The Dark Allure of Oxford

I didn’t post as much as I wanted about my visit to Oxford. Possibly because I found it to be so overwhelming.

The Bodelian

As I wrote in the prior post, the purpose of my visit to Oxford was to do research for a novel I’m writing, the main character of  which grew up in the University town. It’s a paranormal mystery, as is most of my fiction writing, and Oxford’s history is rife with tales of practitioners of the occult sciences.

The Bridge Of Sighs – That Tells You Something!

The Radcliffe Camera in Oxford, England as vie...

For one thing, it is so very OLD.

We in the US consider the White House to be old.  Buildings in Oxford date back to the 12th century.

The Ashmolean

But there is something else, something more sinister.

I believe that places absorb the energies of activities that have taken place there. Perhaps the centuries of intense mental concentration and inquiry have changed Oxford somehow.  All I know is that I felt drained on my trip back to the City.

Or maybe it was just jet lag.  🙂

Independence Day – The Fourth Of July

It seems very odd to celebrate the United States’ declaration of independence from Great Britain  just a few days after my return from the  beloved Mother Country.

Maybe it’s wishful thinking, but I believe the two countries could be united very comfortably these days.  The “Special Relationship” and all…

But in 1776, Great Britain had long been a great nation of pomp and circumstance, while the New World was a wilderness populated with radical thinkers, adventurers, and sundry undesirables.  We were a troublesome colony, and revolution was inevitable.

Don’t get me wrong, I love my country.  I’ll post about the celebratory fireworks, parades, barbecues, carnivals, fairs, picnics, and concerts.

But I’ll remember that most of the rights and freedoms we enjoy today are those we brought with us from England.  And I remain convinced that our English heritage is stronger than the forces that drove us apart.

God Save The Queen!

My Visit To The Ealing Apiary

I’ve been saving my favorite experience in London for last — my Saturday afternoon visit to the Ealing apiary in the charming English village of Perivale.

When I started writing this blog back in January, I quickly became blogging friends with two lovely young British beekeepers, Emma Sarah Tennant of Miss Apis Millifera and Emily Heath of Adventuresinbeeland’s Blog.

They are both experienced beekeepers and bloggers, and they really took me under their (bee) wings! I’ve greatly enjoyed reading their informative posts and chatting with them on various beekeeping topics.

When they found out that I was going to be visiting London, they generously invited me to visit their apiary in Ealing. I was quite excited about my visit, having followed their successes and setbacks in what has been a very challenging year for English bees and their keepers.

In the meantime, I had also emailed John Chapple, Chair of the London Beekeepers’ Association and the Queen’s beekeeper, about the possibility of a chat and maybe even a visit to the Royal Hives. I wasn’t surprised when I didn’t hear back from him. He undoubtedly thought I was a crazy person or a terrorist or both.

On Saturday morning, I woke up with a rip-roaring case of jet lag.  I knew I was going to be running behind, so I declined both Emma’s and Emily’s kind offers to personally escort me to the apiary.  That was a big mistake on my part!

After many interesting adventures involving bus fares, Off Track Betting Parlors, and my inability to coherently ask for directions,  I finally arrived at the Ealing apiary.

It was like a scene from Alice In Wonderland. And presiding over tea was Royal Beekeeper John Chapple and his Royal Assistant Andy Pedley!!

John Chapple and Emma Sarah Tennant

Andy Pedley and Emily Heath

Both John and Andy have many years of beekeeping experience, and tend Royal Hives at Buckingham Palace and Clarence House. They also keep other hives all over London, including the charming Ealing apiary.

They apologized for not being able to give me a tour of the Royal Hives, but explained that they are not allowed to bring visitors.  Even Royal visitors are restricted to the likes of the Dalai Lama, who toured the hives recently.

John and Andy themselves must undergo extensive security background checks every several years.  Security at the Royal Residences is very high, especially when the Royals (aka “The Principals”) are in residence. According to Andy, “there are lots of shooters around then.”

Everyone tasted my honey, and pronounced it palatable.  One little lady bee was a particular fan.

