Longwood Gardens

It was our 22nd Wedding Anniversary last week and  – as our children happened to be gallivanting with their grandparent for a few days – we could celebrate the occasion as a couple.  Unfortunately, I was still recovering from my oral surgery – a complication having caused me two weeks of excruciating and ceaseless neuralgic pain – which slightly put the damper on things and certainly reduced my ability to enjoy a meal out on the actual day.  However, eight days into my recovery, I felt well enough to venture out for the evening.  We opted for a visit to Longwood Gardens, having never been before and knowing that our children might not have the required patience for a visit to formal gardens.

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Longwood Gardens developed from a site that had been farmed and turned into an arboretum in the 18th Century.  When, at the dawn of the 20th Century, the trees of the arboretum were at risk from being chopped down for lumber, the super-wealthy businessman Pierre du Pont stepped in to save the trees by purchasing the entire property.  The site then developed into the formal gardens that exist today.  It is spread across over a thousand acres so there is a massive amount to see – too much for us as it turned out.

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I am not much of a gardener at all and my knowledge of flowers, plants and trees is pretty limited.  However, I can appreciate the aesthetic qualities of plants and I certainly like garden features, such as fountains and sculptures.  I, therefore, thoroughly enjoyed wandering along the pathways at Longwood and seeing what vistas and colours opened up before me.  Visiting in the evening not only meant we were spared the worst of the day’s baking heat and gross humidity but were also bathed in a golden light as the sun started to slip lower.

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We stopped to watch the fountains in action as music played.  It was all very pleasing and relaxing.  We had visited the pump room and were amazed by all the power involved in working the fountains but, as we watched water shoot up into the sky and dance and spray from so many fountains at once, we understood why that power was required.

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Apparently Longwood’s main conservatory is one of the world’s largest greenhouses.  I would certainly estimate it to be the largest I have ever visited.  It was arranged into a series of spaces that each focused on a theme.  Although we had no kids with us, Mr Pict and I wandered around the children’s indoor garden and found it to be charming.  Younger visitors seemed to be delighted by all of the wonderful details and fun little nooks and crannies.  We explored the main conservatory – including the ballroom and organ – and also enjoyed the other conservatories and the lily pond, complete with giant lily pads, between them.  I loved the gallery of orchids and Mr Pict loved all the banana plants.  The whole place was supremely polished and thoughtful in its detailing.  It was a feast for the eyes and the nose.

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We realised too late that we should have saved the conservatories for last since they had interior lighting while the exterior gardens had, during our time indoors, been plunged into darkness.  We still had a good wander in the dark.  There was actually something pretty magical about being at the Italian gardens and seeing all the fireflies glowing as they flew up from the grass and into the air.  We also saw bats swooping down to chomp on the insects that were hovering above the ponds.  Some areas, however, were just too dark to permit any exploration so we had to abandon those.  However, an advantage of having found ourselves in Longwood Gardens in the pitch darkness was that we could watch the performance of water, lighting, and music back at the main fountains.  The theme of the show happened to be “movies” which was completely perfect for Mr Pict and me since we are such movie nerds.  The whole show was amazingly accomplished and very impressive.  We thoroughly enjoyed it.  Unfortunately, my pain meds had completely worn off about halfway through the show and I was so close to passing out from the pain that I had to sit on the gravel behind rows of standing spectators so missed the last quarter of the event.

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Mr Pict and I both agreed that we would love to return to Longwood Gardens some time, maybe another summer trip to take in the things we missed, maybe during one of their festivals, maybe in a different season to see it in a different context.  We might even take the kids some time.

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Hopewell Furnace

Our youngest son turned 9 over Memorial Day weekend.  He likes to get out and explore new places so, after gfit opening and birthday breakfast, we decided to take a day trip to Hopewell Furnace.  Despite being relatively close to home, it is a National Historic Site we had not visited in our four years of living in PA so it was high time we went to check it out.

As Hopewell Furnace was in operation prior to the American Revolution, it is considered to be one of America’s oldest industrial sites and, therefore, a place of historic significance.  We began our trip in the Visitor’s Centre with a video providing us with a useful potted history of the “iron plantation”.  We learned about the site having been chosen because of a confluence of natural resources, about the evolving treatment of and attitude African-American workers – ranging from slavery to early desegregation and the Underground Railroad – and of female employees, its contribution to the War of Independence, and about the process of manufacturing iron as it was undertaken from the 1770s through to its closure in the 1880s.

