and a whole food court with tasty bits to try from flavoured olive oils to brownies.

And from Mum and me an involved discussion about how to use the pre-made screen print designs on sale. I can see this will be my summer obsession.

Candles may not be new, but this range from
Home County Candle allows you to pick
a candle inspired by your favourite county. Looking forward
to the soon-to-com Lake District version. And they have
soy wax and wooden wicks. Very special.
(c) Around Britain No Plane
I make two purchases: slightly shamingly, these are both stalls run by men. The first is from the wonderful Home County Candle Co, (D20) launched in Feb 2018, which is tapping into the local pride gene and offers candles from Hertfordshire, Essex, Surrey, Kent etc. Oli tells me that the Hertfordshire candle was the first of the range – it’s bluebell and jasmine scented – and was inspired by the flowers growing at the Ashridge Estate near Tring. With a birch wick, that slightly crackles as the soy wax burns, I’m won over and part with £20. Back home I untie the garden twine around the brown paper box, peel back the gold-star paper and find my perfect candle nestled in straw. It’s just lovely and I’m lucky that my Mum insists she is allergic to candles, else that would have been her Mother’s Day present (it’s on Sunday 31 March) and not the box of Daelmans stroopwafels she requests (F21). To be fair, these are a delicious choice.

The busiest stall at the show on Thursday seems to be Richard Argent’s www.footballcartoonhistories.co.uk (H31a) where women are buying Essex man Richard’s witty prints of our menfolk’s first loves, their football club. Surely the perfect gift for significant birthdays, godsons, sons, etc? Obviously, women like football too but at the Country Living show the visiting tribe are seasoned gift-givers and it’s always good to find something that’s perfect for the hard-to-buy-for man… in my case, my husband.

I loved chatting to the stall holders. Rosie whose That Girl In Green (H19) stall was bursting with sustainability ideas and items for sale such as cushions, fashion, alternatives to clingfilm. Really wish her a great show.

Both Mum and I were impressed by a man demonstrating plug-in massagers. So, tempted that I’m thinking of sending my husband back to the show to buy them. The theory is that use the massager and you won’t need to go to a physio. And maybe we also need the warrior trolley which has a little seat attached? This is a place where ideas you'd never thought turn into must-haves within seconds.

David Jaggs did a very memorable Bright Eyes.
(c) Around Britain No Plane
It was now about 1pm and we decided we needed a sit down and sandwich. We decide there is a real trend for pre-cut screen printing blocks this year while www.DavidJaggs.com plays moody classics on his classical guitar. It’s at this point that we both reckon the Alexandra Palace venue is perfect – there’s more space, there are loads of places to sit down and everyone’s mood seems buoyant.

Discussing tactics at the hook-a-duck stall where you can
win tickets for future Country Living shows. (c) Around Britain No Plane
Mum adds to our happiness by hooking a pink rubber duck which secures her a free ticket to the Country Living winter show and she can choose London, Harrogate or Glasgow. She’s even more pleased with this when I mention that this is where I found her xmas present…

Clare Gogerty talks about her passion for  mindful adventures
promoting her book Beyond The Footpath. (c) Around Britain No Plane
We move on, enjoy more stalls, pass the stove sponsors, and then listen to an interesting talk Clare Gogerty at the Good Life Theatre talking about her soon-to-be-published book, Beyond the Footpath: mindful adventures for modern pilgrims (£14.99). Clare leans on her hazel thumbstick explaining about the ways of walking purposefully. It’s quite spiritual and I check if mum thinks this approach could be translated to her walk with the warrior trolley down to the Co-op. “I was just thinking that too,” is her answer, leaving us both giggling. I do note the title down on my list of books I definitely want to share with my book group.

Summing up
The Country Living show is a wonderful way to spend time with my mum - any mum! The time goes so fast it feels that we leave early – Mum to find the train home and me to teach riding at Trent Park Equestrian Centre which is only a few tube stops away at Oakwood on the Picadilly line. We don’t leave empty-handed either: gifts in the goody grab bag include waffles to taste, Belvoir Elderflower presse, Sensodyne toothpaste (thank you!)  and a vegan shower gel from Love Beauty & Planet. 