Bee Enjoying My American Honey

Not surprisingly, John disagreed with Steve Benbow about the sufficiency of forage in the City of London to support the growing number of urban beekeepers. However, everyone agrees that it is important to plant more bee-friendly trees, shrubs and flowers within the City, and reduce the use of herbicides and pesticides.

After tea, I helped Emma inspect her bees and feed the apiary hives.  I could see the toll the inclement weather has taken on the colonies who live there. I was glad to hear that they were expecting better weather in July.

Andy was kind enough to take a picture of Emma and me after our inspection!

Emma and I had an uneventful trip back to London, chatting all the way!!  It was a great day in the country, and I can hardly wait to return!!

Feedback From Steve Benbow On My Post…

A lovely man…

Hi Deborah

That’s very funny – did I really use that phrase?! I’m sorry that’s very rude!

Thank you for the book plug and your honey was brill…


Tea With Fortnum’s Beemaster Steve Benbow

Over the past few days I’ve had the opportunity to chat with some of the best beekeepers in the UK about their craft.  Now I face the daunting task of writing about them.

Last Friday after my tour of Fortnum’s hives I was thrilled to be taken to tea by Steve Benbow, urban beekeeper, successful entrepreneur, and Fortnum’s Beemaster, to discuss urban beekeeping.

Steve has a long history of urban beekeeping. Fifteen years ago he decided he wanted to keep bees in Central London. There was only one problem: he lived on the sixth story of an ex-council block near Tower Bridge with no garden. The only outside space was the building’s flat roof, accessible via a fire escape. Having located his first hive behind the lift shaft, the bees prospered and produced award-winning honey.

Inspired by other urban beekeepers in Paris, Tokyo, Rio and New York, Steve founded the London Honey Company, a business that has grown rapidly and now produces honey for Harrods, Harvey Nichols and The Savoy, as well as several small delicatessens across London. He also services hives for the National Portrait Gallery, Tate Modern and Tate Britain, as well as a variety of commercial clients, many of whom sell their honey within their stores.

Hives At The Tate Modern

Steve was very forthcoming about his experiences with Fortnum’s bees.  He keeps two varieties, Carniolan bees, which are a little more feisty, and Welsh Black bees, which are quite gentle.  He  likes to keep two different varieties which he believes complement each other.

Fortnum’s was the first London commercial establishment to consider keeping bees in the City.  Steve was contacted by Jonathan Miller, Fortnum’s visionary new products buyer, back in 2004 about the project.

Mr. Miller himself designed the ornate WBC hives.  Installed in 2008, the final design is very much in keeping with the spirit of the facade of the store, with a different theme for each hive, – Roman, Mughal, Chinese and Gothic.

Each six-foot structure has  its own triumphal arch entrance, gold finial beehive pinnacle and is dressed in Fortnum’s signature blue-green eau de nil and gold livery. The roofs are pagoda in style and, when observed as a group, resemble the waves of the ocean.

The unique hives were hand crafted by Welsh carpenter, Kim Farley-Harper, who will be happy to make a bespoke hive for customers.  The only drawback may be the price.  It is reported that Fortnum’s hives cost 1500 £ a piece.

The biggest difficulty Steve first encountered was the public perception that the bees might be a public hazard.  That is no longer the case, and Fortnum’s considers its rooftop beehives to be a success. It is considering keeping other hives elsewhere.

Other challenges Steve has faced have been swarm control and Varroa mites.  Steve treats his hives for Varroa with Oxalic acid, and uses splits to control swarms.  He happily reports that Fortnum’s bees have never swarmed.

Benbow uses a Queen excluder and mouse guards in the winter. He feeds his bees sugar syrup in periods of dearth. He uses some insulation in his hives, but reports that the heat of Fortnum’s buildings prevents the hives from getting too cold in winter.

I asked Steve to comment upon the June 15 London Evening Standard article in which Angela Woods, secretary of the London Bee Keepers Association, was quoted as saying London’s bees are under threat of starvation and disease because of a boom in the number of urban beekeepers.  She stated that there isn’t enough forage in central London, and that bees shouldn’t be kept above two stories high.