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As with all National Parks sites, Hopewell Furnace was beautifully maintained and easy to navigate.  We found that we could walk in a loop and take in all of the buildings and ruins.  Hopewell operated as a charcoal furnace for most of its existence because the price of hauling coal to the site was prohibitive so we saw the area where charcoal would have been created.  We had learned that the furnace could consume as much as 800 bushels of charcoal in one day so it must have been a demanding job.  We all enjoyed seeing the blast furnace, not simply because it was very cool inside on such a hot day.  I normally find it pretty challenging to engage with industrial heritage but I had no difficulty imagining the workers operating inside the furnace as it all seemed so visually clear.  We had seen where the “ingredients” would be dropped into the shaft in order to be super-heated, and then the bit at the bottom of the “chimney” from where the molten metal would flow once the seal was broken.  There was then a nearby area where the skilled workers would pour the iron into sand moulds in order to manufacture various items.  We were all somewhat mesmerised by the water wheel.  Sure it was a nifty piece of engineering and critical to the manufacturing process but I think for at least the boys and me it was really just that there is something aesthetically pleasing and calming about watching a wheel rotate.

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We had been informed that the workers’ houses were not yet open to the public for the season but, in fact, we found that a couple of them were open.  They had been furnished with reproduction furniture and household items which was fantastic as it helped us understand how families utilised the space and also allowed the kids to engage a bit more since the experience became tactile.  My husband and the birthday boy even played a quick card game in one of the houses.  Industrial history doesn’t really do it for me so it was the social history regarding issues like racial (in)equality and the lives of the workers that really helped to anchor my interest in the site.

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After some time spent befriending Maximilian the horse, our final stop was the Ironmaster’s house.  The ground floor is open for viewing, with barriers keeping visitors back from the furniture and other artefacts that bring each room to life.  I think what my kids most enjoyed about the “big house”, however, was the porch complete with rocking chairs.  After months of dismal weather, they have not yet readjusted to heat and sunlight.  They better get used to it, however, as I intend for us to be outdoors a lot this summer after hibernating for months.

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A Tree-mendous Birthday

My third son was gifted a session at Go Ape for his 11th birthday.  My oldest son had done Go Ape back in Britain for his tenth birthday but this was a first experience for the other boys.  The three older boys were eligible to do the full course under the supervision of Mr Pict and their grandfather.  My youngest son, being too wee for the full course, had a ticket to spend an hour on a junior course which my mother-in-law and I could supervise from ground level.

It was just as well I could supervise from the ground as I don’t think I could have managed even the junior course without my fear of heights causing me to go into a panic.  The staff at Go Ape were fantastic.  They were competent, of course, but they were also great with their encouragement and praise and creating challenge.  My youngest son – who is completely fearless – got the hang of the course pretty quickly so they encouraged him to try and beat his own personal record, then to do one of the routes backwards, and to try different types of jump on the zipline.  He had a whale of a time and absolutely loved it.

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Once our time was up with the junior course, we headed into the woods to track down the others and see how they were getting on.  We had seen them getting fitted into their harnesses and being trained and at that time they were all smiles and excitement.  We wondered if, almost two hours in, they were flagging or finding it was getting too challenging.  We met up with them just as they were doing the fourth stretch of the course.  They were definitely feeling challenged but were still enjoying the experience.  It made me queasy seeing how high up they were.  Shortly after we met up with them, they had a choice to make as to whether to take a difficult route over to a platform or an extreme route.  My oldest son wanted to do the extreme route which meant his father had to take a deep breath and accompany him.  They had to move between a series of short scramble nets which were dangling in the canopy of the trees.  It was pretty terrifying to watch even from ground level.  Meanwhile, our birthday boy was having an attack of nerves as he found the combination of height, wobbly platforms, and wind to be overwhelming.  It took him a while to collect himself but, with some advice and encouragement from a member of staff on the ground, he took a first step and then another and then in no time he was across to the next platform.  That experience, however, meant that once he was back on the ground, he decided he was staying there.  He was done.  So were his 12 year old brother and grandfather.  My oldest son decided he wanted to complete the course in its entirety, however, which meant one final set of challenges.  Since he had to be accompanied by an adult, that meant his father had to complete it too.  This included what my husband declared was the scariest part of the course: a just-too-long drop off of a platform to swing across onto a net.  Once they ziplined back across the lake, they too were done.

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Every member of Team Pict had challenged themselves and felt a sense of accomplishment.  Just maybe even my mother-in-law and I get to include ourselves in that since we overcame our anxiety enough to spectate and offer encouragement.  Everyone was hungry after hours spent in low temperatures in the woods, especially those who had been burning calories swinging here and there, so it was time to eat.  The birthday boy wanted to have pizza for dinner so we headed to Anthony’s Coal Fired Pizza and had some delicious food.  Once we were home, he had his special birthday dessert, a platter of cannolis, one of his favourite things.

