At the entrance to the garden of remembrance in my local cemetery there is a startling white cross. At its base these words are written:
In memory of
The seven million Ukrainians
Who died during the Famine
I have seen it every week on my way to visit my husband’s memorial stone on the place where his ashes are buried. I have often stopped to stare in horror at that number ~ 7 million ~ half of them children, who starved to death as a direct result of the man-made famine, which was the means by which Stalin enacted the great genocidal terror just 90 years ago.
But in the last fortnight this horror has been replaced by amazement and disbelief that we now have a new Stalin in the world in Mr Putin. Fortunately we have TV news, social media and much better communications now than we had in 1932. We also have friends and neighbours with families living through the current horror of war in Ukraine. So, every wicked act that is carried out in Mr Putin’s name will be recorded and documented, hopefully to be used to try him for genocide in the Court of Human Rights, when he is defeated. And make no mistake, this is entirely Mr Putin’s war.
Here in the Cotswolds as Spring breaks out, people are coming together to help in any way they can. Big organisations are collecting money and aid. But individuals and local communities are helping too. A young man who works alongside his Ukrainian friend decided to fill a lorry with essentials and take it over to the Poland/Ukraine border. He put a request out locally and within days he had to move from a school hall to a huge warehouse as so many donations came in. Large companies then got involved by offering huge container lorries to take the humanitarian aid across Europe. So to date several lorries have successfully arrived on the Polish border and real-time video updates are sent back to show supporters exactly where their donations have gone. Another lorry will be filled tomorrow, entirely by local volunteers. And, the last lorry from here will leave on Wednesday.
People have donated everything you can think of that people might need. Others have sorted, packed and labelled the donations. It has been a heartwarming experience to be part of this outpouring of love and compassion for our fellow man. It is goodness in action. I, personally have several dear friends who are Russian. I am godmother to a wonderful young Russian woman so I will never believe that the ordinary citizens of Russia support this war.
This is Putin’s war and the rest of the free world must ensure that he loses it….
“For we are not fighting against human beings but against the wicked spiritual forces in the heavenly world, the rulers, authorities, and cosmic powers of this dark age So put on God’s armour now! Then when the evil day comes, you will be able to resist the enemy’s attacks; and after fighting to the end, you will still hold your ground.”Ephesians 6; 12-14
Since lockdown eased and I am able to travel again, I have embarked on a very personal pilgrimage. In the past I have travelled with groups or a few friends on pilgrimages to Lourdes. And in the Jubilee year, 2000, I went on a pilgrimage with my late husband to Rome. But this is an entirely different sort of pilgrimage. My focus is to visit all of the chapels, churches, cathedrals and abbeys for which Tom Denny has created stained-glass windows.
A pilgrimage is simply a journey to a Holy place. But we often discover our true selves on the journey, and go home refreshed, restored, and with a renewed sense of purpose and meaning in our lives. So, I guess I am trying subconsciously to find new meaning and purpose for my life since being widowed.
I’m not going to write a learned piece about stained-glass or compare the merits or otherwise of ancient versus modern, as that has been done elsewhere. We know that the purpose of the earliest stained-glass windows was to portray the Gospel stories, and lives of the Saints, for people who did not have access to a Bible or religious texts. They were informative, telling the churchgoing viewer what to believe. They are undoubtedly exquisite works of art. But I do not find them as mesmerising and deeply spiritual as Tom Denny’s windows. His seem to be reflective (apologies for the pun) rather than instructive. They show what is and ask you for your response.
I have loved his work since I first saw his depiction of Jesus showing his wounded hands to doubting Thomas. The image, created in 1992 in Gloucester Cathedral, is stunning. From a distance there is just a vast area of azure blue glass. But when you closely study the windows, you begin to see the details. The sun and moon presiding over the elements; the trees, animals and birds. And then, hidden but in plain sight, Jesus. He is looking out from the window at me with his hands open as if to say, “Here I am. This is me. I have given my all for you and all of humankind. Now go and do the same!” That impression will never leave me.
So, I have embarked on my pilgrimage to see and learn more. I was delighted to discover that there are many more of Tom Denny’s windows within a couple of hours drive of my home. First, I visited Hereford Cathedral where the windows celebrate the life of Thomas Traherne. I knew nothing of this 17th century mystic priest and poet. I have since discovered that Traherne was a brilliant man and a philosopher, way ahead of his time. His wisdom is poured into his astonishing prose, Centuries of Meditations. Traherne believed that the presence of God is everywhere and that we are called to sense it every day. His parish was in Credenhill, a Herefordshire village surrounded by the beauty of the natural world.
