Monday, 14 January 2013

Margaret on a Bench

This is Margaret on a bench.

Margaret is a lovely lady from the Isle of Wight. When she learned that Shore Women writers were working on a project about benches, she volunteered this photograph of herself on a bench, taken by her husband Derek. This inspired Marion Carmichael, one of the Shore Women writers, to write a poem for the Benchmarks project.

Marion's poem is called, not surprisingly, Margaret on a Bench. This may seem an uninspiring subject for a poem but look what she makes of it!

Margaret on a Bench

Julia Margaret played with light,
turned urchins into angels, conjured 
stories from shadows. Here sun light slides
round the shade of short days, night-dark shadows
paddle your blue feet; winter sun dazzles,
shuts your eyes. Sepia grasses squeeze
memories of summer; fickle as frogs
they leap, dance in the wind, shift in the light.
Impatient in your warm earth-coloured coat
your hand ready to slice walnut cake, pour
strong flasked tea to steam in the cold air. 
Beside you the photographer’s bag gapes
waits, like a cradle while the camera
taking your picture plays tricks with the light. 

by Marion Carmichael

 We all know days like this, outings on sunny winter afternoons where it's just a bit too cold and darkness moves in fast. The plain bench and the self-conscious sitting-on-a-bench-having-your-picture taken are familiar to us all while the patterns of light in the photograph make a strong backdrop to the ordinariness of the setting. With a poet's eye for detail, Marion picks up on Margaret's blue shoes, her earth-coloured coat, the flask beside her on the bench. Was it walnut cake in the bag? Well, yes, why not.

In the first line of the poem Marion echoes Margaret's name with a a clever reference to Julia Margaret Cameron, one of the Isle of Wight's most famous residents. Julia Margaret was one of the many prominent Victorians who settled in Freshwater on the west of the island. Her home was Dimbola Lodge, a stately house overlooking Freshwater Bay. She lived here from 1860 until 1874. 

Julia Margaret Cameron was a pioneer of British photography, who, at the age of 48, began taking pictures of the people around her - servants, friends, neighbours - anyone who would sit through the laborious process of photography at that time.

The poet laureate, Lord Tennyson, was Julia Margaret Cameron's neighbour. This is a photograph she took of him in 1869

image courtesy of

Julia Cameron took many portrait photographs of real people but as Marion's poem suggests, she also played tricks with the light and conjured stories from shadows. Her housemaid, Mary Hillier, was one of her favourite models. Here is Mary dressed up as St. Agnes, a photograph taken in 1864.

image courtesy of

One of Julia's good friends was the painter George Frederick Watts. In The Whisper of the Muse (1865) he posed with two young sisters, Kate and Elizabeth Keown in a classical style. As part of her storytelling, Julia chose to portray him as a musician rather than a painter.

image courtesy of

Marion's poem reminds us that one of Julia Margaret Cameron's favourite subjects was angels; she turned urchins into angels in her many angel photographs.

This is The Nestling Angel, photographed in 1870. Her great niece, Rachel Gurney, posed for the picture, probably repaid in sweets or coins. Whatever its intention, the photograph suggests the fragile existence of Victorian children.

image courtesy of

This angel photograph is called I Wait. It was taken by Julia in 1872, not long before she left the Isle of Wight. 

image courtesy of

What did Julia herself look like? Surprisingly, the first painting of Julia Margaret Cameron was a bench picture painted in about 1818 by a French painter. It showed Julia with her father, her three sisters and her mother seated on a bench.

This is Julia Margaret Cameron as painted by Watts in the early 1850s. The painting is now in the National Portrait Gallery in London.

This photograph of Julia was taken in 1870 by her son, Henry Herschel Hay Cameron. Julia was 59 years old at the time.

image courtesy of

We've come a long way from Margaret on a Bench so just to bring things together - Margaret, Julia, angels, benches - here is an angel on a bench. 

We'll call her Margaret.

image from Mary Ellen Fey at Vintage Vogue Treasures

If you find yourself in Freshwater, stop in at Dimbola Lodge and see the museum where Julia's strange and compelling photographs will delight you. There is a lovely tearoom in what used to be Dimbola's sitting room.