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Virginia Air and Space Center

On our final day in Virginia, we decided to go to the Air and Space Center.  We were staying not too far from Langley so it seemed appropriate that we should go and see one of the things the area was famous for.  As a family, we have visited many types of science museums and many types of transportation museums.  Some of these have been fantastic and some very much less so.  This one proved to fall into the latter category.  It was a waste of money and time.

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The museum had some interesting exhibits, such as the Apollo 12 command module, but the whole place just fell flat.  It was all very tired and uninspired and very overpriced.  It was probably cutting edge a couple of decades ago but it just wasn’t up to scratch for 2018.  Too many of the interactive areas were not working at all and those that were had problems with appropriate pitching.  What I mean by that is that the interactive aspect of the exhibit was appropriate for engaging a child but the content was far too esoteric and dry to capture or hold their interest. The worst offender was a room dedicated to a fictional Mars mission.  The graphics were dull and the voice acting was horribly flat.  The room was also hot, stuffy, and claustrophobic.  I stopped listening or looking after a couple of minutes because I thought I was at risk of passing out.

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My older kids really did not enjoy the experience with the exception of an excellent Imax movie about hurricanes.  My youngest son enjoyed dressing up in a space suit and playing in the children’s play area but otherwise he did not engage much either.  It was interesting that this was ostensibly a museum with much greater focus on young visitors yet it failed to engage them whereas the Air Mobility Command Museum in Delaware was less child-oriented but really held their interest.

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Ultimately, the highlight of the day turned out to be a delicious lunch around the corner and a small store across the street from the Air and Space Center.  The shop sold British food so the boys were in their element with tingling tastebuds and nostalgia. Most of the items were too expensive for us but we allowed the boys to pick a small treat each.  They had a hard time choosing but had fun making their selection.

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Chrysler Museum of Art

My in-laws had taken the Pictlings to visit the Chrysler Museum of Art while Mr Pict and I were still at home in Pennsylvania.  They, therefore, elected to stay at the vacation house and play on the beach while my husband and I went into Norfolk to visit the Museum.  The basis of the museum is the collection of Walter Chrysler, son of the car manufacturer, which he donated in the 1970s.  It’s an amazing and impressive collection housed in a wonderful space.  What is even more incredible is the fact that admission is free.  It was the absolute highlight of my Spring Break trip to Virginia.

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We started out in the glass galleries.  I am a massive fan of art glass.  I wish I could collect glass but I have kids and cats in addition to limited disposable income so I just have to admire and covet glass.  The collection was beautifully arranged with clear and informative labels.  Mr Pict liked the ancient glass, especially the Roman pieces.  One of these ancient pieces was signed by the maker, Ennion, in Greek.  I thought that was pretty remarkable, to actually be able to know the name of the glassmaker across all those centuries.  I also enjoyed seeing a harmonium with its glasses ready to make music, and a sugar bowl containing coins within bubbles of blown glass, glass pens, and a mustard dish in the form of a bull’s head.  My favourite area in the glass collection was dedicated to the Art Nouveau movement and contained a trove of wonderful pieces.  There were glowing stained glass windows, lustrous vases, intricately designed table lamps, and glass sculptures by the likes of Lalique.  I also loved the 20th Century and contemporary glass area.  There was a window designed by Frank Lloyd Wright for the Darwin D Martin house, a cabinet of glass curiosities by Steffen Dam that mimicked natural forms, a little glass house, and a wonderfully shimmering circle that really drew my eye no matter where I was in the room.

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After visiting the glass collection, it was time to go and see a demonstration of glass blowing.  We headed across the street to the studio space and took some seats in the front row.  We got to see one of the in-house glass artisans working with an intern under the instruction of the artist Stephen Paul Day.  The process was very complicated and was fascinating to watch.  It involved glass blowing, inserting ceramic sculptures into the glass, building up layers of glass gradually, attaching glass sculptures together, and a whole lot of other stuff besides.  It was a great demonstration since we got to see a number of skills and techniques and the woman who was narrating was very knowledgeable and engaging.  I certainly learned a great deal.

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We returned to the Museum to see some of the non-glass exhibits.  We were too short on time to visit every gallery so we elected to focus on the Impressionists and American Impressionists.  Each room was beautifully curated with every piece given room to breathe and be appreciated in isolation while also communicating with other exhibits in the room.  I was generally very taken with the Chrysler Museum, would have loved to have spent more time there, and would definitely return if I was in the area again.

