Ghent – A Harmony of Old and New

The three towers of Ghent seen from the castle, St. Baaf’s Cathedral, the Belfry, and St. Nicholas Church.

One summer afternoon in 2005 my husband and I strolled along the Graslei, the east bank of the river Leie in the historic heart of Ghent. To our right were the old medieval warehouse buildings with their distinctive stepped gables. Behind them the three famous towers of Ghent stood sentry over the city – St. Baaf’s Cathedral, the Belfry, and St. Nicholas Church. Directly ahead loomed the grim Gravensteen, the Castle of the Counts of Flanders. But across the river on the Korenlei was an incongruous sight, an enormous construction crane towering over the historic buildings of the old grain port. We learned from my cousins who live in Ghent that a Marriott hotel was under construction there. Not Continue reading “Ghent – A Harmony of Old and New”

Regency Isn’t Just Romance

My latest blog for Montgomery County Public Libraries is about the Regency years in England, a decade that compares to the 1960’s, a time of radical politics, war, social change, and literary experimentation. In other parallels, the 1812 assassination of Prime Minister Spencer Perceval caused political turmoil, and protests for social justice were sometimes harshly suppressed, for example in the Peterloo massacre.

Regency Isn’t Just Romance

Water Water Everywhere

You could be forgiven for mistaking the network evening news for the Weather Channel these days. Night after night scenes of devastating flooding somewhere and everywhere. Hurricanes, cyclones, torrential rainfall, storm surges, rivers overflowing their banks, whole towns inundated, homes lost, islands disappearing, glaciers and polar ice melting. Here in Washington D.C. alarming scenes of stranded motorists crouching on the roofs of their submerged cars awaiting rescue. Dire warnings from climate scientists ignored, even suppressed, by our government.

I learned more about the watery world that awaits us in Robert Macfarlane’s marvelous new book Underland. The book is not specifically about climate change or rising seas. It is Continue reading “Water Water Everywhere”

A Mansion Fit for a King

Kingsbay Mansion and its view over the water

There is always something new to discover in places you think you know well. I’ve been traveling to Crisfield in Somerset County on Maryland’s Eastern Shore for decades. My husband’s family were Chesapeake watermen and farmers for generations, going back to the first English settlers in the seventeenth century. The drive from the Maryland suburbs of Washington D.C. is like a journey back in time. History seems to have passed by Crisfield, a backwater town where old values, and old prejudices, linger on. The place has a Continue reading “A Mansion Fit for a King”

Tales of the Asylum

The ruins of Severalls Hospital

One day in the early 1960’s I came home to find that while I was in school my grandmother had been whisked away in an ambulance and taken to a mental hospital. The news followed several unsettling days, days of half heard whispered adult conversations, days when my grandmother kept to her room and my mother placed her meals on a tray outside the door. I learned a phrase I only half understood, paranoid delusions, but somehow I knew it meant my grandmother had gone mad. 

It all started one evening when our neighbor came to the door. I was doing homework in the kitchen and overheard the conversation. She explained that she waited until my Continue reading “Tales of the Asylum”

On My Bookshelf – Witchfinders

Witchfinders – no, not characters in our contemporary political drama. But it could be that hearing cries of “Witch Hunt” almost every day for two years was what led me to this particular book on my shelf.  Witchfinders by Malcolm Gaskill is a mesmerizing account of a seventeenth century English witch hunt, one of the most vicious on record, led by two Essex gentlemen, Matthew Hopkins and John Stearne. Hopkins earned the title Witchfinder General and became something of a folk hero in the villages and towns of East Anglia. Through torture and intimidation he extracted confessions and false witness accounts from terrified people, mostly women, arresting a total of 250 presumed witches. Over a hundred were publicly hanged.  Continue reading “On My Bookshelf – Witchfinders”

Notre Dame

Tourists approach Notre Dame Cathedral in 2016

Like so many people across the world I watched with horror as Notre Dame Cathedral burned. I felt grateful that I had the opportunity to enjoy its beauty before this devastating fire. After my visit I wrote favorably about how France protected the character of its churches and cathedrals as houses of worship, unlike the eyesores of secular installation art I had seen in cathedrals in England and Belgium. This is an excerpt from my post Please, Not in the Cathedral:

“It is hard for me to admit that France may be superior to England or Belgium in any way, but Notre Dame, Sacre Coeur, and Sainte-Chapelle were mercifully art installation-free. All were making an obvious effort to maintain the atmosphere of a house of worship despite the hoards of tourists. As we entered Notre Dame a large sign spelled out Silence in a lengthy list of languages. In addition an official stood by with the sole duty of saying “Shhh” every few minutes and as needed. It was the loudest, most officious Shhh I had ever heard. Ignoring these admonitions many tourists chattered away, at first in whispers but gradually becoming louder. When the noise level became too high a recording came on with a spectral Shhh echoing through the vast space like the voice of God himself. Then the word Silence was intoned in a multitude of languages like the tolling of a great bell from the Tower of Babel. For a time a mortified hush fell over the crowds until a fresh influx of visitors started the chattering up again.”

May the silence now be broken by the sounds of reconstruction until Notre Dame is restored to her former glory.

The Dream of an English Garden

Spring is here at last and my thoughts turn to the garden. Weeds are already beginning their annual takeover before I’ve even finished cleaning up the dead remains of summer past. A good time to reprise my garden dream first published in The Dabbler in 2013. One bit of good news – no mad robin disturbs the spring idyll this year.

An ideal English garden border

As I write the demented robin who inhabits the dogwood tree in our garden is repeatedly flinging himself against the window in a kind of avian kamikaze assault. The thump, thump, thump of bird meeting glass is a strange counterpoint to the sweet tweeting and trilling of the other garden birds. I don’t know why the robin does this every day for hours, Continue reading “The Dream of an English Garden”