• Bristol Bound and London Memories

    Hummingbird Street Art in Bristol
    [ As Seen on Social Media: I’m afraid there’s no new MissElaineous blog post this week, but I have put together a collection of photos based on the daily photographs from Facebook and Instagram. However, if you’re interested in reducing your waistline as well as your “wasteline“, check out the new Off the Ground blog post about how I lost 20 pounds in a year]


    In a stroke of serendipity, I ended up paying a visit to my adopted hometown of Bristol last week on the same day I published my annual Environmental Gift Guide about Christmas gifts that won’t cost the earth. The reason for the trip was to check out a wastefree shop called Zero Green in the Bedminster, and it was great to see the options available for those trying to cut back on plastic. You’re able to stock up on household essentials (and, in the case of the chocolate truffles I bought, optional extras) using your own containers, thereby eliminating packaging waste. It’s absolutely ideal for so many products, from pasta and cereal to baking supplies and spices. Even toiletries and cleaning products are catered for. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that my own community gets something similar sooner rather than later!

    While there, I also had the opportunity to take in the vibrant street art that can be found throughout the city. Bristol is known internationally for its graffiti, thanks to (presumed) local lad Banksy. The Bedminster area where Zero Green is located even hosts Upfest, which bills itself as the largest street art and graffiti festival in Europe. Some of the subjects tackled are quite large as well … or should I say “as whale”?

    Whale Street Art, Bedminster, Bristol
    Ringed-neck Parakeet Street Art, Bedminster, Bristol
    Fishing for Likes, Bedminster, Bristol

    This week wasn’t just about fishing for likes. Sunday, 11th November marked 100 years since the end of the First World War, and Britain commemorated the event with memorials across the country. As someone who was out and about in the morning, there is something incredibly moving about being in a hectic public space and everyone stopping to be completely still for two minutes of silence at the stroke of 11:00am. It also called to mind some of my past travels …

    In 2014, MrElaineous and I journeyed to London for a two-day “adbenchture”. A charity promoting literacy had 50 benches created that looked like open books, and each was painted by a different artist and placed across London. H.G. Wells’ Time Machine was naturally out in Greenwich, there were a few Peter Pans near well-known London landmarks, and even a bench depicting a book about cricket was placed near the London Guildhall.

    I wish I had a Fitbit, or at least a pedometer, during this time as I know we must have walked miles. We managed to see all 50 benches, but it is true what they sayit’s the journey and not the destination. This trip took us through places we had never been before, like the aforementioned Guildhall and the Shard, yet one of the most memorable aspects was passing the Tower of London.

    An art installation featuring 888,246 ceramic poppies filled the moat, each one representing a British military fatality in World War I. It turned the usually green space into a sea of red, highlighting the scale of the loss in a way that an abstract number can’t do.

    For those in the UK who wish to see a different perspective on WWI, I can recommend Peter Jackson’s They Shall Not Grow Old; it’s available on iPlayer until Sunday.

    Ceramic Poppies, Tower of London (2014)

    Just a few shots of the Books About Town collection of benches. I am still amazed MrElaineous and I managed to capture a Douglas Adams superfan on the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy bench, “Don’t Panic!” towel and all.

    Hitchhikers' Guide to the Galaxy, Books About Town, London

    From the ultramodern street art of Bedminster to the Victorian Clifton Shopping Arcade, Bristol is a city with something for everyone and I hope you enjoyed this view of some of its less well-known sights.

    I will be posting less frequently as the weather cools down and the holiday season heats up, but tune in next week for some Thanksgiving reflections and a look back at this past year. 

    Clifton Shopping Arcade, Bristol, England
    Clifton Shopping Arcade, Bristol, England

    More Thought, Less Waste

    Environmental Gift Guide: More Thought, Less Waste
    In addition to writing the MissElaineous Blog, I also tackle the problem of litter and waste over on Off the Ground.  I’ve written an environmental gift guide over the past few years, and this year I’m continuing the tradition with a greatly expanded look at eco (or at least eco-ish) presents. The topic of waste reduction is one I care a lot about so I’m doing everything in my power to spread the message as far as possible; can you help by sharing it with family and friends? ]

    Over the past year, MrElaineous and I have been working to reduce our “wasteline”: we’ve cut out most single-use plastic from around the house and I would estimate we’ve managed to decrease our overall plastic usage by at least 80%. We are now approaching the most dangerous time of the year for both waste and waists: the Christmas holidays.