Steve’s reaction to the article was a pithy “Bollocks!”

He pointed out that bees have been living in tall trees and other high places for many thousands of years, and that while London could always use more trees and flowers, the primary challenge to urban bees this year has been the inclement weather, not a lack of forage.

It was a fascinating interview, and Mr. Benbow could not have been more cooperative and charming. He even complimented my American-made honey. But I think he was just being nice.  🙂

Steve has a new book out, The Urban Beekeeper, which I’ve read and found delightful.  I urge you all to pick up a copy and find out even more about his busy life and career.

Dr. Dee

Last night I went to the English National Opera to see the London premiere of Damon Albarn‘s critically acclaimed modern opera Dr. Dee. 

I knew I was going to love it from the opening moments when live ravens flew over my head onto the stage. I’m a sucker for a trained raven!

I’m also a big fan of opera, both modern and classical.  Nixon in China rocks, and I’m seeing La Traviata  for the zillionth time in a few weeks.

But, being terminally unhip, I had no idea who Damon Albarn was.  It turns out he is the frontman of the UK alt-rock band Blur (?) and the creator of the animated pop-rockers Gorillaz. (??)  Okay, I’m still terminally unhip.

The real reason I went to see the opera was because I really like Dr. John Dee.  Actually, “obsessed” is more accurate. I even have a small tattoo of the Divine Monad on my wrist… (See glyph on opera poster above.)

No one can say I don’t own my crazy.

Who is Dr. John Dee, you say?  Only one of the most fascinating figures of the Elizabethan era!  He was a trusted adviser to Queen Elizabeth I, as well as an astronomer, mathematician, navigator, alchemist, spy and celestial necromancer.

Dee was also a magus and a mystic who attempted to talk to angels. Unfortunately, the Good Doctor fell in with an occultist of dubious reputation, Edward Kelley, who convinced Dee that the angels wanted them to swap wives.

Dee reluctantly agreed, and bad fortune followed. The very stuff of which great operas are made!

Albarn’s opera turns Dee’s life into a variation on the Faust legend, with Dee entering a doomed agreement with a demonic Kelley. It really works!

The music is more English folk music than rock, surprisingly.  The orchestra plays authentic 16th century instruments, with spoken narration and lead vocals from Albarn, who is quite good.

The opera ends with more ravens.  Cool!

If you have a chance, go see it.  It’s playing for another few weeks in London, and I’m sure it will turn up in other cities as well!

Oxford And The Football Match

Okay, I know I haven’t posted much about my beekeeping adventures, but there’s so much to report, it’s going to take more time than I have right now.  I’m going to work on those posts on my flight back home tomorrow.  I promise!!

I’m so grateful to have had the opportunity to spend time with so many wonderful people while I’ve been here! People I would never have met but for my little blog about my hobbies.

I’m still amazed that these interesting and talented folks were willing to make time in their schedules for me, a struggling American writer whose major asset is that I’m willing to try almost anything once! That, and I usually think my misadventures are funny. In retrospect, of course.

Yesterday was no exception.  I spent the day in Oxford, which was fascinating but exhausting.


I also write fiction, and I was doing research for one of my books, The Warlock of Wall Street, a paranormal mystery.  The main character is from Oxford, and her parents, both Oxford Dons, were murdered in a particularly grisly way.  But enough about that…

After I got back to London, all I had the strength to do was watch the big soccer (er… football ) match between England and Italy in my hotel bar.

I’m very chatty when I travel by myself, and I struck up a conversation with an extremely congenial couple at the bar, who were also cheering for England.

The fellow said he was “with the Finnish government” and was here to give a speech. The three of us had a great time teasing the Germans at the next table and cheering for England to win the match.

After I had a few glasses of wine, I suggested he start off his speech with a joke and even told a few of my corny ones.  After I bid them goodnight and returned to my room, I looked the fellow up on the internet.

