Saturday, February 26, 2011

Last Week

The last few weeks have been rather challenging. First, we had to remove our oldest son from school and are now 'home educating' him - a last resort that I wouldn't have entertained unless I was convinced that every other option had been explored. Second, my mother has surprised us all by selling her house within ten days of putting it on the market. I now have to find somewhere for her to live, organise the move and help her get rid of any unwanted furniture.

Fortunately, we were able to get away to my mother-in-law's house for a few days and I took the opportunity to pay a visit to the wonderful Gainsborough Museum in Sudbury, Suffolk.

Sudbury is one of those pleasant market towns that, like Lewes, got left behind by the Industrial Revolution and went from being one of the most populous settlements to a relative backwater. Most of the buildings are pre-20th century and every street has a variety of quirky, eye-catching features:

This house is unusual enough, even without the figures in the top-right window:

I also liked the local church, St Gregory's, which is definitely worth a visit if you're in the area (if you aren't, this excellent website is a pretty good substitute).

But I don't just enjoy snooping around empty churches for their historical interest. I also enjoy the glimpse they give into the secret life of middle England:

There is something comforting about the parish noticeboard, with its posters advertising flower festivals, slide shows and amateur dramatics, run by people with names like Pam, Sheila and Malcolm. I may not want to see Brian's slide show about the Dutch tulip fields, but I feel strangely reassured by its existence.

The house where Gainsborough was born is tucked away in a quiet back street and looked disconcertingly small. Fortunately, it is deceptively spacious, with a number of rooms like this one:

Gainsborough's home became a museum in 1961 and over the last 50 years, the collection has steadily grown. I noticed that several paintings had been donated "in lieu of inheritance tax".

I used to regard Gainsborough as a bit of a lightweight, but a wonderful Tate exhibition in 2002 completely changed my mind and I've wanted to visit this museum ever since. As small museums go, this is one of the better ones, but I was hoping to see more of the well-known paintings, like Mr and Mrs Andrews.

Apart from the traffic the hurtling through the town centre, I liked Sudbury. It had managed to avoid the worst aspects of postwar town planning and still had a very distinct character, unlike most of Colchester, which I visited a day earlier:

Colchester is the oldest recorded town in Britain and some of the original Roman walls - nearly 2,000 years old - still remain around the fringes of the centre. You would imagine that they would occupy pride of place in the town, but intstead the local authorities have sandwiched them between a busy ring road and some bland, 1980s buildings. It's shameful.

On a more positive note, I found some superb things at work:

These illustrations are from an early 20s German children's novel called 'Frau Major's Daughters'. I was very surprised to find that the book wasn't even worth a fiver.

I wish I could look at illustrations like this without thinking of some dark, kinky subtext. Oh, to be innocent again!

I also liked the cover of 'The Crimson Rust' (also worth less than £5), which I'm sure Pam, Sheila and Malcolm would have enjoyed when they were children:

Finally, two photographs:

I quite like this group photograph of some Victorian tennis players, but my favourite by far has to be this:

Unusually, this photo actually has some information written on the back:

"Chief Civil Engineer's Office, KINGS CROSS (Great Northern Railway), Christmas Eve 1954"

I presume that the Chief Engineer is the very serious-looking man at the front, rather than the cad with the moustache or the 13-year-old boy at the back.

I apologise for the rambling, fragmented nature of this post. It has been that sort of week.


Anonymous said...

I aspire to work in an office like the Chief Civil Engineer's. Would certainly have to smarten up the wardrobe to fit in though.

Grey Area said...

Frankly - I find the cad at the back obscenely stylish.

Anonymous said...

So glad you liked the Gainsborough museum. Though my husband is from Hertfordshire and most of his family now live in Essex, Suffolk is perhaps my favourite county. For one thing, it seems "real" -- unlike some of the over-visited spots like Stratford.

When in the area of Sudbury, we also like to visit the small towns of Lavenham and Long Melford (one long main street full of antique shops and the location for many Lovejoy episodes) and the small village of Monks Eleigh. There isn't much there; but there is a nice craft shop/gift center with a pleasant cafe where one can have lunch. Don't know about you, but a good lunch is essential for any ramble to be a success!

Thanks for another interesting post.
Canadian Chickadee

Anonymous said...

Sorry to hear that family things have been tough. I wish you well with home-educating your son, and also helping your mother move. I was interested to see your photos of Sudbury and Colchester. Oddly enough, my husband and I were looking at a map yesterday and wondering what that part of England was like. (We were also discussing schools for our daughter - who would love nothing more than to be home-schooled!)

Steerforth said...

Romney - I know what you mean, although I'm not sure if I could stand the disapproving glare of the Chief Engineer every day, year after year.

Richard - The cad is a bit of a rake isn't he - a little too colourful for the world of gradients and gauges.

Chickadee - Suffolk is growing on me, although I can't get used to the flatness. Lavenham is lovely and shows that a recession - in this case, the 16th century wool trade - isn't always a bad thing, if it stops anyone from being able to pay for new buildings.

Christine - I wouldn't recommend home education. It really is a last resort, although on the plus side, my son seems to be learning a lot more now.

I've said some very nasty things about East Anglia in the past, but during the last couple of years I've discovered some really beautiful places and I've been forced to re-examine my prejudices. I still prefer hillier landscapes, but villages like Orford and Lavenham are stunning.

magiciansgirl said...