    I’m afraid I can’t help if you’re looking for advice on how to avoid scoffing down the mince pies, but if you’re concerned about reducing waste, there are ways to avoid adding to the tsunami of brightly coloured paper, plastic, and other bits and bobs that are about to land on our doorstep.

    After all, they say it’s the thought that counts when it comes to gift giving, but how much thought has really gone into many of the items that end up under the tree, in a stocking, or given at an office gift exchange? It feels like Christmas has become an excuse for just getting something—anything—that is vaguely appropriate. We have conflated quantity with caring and adopted the attitude that something is better than nothing.

    How to combat this while still participating in holiday traditions? I think much of it boils down to shopping mindfully rather than on autopilot. It’s asking the questions, “How long will this gift last? Is it something the recipient actually needs or wants?” It’s looking at the packaging: can it be reused or recycled? It’s even going so far as to think about the disposal: is it the type of item that will break quickly and end up in a landfill before the end of January? Or was it built to last and could have a second life in a charity shop or on Freecycle? Does the gift even have to be tangible at all? After all, we are living in an increasingly dematerialised world as films, books, and music shed their physical presence to take up residence in the Cloud.

    Some of this list is the same as in past years, but I have updated it with several different companies I’ve come across, as well as added a few new categories. Is your favourite wastefree product or idea missing (or is there a broken link or two)? Please let me know!


    I have a confession to make: I love a nicely wrapped present. I love little details, like matching ribbons and gift tags. But there are so many ways of getting that same attention to detail without costing the earth.

    • Newspapers and magazines: This is an old standby, and one that can be can help greatly reduce your Christmas budget as many papers can be acquired free.
    • Maps: Old atlas pages are my favourite way of wrapping gifts. The paper quality is good enough to look quite smart, and you can even use cities or locations that are meaningful to the recipient (I told you I liked details!). These sheets are especially good for wrapping DVDs and books.
    • Sheet music / books: Charity shops are a great source for both of these: old books of music and large tomes like dictionaries can be sacrificed for the greater good to wrap smaller packages.
    • Scarf / tea towel: Wrapping something in a scarf or a tea towel allows you to give two presents in one.
    • Gift bags: This saves wrapping awkward presents and, if you know the person well enough, you can ask to have the bag back afterwards and reuse it until it wears out. Another option would be to give a gift in a reusable tote bag that the recipient can then use.
    • Glass bottles: This is a suggestion that I came across recently at an environmental event. Maybe a wine bottle with a printed certificate for a wine-tasting experience rolled up inside? Or something that can double as a vase when it’s done? Interesting jars and other containers can also house gifts; use a bit of tissue paper and twine to turn it into a Christmas cracker. This is great if you have small odd-shaped items to wrap, or perhaps want to fill a jar with the recipient’s favourite candy or baked good.

    Regardless of what you decide to wrap with, it is always worth considering how packaging will be disposed of, and please keep in mind that gift wrap and greeting cards with foil and glitter usually can’t be recycled (and some of us loathe glitter with the fiery hatred of a thousand suns. You’ve been duly warned).

    Map wrapping paper

    Yes, I have already started to buy and wrap Christmas gifts! The top photo shows pages from an old atlas used as gift wrap, with garden twine to tie them together (as an aside, you can guess what type of gift is inside by the city on the map … I told you I liked details!). From left to right on the bottom row: sheet music and a map, a tea towel used to wrap several gifts together, and a jar wrapped up like a Christmas cracker. Interested in a keepsake wooden gift tag? These are my designs and just contact me if you would like to order any.

    FOR THOSE AIMING TO PALL (Plastic A Lot Less):

    I see nothing wrong with using Christmas (or birthdays, anniversaries, or any gift-giving occasion) to promote a more sustainable lifestyle to family and friends. If you want to help your friends and family start down the path to less waste, then these gifts say “I’ve thought about you AND the planet”.

    • Cups: With 2.5 billion coffee cups disposed of every year in the UK, anything that can make a dent in this number is a big help. I like the cups by eCoffee: made from sustainable bamboo, they come in fun patterns (I’m partial to the William Morris designs), are incredibly lightweight, and are a great size for that morning cuppa. You could also consider getting a personalised mug or something  a bit different through Redbubble (useful if your recipient is a fan of pop culture references). Looking for a bit extra?  Fairtrade tea or coffee is a nice stocking filler, or a voucher to a friend or family member’s favourite café is a great way to reduce waste while letting them get exactly what they want.