Or, if you bring a flask and some walnut cake, you can wander down to Freshwater Bay and sit on one of the many benches where, if you're lucky, you'll be dazzled by winter sun.


Many thanks to Margaret for permission to tell this story and post her picture. Margaret died in 2014 and she is remembered fondly by those of us who knew her. 

Thanks also to Marion Carmichael for her poem.

Julia Margaret Cameron's photographs are from the Dimbola website at and from the Victoria and Albert Museum collection at   Julia Margaret Cameron's photographs are used with the kind permission of the Julia Margaret Cameron Trust at the Dimbola Museum and Gallery. 

For a full range of JMC's photographs, a biography, and lots of other information about Julia Margaret Cameron, see the brilliant Artsy website at

Photographs of the Dimbola building and the tea room were taken by me. 

Little Margaret is a terrarium fairy angel and she's only three inches high. She's by Mary Ellen Fey at Vintage Vogue. Mary Ellen has lots of lovely tiny stuff in her shop at  Thanks to her for this image. 

There are loads of poetic benches for National Poetry Day 2014 at

The poem and the picture Margaret on a Bench became a favourite when presented in Shore Women performances of Benchmarks. More poems by Marion Carmichael can be seen in Benchmarks by Shore Women Writers, 2011.

Sunday, 6 January 2013

Cassie's Seat - a bench, a poem, a path

This is Cassie's Seat. It can be found along the river path that runs from Yarmouth to Freshwater on the Isle of Wight. 

I am very fond of Yarmouth because it is so like my own home town of Fribble-under-Par. Fribble is on Paradise Island, which of course is very different from the Isle of Wight. The Isle of Wight, while quite nice, is hardly paradise. But the Par is not unlike the Yar. It is a tidal river full of wading birds and  along it there are snug little harbours full of boats. 

Here is my friend Miggy on the Par Yar path. She is an imaginary friend so you may not be able to see her clearly but you can see the path and the ghosty outline of the Mill House at the far end of the path.

Miggy is a jolly good walker and she loves to walk along this path in winter. Here she is on the path with a seasonal skim of snow. 

In summer she prefers to cycle it, although in summer it is very busy with families, birdwatchers, leisure cyclists, and dogs who have no sense whatsoever.  Thankfully, my dog Sit does not dart across the path in front of cyclists. He prefers to sit in the middle of the path. 


For some reason the bikes don't seem keen to go around him. 

Oh, this is a most delicious path in any season and Cassie must have known that to choose this for her bench site. 

Here is the discreet little plaque that proves this is Cassie's seat. Notice the light skim of frost on the bench. This proves it was winter when the picture was taken. 

Although I haven't a clue who Cassie is, I was moved by the bench to write a poem. Unusually, I wrote the poem in rhyming couplets, which makes it sound more like a song than a poem. 

Cassie’s Seat

Your seat faces west, its back to the hill
Were you sitting here often? Are you sitting here still

hearing backwash of ferries and steel halyard’s flail
watching shiver of mast denuded of sail?

On tide’s turn of midges and call-note of ships
feel spindrift of morning, taste salt on your lips?

See egrets like spindle and herons like spire
and the sun going down in a flame-throw of fire?

Are you sitting here sometimes when lapwings take flight
and the page of your book disappears with the light?

So you've seen the bench and you've read the poem. Now maybe you'd like to see the view?  If you sit on Cassie's seat facing west with your back to the hill, this is what you'd see.

This is when the tide's turn of midges comes into it, on a low tide. 

Whether there is a backwash of ferries depends entirely on a) what the tide is and b) where the ferry is. Obviously, if the ferry is on the Lymington side of the Solent there isn't going to be much of a backwash on the Isle of Wight. 

There probably isn't going to be a call-note of ships either, not with the tide out.

You may be feeling a bit let down by the poem, having been promised all these things which aren't there. So here's another view, with the tide in. This was taken by His Excellency at six o'clock on a summer morning. It surely qualifies as a spindrift of morning I think. Can you taste salt on your lips?

