‘By all these lovely tokens
September days are here,
With summer’s best of weather
And Autumn’s best of cheer
~Helen Hunt Jackson~
September was mostly an in-between month, still summer but nearly in autumn. It definitely felt autumnal especially in the morning while waiting for the bus but as the day rolled on, the sun came out shining brightly. The vegetables like the tomatoes, purple kale and sweet corn were still producing, blueberries and figs were ripening and flowers like roses, chrysanthemums, nicotiana, coneflowers, Echinacea purpurea and geraniums were still flowering and blooming. Though soon, we must bid adieu to daylight savings, warm weather, bank holidays and all the amazing things about summer.
I started the month with a trip to London for a 3 day CILIP RBSCG’s conference about Hidden Collections : Revealed. The conference was split between the Friend’s House Library, Lambeth Palace Library and the British Library. The theme of the conference served to unite these different venues and demonstrated the many issues facing rare books and special collections that were common to all institutions and collectors such as the management and promotion of collection that were ‘hidden’ because they were not catalogued, embargoed, fragile or in institutions that were hard to access, such as military or club libraries.
This was the first time I attended this conference and it was because now I’m working with the special collections and digital materials. I’d a really interesting time and it emphasized what I’d already known that of the importance of cataloguing first and foremost in promoting any collections. You can’t choose what items to put on display without them being catalogued. You can’t plan outreach activities if you don’t know what you have in your collection. No one was able to find the items for their research, or do their research on the collection if it wasn’t catalogued. Cataloguers too benefitted from working with special collections as they became experts in them which made them ideal for answering queries, outreach activities, exhibitions, talks and internal education of other staff. I became one when I catalogued the Sivanandan Collection.
The conference had been divided up into 6 sessions and I highlighted the ones that I found interesting and relevant to me. On the first day, it was a discussion on how collections became underused or hidden and ways to bring them back out into public and academic awareness. An idea put forward was the collaboration with other institutions and projects. David Prosser, Executive Director of RLUK, talked about the benefits of working on collection development policies collectively. He highlighted the UK Research Reserve Project (UKRR) which had been successful in managing journal collections across academic libraries whereby copies were available across the UK thus allowing institutions to review stock and free up space. Another example of collaboration and access was the Ministry of Defence’s Admirality Library, previously hidden due to issues of national security but now accessible through its partnership with the Royal Naval Museum in Portsmouth.
In an age of ubiquity amongst larger research libraries for online journals and e-book collections, it was the special collections that delivered the unique value to the institutions. I was very much in favour of raising profiles of special collections through citations from researchers and academicians. Investment from institutions for the collection was very crucial in revealing hidden collection. They could be the jewel of the institution as proven from the University of Birmingham. It gained valuable press coverage in July this year surrounding the discovery of one of the oldest Quran fragments, written between AD568 and 645. This gave the manuscript global significance to the Muslim heritage and the study of Islam. This publicity should be harnessed and make the special collections the unique ‘jewel in the crown’ of their research offering.
When institutions lost interest or failed to see the potential, the impact was catastrophic as illustrated by Karen Pierce on the Cardiff Rare Book Collection. The collection fell into obscurity due to lack of investment and shifting priorities. Cardiff hoped to host the National Library of Wales were dashed in 1907, when it was moved to Aberystwyth. The Welsh-language holdings were sent there, but the remaining British and continental material were left behind. Kudos to the University of Cardiff for purchasing the collection which was to be auctioned off and dispersed. With ongoing investment for qualified cataloguers, these books were now used by both the academics and members of the public. In fact. Karen managed to highlight a few jewels in the collection like discovering that the book Myographia nova, or A graphical description of all the muscles in the humane body, published in London in 1698 once belonged to Sir Isaac Newton.
There was an inspiring talk by Lara Haggerty from Innerpeffray Library discussing the challenges of attracting visitors when your location was very remote, being 5 miles from the nearest town, Crieff, with only one bus a week. Founded in 1680, it was the first public lending library in Scotland which later became a museum. Lara was appointed to promote the library which she concentrated on visitors experience and making it unique. The library was too small to attract big visitors but by working with other local organisations were able to increase the numbers. I found the work placement PhD model a brilliant idea where research students experienced on both sides of the desk.