      A new brand I’ve come across this year is Huskup, which makes cups out of rice husks. For those who are local to Chippenham, Hall’s Emporium of Fancy Goods on New Road has a lovely eco selection that includes these cups.

    • Water bottles: There are so many stylish reusable water bottles out there now that you are spoiled for choice: metalBPA-free plasticfoldable … helping to avoid single-use plastics is a gift that benefits everyone.
    • Kitchen: If you have a friend or family member who enjoys baking, cooking, or eating, there are a number of ways to cut down on plastic waste in the kitchen: reusable cutlery or straws, veggie bags, and beeswax wraps are just a few of the options available.
    • Portable ashtray: If you know a smoker, this could be a great stocking gift. Cigarette filters are made from plastic and can take up to 10 years to degrade, leaching chemicals the entire time. Butts should be disposed of properly, not left on the ground, and these ashtrays can help.


    • I love the idea behind Seedball: native wildflower seeds are wrapped up in a bit of clay, chilli powder is used to keep the insects away, and compost to give the seeds a head start. They come packaged in a lovely tin that is perfect for a stocking, or buy one of the sets to give as a main present. Simply sow the seeds on the ground or stick a few balls in a pot to enjoy flowers throughout the year.
    • This next gift suggestion is a bit unusual but bear with me: a compost bin. If your recipient’s garden has the space and it’s something they’ve shown an interest in but haven’t gotten around to getting yet themselves, a basic Dalek-style compost bin could be just the ticket. Bow or ribbon optional.



    • Gifts for the garden are the type that keep giving: bee housesbat housesbird feeders, and nest boxes help provide wildlife habitat and give the recipient something to watch out for during the year. Bonus points: help them install it! There’s also adopting an animal. Not for real, of course (dogs, cats, and guinea pigs are for life, not just Christmas), but through a charity such as the Wildlife Trusts. Sealspuffins, and red squirrels are all up for grabs, and most wildlife charities will offer something similar.


    • I was introduced to Weaver Green’s products a few years ago and absolutely love that they have managed to turn recycled plastic bottles into stunning and stylish rugscushionsblankets, and handbags. The colours and designs are easy on the eyes, and despite being made from plastic the rugs are soft under foot. I can also vouch that the rugs clean up easy so they’re ideal in a kitchen or bathroom, and while I haven’t tried them outside, they are advertised as being versatile.


    Or at least those whose taste buds you would like to tickle. Farm shops are a great source of local products, often with minimal plastic: jams and preserves, chutneys, exotic sauces, and honey all come in glass jars. You can also consider keeping your friends and family hydrated:

    • Alcohol is a popular gift for a reason: most people seem to enjoy it. A bottle or three of your recipient’s favourite tipple could definitely put you in their good books for the New Year, and these are the type of gifts that gift bags were made for.
    • For the teetotal, tea (or coffee) could be a good choice. If you know that they’ve made the switch to loose leaf tea, a refillable tea caddy with an interesting blend could hit the spot. Locally, I use the Bath Tea House Emporium to stock up. There are also various types of diffusers available (and yes, that’s a manatee, er, manatea), teapots, and plastic-free tea bags


    I debated about whether to include this in the plastic-free section but it grew so long that I thought it deserved its own place on the list, especially as bath sets tend to be a popular Christmas gift (in the UK at least). Perhaps a DIY gift basket with a few new products and a loofah or flannel could replace the traditional plastic-encased sets?

    • I have a colleague to thank for making me aware of the Funky Soap Shop, a London-based company that produces various lotions and potions in mostly plastic-free and refillable containers. Their olive oil and moringa moisturiser has become a fast favourite for both me and MrElaineous, and I love that they offer an eco-checkout option: the packaging is all recyclable. My only quibbles are that the online checkout feels a bit clunky and the capital letters do my eyes in, but stick with it—the products are lovely.
    • There is also Herbfarmacy, who make an incredible collection of products that are organic, vegan, and cruelty free. I’m a fan of their calming face cream, but everything I’ve tried from them has been lovely (bonus: you end up smelling like a summer meadow). The only downsides are the price and the free samples they include in every order—they’re in plastic containers. However, they are at least the perfect size for travel so can be repurposed once you use the original product.
    • A High Street staple in the UK, most of Lush’s products are in their distinctive black pots that can be returned to the shop for recycling. They also carry a selection of “naked” (i.e. packaging-free products) as well as offer knot wraps: scarf gift wrapping. And gift cards are also available if you can’t decide what your recipient will want (or what scents they can tolerate).
    • Who Gives a Crap produce a range of forest-friendly toilet paper, tissues, and paper towels.  I made the jump to WGAC this year, and it is a simple way to cut down on plastic while also supporting a company who is trying to improve the world one loo at a time. One of the most eye-opening books I’ve ever read was Rose George’s The Big Necessity. Quite simply it’s a book about toilets … and how nearly half of the world doesn’t have proper sanitation. The health and social problems this causes cannot be understated, which is why Who Gives a Crap and their promise to use half their profits build loos in developing countries caught my eye. As an extra bit of reusability, each roll comes wrapped in brightly coloured paper that can be used to wrap gifts (provided your recipient doesn’t mind a bit of WGAC branding).