His Excellency is my real husband. I have another husband but he's imaginary and he doesn't take pictures. His Excellency has an artist's eye and he likes to go out at unusual hours so that he can see egrets like spindle and herons like spire. There are plenty of those here on the river. Lapwings as well. And oyster catchers and ducks and swans and quite a lot of other wading birds.

What doesn't show in the picture though is what you can hear from Cassie's seat. 

Yes, clearly the masts are denuded of sail. But can you hear them shiver? Can you hear the halyards flailing where careless people have neglected to tie them down and the wind grabs hold of them and knocks them against the mast? 

No? Well, ok, maybe not on a calm morning like this one.

The river is certainly very still and the boats aren't moving at all. So fair enough, maybe there is no halyard's flail. Neither is there a shiver of mast.

Maybe we ought to call it a day on Cassie's seat. 

But hey, wait a minute!

If this isn't a flamethrow of fire, I don't know what is.


All the photos here are of Paradise Island, where I live with His Excellency and my imaginary husband Mungo. Our house is La Casa Perfecta, which has a rather splendid garden facing south. 

Read the story to find out why the view to the north is rather less impressive.

On Paradise Island benches are very important. My swimming bench, for example, is the very centre of my existence for nine months of the year.  

The poem Cassie's Seat joins lots of brilliant poems about benches in a book called Benchmarks, published by Shore Women Writers in 2011. The book contains many poems and photographs from, to, for, and about benches. 

If you like poetry, see the brilliant poetic benches for National Poetry Day 2014 at 

My Dog Sit, aka His Highness the tiger, is from
And if you like dogs, there are lots of friendly dog benches at at

If you like boats, the sea, or mermaids, there are plenty of these on Mikey the Mariner's posts at  

All other photos were taken by His Excellency. He's an interesting person and features on a lot of Benchsite blogs because he is a philosopher and always has an opinion. For how we met see An Excellent Valentine; Valentine's Day in 2014 didn't go quite as well.   My other husband is Mungo, an entirely different character. We met in Las Vegas and took a bit of a gamble. For more about my two husbands, see the Workbenches post: you can tell a lot about a man by his workbench.  

For more about Paradise Island and who lives there, see  Who's Who in Fribble-Under-Par.

Saturday, 5 January 2013

Welcome to the Casa Perfecta

One of the following statements is true:

  • Our house is called La Casa Perfecta for good reason. It is light, spacious and airy. All the rooms exude a feeling of peace and tranquility. Much thought has gone into the materials and crafting of both the building and its contents.  It has been carefully designed so that its occupants achieve a strong sense of energy and well-being. Everything about the house is beautiful and life-enhancing.

  • La Casa Perfecta is a 1960s bungalow in a cul-de-sac of similarly ugly bungalows. The rooms are tiny boxes filled with junk and there is so little light that everything in it withers, including us. 

  • La Casa Perfecta is a comfortable family home with an informal atmosphere in which everyone can relax and be happy. The house is simply decorated and nicely furnished, as well as being admirably energy efficient.

How did you get on?

And now to the garden of La Casa. 

Here is Burlington Bertie looking out onto the garden in spring. You will see a couple of benches facing south onto the valley. 

This is the view which causes La Casa visitors to oooo and ahhhh.

Here is the same view in winter, when the benches are covered in snow and the willow tree is a glorious shade of orangey red. This also causes visitors to oooo and ahhh but that may be due to the fact that La Casa has no central heating.  It does have a woodstove though. 

When sitting on the bench it is important to keep looking straight ahead at the southerly view as shown above. As an aide-memoir, think of the song Blow the Wind Southerly

If you turn your head around and look northwards you get an entirely different view. 

See what I mean? 

Keep focusing on the view to the south. Or east. The view to the east is very nice too. 

There are magnificent rainbows over the marsh, reminding us that La Casa Perfecta really is somewhere over the rainbow. 

Here is the same view from La Casa's sundeck, facing east. 

Oh yes, we have a sundeck. Because Paradise Island has such a lot of sun. This has always been the case.