I have realised that Tom Denny really gets to the heart of a place or person before he embarks on the creating a window. So, all of this beauty is reflected in the details in Tom Denny’s windows. There are children, old people, animals, birds, butterflies and insects, trees, hills and fields, as well as the city of Hereford. All are bathed in the light coming from the cross.
Traherne called young children ‘moving jewels’ ~ isn’t that just lovely?
I have copied some details from Tom Denny’s book, Glory, Azure & Gold as the windows are quite high and my photos don’t show the detail.
This week I continued my pilgrimage with a trip to the Priory Church in Great Malvern. This was a revelation again. Firstly, Malvern is a beautiful town set in glorious lush countryside surrounding the Malvern Hills. There are gorgeous parks with some truly ancient trees and beautiful lakes and springs. Indeed the town has been famous for its spring water since 1622. The town is quite a challenge for me as it is so hilly and I get quite breathless since I had Covid. But I persevered and am so glad I did. The priory itself was founded by the Benedictine monk, St Aldwin in 1085. It was a monastery for 450 years until it was at risk of dissolution. In 1541 the local people raised £20 to save it for the town. Since then it has been a parish church. It still has an original stone font from Norman times and the 15th century Nave is built on the original columns from 1085. It also has a treasured collection of stained glass windows dating back to mediaeval times. They depict old testament scenes including the Creation, and the lives of Noah, Abraham and Moses. But of course I came to see the fabulous Denny Millennium windows. These were installed in 2004. They were based on Psalm 36 which explores the nature of God. The windows express the theme through images from nature: including heavens, clouds, mountains, oceans, wings, fountains and light. There are also people in the windows so typical of those I have seen in other Denny windows. They are simple, rustic representations yet with faces and movement full of personality. There is also a magnificent depiction of a stag, which to me represents the power and glory of God. Here are some of my photos. But do scroll to the end to see my favourites!
This last image is one that will stay with me. There are countless ways to interpret the foot seemingly walking out of the window. Denny quotes, “Behold upon the mountains the feet of him that bringeth good tidings…” (Nahum 1.15). Being a long time member of the WI it also reminds me of the hymn Jerusalem: “And did those feet in ancient time walk upon England’s mountains green?”
But over all that it reminds me most of the feeling I got when I first saw the original painting by Rembrandt of The Return of the Prodigal Son. I was visiting the State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg, Russia in 2003. The Hermitage is huge and there are many floors and corridors to explore. On one of the corridors there were 2 enormous panelled doors which were closed. On opening them I was confronted by the painting which was immediately facing the doors and took up the whole wall. The painting is 81/2 feet tall and the figures are life size! The impression I got, which was of course cleverly planned, was that I was stepping into the painting ~ I was the returning prodigal son and the face of the father was lit up with love for me! Rembrandt has brilliantly portrayed the son with one shoe falling off and his bare foot cracked and sore, to represent the journey, hardship and defeat he has suffered. I have to say the painting filled me with such emotion that it made me cry.
If you are still with me on this exceptionally long blogpost, I apologise but hope it is worth it. At the East end of the priory church was a very unexpected find. There is a display about C S Lewis’s book, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Lewis spent much of his childhood in Malvern, not all of it happy apparently, and went to Malvern school. He often attended services at the priory. It is noted that as he left via the East porch he would have seen the light streaming through the great east window as if there was another world beyond. So, the porch is believed to be the inspiration for the wardrobe. I have to say that seeing the porch as I did on a lovely sunny day, this seems highly plausible. So there is a carving of a lion’s head and a replica gas lamp behind the porch. Another minor detail I discovered is that the word Aslan, which is the name of the lion in the 7 books in the Chronicles of Narnia series, is derived from the Turkish word for lion.
I was listening to Rev Richard Coles on his Saturday morning radio 4 show recently and heard him talk about his sadventures. And, I knew exactly what he meant.