    • In addition to my passion for making the environment a better place, I am also a firm believer in gender equality. While culture is slowly (ever so slowly) changing, one place where we have more direct control is the toy box. Please consider the gifts you give your children and grandchildren, nieces and nephews, and any kids you shop for: do they perpetuate gender stereotypes? Chemistry sets, Legos, superheroes, and dinosaurs are not just for boys. Cooking, kitchens, cuddly toys, and crafts are not just for girls. While it’s important to consider if a gift is age appropriate, the gender of the recipient shouldn’t factor into your decision. When giving gifts to children in particular, a big question to consider is whether the item can easily be handed down or taken to a charity shop once it’s outgrown (in other words, try to avoid the plastic toys that break if you look at them the wrong way). In Chippenham, Hall’s Emporium of Fancy Goods has a great selection of children’s gifts. Please just consider breaking out of the pink-and-blue prison.


    • Vouchers to a local spa or beauty treatment are always welcome (at least in my household!). If you can support an independent business as well, then so much the better. 


    • If you know that your intended recipient has a favourite magazine that they splurge on at the newsstand, consider giving them a 6- or 12-month subscription to it. Even less waste: can it be converted to a subscription that can be read on their tablet or eReader? One of the best gifts I ever received was an eReader and I am never without my Kindle. If you know what type of eReader your recipient has, vouchers for books are always welcome (hint, hint).


    • There are so many ways to enjoy television programmes and films today, whether your recipient prefers watching from the comfort of home or wants a night out. You can purchase a gift card for Netflix, or consider a monthly or annual membership to the cinema through something like Odeon LimitlessCineworld Unlimited, or Picturehouse (check which is closest to your friend or family member).


    • A fashion for brightly coloured socks has swept across the nation over the past several years and you don’t have to look far to find fun socks made out of bamboo, silk, or even merino wool.  If you want your gift to go twice as far, consider supporting Stand4Socks: each pattern helps support a different topic such as safe waterhomelessness, and gender equality.
    • I debated about including this because it’s slightly NSFW (not safe for work … or those who dislike swear words—you have been warned before you click on the link), but I stumbled across Blue Q socks and they made me giggle. The company also donates 1% of the profits it makes from their socks towards Doctors without Borders, so they’re rude with a heart of gold. Or at least bronze.

    Still looking for that certain something?

    • Gift Cards:
      Maybe I’m jaded, but I think one of the reasons Christmas has gotten a bit out of hand is because people want the social media friendly image of a tree surrounded by piles of presents. A gift card in an envelope doesn’t make quite the same impression, but it almost completely reduces packaging waste, doesn’t take up space or need to be dusted, and in many cases lets the recipient choose exactly what they want. I understand wanting to give children something to open, but I would hope adults can get a bit of Christmas joy without the wrapping paper and bows.
    • Experiences:
      Besides gifts of annual memberships, there are so many other days out that you can treat friends and family to, from hot air balloon rides to  afternoon tea to a day at the racesVirgin and Woodmansterne offer packages, or you can put together your own custom surprise (MrElaineous is very good at this!).
    • Learning: Whether blowing glasssewing, or decorating cakes, there are enough how-to courses out there to tempt even the pickiest of recipients (chocolate making perhaps?). Just visit Google for the nearest class.
    • Charity: The musical Avenue Q said it best: “When you help others, you can’t help helping yourself.” There are so many worthwhile charities that you can donate to in the name of your recipient. Besides the Adopt-an-Animal schemes already mentioned, you can have a tree or two planted by the Woodland Trust, purchase a goat (or chicken or school books) through Oxfam Unwrapped, or even subscribe someone to the Big Issue. Check out Guide Star to see how funds are spent.
    • DIY: Don’t overlook making something yourself: if you have a bit of spare time and a favourite recipe, a homemade treat is always welcome. Or consider actual DIY—is there something that a friend or family member needs done around the house that you can help with?