In the interest of balance though, here is the marsh looking like The Slough of Despond.

You could do worse than look to the west, where there is a little summerhouse furnished with, guess what, a couple of benches. In spring the summerhouse is smothered in cascades of clematis flowers.

Oh yes, the westerly view is very pretty indeed.

Moving on down the garden now towards the three veg patches where we grow enough to be entirely self-sufficient enjoy a few fresh salads. There is an orchard containing eleven fruit trees. Yes, eleven trees constitutes an orchard; I looked this up.

Before the orchard there is a substantial rose garden filled with an abundance of blooms from which I make amazing pot pourri in a full array of colours. No, just joking. There are five roses in total.

Near the roses you'll see a little pop-up bench from Ikea which folds up nicely and can be set up anywhere. It has even been known to pop up at various places and no doubt has its own stories to tell. Another time perhaps. I'm still trying to show you La Casa's garden. 

Here is the garden in October a few years ago. Since then, some things have changed, for example the willow tree has got completely out of control and Frank, our pleasant pheasant, has flown away to the great Peanut in the Sky.

Also, benchwise, we have some new benches, one small, one large, and the rickety old bench shown above has been dismantled and stuffed into the woodstove. 

But enough of woodstoves. To end this tour, here is the garden at the height of summer.

And finally, you may notice how, by focusing entirely on the garden and the oooo-ahhhh view at La Casa Perfecta, I have carefully avoided showing you anything at all of the house. 

Just so you don't feel cheated, here is a photo of our kitchen at La Casa Perfecta. 

So the question remains: is La Casa really Perfecta? Or did we just buy the house because the garden is so amazing? 


La Casa Perfecta is perfectly situated in Fribble-under-Par on Paradise Island. Paradise Island is hard to find on the map, but it's not a million miles from the Isle of Wight. For more about Fribble and its unusual inhabitants, see Who's Who in Fribble-under-Par.

The north-facing view of the garden is an old internet image.  All other photographs were taken by Miggy or my husband, His Excellency, or Miggy's Mum.

Friday, 4 January 2013

My Paradise Island

I am lucky enough to live on Paradise Island. It is an island where benches are plentiful. But not as plentiful as on the Isle of Wight. As soon as you arrive on the Isle of Wight, whether or not you need to sit down, you are confronted with benches.

photo by Alexandra Thompson

Paradise Island The Isle of Wight really is somewhere over the rainbow, bench-wise.

There are simple benches where function triumphs over aesthetic appeal.

There are cozy little romantic benches snuggled into arbors.

There are even bench thrones.

Here is a bench from Queen Victoria's time. It dates from 1881.

OK, maybe it's not very comfortable but will you last 132 years?

The island benches are much enjoyed by both animals . . . 

. . . and people.

You don't need much reason to put up a bench on the Isle of Wight. A nice spring day, for example, is a good time to get out the purple benches.

At Yarmouth harbour there is a Gribble Bench to commemorate the gribble worm that ate the wood that held the pier. 

There are benches with plaques in honour of local citizens

and wood-carved benches with local wildlife.

photo by Joanna Michalak
There are beautiful curved benches

photo by Alexandra Thompson

and benches where the memorial is n t q ite re dab e a ymo  e.

On Paradise Island there are benches where you can sit and welcome the arrival of spring.

photo by Marion Carmichael

But on the Isle of Wight they make sure benches are available so that snow-sitters have somewhere to enjoy.

Even on the beach where there are no formal benches, a log bench has been thoughtfully provided.

Here on Paradise Island we make sure people notice our benches by labelling them (the benches, not the people).

Yes, we are a little old-fashioned on Paradise Island. Loft apartments are in short supply.

We do have a Starbucks though. Sort of.

Here's my kitchen at La Casa Perfecta. That's me on the left in my pinny.

The kitchen is a bit untidy because there's so much gardening to do. Here's our garden at La Casa Perfecta in the height of summer. It's so overgrown that you can't even see the benches.

Benches are so important on Paradise Island that people write poems about them. No, sorry, I've got mixed up again. It's Isle of Wight benches that people write about. 