Across the three days, speakers discussed innovative ways to promote their special collections without breaking the bank. And this was the part that made me very, very angry. Working to reveal hidden collections was a challenge and cataloguing them required significant financial investment in the form of professional cataloguers which they found hard to justify???. Several ‘project managers’ mentioned the benefits of hiring students to ‘help’ (?) with cataloguing the materials. How do you put value to special collections when it was done by students and volunteers. There was also the mention of enlisting retired cataloguers for their expertise.
Participants too enjoyed talks by a private rare books collector. Mark Byford talked about his collection that focused on Tudor and Jacobean books. I like his idea of collecting them to bring old books to life by restoring meaning to long dead owners, authors and readers, He has 1K books in his collection but no catalogue which brought a collected intake of breath and gasps from the assembled librarians :-)……He welcomed people to come and see his collection or took them out to events. He also loaned them to academics and shared them with students ‘to open up hearts and minds of students to books.’
No library conference was completed without the obligatory library visit. There were quite a few libraries to choose from and due to logistics and unfamiliarity with the London underground, I chose Westminster Abbey library which was just 30 minutes walk from Lambeth Palace on a lovely, sunny afternoon. We crossed the Lambeth Bridge and walked alongside the hundreds of tourists checking out The London Eye, Big Ben, Houses of Parliament, Westminster etc. I had my camera out and took photographs of everything that I came across much to JG’s amusement.
Since we were early at the Library, we took the opportunity to check out this amazing Abbey. Formerly titled the Collegiate Church of St. Peter at Westminster, it was a Gothic Abbey Church founded in the 10th century and the traditional place of coronation and burial site for English and later, British monarchs. Since 1560, it had the status of a ‘Royal Peculiar’ which meant that it was responsible directly to the sovereign. We were wandering around the cloisters and garth when we suddenly found ourselves in the Abbey and was ushered in. We followed the group and I was told off for taking photographs. Then only we realised that we’d join a tour without paying!!! Oops… we can’t back out and just tagged along. It would cost us £20 each for this tour. Errrr….
We didn’t stay long and quickly went to the Library which was in the East Cloister, next door to the Chapter House and waited with the others for it to open. Owing to the complex and historic nature of its building, the Library was only accessible via a flight of stone steps and a wooden spiral staircase. It was a lovely cosy library that housed the extensive historic collections of books, manuscripts and archive material belonging to the Dean and Chapter House of Westminster which included 14K pre-19th century printed books and archives from the 10th century to the present day, 60 medieval manuscripts and a collection of printed and manuscript books.
The Keeper of the Muniments gave us an excellent tour. The Library was originally kept in the Abbey cloisters, although most of the books were dispersed at the dissolution of the monasteries in the 16th century. As well as seeing some of the documents, we were vowed by the architectural features of the building from the 13th century heraldic floor tiles, the ornate painted ceiling bosses and the large mural of a white hart, dating back to the time of Richard II. I also spotted a few books that were attached to their bookcase by a chain which meant they were valuable books.
I ended the conference with a walking tour of lost London libraries. If you know where to look, London’s streets and alleyways were crammed with the ghosts of libraries past. From the heart of St. James’s to the fringes of Bloomsbury, we heard tales of enterprise, obsession, opulence, connoisseurship, secrecy and loss from the Walking Librarian. The best anecdote was hearing about a WW2 librarian using the Blitz as an excuse to get rid of unwanted stock and claimed it was ‘destroyed’. We said our goodbyes at Holborn and a few of us made our way back to the British Museum. I collected my bag and dashed to Euston for my train back to Coventry. It was lovely to be back home again.
“And above all, watch with glittering eyes the whole world around you because the greatest secrets are always hidden in the most unlikely places. Those who don’t believe in magic will never find it.’
I spent the weekend chilling out at the 47th annual Lions Donkey Derby and Charities Fair at Memorial Park. This was our first visit To Coventry’s answer to Royal Ascot where you can have a flutter on the winner without losing your shirt :-). When we arrived we thought we’d to turn back because the car-park was full. Luckily, as we got to the end of the drive we were directed to an overflow car-park at the back. We followed the crowd and the noise and was greeted by a fun fair, bouncy castles, play trailers, traditional Dixieland jazz group, dozens of stalls, charity stands, food outlets, Punch and Judy and off course donkey rides and donkey races.
