Yesterday, mid-afternoon, we stepped off a plane at Fiumicino airport after a week in the UK. The sky was cloudless. The thermometer said 15 degrees. For a moment, it didn’t seem possible. Then a wave of relief washed over us: this is what weather is meant to be like, at least from time to wonderful time.
We were in Chichester, doing those Christmassy, family things that leave you feeling fat and befuddled. It was grey, mainly, and horribly damp. Drives down country lanes (L’s stepfather never takes a dry-ish, direct route if he can help it: the more tortuous the better) turned out to be dreary sloshes through puddles until we reached The Big One – the one so long and deep that it wasn’t worth trying. Cue much to-ing and fro-ing, with me with my heart in my mouth hoping that this x-point turn wouldn’t end up with us firmly embedded in a soggy verge. We didn’t. And we managed one very blowy, bracing stomp along the beach at the Witterings on Christmas day, to blow cobwebs out of our heads.
Friends drove up from the Cotswolds to visit us, and clearly felt that we were making a little too much of our plight: they haven’t had a day without rain since May. His vegetable garden, he said, no longer produces anything (except, for some reason, broad beans): everything rotted this drear summer.
But even they were impressed by the depth and breadth of the puddle that forced us into interesting middle-of-the-road manoeuvres as we made our roundabout way to lovely Boxgrove Priory with its wild swirls of Avatar-style plants and vines on its ceiling, done – we’re told – in the mid-16th century by one Lambert Barnard. It’s difficult to believe it: they look more Arts & Crafts gone wild. Then again, there’s so little painted Tudor church decoration left in England to compare and contrast that maybe it’s just my lack of points of reference that made me dubious. People seem to be divided on whether Barnard was a Chichester boy, or someone who bobbed across the Channel from the Netherlands. He was certainly prolific around Chichester, and his amazingly well preserved (and beautifully restored) works in the cathedral there are quite something.
But Boxgrove Priory’s ceiling frescoes are even more stunning. I suppose the real point of the work is the sponsor-appeasing coats of arms nestling at the centre of the verdure. But these are rather small – in fact some look barely completed – compared with the vegetation. There’s little to suggest that Barnard had ever studied a real flower. Strange purple medusa-petals flop over thicky phallic green bases; great white-petalled Rose of York flowers grow from generic ivy-like flourishes, and Tudor Roses are not white in the middle and red around but sliced right down the middle with red on one side and white on the other; fried-egg-yellow gerbera-like daisies and white daisies with yellow eyes are so gorgeously simple that a schoolchild might have penned them; three-armed chandelier plants have exploding yellow flowerlets, and immense white triffid-Magnolia x soulangiana burst out of threatening tendrils; compared to these the grapes – on vines which owe more to hops than to Vitis vinifera – look positively realistic, begging the question, did Barnard perhaps hail originally from even further south?
There’s something odd about this wood we’re burning. (I’m not, of course, going to blame my own fire-husbanding skills which are absolutely impeccable.) It’s slow to catch in the morning, even if it has been inside warming up for 24 hours. It doesn’t seem to make any embers. And it blackens the glass of the stoves in a terrible way: we spend half an hour every day patiently rubbing wet ash into the glass, gradually peeling the burnt-on soot away.
The Faleburles’ wood is usually so reliable: everyone around here gets it because it is kept, right from the moment it is cut, inside a huge – and hugely ugly – hangar just off the road to Monteleone. Giovanni Bonomi, the tree expert, says that if Health and Safety dropped by and took a look at the machinery used for chopping and splitting, they’d shut the place down in an instant. But the wood is oak and – to date – dry and generally high quality. Most peculiar.
Yet Monica, who comes to clean, said they too were having problems with their latest delivery of wood: hard to get started, no embers. I think I’ll have to talk to Elisa.