For example, here's Margaret on a Bench. And there's a brilliant poem about Margaret on a bench

I myself have written a poem about Cassie's Seat on the Isle of Wight. It's imaginatively titled Cassie's Seat

The Isle of Wight is famous for The Needles.

It's also famous for literature. Writers like Dickens, Keats, Swinburne and Lord Tennyson are all associated with the Isle of Wight. 

To keep the thread of literature going, there is a Poetry Bench up at the Needles. 

The Isle of Wight is also known for sailing, of course. The Cowes Fortnight, also known as Cowes Week, is a very big sailing event indeed, even when the weather isn't brilliant.

photo by Anne Smith, 2003

But the Isle of Wight is not exactly paradise.

It has tens of thousands of people descend on it every summer for the Isle of Wight Festival, The Rhythmtree Festival, the Bestival and all the various carnivals. This creates massive traffic jams and in June 2012, a giant mud bath of cars and campers. 

Does this look like paradise to you?

In contrast, here is a view of Paradise Island. 

See what I mean? Perfect heaven wedged between sea and sky.

So joyful is life on Paradise Island that these Jouvay dancers are celebrating the benches on the seafront.

No, sorry, I have got that mixed up; it's easily done. The Jouvay dancers are on the Isle of Wight. But enough dancing. Let's get back to benches.

In my own town of Fribble-under-Par there are 88 benches. Yes, I have counted them. I have carefully documented their comings and goings over many years. It's a thankless task but someone has to do it.

It's pleasant enough noting the scenes of rural idyll where folks are quietly enjoying themselves on benches.

Old Noah likes sitting outside St. Asphyxia's with his pipe. 

Lord Brassica's butler, Unwin, irons the newspaper every morning and then has a quiet read beside Miggy's Mum. 

However, it's not so nice documenting the Fribble Agro gang hanging out at the bus stop . . . 

. . . or chaotic scenes on the clocktower bench when people come under attack.

So on to better things. 

Here is a bench looking out onto the river Par Yar. Both The Par and The Yar are tidal estuaries which, like the benches, come and go. 

This is The Plunge, an area along the seafront which has many benches. This is my imaginary friend Miggy, who seems to be walking with ski poles for some reason. Perhaps she has confused The Plunge with the Matterhorn?

By the way, the bench just ahead of Miggy is my swimming bench

Suffice to say, I live on Paradise Island but my home is the sea. 

image by Clare Elsaesser

I hope by now you are convinced that Paradise Island is truly an idyllic island in the manner of, say, Bali or Antigua. It has benches which are every bit as exciting as this funky bench in the Cayman Islands.

image from

But people are unpredictable. Despite having everything anyone could want on Paradise Island, there is evidence that some people try to escape. 

The Now! sail must mean that getting off the island is urgent.

Islanders can do nothing except watch from the shore.

I have a feeling that benches on the island are like ravens at the Tower of London - if the benches go, we've had it. 

Notice that there is only one poor soul left on the bench. The others have either fled or taken to individual deckchairs. Doesn't bode well.


Isle of Wight readers asked me to point out that festivals are not representative of the island, especially not the traffic jams caused by inclement weather on the first day of the Isle of Wight Festival in June 2012. 

So, in the interest of balance (and keeping readers happy), here is another photo of the Isle of Wight.

Isle of Wight readers have now asked me to point out that this is yet another traffic jam (yacht version), which is not representative of the Isle of Wight. The photograph shows the yacht traffic jams caused by fabulous weather at the Yarmouth Old Gaffers Festival in June 2011. 

The colour photos of Paradise Island and the Isle of Wight were taken by myself or my husband, His Excellency. You can tell which is which because he takes pictures of boats. As you might expect, I take pictures of benches.

The photograph of the ferry and other black and white benches comes from the book Benchmarks (2011) by Shore Women writers. Alexandra Thompson took the photos.

The small village of houses is the Postman Pat village at Longlete Park in Wiltshire. 