When we arrived, the Brass Band had just finished its performance. The first donkey race started with a bang and it was hilarious to see the antics of the donkeys which were never good at obeying orders. Each race had a local company as corporate sponsor. The race jockeys were volunteers from the pupils at Moor Farm Stables and members of the Pony club branch based at the stables, I bet these riders had a shock riding these cute hairy mounts from the Shropshire based donkey hire company, Stonehill Donkeys.
The highlight of the day was when riders dressed as the Stig from Top Gear, the single-celled yellow organism Minion , Olaf the Snowman character from the 2013 animated film Frozen and Elsa the Snow Queen, also from Frozen racing on the trap. It was lovely watching the kids were very enamoured watching their favourite characters. We didn’t stay long and made our way back to the car. We hoped that the hundreds of people who hoofed it here had raised a lot of money for the Coventry, Northampton and Warwickshire Air Ambulance.
A visit to Bradgate Park was mandatory on such a lovely afternoon and we weren’t alone because half of Leicestershire was thinking of the same thing. Luckily, we arrived just in time for a car to leave its parking space. If not, we’d to park in the overflow car-park. After using the facilities, I met Babe by the entrance where a herd of deer were chilling out under the shade, watching the visitors watching them, while ruminating (?). Thankfully, no one was stupid enough to take a selfie with them in the background, for now.
A few were grazing and enjoying the acorns that had fallen onto the ground. I kept on looking up at the oak trees for Jays but I hadn’t seen any. A few years ago, at least a dozen of these beauties were flying in and out of the trees carrying acorns to be buried somewhere ‘safe’ for the winter. In the brambles, we spotted a male thrashing with the undergrowth, a process of strengthening its neck for the rutting season which would be soon.
We walked along River Lin that flows through the middle of the park. It was very tempting for the dogs which were splashing in having a whale of a time, cooling off from the warm afternoon. This resulted in the ducks, moorhens, swans and swans dispersing further down the river alongside our favourite Wigeon which looked like he was moulting. This was where he lost almost all of his down feathers and looked a bit scraggly but still as noisy as ever.
On the grasslands, families were having picnics and flying kites. It was lovely to see everyone enjoying the lovely day. A few deer were seen feeding among the bracken. We walked straight to Lady Jane’s ruins which were still opened for the summer. Babe walked straight to the top end where the resident deer were feeding. I was distracted by pond where dragonflies were frantically flying across the water dipping their abdomens into the water and releasing the eggs. They must have heard the weather forecast that Summer was nearly over. These eggs were surrounded by jelly-like substances which enabled them to stick to vegetation or the bottom of the pond.
Today I saw the dragon-fly
Come from the wells where he did lie.
~The Dragon-fly by Tennyson~
A few children were running and shouting after one another causing the herd of deer to run into the bracken. We spotted a Green Woodpecker feeding among the termite-hills but it too flew off during the commotion. Since everything was scared off, we headed back to the car. We walked through the grassy meadows and spotted Fungi popping up here and there. I think they were parasol mushroom which were edible but no way am I going to eat them. No matter how delicious they looked.
It was also the Heritage Open Day where every year on four days in September, buildings of every age, style and function threw open their doors for FREE. It was a once-a-year chance to discover the often hidden or forgotten gems on our doorsteps and celebrate their history and architecture. I always looked forward to these open days and planned meticulously where I wanted to go. I did selected a few places in Birmingham but Babe wasn’t keen to go and so we decided to stay local.
The first place on our list was the Ford’s Hospital, a grade 1 listed 16th century half-timbered almshouse in Greyfriars Lane. Traditionally known as the Greyfriars Hospital, it was surrounded by tall grey concrete buildings. It was founded by William Ford, a wool merchant and former Mayor of Coventry in 1509 to provide accommodation for 6 elderly people, 5 men and a woman. It was badly damaged in the air raid of November 1940. It was restored with the original timbers between 1951-1953.
I had only seen this fine example of English domestic architecture from the outside. When we walked in, we were ushered into a narrow courtyard with a timber frame and 1st floor oversailing, Writings were etched along the walls. There was much carving to the timber framework, including miniature buttresses to close studding with bases and pinnacles. There were 4 centred arched doorways with carved spandrels. There were oak seats in the courtyard corners which looked too fragile to sit on. After photographing to our heart content, we ventured into the walled garden and came back in again to browse a display of collected articles and photographs in the residents lounge, which was formerly the Board Room.
