Knightshayes

On holiday in Devon recently, we took the opportunity to spend part of a day at a Knightshayes, a local National Trust property designed by William Burges in the late 19th century. Naturally it’s a visually stimulating place, so naturally photography is not allowed. However these days a strategically muted smartphone can help, although I was spotted and gently asked to cease and desist once we reached the last room of the tour: the library.
Also, in fairness, the photo ban only technically applied to the artworks, whereas I was more interested in the walls than what was hanging on them. Because Knightshayes has some lovely wallpaper.

For example, a bedroom for ornithologists:

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The ceiling’s not bad either.

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Malacologists may prefer the nearby bathroom.

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Or something more botanical?

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Many of the rooms had tray-sized mirrors for you to walk around with, so that you could marvel at the ceilings without straining your neck.

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The garden’s lovely too. I may post about that next…

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Moss Rules

It started some years ago with a sarcastic comment on a friend‘s photo of some moss. “Moss Rules!”, I said. She laughed. It became a running joke, used whenever anyone we knew posted a photo of the same subject matter.

It got to the stage (as it often does with flickr) that I went out specifically looking for moss to take photos of. Soon a flickr group of the same name had been set up, and at the time of writing it has 178 members and 820 photos. My own contributions come from places as varied as Belgium, Exeter, Vienna, PiedmontJapan and California.

But last month I hit the motherlode. We visited the Hall of Mosses in the Hoh rainforest on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington State, where every tree is literally dripping with moss. It coats the floor like a soft green carpet, it hangs in curtains from the branches, it bubbles up tree trunks. It’s a magical place, and although I’m happy with some of my photos they don’t really capture the full verdant softness of it all.

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Ultrazoom

Yesterday an early birthday present to myself arrived. I’d bought a new lens.

Why? Well my current lens, which came with the camera when I bought it, is a 28-135mm zoom. This was perfectly adequate for most situations, but I often found myself wanting something a little wider. I started looking around for so-called “ultrazooms”, which go from very wide to a long telephoto. Often with lenses like this you have to sacrifice a little image quality, autofocussing speed, or colour fidelity, but Tamron products seem to get fairly good reviews in this respect, so I took the plunge and got an extremely competitively-priced 18-200mm.

To get an idea of the difference that makes, here’s a shot of our bookshelf with my old lens. All shots taken from about a metre and a half away.

28mm:

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And here’s the new lens at its widest setting. Yes, there’s some distortion at the edges, but I can live with that, depending on what kind of photo I’m taking.

18mm:

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And then the far end of the zoom on the old lens, taken from the same position.

135mm:

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And the new one.

200mm:

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Buying an ultrazoom is mainly a practical consideration for me. Yes, I could buy a series of expensive prime lenses offering optimal quality in any situation, and a large kit bag to carry them all around in, but in reality that’s not going to work. A lot of my photos are taken while travelling with three children, and often I only have a few seconds to grab shots before we have to  move on or am distracted by someone tugging at my trouser leg asking for an ice cream, or I have to run off to stop someone running across a busy street or someone urgently needs the toilet. This lens meets most of my needs with a minimum of fuss.

And why did I buy it so early? Partly because I’m impatient, but also because I want to practice with it a little before my next trip, which is a long weekend in Budapest on my actual birthday. With no kids.

The performer and the audience

A summer evening in Trieste. We wandered through the beautiful open space of Piazza Unità d’Italia.

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We admired the statuary.

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And then our attention was caught by a group of young Hungarian dancers over in one corner of the square. Their energy and skill were captivating, and their white shirts were almost transparent with sweat.

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Some bystanders were a little too keen to participate, almost to the point of spoiling the performance for the rest of us (the boy’s mother was very slow to intervene).

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Around the corner we came across another dancer. This time a ballerina accompanied by a violinist.

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Ballet’s less interesting to me than young men kicking and slapping their legs, so my attention turned instead to the ballet show’s audience.