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That evening we decided to do something together as a gang of eight.  We decided to go to the Commodore Theatre in Portsmouth, a restored Art Deco cinema.  The cinema itself was impressive with its 41 foot screen and incredible sound system.  The sound in particular was very immersive.  We were also seated in armchairs which made it very comfy and the whole place was so massive that we had ample space around us.  What made this cinema trip a new experience for we Picts, however, was that it was a dinner cinema.  We have some in our home area but have never been so this was a first time for us.  We could, therefore, order food and drinks which were delivered to our tables and then we could munch our way through the movie.  I did not actually eat as I was too full from lunch but the others did.  The food was standard junk food – pizza, nachos, chicken strips – but the kids all enjoyed the novelty of eating dinner in the cinema.  The movie we saw – Ready Player One – was pretty mediocre but was made more enjoyable and entertaining by the context.

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Ambling in Annapolis

For reasons too tedious to explain but involving leave entitlement, ceaseless winter storms, and rolling rescheduling, Mr Pict and I found ourselves spending a weekend driving to and from Washington DC.  My in-laws had flown in from England and met us there in order to then take our four children on a Spring break vacation.  Mr Pict and I, therefore, found ourselves unexpectedly child-free in Washington DC.

We spent the evening catching up with friends over dinner and wine.  Before I earned that grown up treat, however, I had to trail my husband around some Civil War sites he had never visited.  As I have previously explained, my husband spent his early teens living in the suburbs of DC.  How he managed to live there for years plus have us return from the UK to visit his parents several times without ever visiting these sites is beyond me.  However, as a Civil War nerd, it is on his bucket list to visit just about every obscure Civil War site in the nation so I was happy to indulge him and his bucket list collecting.

First up was Fort Stevens.  I don’t know why I made any sort of assumptions but I had expected the site to be a little more grand or at least cared for than it clearly was.  Instead, what I found were some mounds of earth on a patch of scrappy grass in the middle of a residential neighbourhood, a couple of canons surrounded by litter and broken glass, and the noise of a construction site that abutted the remains of the fort.  Fort Stevens’ significance rests in the fact that it was the site of the only Civil War battle to take place within the limits of the nation’s capital and it was the only time when a serving President came under enemy fire.  The history is that, in July 1864, Jubal Early’s Confederate troops decided to march on the capital following a battle in nearby Frederick.  They encountered Fort Stevens – one of a series of forts protecting the city – and there was a brief battle that repelled the Confederate soldiers.  Lincoln and his wife visited the fort and witnessed the battle, hence his coming under fire.  A rock with a bronze plaque marks the spot where Lincoln stood on the earthworks.

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I was underwhelmed by Fort Stevens but the next stop on the itinerary was a little more my cup of tea in that it was a cemetery.  Battleground Cemetery contains the graves of the 40 soldiers who died in the defence of Fort Stevens and others who fought there – the last to be interred being buried there as recently as 1936.  Again there was a Lincoln connection since Abe attended the burial cemetery and dedicated the land, which makes it one of America’s smallest national cemeteries.  It was indeed a modest cemetery.  There were a few regimental memorials within its walls but the graves themselves were very small and simple and arranged in a circle.  It was well-maintained and a tiny pocket of peace and quiet despite being within a major city.

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The following day we decided to stop off in Annapolis as we wended our way back to the Philly suburbs.  Being a bitterly cold Sunday in March, there was not an awful lot for us to do but wander around and absorb the charm of Annapolis’ historic district.  To give our pit stop a little more focus, we decided to visit the Maryland State House.  Occupied since the 1770s, it is the oldest state capitol in continuous use and once served as the nation’s capitol.

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I started out my visit there by stopping by the statue of Thurgood Marshall.  It depicts Marshall as a young lawyer at the start of his career and behind him are pillars reading “Equal Justice Under Law”.  The sculpture also contains three other related statues: one of Donald Gaines Murray, whose case was one of Marshall’s early victories in the fight to desegregate schools, and two children who symbolise Brown V the Board of Education.  It used to be the case that a statue of Roger Taney stood on the grounds but his statue was removed last year.  I personally was glad to see Marshall celebrated at the State House and to see Taney’s absence.