Then we braved the Saturday crowd and headed straight to the Priory Undercroft. Built on the site of the Benedictine Priory of St. Mary’s, the Priory told the story of Coventry’s first Cathedral, which was founded by the Earl of Leofric and Lady Godiva in the 11th century. For hundred of years, the ruins of lay hidden beneath the redevelopment of the city centre. Unearthed by Channel 4’s Time Team in 2002, these extraordinary area of cellars were part of the original Cathedral and showed a glimpse in to Coventry’s mediaeval past. The Priory was home to a community of monks for 500 years, until it was closed down on the orders of King Henry VIII. We didn’t climbed down the stairs but watched from the entrance people touring the beautifully preserved undercrofts and checking out the incredible finds from the excavations of the area. There were volunteers telling the story of the archaeological finds.
We walked along the cobbled streets of Priory Row to the ruins of the Cathedral keeping an eye on the tall structures to see if the peregrines was about. Not today. On the night of 14th November 1940, the city of Coventry was devastated by bombs dropped by the Lutwasffe. The Cathedral burnt with the city, having been hit by several incendiary devices. Rather than sweeping away the ruins or rebuilding a replica of the former church, the then leaders of the Cathedral community took the courageous step to build a new Cathedral and preserve the ruins as a moving reminder of the folly and waste of war. Today the ruins were preserved as a memorial and sacred space for the city.
Part of the ruins in the north-east corner were fenced off due to work being done to waterproof two of the medieval vaulted crypts as the two chapels located under the floor were suffering from water ingress. But this didn’t deter the hundreds of people visiting this magnificent ruin. The new Cathedral, also known as St Michael’s Cathedral designed by Sir Basil Spence was also open to the public but we didn’t checked it out. I like the contrast of the old and the new, side by side remembering the old but looking to the future.
We then continued along the cobbled Cuckoo Lane and checked out the Holy Trinity Church. Founded in the 12th century and first recorded in 1113, the Holy Trinity Church was one of the largest medieval churches in England. The highlight was the famous Doom painting of the Last Judgement. This extraordinary building had survived fires, reformation and the Blitz. As soon as we entered, we were greeted by stunning stained glass windows especially the one above the main entrance. It was an extremely ornate building, well lighted through a multitude of large windows. There were many features of interest especially the pulpit, built around 1470 and was one of the highest in the country.
Above the chancel art was the piece de resistance, a very impressive 1430’s Doom wall-painting. This ‘Last Judgement’ style of image known as the ‘Apocalypse painting’ was a victim to King Henry’s VIII’s reformation where many images, statutes, shrines and other church decorations were considered frivolous. As a result. this medieval mural was white-washed over. In 1831, David Gee restored the painting and gave it a varnish coating to ‘restore’ it. The bitumen contained in the varnish caused it to darken and half a century later, the painting had once again disappeared from sight.
In 1995, discussions were held to reveal and preserve this ancient painting. In 2002, work was underway and on 11th September 2004 during the Heritage weekend, the public enjoyed once again the work originally done by Coventry’s medieval artists 50 years before Leonardo da Vinci painted the Last Supper. We looked up to see the multitude of figures, the tumultuous details, and the urgency with which the awesome moment when the culmination and end of all human history was narrated. The painting was believed to have been created as a result of Coventry experiencing an earthquake around that time, resulting in the church leaders thinking that the Day of Judgement was soon to come.
Then we walked down Trinity street to check out the Coventry Transport Museum. The place was buzzing that we decided just to have a quick browse on the main showroom and visit again when it was a bit quieter. We took a trip to the past on two wheels through the museum’s collection of motorbikes and bicycles. I was amazed at the Penny-Farthing with its distinctive giant front wheel. I don’t think it looked comfortable at all. After a few versions to make bicycles safer, it was John Kemp Starley who developed the Rover Safety Bicycle in 1885, which became the blueprint for all bicycles to this day.
Our last destination was the newly refurbished Old grammar school which had been taken over by the Transport Museum. There was already a queue waiting outside the door. Unfortunately, we were informed that they were closed for the day and that the time stated on the flyer was wrong. If that was true, why didn’t they bother to put the correct time on the door so that we don’t have to wait and can therefore continue checking other places that were still open. It was a PR disaster. It had been a long day and we were already exhausted.
