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Advent in the Wild Woods

The Wind in the Willows...a vagabond Toad, daring escapes and police chases; fun, frolics and a feast of a banquet


British Romany people used to live in intricately carved and beautifully-decorated horse-drawn wagons known as vardos, pulling up at well-known stopping places across the county each year...last summer Janella spent time with the travellers at Stow-On-The-Wold and at Appleby, learning about the traveler’s traditional way of life and conveys

It’s a charming tale, The Wind in the Willows, a story rich with vintage vehicles and the thrill of the open road; a vagabond Toad, daring escapes and police chases; fun, frolics and a feast of a banquet after the banishment of wicked weasels into the wild woods. There are four friends adventuring, and although written by Kenneth Grahame over a hundred years ago, they live on today in the imaginations of both children and adults inspiring games and art, performance and painting.

The story is particularly poignant in the Thames valley as the river, which plays a central role in the book and alongside which Toad and Ratty, Badger and Mole roamed, is based on the Thames from Cookham to Pangbourne where Grahame lived for much of his life. The River and Rowing Museum in Henley pays homage to this classic story with a permanent walk-through exhibition where you literally step through the narrative guided by a handheld audio-phone. This exhibition is designed, I’m sure, for children but I confess I am not too old. Meanwhile a display in the River Gallery looks at the life of Kenneth Grahame and the development of the book. Beneath the surface, I learn that Graeme’s animal society is used as a vehicle for social comment with the story representing the passing of the old world and coming of the new.


 

Regardless of the depth and the underlying critical thought, it’s enough that the adventures of Ratty, Mole, Badger and Mr Toad encompass, as well as all manner of mishaps, the romance of the river, the charm of the riverbank, the glamour of old cars toot-tooting along country lanes, and the colour of canal boats and gypsy caravans, all still rich material today for artists and performers.

From example, inspired by the river, there’s a striking exhibition The Source (at the River and Rowing Museum until 18 January 2015) by an abstract art collective of six contemporary artists, The Parkbench Group (Noela Bewry, Terry Cripps, Marianne Hellwig John, Penny Prince, Sue Rae, Maggie Shaw) who are based in The Cotswolds. Each interpret the landscape in a different way, and they have created a truly wonderful exhibition of the upper reaches of the river Thames, its energy, landscape and settlements. Their joint body of work includes sketchbooks and prints, canvases of oil and acrylics, and is rich in colour and depth, and glows with vibrant life. Despite the strength of the individual artworks, the overall flavour of the gallery is light, peaceful and serene, mirroring the contradiction between the apparent stillness of the river and its powerful flow, and it’s a pleasure to take the time to enjoy these representations, away from the winter weather on the real riverbank!

The character and beauty of the animals who inhabit the riverbank are also a perpetual inspiration: Jane Tomlinson who recently painted the wharf stream way where it meets the Thames near her Eynsham home and ‘Badger Woods’ says: “Badgers are thrilling to paint! They are a superb subject for a painter of the natural world like me with their unmistakeable long stripey faces and the fact that they bimble around among my favourite woodland flowers. A glimpse of one is always a thrill.”

And, the bimbling and bumbling of vintage cars is captured in the watercolours of North Oxfordshire artist Janella Horne who, with her trademark images of old vehicles and gypsy caravans, could illustrate her own version of the Wind in the Willows! British Romany people used to live in intricately carved and beautifully-decorated horse-drawn wagons known as vardos, pulling up at well-known stopping places across the county each year. Though the tradition has largely faded from sight, last summer Janella spent time with the travellers at Stow-On-The-Wold and at Appleby, learning about the traveler’s traditional way of life and conveys the intricacy of the painted designs and a sense of nostalgia on paper.

And reassembling the story of Wind in the Willows from these appealing component parts, just as Badger weathers the winter in his underground sett, the Creation Theatre Company weathering the winter in the North Wall Arts Centre in Summertown for a production of Wind in the Willows that runs from 5 December until 10 January. “The North Wall is the perfect place to set this show,” remarks North Wall Director Lucy Maycock, “because the theatre is owned and managed by St Edward’s School, where Kenneth Grahame was a pupil.”

And while Grahame trod this patch in the nineteenth century, “this Christmas show,” says Set Designer Ryan Laight, “is modern and magical, taking Mr Toad out of Tweed.” From grey and cold beginnings in the depths of winter woods, the story and characters unfurl from the script and come alive within what at first appears to be a derelict theatre space. Almost as if improvised, the stage gradually fills with colour, music and light as it is transformed into the banks of the bubbling Thames, country inns and the open road and sparkling chandeliers swing overhead.

And if Toad hasn’t been seen since the most recent of his escapades backfired, Badger doesn’t react well to visitors in the winter and Ratty and Mole have tucked themselves away eating sardines and telling tales of sunnier days, how will they drive the wild-wooders back where they belong? Grab yourself a warm pancake (a much-loved tradition at Creation Theatre Company’s festive frolics) and warm your feet by their metaphorical fire to find out, and laugh at the daring adventures of Mr Toad, as his friends try to put him off his latest scheme as the seasons change on the riverbank, and advent rolls into Oxfordshire. For further details and to book tickets for the Creation Theatre Company Christmas show see the website.

- Esther Lafferty

Top Image - Creation Theatre Artwork (Image Credit: Jamie Cooper)

Bottom Image - The River & Rowing Museum Exhibition



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