He lost his partner in December 2019, just 4 months before I lost my husband, and since then life has gone on but it will never be the same. He still has to earn a living, follow his vocation, and try to stay alive and get pleasure from what he does. And I do too. I have to feed and walk our dog, keep the house in a decent condition, stay in touch with friends and family, and try to enjoy what is left of my life. But it is so hard some days.
I have tried to make plans and stick to them for short trips, days out and even a holiday. But, any enjoyment I get is tinged with sadness as the little voice in my head says, “Gerry would have loved this!”. Hence, as for Rev Coles and all bereaved people, however pleasant my excursions may be, they will always be ‘sadventures’.
I went to Evesham yesterday with my wonderful sister and her family. The day was perfect, not too hot and not raining! The Abbey grounds were beautiful still bearing the ruins of the ancient building and walls. We found a lovely café which allowed dogs in as well as pushchairs. So, we sat and enjoyed coffee and ice-cream. Then I spotted an unusual sculpture of a large fish. Near it was a sign explaining the Legend of St Egwin who founded Evesham Abbey.
The legend says that Egwin was made Bishop of Worcester in the year 693. He came from a noble family possibly related to Aethelred King of Mercia. Egwin came to be at odds with the local population over his strict views on Christian marriage. His stern discipline created resentment which made him enemies and these people reported him to the Pope in Rome. Egwin undertook to prove that his regime was correct and journeyed to Rome to see the Pope face to face. Before he left Evesham he put a shackle round his feet and threw the key in the river vowing not to be released until he had the blessing of the Pope.
When Egwin reached Rome he settled into his accommodation and his servant went to market to buy fish for his supper. You’ve probably guessed that when the fish was opened up, a key was found inside its stomach, the key to the shackle! After such a happening how could the Pope not give his blessing? Hence, Egwin returned vindicated to Evesham and thereafter founded Evesham Abbey at the behest of Eof the swineherd after his vision of the Virgin Mary.
A fascinating legend which left me wondering how on earth a swineherd could raise the funds for an Abbey on this scale. But, also how Gerry, who loved fishing would have enjoyed this legend!
Summer used to be such an exciting time. As a child in the north east of England, it meant day trips by steam train to ‘the coast’. This was usually South Shields where the sand dunes seemed to go on forever. In my memory it was often raining there but my wonderful dad would ameliorate the conditions by explaining that it was just ‘sea mist’. So, we would sit huddled under umbrellas on the sands eating soggy, sandy sandwiches. But if, by chance the weather was good, these days out were glorious.
On very special days, when my mum and dad had some extra money, we would take the steam train to Whitley Bay. That was a real treat. There was the exotic Spanish City, which was a fairground paradise. here you could be scared witless on the ghost train, or, transported by joy on the magical carousel.
If you were very lucky you could throw balls at coconuts and win a goldfish. This involved buying a bowl and fish-food, then carrying the poor fish around all day. But, if it survived, and they usually did, they would live happily on our dining table for years.
Leaving the Spanish City was a wrench but we would then walk along the sands to Tynemouth to play on the ruins of the ancient castle and priory. Or, if the tide was out we would walk to St Mary’s lighthouse and watch the cormorants sunning themselves, with outstretched wings, on the rocks.
As a child I would often look longingly across the beach road in Tynemouth (literally where the magnificent river Tyne goes out into the North Sea), to the fish and chip cafe on the other side. This was a take-away downstairs with an eat-in cafe upstairs. It had large windows so that diners could enjoy the fabulous views. But as a little child those windows served to show me how rich people lived! Looking longingly at them I determined that when I grew up I would work very hard and earn enough money so that I could sit upstairs in that cafe and enjoy fish n chips with bread n butter and a nice cup of tea. Such ambition!
I have to say over the years I moved far away from the north east. But, I did get a good job in education and one day I went back to the north sea coast and I visited the same fish and chip cafe. It was a surreal experience walking up those stairs. I sat at the big window table and I ate my fish and chips with bread and butter and a nice cup of tea. It was absolutely mouth-wateringly good and fully justified the half-century wait. But the best bit was looking out of that window to the spectacular view and seeing other children who no doubt had their own dreams.