    And finally … I admit I’m a big fan of online shopping with regards to convenience, but when it comes to gifts I think shopping local as much as possible is a great way to help businesses within the community. And don’t overlook supporting independent artists at seasonal craft fairs. While I’m not doing much with my own products this year, there is bound to be something near you. (This also cuts down on unnecessary packaging waste; buying eco/plastic-free products that come swaddled in bubble wrap is a new bugbear of mine.)

    For UK readers, the Bath Christmas Market is probably of the largest in the south, but Salisbury is also worth considering if you want to avoid the crowds. Also in Salisbury is the wonderful Fisherton Mill; I enjoyed visiting here during my summer trip, and it combines two things I love: beautiful handmade products and delicious cakes. And if you want to venture further afield, then I can also recommend Chester’s Christmas market: far fewer people than Bath but in an equally historic setting.

    If you made it all the way to the end of this list: well done and thank you! Please don’t forget to drop me a line or share your thoughts on social media about products that worked well, those that didn’t, and new things you think should be added for next year.

    Looking for other ways you can reduce your “wasteline”? Check out more on Off the Ground:

    London Accompaniment

    Visiting the Tower Bridge, London

    Our inside joke started way back in the distant year of 2010, when MrElaineous was still known as Jon and I was just about to embark on the phase of my PhD euphemistically known as “writing up” (reality: “academic hell”). I had a paper accepted to an archaeology conference in Granada, Spain and Jon was interested in going as well; when registering for the conference I had the option to include him for events like the pre-conference drinks, conference dinner, and post-conference drinks. Yes, academics in general (and archaeologists in particular) like their libations.

    When we arrived for the introductory drinks and collected our name tags, I was amused to see the job description that had been added to Jon’s: Accompanying Person. Little did I know then that he had plans to make the role permanent: a few nights later, between pre-tour drinks and a night-time tour of the Alhambra, Jon proposed. Since then, he has accompanied me to academic events across Europe and while I would attend the conference, he would have the chance to explore the city to his heart’s content.

    Finally, the tables were turned when he had a convention in London … the MCM ComicCon to be precise. It has more costumes than an academic conference, but I imagine slightly less drinking. I tagged along as his accompanying person and, while he was getting his geek on, I had the opportunity to have my own adventures.

    I started off by catching up with a friend out in Greenwich. This former village is located across the Thames and can be reached by a tunnel under the river. It’s home to the Cutty Sark (a former tea clipper), the Royal Observatory and Prime Meridian, the National Maritime Museum, the Christopher Wren-designed Old Royal Naval College, and some of the best views in London. MrElaineous and I only discovered the joys of Greenwich ourselves a few years ago (which, admittedly, is when many of these photos were taken), but it’s a place I am always happy to return to.

    Visiting the Cutty Sark, Greenwich, London

    Above: The Cutty Sark was built in 1869 to carry tea between China and the UK, later serving as wool transport between Australia and the UK. Although her travelling days are behind her, the ship has been turned into a museum and is well worth a visit. 

    Below: Why have just one lovely building when you can have two? The iconic buildings of the Old Royal Naval College are described by UNESCO as the “finest and most dramatically sited architectural and landscape ensemble in the British Isles”. I tend to agree! These were originally built at the turn of the 18th century as the Royal Hospital for Seamen. 

    Visiting Greenwich, London

    The next day he set off early to avoid the ComicCon queues and I had all of London at my doorstep, quite literally in the case of the Tower of London and the Tower Bridge. Our accommodation was only a five-minute walk from these landmarks, and while I had visited the former a few years ago, I had never made the time to go inside the bridge. The beautiful weather—and the promise of great views from the top—were all the encouragement I needed.

    The first thing to note is that despite being an icon of London, this is not the London Bridge. There are 33 bridges that cross the Thames in London, and London Bridge is the next bridge to the west. And, despite claims you may have heard to the contrary, London Bridge did not fall down. A bridge has spanned the river in this location since Roman times, with a 600-year-old medieval stone bridge (Old London Bridge) being traded in for a newer model in 1831 (New London Bridge). It was this replacement that was sold to an American businessman in 1967, and he had it moved it to Lake Havasu in Arizona and rebuilt brick by brick. The newest of the bridges to bear the name London Bridge was opened in 1973.