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Venice

Recently I spent around 20 hours in Venice. I’d been twice before, but always during winter, so this time it was a lot more crowded, also maybe due to the fact that the film festival was on at the time (no, I didn’t spot any famous movie types). As we were with our kids we didn’t spend much time in galleries, churches or museums, but just wandered, letting them get a feel for the place and keeping an eye out for oddities. Here are a few photos. By the time we reached St. Mark’s square the skies turned dramatic and created some interesting light effects, as you’ll see further down.

 

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De Efteling

De Efteling, in the Netherlands, claims to be one of the oldest theme parks in the world. Hard to resist a visit, when it’s a public holiday, the weather’s fine, and you have three children to entertain.

The entrance hall is suitable spooky and impressive.

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Equally impressive is the interior of the construction.
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This “flying” Pagoda was a good place to start, giving us a view of the whole park, and what strikes you immediately is how green the whole place is.

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The attractions are integrated into a huge area of woodland, which not only creates an appropriate fairytale atmosphere, but also provides some much needed shade on hot days. Disneyland in Anaheim, good as it is, lacks this aspect and can at times feel like wandering around a large car park.

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Many areas of the park feature strange little baroque buildings through whose windows you can peer to look at, for example, a class of schoolchildren supervised by a frankly terrifying teacher.

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No wonder one of the kids has chosen to calm his nerves by surreptitiously taking hits from a bong.

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Here’s one of the more distinctive characters, “Long Neck”. Can you guess how he got his name?

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There is an interesting section on De Efteling’s wikipedia page about the extent to which Disneyland, which opened three years after the Dutch park, was inspired by it, and confirmation that the designers of Disneyland Paris paid a visit in search of cultural tips. But the influences run both ways: Carnival Festival is clearly a rip-off of homage to “It’s a small world”. Look, the peoples of the world greet you! The wine-drinking, can-can dancing French:

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The beer-guzzling Germans:

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The Japanese, who all wear glasses and have buck teeth.

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And who take part in bizarre, Society-style body-melding sumo.

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One of the rides, “Dreamflight”, featured some impressively imaginative and detailed models. Sadly I had neither the time nor the inclination to play with my camera’s manual shutter settings to get some non-motion blurred photos. On the other hand, I got some rather nice impressionistic effects.

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The most recent and most spectacular addition is the half-hour show Ravelijn. I’d read about this on another blog last year, and was glad we could make time for it during our visit. Moustachioed, black-hatted villain captures a lovely maiden.

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A brief video explains how (as expanded upon in the accompanying TV series) a group of children stumble upon the entrance to the town in an enchanted wood. Once through the portal they are magically transformed into five knights. Here they come!

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Oh no, the villain has a secret dragon!

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With several heads!

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And wings!

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And he’s turned one of the peasants into an evil Mini-Me Dragon!

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Only by working together as one can the five knights defeat the dragon. Behold its death throes!

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Victory!

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And the damsel is reunited with her owl.

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These are just a fraction of the attractions on offer. Give it a try if you’re in the area, even if you don’t have munchkins in tow.

Look around you

I took my son for a morning walk in the woods last weekend. He’s two, and so is more easily tired and distracted than most. Plus he had to stop at one point and sit on a tree trunk to eat his croissant.

As he did so I started to look around me. I took a few photos with my phone. I imagined a photographic exercise where you have to stand rooted to the spot and see how many interesting photos you can take from that one same position, looking in whichever direction you liked but not moving. Even in a seemingly uniform and uninteresting visual environment I’m convinced that the more time you spend looking, the more you’ll see.

It then occurred to me how little we look around with anything like the openness and curiosity of small children, and how narrowed our field of vision becomes as we grow. We design our environments so that everything is at adult eye level, so we don’t often need to look up or down. Small children like my son are probably much more aware of their visual y-axis, especially if they want to look up at the face of one of the adults around them, for example. Being closer to the ground they’re also more likely to look down and pick things up.

Travel can often loosen adults’ heads up again. Walking down the street of a large city you can often spot the tourists as they’re the ones standing still and looking up (often through a camera viewfinder). Travelling to an unfamiliar environment removes some of our certainties and habits and puts us back in the role of a small child wandering and discovering the world.