  • ·     Country Living show is open until end of the day Sunday 31 March. 
  • ·     F: clfairs, insta and twitter: clfairs Pinterest: cl-fairs #clspringair #stepinsidecl

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Monday, 29 October 2018

Books looking at the big apple

Is it possible to find a city where ideas grow and apple trees thrive? Or is sustainability and the opportunity of being-true-to-yourself a too difficult match for urban planners? Words by Nicola Baird (see www.nicolabaird.com for more info about my books and blogs). 


Review of two interesting books. The Apple Orchard by Pete Brown
and What we talk about when we talk about cities (and love) by Andy Merrifield.
Deep love of a place isn’t a given. So many people grow up in the sort of car-dominated suburbia where place has been so subsumed by the individual’s own home that love of place is dying. Small wonder that most suburban-raised children’s dream is to escape for the bright lights where things actually happen. Or they believe they do: punk, celebrity, academia, riches… 

At their best cities are a place where you can live your authentic self. The village gossip (in the club/pub/tube) is admiring, not judgmental. Chance meetings turn out to be a pleasure when there are millions of people you don’t know surrounding you.

Many writers who’ve escaped the smallness of the burbs, or the dullness of what they feel is provincial, fall very passionately for big city living. I’ve just finished reading Andy Merrifield’s What we talk about when we talk about cities (and love)and come away with a simmering set of thoughts about how to live well in crowded places. Merrifield’s book (perhaps more rightly an extended essay) tends to the philosophical, but we get this via his own life’s journey and obsessions with Marshall Berman (and thus New York), city soul-searching and his romance with fellow university colleague, Corinna. The book is much deeper than this summary though and sometimes I found it hard to follow, mostly because I wasn’t aware of Marshall Berman’s work. And, whisper it, I’m not that fond of New York. Or music. Sorry....

That said, I’m a city lover too – minute exploring the small corners of big places is my particular passion. I wanted to read this book to find out more about making cities work well for people, but that’s not the book Merrifield is writing, so I can hardly criticise him for this. 

A working class lad from Liverpool, often selfish and with scant interest in the past is an interesting guide to the cities he loves. His book takes us without apology through his often whaaaaat! behaviour (eg, dating a university student with such carelessness about his own lecturer power; insisting on going out on his own the night he arrives home to NYC after the long weekly commute from his uni job in Boston) but it also introduced me to an intellectual and predominantly male world of city talk shop. There is a softer side to the book, the love story of course, but also his friendship with aging Berman and a fascinating re-look at the work of Jane Jacobs. Her book The Death and Life of Great American cities is full of ideas, mocked by many back then, still has a big impact on some eco-thinkers and those who wish cities to be more people-friendly..

Merrifield doesn’t leave the city much – not in this book at any rate. In contrast another city resident, Londoner Pete Brown, clearly loves his urban base but adds extra energy writing about The Apple Orchard precisely because he has to leave the city to tell his story. I bought this book – in a Stoke Newington wine shop where you can refill your reds and olive oil - to give to my brother, who lives in the countryside and has an orchard. Actually, I think you only need five trees to claim this title… It was nearly autumn and I imagined he’d find it fascinating, and possibly helpful, before the great juicing he organises with friends and family each year. 

The chapters are divided into neat sections – as if slicing an apple with a pocket knife - through blossoming, fruiting, ripening, harvesting, celebrating, transforming, slumbering, taking us on Brown’s journey around the orchards.  In real life this urbanite does a lot of cider tasting and is, bizarrely, allergic to apples. But this particular set of twists gives him a unique voice. I rushed through this book, savouring the weather, the trees, the technique (unchanged for 2000 years), the people.  

As a bonus the apple world breeds characters and Brown’s interviews let us get to know the people well enough to both sympathise with their approaches and reveal the tribalism that afflicts the apple world. Every specialist world maybe?

Both books were an adventure for me. From Apple Orchard I learnt more about these wonderful trees (and a surprising amount about mythical Eden which probably didn’t have an apple when it was first dreamt up, because apples were not then in the Middle East – their birthplace is central Asia). From What we talk about when we talk about cities (and love) I upped my modernistic knowledge and puzzled over the many different ways people can love cities. I can’t imagine enjoying chatting with Merrifield but his passion for cities isn’t so dissimilar than mine, it’s just we have different ways of loving them - I like the closeness, the village feel within them, the possibility of sustainability. He likes the adventure, the grit, the music, the deep thought and the way you can thrive without "hellos" from every street corner. He likes following his heroes too. 