    View of Old London Bridge by Claude de Jongh (1632).
    Visiting the Tower Bridge, London

    The Tower Bridge, however, takes its name from its location next to the Tower of London. Construction on it started near the end of Victoria’s reign, and it took 8 years to complete, finishing in 1894. After my experience in the Scott Monument in Edinburgh (more about that in a future blog post, I promise!), I was relieved that a lift (US readers: elevator) takes visitors up to the first stage in the north tower. Many of my fellow passengers quickly moved on to the tower walkway, but I stopped for several minutes in the first room, mesmerised by film footage from 1903 that showed London at the turn of the century.

    It is perhaps the closest thing we have to time travel, a chance to see to see familiar landmarks through new eyes. Some aspects were very much of the time—a woman selling flowers a la Eliza Doolittle, double-decker buses being pulled by horses—but the general scramble of London life was still present and, in many ways, hasn’t changed. The style of clothing is a bit different—although the fashion for flat caps seems to be making a comeback—but the people who looked into the camera over 100 years ago would likely recognise the London of today despite the constantly changing skyline. If you have some time on your hands and want to disappear down a YouTube rabbit hole, check out some of the similar videos that are available: here and here are good places to start!

    After viewing the film, the visitor enters the first of two walkways that have stunning views over the Thames and various London landmarks. A new(ish) addition is a glass walkway that allows visitors to seemingly stand in mid-air over the river and roadway below. As I walked on to it, an employee handed me a sticker: “Glass Floor: I did it!” I laughed and put it on my coat. I asked if many people did it; he shook his head and said, “No, they’re too scared.”

    However, some certainly managed to find their courage by the time they got to the second glass walkway and its views over the Shard, HMS Belfast, and dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral. A mirrored ceiling has been installed to allow those with a fondness for selfies to easily take photos, and I enjoyed the resulting architectural funhouse effect.

    Visiting the Glass Walkway, London, England

    Next it was down the south tower and into the engine rooms where it was possible to see the massive technology that once powered the bascules (the bits on the bridge that go up and down). While MrElaineous had the chance to see followers of steampunk, I instead learned about the steam power and hydraulics that meant that the bascules could be raised to their full height in 60 seconds. Today, it’s oil and electricity that allow the bridge to be lifted at the touch of a button, but at the time of its construction this was the most technologically advanced bascule bridge in the world.

    I then hopped onto another bit of updated Victorian technology—the London Underground—and crossed the city to pay a visit to the British Museum. I spent some time photographing the Roman sculptures and mosaics in the Enlightenment Gallery and then parked myself in the Members’ Room to make a start on this blog post while enjoying tea and the quiet hum of museum patrons.

    Visiting the British Museum, London

    In the evening, MrElaineous and I met up at what is perhaps one of the fanciest Starbucks I’ve ever come across, a round temple dedicated to caffeine in St. Katharine Docks. This was a chance for us to chat about our day, share photos, and show off what we had purchased in the course of our respective trips around London (him: board games; me: tea towels). All in all, I highly recommend accompanying: you get two experiences for the price of one and costumes are always optional.

    Starbucks, St. Katharine Docks, London

    In the US, the character in the red-and-white stripey shirt and bobble hat is known as Waldo; in the UK, he’s Wally (check out this link for a more detailed history of the famously lost traveller).  Either way, many thanks to Jon Paget for finding him and sharing this photo.

    Wally: Found (photo by Jon Pageet)

    A Walk in the Woods: Wonderful Westonbirt

    Visiting Westonbirt Arboretum, Gloucestershire

    Every year, as September gives way to October, MrElaineous and I start to have heated discussions about a very important topic: when do we go to Westonbirt, the national arboretum? Too early and there’s not much autumn colour. Too late and the colours are faded and most of the leaves are on the ground instead of on the trees. It feels like we need the prognostication skills of Goldilocks to pinpoint when will be just right.

    As it was, October had turned into a busy month for both of us, and the window of opportunity was starting to close. But, just last week, the stars were in alignment: a free day and good weather coincided, sending us scurrying into the beautiful Cotswold countryside.

    We decided to shake things up a bit and go a different route than usual, which took us along country lanes and narrow backroads. Even with an unexpected diversion (US readers: detour), it was the right decision. Not only is the countryside stunning, but leaving the main roads took us through tiny, picturesque villages and allowed us to see flocks of pheasants, who added their own splash of colour to the journey. [As an aside, this distinctive bird of the British countryside is actually a native of China and East Asia; I’ll let you make up your own mind as to what constitutes Britishness.]

