Warwickshire country retreats . . .

In the lead up to the Olympics, summer finally arrived last week. It was bright and sunny, hot even, and so welcome after all the wet weather we’ve had for so many weeks.

So we decided to make a couple of National Trust visits, to a couple of country houses about 30 miles as the crow flies to the southeast of Bromsgrove. And they were two very different properties.

Upton House lies close to the village of Edghill, site of the first pitched battle of English Civil War in October 1642. An original house was built on the site towards the end of the 17th century, but the estate was acquired by William Samuel, the 2nd Viscount Bearsted, whose father had founded the Shell oil company. With his private fortune, the house was extensively remodelled as a country retreat (it was never intended as a permanent home) and as a location for his collection of paintings and priceless ceramics.

The house, garden and art collection was donated to the National Trust in 1948. The gardens are not large by country house standards, but beautifully complement the style of the house, with landscaping to the south.

Here’s a link to a web album.

The other house we visited, Farnborough Hall, lies only about 7 miles almost due east from Upton House (just follow the map over the M40 to the northeast). But in this instance, Farnborough Hall is essentially the same house that was built by the Holbech family who acquired the estate in 1684.

And although partially open to the public twice a week during certain months through the National Trust, the house is still occupied by the Holbech family. There’s a nice collection of artefacts collected during the Grand Tour.

The gardens are small, but there’s a fine grassy avenue, about a mile in length, leading to an obelisk (raised in the early 18th century) overlooking the valley below Edghill.

Quirky, eccentric even . . . quintessentially British

Reaction to the Opening Ceremony at the London 2012 Games has indeed been mixed.

Despite the thousands of participants, much of the show remained under wraps, and we did not discover what would be featured until we tuned in.

Several comments on Facebook (especially by Americans) indicated bewilderment at the British sense of humour. Others decried the lack of Wow factor. Here’s a quick summary (and critique) from the BBC website. And here are a few views from abroad (in The Guardian and The Telegraph) and closer to home (in The Telegraph).

From the outset, ceremony director Danny Boyle had stated that he never intended to ‘compete’ with Beijing extravaganza. What he did come up with was an event that was quintessentially British, quirky and eccentric, understated – and full of humour. We certainly didn’t expect to see Mr Bean given a starring role. And if anyone wonders if that was humour that wouldn’t translate internationally, you only have to see how popular Mr Bean is worldwide.

The involvement of HM The Queen (and her corgis) was a masterstroke.

While I found some of the ceremony not as inspiring as I hoped (the NHS section, for example), others were breath-taking: for example, the forging and release of the Olympic rings, the celebration of British music, and the lighting of the Olympic flame.

But the involvement of Paul McCartney was a mistake. At 70, he just doesn’t have the voice for such an occasion. Time for his superannuation (and I say that as a Beatles and McCartney fan), although he’s being tipped for the Closing Ceremony as well. I hope there’s time to pull the plug after watching his [lack of] performance on Friday night. I could level the same criticism at two other celebrity knights – Cliff Richard and Elton John – who [under]performed at the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee concert on 4 June 2012.

One aspect of the BBC broadcast (and in the lead up to the Games – and what I’ve experienced on the TV so far today) that has irked me considerably is the incessant chatter of the presenting team. They just don’t seem to understand when it’s better NOT to say anything at all, and let the images speak for themselves. They could take a lesson from broadcast presenters of earlier years. Even those commenting on cricket on the radio were minimalist in what they said. Today it seems you have fill silent spaces with inane comments. Pity.