One of my favourite places to visit is the old abbey known as St Peter’s Grange, at Prinknash in the Cotswolds. I have written about it several times before
Now that the monks have returned to the Grange it is not open to the public except for the chapel. I often pop in there during my walks alone or with a friend. One of the features that has always appealed to me, is what looks like a brass or silver boat hanging from the ceiling. Hanging underneath is a round candle holder, which could symbolize the earth. Having seen many churches with decorative features in the shape of a boat, or stained-glass windows depicting Jesus rescuing his terrified disciples’ boat by calming the stormy seas; I decided to explore the significance of this beautiful object. I discovered that it represents, appropriately, the Barque of St Peter.
In the Gospels (Matthew 8: v23-27), the story is told of how Jesus subdued the winds and the waves that rocked the boat he was on, during a storm in the Sea of Galilee. This calmed the terrified disciples, including Peter who was to become, as the first Pope, the rock that the Church was built on. This, and many other events in the old and new testaments, led to the church being imagined as a ship carrying souls through whatever storms life throws at them, and bringing them safely to harbour. The imagery is so strong that the body of the church, where the ordinary people congregate, is called the Nave, from the Latin ‘Navis’, meaning a ship.
For me, as a Christian, it reflects the fact that earthly life can be seen as a pilgrimage and the church is there to enable us to reach our heavenly home. In practical terms I can say that I could not have survived the loss of my dear husband in 2020 without the spiritual support given by Seb Cummings from Mariners’ Church in Gloucester, and Fr Alan Finley from St Thomas More’s Church in Cheltenham.
Having grown up by the North Sea, I know how powerful and frightening the sea can be so I now find this ‘ship of souls’ very comforting. But, I will always find the sea exciting, so I’ll finish off with one of my favourite poems remembered from schooldays- Sea Fever by John Masefield (1878–1967) and it sums up my feelings perfectly:
I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,
And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by;
And the wheel’s kick and the wind’s song and the white sail’s shaking,
And a grey mist on the sea’s face, and a grey dawn breaking.
I must go down to the seas again, for the call of the running tide
Is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied;
And all I ask is a windy day with the white clouds flying,
And the flung spray and the blown spume, and the sea-gulls crying.
I must go down to the seas again, to the vagrant gypsy life,
To the gull’s way and the whale’s way where the wind’s like a whetted knife;
And all I ask is a merry yarn from a laughing fellow-rover,
And quiet sleep and a sweet dream when the long trick’s over.
It is ironic that it took a global pandemic caused by a miniscule virus to show how fragile our world really is, and how interdependent we are.
Yet another irony is that, during the pandemic of Covid-19, we have never felt so alone and out of control. Normally, with good planning, hard-earned resources, a bit of luck and the practical or emotional help of family and friends, most of us can cope with any emergency or unexpected event. But, with this pandemic none of our personal skills, contacts or experience have been of much help at all. Many of us have faced situations which we simply could not avoid or cope with.
For myself it all began on Tuesday 24rd March 2020 after the UK government brought in special rules to “Stay home, save lives, protect the NHS”. Listening to the horrific news reports on TV about how the virus was killing, not hundreds but thousands, of people in China and Italy, the people of the UK were shocked and frightened enough to comply ~ well except for Dominic Cummings! However, there were many people who could not stay at home. There were essential workers who had to wear personal protective equipment (PPE) and carry on with their jobs. Then there were frail people like my husband who had to attend hospital regularly for treatment – in his case, dialysis. Usually he was picked up by hospital transport at midday and returned home around 7pm every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. But, in order to avoid his being in transport with other people, I was asked to bring him in and pick him up myself. This I was more than happy to do.
However, once I got to the dialysis unit it was obvious that the situation was far from safe or controlled. All of the patients, as well as transport drivers and nurses, were packed into one small waiting area with no PPE at all and no possibility of social distancing! I was so worried that when I got home, I rang the hospital to complain that they were not observing the safety rules set out by the government.
Needless to say, within a week we were both feeling unwell. On Tuesday 31st March my husband was getting confused and didn’t want to eat anything. On Wednesday 1st April he stayed in bed all day and again didn’t eat. On Thursday 2nd April the nurses phoned me from dialysis to say that my husband was really unwell. I drove straight there to find him barely conscious and being dreadfully sick. He couldn’t recognise me and was obviously very ill. We decided that he needed to go to the Emergency department at the other end of the hospital. However, the Covid-19 rules meant anyone suspected of having the virus was not allowed into the main hospital. So, to avoid a very long walk around the outside of the hospital, his lovely named nurse rang for an ambulance. This took what felt like an eternity to arrive and the paramedics, seemingly unaware of the rules, were extremely cross that I hadn’t just wheeled him through the hospital in a wheelchair. Eventually they agreed to bring a trolley in and they got him onto the ambulance. I was about to climb in after him when they said I wasn’t allowed to go with him and I wouldn’t be allowed to visit him. At that point I felt sick with fear.