    Pheasant, Wiltshire Countryside

    We arrived early, beating the crowds and having the stars of the show—the brilliantly coloured Japanese maples—more or less to ourselves. If you’re thinking of visiting Westonbirt yourself this autumn, a few words of advice:

    • Stop thinking and go!
    • If possible, go on a weekday. Visit around opening time at 9:00 am or an hour or two before closing to get the best light and the fewest people.
    • If your time is limited, visit the Acer Glade in the Old Arboretum. If you have more time and energy, then try to fit in a trip to the Silk Wood as well, and be sure to see the treetop walkway along the way.

    As we headed to the restaurant for a well-earned breakfast, my attention was caught by a flowering bush that was absolutely swarming with bees. The deep, buzzing thrum was almost hypnotic, and for a moment I felt like I had been transported from autumn to spring. And that’s part of the magic of Westonbirt—it’s just right any time of the year.

    Opening Doors in London

    British Museum Rotunda

    Imagine a house you’ve lived in for years. You can navigate to the bathroom in the middle of the night without turning on a light or stubbing your toe. You know those spots of scuffed paint or the peeling wallpaper you keep meaning to fix. You are familiar with every step, every floorboard creak, every quirk of architecture or design.

    Now imagine waking up in this house and discovering a door you had never seen before. You open it and it leads to an entirely new wing of the property you weren’t aware even existed.

    This was, in essence, what happened to me during a recent trip to the British Museum. MrElaineous and I had some time to kill before seeing the new production of Stephen Sondheim’s Company, and a visit to the museum—recently ranked number 4 in the world by Trip Advisor—is always inspiring.

    Yet this time we did something a little different. Rather than visit familiar favourites like the Rosetta Stone or Elgin Marbles (or just scoff down cake in the Members’ Room), we decided to venture a little further afield. After seeing Henry Louis Gates Jr.’s fantastic series Africa’s Great Civilizations earlier this year, we chose to start in the Africa gallery, which, I am ashamed to say, I had never visited previously.  However, its collection of 16th-century Benin Bronzes was incredible to see first-hand, even if the way the pieces ended up in the British Museum—via warfare and colonialism—is less than laudable.

    From there we jumped even further back in time, to a collection of Mesopotamian artefacts held in the very top level of the museum. From cuneiform tablets that echo the story of Noah’s flood to one of the world’s oldest board games, this collection brought back memories of my internship in the University of Pennsylvania’s Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.

    In the early 20th century, Sir Leonard Woolley led a joint British Museum/UPenn expedition to the Middle East. The team excavated the site of Ur in Mesopotamia, finding the tombs of royalty and incredible artefacts that showed the richness and complexity of Sumerian culture. After the expedition, half of the material went to the British Museum, while the other half ended up at UPenn’s museum in Philadelphia. Having written my undergraduate dissertation about the latter, it was nice to see the second part of the collection. From Mesopotamia we then travelled to Mexico. This is a small gallery, but the incredible turquoise mosaics alone are worth visiting the museum for.

    Enlightenment Gallery, British Museum

    And then I discovered a secret that the British Museum had been keeping from me all these years.

    Even if I hadn’t visited the other galleries before, I was aware of their existence. But this was completely new, and I am still trying to figure out how I have never stumbled across it during my wanderings: books, statues, and collections of artefacts and fossils from around the world filled one beautiful hall. I was in love. Indeed, I was ready to move in.

    I learned this was the Enlightenment Gallery. Originally known as the King’s Library, it was constructed in the early 19th century to house George III’s collection of over 60,000 books (hence the name), and it was restored in the early 21st century for the British Museum’s 250th anniversary. It provides a glimpse of how collections were once assembled as Enlightenment thinking and curiosity about the natural world, ancient people, and contemporary civilisations swept across Europe in the 18th and early 19th century. This was a time when Western cultures were trying to make sense of the world and their place in it, and it opened the door to the development of archaeology, geology, palaeontology, and a whole host of other –logies.

    For me, seeing something so completely unexpected in a familiar setting turned my own world a little askew. What else was the British Museum hiding?!  I didn’t have a chance to find out on this visit because it was soon time to make our way to the Gielgud Theatre for the next (and final) stop on the itinerary.

    Company, Gielgud Theatre, London

    Last year my birthday present from MrElaineous was a trip to London to see Stephen Sondheim’s Follies with the incomparable Imelda Staunton. While at that performance we learned that a new production of Company would be launched in 2018 and the main character of Bobby would become Bobbie. Having previously seen a stunning gender-swapped production of Shakespeare’s Cymbeline, we were intrigued. Finding out that Patti Lupone would be in it meant that getting tickets became imperative. Her rendition of “Ladies who Lunch” brings the audience to its feet in the Sondheim birthday concert, and she is simply musical theatre royalty—full stop.