Sorry to hear of your recent travails, but hope things will improve all around soon. If you are up for exploring more of Suffolk, the aforementioned Long Melford also has The Bull Hotel, a wonderful Tudor era building - you can nip in for a drink and warm yourself in front of one of the huge Elizabethan fireplaces. Also in Suffolk is Stoke by Nayland, with a nice medieval church (St. Mary's) and the town has connections to the Howard family, ancestors of Anne Boleyn and Katherine Howard. John Constable did a number of paintings of the area, as well. kim

Martin said...

Where else could I read a account of Gainsborough, dark and kinky, and home education, in the same post?

Our grandchildren are home educated, by-the-way. There's a very active local support group and we've been along to a number of events and day trips to museums, etc. It certainly gets the 'thumbs up' from us. I'm sure you've already done your research, but Education Otherwise was where we started. The more I read up, the more I was won over by the philosophy behind it. We tend to forget that the existing system was developed to ensure factory fodder (I spent several years on an assembly line) could read the rules and count the widgets.

Steerforth said...

Kim - Yes, I have been to Stoke-by Nayland, a lovely place which I wrote an extremely uniformative post about here:

I'll definitely visit the Bull Hotel next time I'm in the area.

Thanks for the link Martin; I hadn't seen it and will have a good look. I agree that school, particularly state education, is a factory system and doesn't suit everyone. We also make children begin far too early - four years old is ridiculous!

My younger son seems perfectly okay at school, but my oldest has been unhappy, on and off, for six years. In his case, there are 'issues' which I don't like to write about on the blog. It's a constant worry.

Hopefully, home education will give him a breather until September, when he is supposed to be starting secondary school.

Gabriela Von Bohlen said...

I'm sorry to hear you son is uncomfortable in school. My son doesn't like school either, but for some reason people assume that small children (he's 7) love school. I always hated school and did very very badly.

The parish activities sound wonderful, so modest.

Anonymous said...

You really are having an unsettling time, Steerforth - I hope things calm down soon.
How I loved the last picture. No women, of course, because this was serious men's stuff..
I think the cad had been flying for the RAF just a decade ago, and was never going to settle down to work under the scary Chief Civil Engineer - witness the checked shirt; such levity... Bet he was sacked after the festive season.
But the really poignant part, to me, is seeing the life and hope of the two office boys, gradually draining away over the years, until the end point is the total grimness of the CCE. i wonder what happened to those two boys?
Anna C

Steerforth said...

Gabriela - I've never understood the view that school is the "happiest time of your life". I was always being told off for "dreaming".

I much preferred the late teens, when I had freedom without responsibility!

Anna - Yes, I can't imagine that the dapper gent in the checked shirt lasted long. As for the others, it reminds me of my parents experiences at the National Savings bank HQ in Kew, where promotions were few and far between and the work remained the same for year after year.

Oddly enough, they loved it.

Anonymous said...

The man taking the photo in the illustration is the spitting image of Lenin.

Anonymous said...

Hi, Steerforth, I laughed at your comment about Suffolk's flatness. Probably true, but to be honest, I hadn't really noticed.

But then, I was born in Canada, in Alberta, where the highest point for miles around was a knoll about 50 feet high on which they built the Hegre Lutheran Church!

Canadian Chickadee

Steerforth said...

I can believe that. I heard a radio programme about the geology of Britain the other week and it said that geologically, we were more diverse than Canada and Australia combined.

One of those bizarre trivia facts, like more people drown in the desert than at sea.

Blazing Modesty said...

Good luck with the home education, Steerforth!

As for East Anglia, there are indeed some lovely hidden spots. May I recommend Maldon if you've never been? Famous for its salt and a battle in 991, and star of the film The Lawless Heart with Bill Nighy and Tom Hollander.

Is it wrong that of the CCE picture, my favourite is the chap on the right with the specs?

Steerforth said...

Wrong? That depends on why he's your favourite ;)

I drove through Maldon a few months ago and thought "Blimey! A hill in East Anglia!" And a steep one at that. I thought of you as I drove through the town.

It looked like a nice place to grow up.

The Poet Laura-eate said...

I was educated at home until age 11 and look what happened to me! ;- )

My mother trained as a Montessori teacher with the intention that my sister and I should be hot-housed into growing up to be Nobel-winning scientists. We were fed a Vegan diet towards the same end, all of which backfired horribly. I failed my 11 plus and my sister who got through to grammar school got an Archeology degree at University only to end up a council debt collector in Colchester.

That said, good luck. At least you are doing the home schooling for the right reasons and not to breed a genius. Beware of social isolation though - I'm still learning how to interact with other kids.

Lovely piccies of Gainsborough's gaffe and surrounds.

Mere Pseud said...

In 1984 I spent a rather odd weekend in Sudbury and environs with a Borley Rectory-obsessed friend. It seemed a bit rough to me back then, but I suppose my rather odd look (I was a student, after all) invited the suspicion of the locals.

Between Channels said...

The cad at the back resembles a young Cecil Parker. Lovely pictures, thank you.

MTFF said...

So sorry your boy was having a hard time at school. I absolutely loathed school the entire time I was there and found it a daily torture. I'm constantly surprised that my eldest seems to enjoy her time there but then again she's only had a year and half of it so far. I think it's incredibly good of you to home-educate him. At the very least he'll have the confidence that his family loved and cared about him enough to put his feelings and wellbeing first, even if it wasn't the most convenient option for the family. Well done.