The St Arbucks coffee shop is also in Wiltshire. It doesn't look much like the Starbucks we normally see. There's a fullstop after St. and a capital letter for Arbucks. What a difference punctuation can make! For more perfectly punctuated benches see

The wonderful retro kitchen was photographed at a shop in Yarmouth, Isle of Wight. That's not me on the left, by the way; it's a headless person. La Casa Perfecta is my home and this is our garden facing towards the south. But views vary so it's best to read the whole story about La Casa Perfecta 

In fairness, I must admit that the traffic picture shown is an old clipart image which looks like LA. It is definitely not Paradise Island. For a start, we don't have any roads with more than one lane going each way. And our speed limit is 40 miles per hour, which is considerably faster than these LA cars are going on their multi-lane freeway.

For some very festive festival benches see

The Gribble Worm bench commemorates work done on Yarmouth pier, which was built in 1876 and is the longest wooden pier in the UK. The gribble worm eats soft parts of wood and was boring into planks and pillars, destroying the historic pier until the pier was repaired in 2008. The project manager was a Mr. Gribble. The bench itself was made when local people sat on wet cement to create different sized bum places. It is a very popular bench at the Old Gaffers Festival every year.

Julia Darling (1956-2003) was a writer often associated with the northeast but she spent her childhood in Yarmouth, Isle of Wight and came back here every summer in August to celebrate her birthday. The Mill House where she stayed has a bench commemorating her. For more about Julia Darling and her work see

The fox and badger bench is at Appley near Ryde on the Isle of Wight. It is inscribed in loving memory to Eric and Joyce Harris from Stephen and Christine Harris. Many thanks to Joanna Michalak for the photo. 

There is something intriguing and immensely satisfying about an ordinary person sitting on an ordinary bench. Margaret on a Bench is a poem by Marion Carmichael, with brilliant references to Julia Margaret Cameron, a Victorian photographer whose home was Dimbola Lodge in Freshwater, Isle of Wight. Dimbola is now a museum of early photography and it also has an exhibition of the early Isle of Wight festivals. Sadly, Margaret from the picture died in April 2015. 

There is also something intriguing about benches named for particular unknown people, like Cassie, whose seat is along the lovely river path from Yarmouth to Freshwater. Some people might be moved to write a poem about a bench like this. I was. And even if you don't like the poem, you'll love His Excellency's beautiful photography. 

Shore Women Writers are a long-established writing group on the Isle of Wight. In 2008 they commissioned a Poetry Bench which is now sited on National Trust land above Alum Bay at the Needles Old Battery. The bench is inscribed with two verses of WH Auden's well-known On This Island poem. However you feel about poetry, the view from the bench is poetry itself. 

If you're not English you might not know that a fortnight is two weeks. The sailing regatta called Cowes Week is actually a fortnight. It's one of those English things designed to confuse visitors, like the pronounciation of words like Beauchamp, Gloucester, Leominster and Chomondley. 

The sailing photo with unusual colours is by Anne Smith from Ryde on the Isle of Wight. It was used as the cover of a poetry collection, Sailing Under False Colours, published by Arrowhead Press in 2004. The author is Shelley McAlister.

The Jouvay dancers were dancing at Fort Victoria, near Yarmouth, on the Isle of Wight on May Day 2011. 

Throughout the Benchsite blog there are many stories about the residents of Fribble-under-Par and its neighbouring hamlet, Drizzly. Here you see some of the older residents: Old Noah, Unwin and Miggy's Mum. And that's the twins Cora and Dora Boran at the clocktower, where Cora, as usual, is attacking our smiley police constable Willie Wyme. Wyme the Crime also likes to hang out at the bus stop with the Fribble Agro gang, who know a lot about bus stop benches. For a complete Who's Who, see

Clare Elsaesser painted My Home is the Sea, which is available as a very large giclee art print poster of the original painting. Clare is a fulltime artist from a small town on the Pacific in Northern California. I am very grateful for use of this image. Her etsy shop is full of beautiful paintings, many of which have a sea theme

The funky Cayman Islands bench was photographed by Kellee Fabre, who lives in New Port Richey in Florida. Kellee is a keen photographer who likes to capture the beauty of everyday things. Her shop is at and she's also at