He was very easy to find, being that he was Jyri Häkämies, the Minister for Economic Affairs for Finland and all…

I cringe to remember some of the dopey things I said, not to mention the terrible jokes.  For one thing, I couldn’t remember whether it was the G7 or the G8, so I just said both.  Yikes!!

Thank goodness, they seemed to find me amusing.  I’m going to leave them a jar of honey at the front desk.

I’m going to the Opera tonight.  I’ll be on my best behavior!!

More later.

A Few Things I Learned In London Yesterday

Portrait of Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Well...

Portrait of Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’m dreadfully behind on my British beekeeping-related posts, but I swear I’m working on them! In the meantime, I thought I’d share a few things I learned in London yesterday…

1.  Unless you are the actual Duke of Wellington, you can’t get a drink in the Ritz Bar wearing wellies. And carrying a bee suit in a bag.   Jeans are okay though.

2.  The Maitre’ D at the Ritz is a lovely man. He gave me a warm invitation to return, provided I lose the wellies and the bee suit.

3.  If, by sheer obtuseness, you fail to pay the full bus fare, the bus driver does not stop the bus and throw you off.  He probably figures you are mentally deficient.

4.  If you go into the local Off Track Betting Shop, they happily give you bus change.  You don’t even have to bet on anything. They seem to find it very amusing.

5.  I speak a dialect of the English language that is very difficult for most people to understand. Especially when I’m asking for directions.

6.  Jet lag is real. Very real. Somehow I thought I could will it into submission. Nope!! I’m fine today though.

More later…

My Visit To Fortnum’s

I think they could spot me a mile away.  For one thing, I was the only person wearing trousers in Fortnum’s trademark color, eau de nil.

Which, for you Yankees out there, is a lovely aquamarine color, literally translated as “water of the Nile.”  (No, not the color of the Nile these days, but back when they found Moses in the bullrushes.)

Eau de Nil

Being from Ohio, I called my aquamarine trousers, “pants”, when a cute little bee landed on them.  Only then was I informed that “pants” means something very different in the UK, and was something one shouldn’t be blabbing about in polite company!

Anyway, in true Midwestern fashion, I arrived unfashionably early (30 minutes!) for my 10:00 am meeting with Jonathan Miller, Fortnum’s sweet grocery buyer, to tour the rooftop bee hives. I was terrified of sleeping through my meeting, especially since my body clock said it was 5 am!!

I had plenty of time to view Fortnum’s Jubilee window decorations, including my favorite one – the honey display.

I also I had time for tea in Fortnum’s charming Fountain Restaurant.  My tea was beautifully served from a silver teapot into a fine china teacup.  I felt very pampered!!

When it was finally time for my meeting, Mr. Miller informed me that he had been summoned to Highgrove (!!), but that Fortnum’s charismatic Bee Master Steve Benbow was being filmed for a television show about London, and that I would be welcome to tag along.

Now tell me, what could be better than that??  (Here’s a hint…Steve Benbow took me for tea afterwards to answer my bee-related questions!!)

More on my tea with Steve later.  For now, here are some pictures!!

My First Night In The City

I think London needs a proper nickname.  It really doesn’t have one, not like “The Big Apple” or “The Windy City.”

I’m thinking we should give it one!!

And, given London’s plethora of urban beekeepers, I think it should be something bee-related.  Maybe “The Big Hive” or, even better, “The Queen City.”  That one does double duty!!

Just some suggestions..

I’m thrilled to have arrived in London on the day of the Summer Solstice. I didn’t plan it that way, but it was a nice bit of synchronicity.  The sun even cooperated, making the afternoon very pleasant!!

Here is an original cocktail recipe to celebrate!

The Summer Solstice

½ yellow nectarine
1 lemon wedge
1 tangerine wedge
4  mint leaves
½ oz peach liqueur
1 oz. cognac
½ oz honey

Muddle the nectarine, lemon, and tangerine at the bottom of your shaker. Add ice, liqueur, honey, cognac and mint (slap the mint first), then shake. Pour into an old-fashioned glass filled with crushed ice.

Tomorrow morning will find me at Fortnum’s, touring the bee hives!  I will report on my visit promptly!!