But that ability for such a range of people to live happily (or just live) in a city is of course Merrifield's starting point.

But are cities still working well? Can you still love them if you yearn for a more people-friendly type of living?

Cities thrive thanks to diversity of ideas, income and people; they are spoilt if dominated by the rich taking over all those crumby places the poor meet, artists colonise and the explorers discover. Living in a city ought to offer the chance to meet people very different from yourself without having to “buy” the experience as a tourist or buy out the "others". At their best a crowded city becomes more friendly - a place we squeeze past each other in the coffee shops, meet as volunteers or bump into each other in the street where kids can play safely. This doesn't really happen yet, and to do that successfully people in cities have to forgo that bit of personal privacy Merrifield so loves and communicate better with each other. 

I write as an eco bunny and my dream is that such conversations - cautious at first, then maybe properly deep - can be enjoyed under newly planted apple trees lining a car-calmed street. Or maybe under the blossoming canopies starting to spring up on the grassy strips between estate blocks thanks to groups like The Orchard Project who love both apples and towns. 

So two good books: both written by men and possibly best given to men. Perhaps like me (not a man!) they are a perfect pair to offer as a present and get some fascinating conversations going? Let me know what you think of them.

The Apple Orchard: the story of our most English Fruitby Pete Brown (Particular books, £!6.99)
What we talk about when we talk about cities (sand love) |Andy Merrifield (OR Books,

Tuesday, 2 October 2018

Blind love: Munnings the horse painter

The village of Dedham is in a sublimely pretty corner of Essex  - especially on an autumn day. Many tourists come here on an art pilgrimage seeking to find out more about two artists with deep connections to this East Anglian landscape. Many of us are familiar with Constable and his famous horse-drawn 'Haywain', painted at nearby Flatford Mill, but what about the equestrian artist Alfred Munnings (1878-1959)? Words by Nicola Baird (see www.nicolabaird.com for more info about my books and blogs).

Books about Munnings at the Munnings Art Museum shop.
Munnings excelled as a 
plein air painter, capturing the good times and summer light,
and starring beautiful horses, girls in frothy dresses, canvases filled with gypsy life,
backdrops of the River Stour countryside, racehorses. 
I love horses but they are horrible to draw: those sleek limbs bend so awkwardly when my pencil tries to fix them to paper. And their hooves! How does a horse stand on such a little sloping triangle? These are not questions you need to ask when you see the work of Alfred Munnings hanging at his dream home, Castle House just outside Dedham which is now an art gallery so packed with his realist horse canvases that you can almost smell the sweet hay breath of his subjects.

If you know your horses you can see the thickened tendons of a racehorse turned hunter, the tucked up posture of a horse on the first world war front line, the tail flick of a gypsy pony brushing away a summer fly. But mostly Munnings paints the most beautiful horses, at peak condition. A lot of these are his own horses. Perhaps his most famous works are the race starts (which bizarrely I find I confuse with Degas' paintings) and the colourful carnival of travellers at Epsom Down during Derby race week or at horse fairs like Lavenham in nearby Suffolk.

As a bonus the Munnings Art Museum has a wonderful cafe, which opens two hours before the exhibition. The food is terrific and the setting bucolic - green lawns, green fields, birdsong.

My wife, My horse and Myself by AJ Munnings. This painting has been criticised as
"defiantly British" so it's is quite a nice touch that the horse's name was Antichrist.  (c) Munnings Art Museum
This is easy art: Munnings had an eye for beauty with a happy focus on horses and good looking women. Even for that period he was considered rather old-fashioned, although that didn't stop him liking a party. Born on 8 October in 1878, Munnings was brought up in a mill, just like the one Constable painted in The Haywain (Flatford Mill). His natural artistic skills saw him apprenticed to a lithograph printer at 14 years old. Over the years he developed a conservative style that many art critics lampooned. At the same time he had real antipathy to modern art (eg, Picasso, Henry Moore, Salvador Dali). Indeed his resigning speech as the President of the Royal Academy, in 1949, focussed exactly on modern art's limitations. It didn't go down that well with the diners.

Munnings was embroiled in the hunting set and made a good deal of money doing expensive portraits for the Belvoir Hunt followers, and others. His first big London show was in 1913, Horses, Hunting & Country Life at Leicester Galleries. By the 1920s he could charge £500 a canvas, which is £21,000 in today's money.