After testing it was found that he did indeed have Covid-19 so he was sent to a special ward. There followed days of confusion. I sent in his essentials; pyjamas, phone, drinks, sweets etc., none of which he was well enough to receive or use. The hospital was becoming overwhelmed with cases of the virus and the staff seemed to be in chaos. I phoned daily and got very different reports on his condition but never got to talk to my husband himself. 3 times I was told by one doctor that he could go home, only to be told later by a different doctor that he was too ill to go home.
So, when on Thursday 9th April, a senior doctor phoned me I was delighted to hear that my husband was ‘doing well’. However, I had misheard and what the doctor actually said was that my husband ‘was not doing well’. In fact, he was so unwell that this consultant was going to break all the rules and allow me to come into the hospital and sit with him. For this I will be eternally grateful.
When I got to the hospital staff were very unwilling to let me in but eventually, they were overruled. From the minute I got in the nurses were wonderful. They gave me full PPE and moved my husband’s bed to a private en-suite room on the 9th floor with a wonderful view of the city skyline as the sun set. I suppose this should have rung alarm bells for me, but it didn’t. My husband looked so peaceful, sleeping. I thought if I just kept talking, he would eventually wake up. I chattered on for 7 hours about all the things he loved; family, fishing, caravanning, holidays and home. But he never did wake up. His breathing, which had been loud, got quieter and slower, and eventually at 1.20am on Good Friday 10th April, it just stopped. There was no drama, he just slipped away quietly and with no fuss.
When I summoned the nurse to tell her, she was exhausted and despondent. She had seen so many people die of this virus; 5 in the last 24 hours, which was more death than she had ever experienced before. I felt so sorry for her. She then carefully put most of my husband’s belongings in special bags as ‘contaminated’ to be safely disposed of. It was then I realised that we really were in a ‘plague’ situation.
The PPE combined with my own developing Coronavirus had me dripping in sweat, but with the help of a socially distanced porter, I managed to find my way out to the carpark. There I sat, alone, in the middle of the night for such a long time, in a state of shock and feeling numb. I just didn’t know what I was supposed to do next. And, I realised now that I didn’t feel well at all. The thing about being a carer is that you are so focussed on the person you care for that you tend to be unaware of how you are yourself. But I managed to drive home and didn’t see another car on the bypass. This just added to the strangeness of the situation.
The days that followed my husband’s death were unbelievably awful. Nothing was normal as no one was working properly due to the government pandemic rules; not the registrar, the funeral directors, the bereavement office or anyone. Everything was such a struggle, which just compounded my grief. Then I became seriously ill. My daughter was checking on me daily from outside my window and she had been concerned that I was suffering from the virus. On the Sunday evening when she came round, I was in a state of collapse, confused, with a raging temperature and unable to stand. She called an ambulance and I was taken straight into hospital. My Coronavirus test was positive so I was transferred to an isolation room on a Covid ward. Anyone who says Covid is just like flu, or not even as bad as flu as Mr Trump said recently, has not experienced the full horror of the virus. The coughing is relentless and breathing so difficult. But for me the worst thing was the soaring temperature and unbelievable sweating which soaked through clothes and bedding as fast as they could be changed. Also, my kidneys were being attacked which has damaged them possibly permanently. I did often feel like giving up, and some days death would have been welcome. But, thanks to wonderful doctors, a superb local hospital and the encouragement and prayers of my wonderful family and friends, I recovered. My lungs don’t appear to be permanently damaged, but I get breathless now just taking the dog for her walk and my arthritis is much more painful. I’ve actually bought a walking stick and a seat-stick because I feel so weak and tired some days. But I know how lucky I am to have survived and I am grateful.
There was a long delay in having my husband’s body collected from the hospital by the funeral directors and I was not allowed to visit or see his body there. Funerals were on hold so a whole month passed before he could even be cremated. And the organisation of the funeral was out of my hands due to Covid-19 restrictions. Rules stated that only 5 people were allowed to attend his funeral and it had to be held outside the crematorium. We couldn’t have music or video or live streaming or any means of sharing the funeral with his loving family. It is unimaginably hard to have to tell sisters, grandchildren and his many good friends, that they could not attend his funeral. I find it hard even now to express how devastating the ‘funeral’ was.