“You don’t stumble upon your heritage. It’s there, just waiting to be explored and shared’”
On the way back, we walked through Broadgate where a Chilli Fiesta was held earlier in the day. A selection of chilli suppliers from around the world turned up to showcase their produce and products. Visitors were treated to a vast array of chilli-themed products to buy and sample ranging from hot curry, Spanish food, hot sauces, cooking sauces, hot dips, spicy snacks, chilli plants and seeds, chilli cocktails, chilli beers etc. There was also a chilli-eating contest and I wonder if the contestants guzzle chilli beers to cool down. That would be hot, hot. hot. We stopped for a while to watch Mariachi Ole belting some fantastic Mexican tunes. Ole…
We ended the week by camping out at the Airport Retail Park, again. Coventry was buzzing with the news that the Vulcan was making her final and last flight over the city. It was an an exclusive members event for the Vulcan to the Sky club at Classic Air Force as part of a nationwide tour before she retired at the end of the year. Over 2K members of the VTTS Club were present for the private event that allowed the Trust to say thank you to them for their support in both the restoration, and subsequent 8 years of flight for the Vulcan. As the entry into the airfield was by tickets only, we joined the thousands of aircraft enthusiasts gathering on nearby roads and open spaces to catch a glimpse and say goodbye of the iconic plane, tail number XH558.
But first we were entertained by the Gloster Meteor NF.11 and de Havilland Venom, displaying both individually and in pairs. The Meteor was now the world’s oldest flyable jet, the flagship of the Classic Air Force and formed the centrepiece of the logo. Although now 65, she packed a powerful punch from those two tuneful Derwent engines and glinted in the sun like a silver bullet when performing her breathtaking solo acts.
There was also aerial duet with the de Havilland Venom, instantly recognisable with her twin tail booms, four under-nosed cannon, swept wings and wingtip fuel tanks. The Venom featured a more powerful Ghost engine which gave a higher top speed and improved fuel consumption. It was unbelievable to think that this fighter-bomber aerial balleting in the Warwickshire skies saw service during the Malayan Emergency which took place between 1948 and 1960
As 15.45 pm drew near, the same question was in every mind, ‘Would the XH558 be displaying? A fuel issue the previous day had led to the cancellation of that day’s display at Goodwood Revival, West Sussex. Kudos to the engineering team at Doncaster who worked long and hard and at 15.08 she was confirmed serviceable and cleared, leaving the Doncaster circuit enroute or ‘sent to Coventry’.
All eyes looked to the sky as she came into view, quite low and almost hidden by the buildings. As usual. she announced her arrival with the expected Vulcan howl, as she flew past. The crowd was silence as XH558 circled around the airport, doing what she does best keeping all eyes, video cameras, telephone cameras, cameras, i-pads fixed on her unmistakeable presence, her iconic shape and earth shaking roar. She dipped her wings regularly, her way of saying thank you to the crowd below. As she flew along the crowd line for the final time, she climbed and howled her farewell to those who have kept her in the air. As she flew above our heads, spontaneous applause broke, people putting their hands up for a wave and honestly, I’d tears in my eyes because I will never see her in the air again. Ever… We were so lucky because she flew low and slow right above our heads, a moment we’ll treasure forever. Goodbye and thank you to the plane crew who made it possible, Bill Ramsey, Bill Perrins and Phil Davies.
‘Don’t cry because it is over, smile because it happened, and if that is not enough, then smile through the tears’
This week, I’d been suffering with Allergic Conjunctivitis, an inflammation of the membrane covering the white part of the eye known as the conjunctiva due to an unknown allergy. It was my body’s reaction to substances it considered harmful. Babe thought that I’d used something new like soap, face cream, shampoo etc. Nope, nadda, non. Both my eyes were red, watery, itchy, gritty and swollen. Thankfully, it didn’t affect my vision although it was quite hard to see through my swollen eye-lids. My doctor prescribed antihistamine tablets to lower the allergic response in my body. I also stopped using quite a few stuff on my face and only used a hypoallergenic moisturiser and lipstick to calm things down.
‘My eyes are my favourite part of me, not for how they look, but for how they see’