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Once inside, we explored the various rooms on a self-guided tour. We had the whole place virtually to ourselves so it was very relaxing and informal.  We had a peek into the current Senate and House chambers.  Mr Pict enjoyed seeing the voting buttons on each desk whereas I was enamoured of the Tiffany skylights.  The Caucus room was very dark but was filled with gleaming silverware.  This was a service from the USS Maryland which is designed with lots of references and symbols relating to the state.  I like things that are shiny but the silverware was all a bit fussy for my taste.  I wouldn’t want to keep it polished either.  Just as well I will never own a silver service set then!  Probably the most historically significant room in the State House is the Old Senate Chamber.  It was in this space, in December 1783, that George Washington resigned his commission as Commander of the Continental Army thus establishing an important precedent for America’s democracy.

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Back out on the cold streets, we wandered around and poked our noses into the odd shop.  We spent a lot of time rummaging in a very cluttered, very musty, but entirely wonderful book shop.  We then wandered down to the Dock area.  There I found the statue commemorating Alex Haley, author of Roots, and Kunta Kinte, the fictionalised African ancestor of Haley’s that is the starting point of his saga.  We sat there and people- and duck-watched for a bit before walking back through the old streets and back to the car.

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This was my first visit to Annapolis since I first visited in 1995 and I had forgotten how quaint and attractive it is.  At some point we will have to return with the kids, in warmer temperatures, and when there is more to do.

Flowers and Freedom

On Saturday, I went with a friend to the Philadelphia Flower Show.  On my own.  Child-free.  No clock-watching or pressure of time.  It was an absolute luxury.  I really know very little about flowers and gardening.  My friend knows a bit more than I do but is no expert.  I think it is safe to say, therefore, that attending the Flower Show was an opportunity to just be grown ups together and enjoy each other’s company more than it was about indulging any horticultural interest or ability.

This was also my first time attending an event in the Convention Centre.  My husband and two of my children have attended Philly Comic Con annually since we emigrated to America so they are veterans of the Convention Centre but I have had no reason to go before.  The Flower Show is run by the Philadelphia Horticultural Society and is apparently America’s longest running and oldest flower show, dating as it does from 1829.  I imagine that people attend in order to be inspired by new plant varieties, by landscape design, to participate in competitions, and to meet with other flower enthusiasts.  Aside from the opportunity for a day of unfettered freedom, the appeal for me lay in seeing a riot of colour and vibrant life given how much I have been loathing Winter and craving Spring.

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Given my degree of ignorance, this will not be a long blog post.  I did, however, enjoy wandering among the displays and showcases.  Most impressive was a tropical jungle built around scaffolding poles that had been painted to mimic bamboo and which were festooned with stunning flowers in bold colours, including cascades of orchids and swirling leaves, and incorporating various water features including a series of waterfalls and the occasional shower of rain.  I was also very taken with a desert area filled with an incredible variety of cacti and succulents.  My friend and I became a tad obsessed with one colloquially named “dinosaur back” because of all of its folds and ridges.  Had one been available for purchase, I might have brought that home with me.  I am not very good at keeping houseplants alive but cacti do somehow manage to survive in my care despite my negligence and evil eye.

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The theme of the flower show was apparently water.  That seemed like a very easy challenge to me since almost all plants require water for sustenance and many garden designs incorporate water.  Still, I do enjoy a good water feature so I liked seeing the variety of ways in which water had been built into the landscaping.  Aside from the water, we noticed some other repetitions of design: glass orbs and copper.  We congratulated ourselves on spotting what might be a gardening “trend”.  There was. for instance, a visually appealing display involving a mirrored table (imagine keeping that clean of smears and finger smudges?) with glass orbs hanging above it like a chandelier, each orb containing a plant.  I thought it would make for a pretty wedding table whereas in my home it would make for megatons of stress and fingers being cut on shards of smashed glass.  On the subject of weddings, I did love an outdoor wedding table, all wood and soft moss, including what looked like a tiered cake made from slices of log.  I could imagine Oberon and Titania dining in just such a setting.

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The competition areas were befuddling to me.  My lack of expertise meant that I could not possibly figure out why one plant or arrangement had been awarded first place while another was an honorable mention.  It was another opportunity to see a diverse selection of plants I had never encountered before.  There was a miniature citrus tree with blossoms and fruit, venus fly traps and pitcher plants inside humid terrariums, arrangements inside tea cups (I liked those a lot!), lots of breathtaking orchids, and blooms in every shape and colour.  I was drawn to the weirdo plants, the non-conformists, and the ones that looked like me if I was a plant.  I got more excited than a grown woman ought to when I spotted some chubby tuberous plants that looked just like mandrakes from ‘Harry Potter’.

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In truth, I cannot say I learned much after a day at the Flower Show and any sense of inspiration was tempered by the reality of my green-finger skills (which are brown-thumbed to be honest).  I did, however, very much enjoy a pleasant day out without the responsibility of keeping children engaged.

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