    So MrElaineous kept an eye out for tickets and pounced on them as soon as they were available. Unbeknownst to us at the time, this meant that he pounced on the very first night of the previews: this would be the first time the cast was performing the show in front of an audience. The buzz as we entered the theatre was incredible. Like us, these were the Sondheim fans: people who booked well in advance, and knew and loved his work—they hadn’t picked up a last-minute ticket in Leicester Square at random.

    But, I have to admit, I was only familiar with Company from a 2011 concert version with Neil Patrick Harris. It is very good, with some outstanding performances, but the show originally opened on Broadway in 1970—and it showed. While it was revolutionary at the time, dealing with more mature themes that got it dubbed “musical theatre for adults”, it is now approaching the half-century mark and, as you might imagine, some of it is a bit dated: the language (does anyone still use an answering service?) and the attitudes around gender felt a bit stifling. It was definitely time for Company to have the opportunity to shine through a contemporary lens.

    On the night, director Marianne Elliot provided a brief introduction, asking for mercy if anything didn’t quite go according to plan. Then we were off on a roller coaster ride that, for sheer enjoyment, is in close competition with the only other musical we saw on the West End this year, a little show called Hamilton.

    The new version keeps the plot intact: a single person with a fear of commitment, in this case 35-year-old Bobbie, and her well-meaning-but often-intrusive friends muse about life, marriage, and the pursuit of happiness in New York. Never has co-dependency been so funny.

    Besides Bobbie’s gender change (and the ensuing switch of her paramours from female to male), the production also cleverly swaps the lines of one of the couples, converting a housewife into a businesswoman and her husband into a stay-at-home dad. The heteronormative focus of the original is also softened as Paul and Amy become Paul and Jaime. Beyond the characters, mobile phones and computers make an appearance, and it’s amazing how a little change like this can help modernise a performance.

    Designer Bunny Christie’s staging was likewise minimal and modern, with most scenes taking place within large boxes that called to mind a dollhouse; the feeling was of Bobbie being constantly on display. Doors seemed to constantly open and close between them, echoing Bobbie’s knack of closing down relationships and the connections that form and dissolve between her and the men she dates. From a practical perspective, this also allowed sets to be changed without slowing down the action, and the audience (let alone the always-active cast) rarely had a chance to catch its breath. Props are also used to great effect: I’ll certainly never look at birthday balloons the same way again. Combined, the staging and props serve to underscore the fantasy nature of the show: we seem to be in Bobbie’s head, viewing her life through a fun-house mirror of memory and imagination.

    It was clear that the entire cast put their hearts and souls into bringing Marianne Elliot’s vision to life. Standouts include Rosalie Craig as Bobbie, who carries the whole show on her shoulders but makes it look effortless. George Blagden and the entire company turn “Another Hundred People” into a love song to New York, connections made, and connections lost. “Getting married today”, sung at an impossibly breakneck speed by Jonathan Bailey, had the audience howling with laughter, yet both he and Rosalie Craig managed to silence an entire theatre as the scene takes a heart-breaking turn—all without changing any of the original lines.

    And, it should go without saying, that Patti Lupone was born to play Joanne.

    Company Previews, 26 September 2018

    I think one of the reasons the British admire Sondheim so much is that he shares the cultural love of words. You can see the fondness for a good pun in business names—Curl up and Dye (hairdresser), Reckless Engineer (pub near a railway station), Yak Yeti Yak (Nepalese restaurant)—and there is a reason Shakespeare remains popular over 400 years after his death. In a similar way, Sondheim manages to sketch a character’s mindset in just a few picturesque lines:

    So take back the cake
    Burn the shoes, and boil the rice

    Throughout all of his shows, Sondheim likes to look beneath the surface: What happens after the fairy tale ending? What sacrifice is made for art? What’s really in those pies? Those expecting a pleasant, unthinking rom-com based on the tagline that has popped up on posters around London—What do you want to get married for?—will be sadly disappointed.  Sondheim lifts the hood on marriage and friendship, showing both in an honest, if not necessarily flattering, light.

    So go ahead, open that door. Take the time to look at the familiar again with fresh eyes—it might just surprise, delight, and enthrall you.

    MissElaineous Blog: Escape & Explore & Discover & Enjoy