He met his second wife Violet McBride, who loved to hunt, at Richmond horse show. They married in 1920. She clearly brought him social status and many equestrian commissions.

He bought his first horse when he was in his 20s and kept riding until the end off his life. Munnings knew how much he owed to his horses (quoted in the book pictured above AJ Munnings by Stanley Booth on sale at the Munnings Art Museum): "Although they have given me much trouble and many sleepless nights, they have been my supporters, friends - my destiny in fact. Looking back at my life, interwoven with theirs - painting them, feeding them, riding them, thinking about them - I hope that I have learned something of their ways. I have never ceased to understand them."

Munnings Museum is in this yellow painted house. When AJ Munnings moved
here he called it his "dream home".
At the collection my friend Eugenie and I quickly found favourites. Eugenie loved Shrimp, the young traveller man often painted on a cheeky grey Welsh pony called Augereau.

I fell for a showstopper, painted in 1932 - My Wife, My Horse and Myself. It's a conceited but beautiful painting of Lady Munnings riding sidesaddle on a stylish English thoroughbred outside her beautiful country home. To the side her proud husband smiles by a canvas of the same painting. It's a show off portrait of Munnings' possessions, capturing the swank (albeit horse-centred) lifestyle of this miller boy-made-establishment. It also owes plenty to the then popular hunting writer, Surtees who barked (surely he must have barked!): "Three things I never lend - my 'boss, my wife and my name". It was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1935, a rocky time in British finances, which might well be why it's also been dubbed: "the most defiantly British picture of the 20th century". Strangely it's the sort of insult that Munnings would have been taken as a compliment.

Painters Constable and Munnings would still recognise the River Stour at
Flatford Mill, just in Suffolk. It's now a very popular tourist spot.
I'm a huge fan of dog and horse portraiture, so it's always been painful to me that the late Victorian and early Edwardian animal painters, in particular Munnings but also Landseer (who painted Monarch of the Glen) and the stunning equestrian artist Heywood Hardy, all fell out of fashion as the shock of the new art exerted its magnetic pull. Country life may not have ended in the 1930s, but these days it feels as over as the time when families crowded into the mill cottages, six sharing a bedroom, and never left the county, never mind the country. You can see exactly what I mean if you also have time to visit little Bridge Cottage, now a National Trust property (free entry) a few miles over the fields at Flatford Mill.

But that doesn't stop a real sense of joy when you see Munnings' wonderful paintings - this collection has more than 4000  - in his old home in this elegant Georgian family house. It's a visual delight to go into every room, and the studio, and see pictures which such a strong sense of place (there are around 150 on display).

I've been longing to see Munnings' paintings, but took my time figuring out
how to get from Manningtree train station, Essex (seen here with a glowing sunset).
 
Munnings' work can be written off as sentimental or chocolate-boxy (if you really don't like horses that is) but he had such grit. Next year expect a complete rehang as Castle House is taken over by the portraits Munnings did in 1918 of the Canadian Cavalry Brigade as a war artist on the front line in France.

Munnings, by then pushing 40, has been blinded when he was just 19. For most of us a thorn striking your eye would be a life disaster. For a teenager starting out on his artistic career, without much money behind him, this should have signalled the end. Somehow Munnings overcame the disability forcing his sole good eye to let him paint well - damn well - again.

Gallop over to see his paintings in the house where he lived if you get the chance. And don't forget to take a break at the Garden Cafe.

How to get there: An early autumn day was perfect for the four or so mile walk across the
water meadows from Manningtree station via Flatford Mill (plus 20 more minutes from Dedham village). A friend with a car was a bonus. There are also taxis from Manningtree and a bus (see Munnings Art Museum website, then double check with coach provider).

  • More info at https://www.munningsmuseum.org.uk 
  • Address: Castle House, Castle Hill, Dedham, Colchester, Essex CO7 6AZ. Admission £10. Currently on show, permanent collection and wonderful paintings of days out in wooden row boats, Munnings and the River.
  • Munnings Art Museum closes for the winter on 31 October 2018 and reopens on 23 March 2019 with Alfred Munnings' WW1 Canadian Paintings (admission £8).
  • Check Garden Cafe opening times cafe@munningsmuseum.org.uk, tel: 01206 322127 (option 5)