Five of us walked behind the hearse towards the crematorium building. The funeral directors lifted up the rear door of the hearse and they slid the coffin onto a trolley. No-one was allowed to touch the coffin. We gathered round for a reading and prayers in the ten-minute service, which was all we were allowed.
The weather was atrocious with howling wind being funnelled through the car park. I comfort myself by believing it was the Holy Spirit blowing through.
Suddenly there came from Heaven a noise like a violent rushing wind, and it filled the whole house where they were sitting…And they were filled with the Holy Spirit
The minister, Seb Cummings from Mariners’ church in Gloucester, was so compassionate but sadly we couldn’t hear the readings we had chosen so carefully because of the wind. Then the funeral directors wheeled the trolley inside and he was gone. It just didn’t seem real to me, but the oddness and sadness of it will stay with me forever. Now all I have are my memories and my photographs.
On the death of the beloved
Though we need to weep your loss, You dwell in that safe place in our hearts, Where no storm or night or pain can reach you.
Your love was like the dawn Brightening over our lives Awakening beneath the dark A further adventure of colour.
The sound of your voice Found for us A new music That brightened everything.
Whatever you enfolded in your gaze Quickened in the joy of its being; You placed smiles like flowers On the altar of the heart. Your mind always sparkled With wonder at things.
Though your days here were brief, Your spirit was live, awake, complete.
We look towards each other no longer From the old distance of our names; Now you dwell inside the rhythm of breath, As close to us as we are to ourselves.
Though we cannot see you with outward eyes, We know our soul’s gaze is upon your face, Smiling back at us from within everything To which we bring our best refinement.
Let us not look for you only in memory, Where we would grow lonely without you. You would want us to find you in presence, Beside us when beauty brightens, When kindness glows And music echoes eternal tones.
When orchids brighten the earth, Darkest winter has turned to spring; May this dark grief flower with hope In every heart that loves you.
May you continue to inspire us:
To enter each day with a generous heart. To serve the call of courage and love Until we see your beautiful face again In that land where there is no more separation, Where all tears will be wiped from our mind, And where we will never lose you again.
by John O’Donohue
Since all this happened, as restrictions eased a bit, I have been able to lay Gerry to rest with the dignity of his family around him. Our wonderful priest Fr Alan Finley conducted a beautiful short service with prayers and readings that gave the ceremony meaning, and me a great deal of comfort.
I now have a place I can visit which is peaceful and beautiful and a fitting tribute to his life. I grieve every day and every night.
Leaving Cheltenham railway station with its newly enlarged car park, almost empty whether through Covid-19 or high charges I’m not sure; it doesn’t take long to observe the great divide between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’ in our sceptred and struggling isle.
Passing beautiful villages in Gloucestershire and Worcestershire, the river Avon lined with small cruisers, sweeps towards Tewkesbury in the early morning mist. The magnificent tower of the Abbey glows golden in the rising sun. Further on I spot what looks like an Elizabethan timbered Manor House surrounded by pastures. There’s an avenue of majestic trees leading to nowhere, but impressive none the less. Smaller, but equally grand houses, peep out from manicured lawns and tastefully arranged woodland.
In no time at all this rural idyll is replaced by a growing development of high-rise flats, which are so close to the railway line that they must be quaking. Rows of diggers, lorries and trucks continue to gouge deep foundations out of the earth where more flats are being constructed.
Then as if to mock the builders there are two towering apartment blocks totally smothered in scaffolding. This is the Grenfell Tower legacy. On 14 June 2017 a 24-storey block of flats in London, named Grenfell Towers, caught fire and 72 people lost their lives. Countless other people lost everything and were made homeless. The way the fire was able to spread so rapidly and with such devastating consequences was due entirely to the shocking commercial decision to use inferior but cheaper cladding to face that and many other tall buildings. As a result, unsuspecting homeowners across the UK are now saddled with the cost of removing and replacing it. Hence the scaffolding on many tall buildings.
Beyond Birmingham and travelling through Staffordshire the effects of the current Coronavirus pandemic are obvious in the empty car parks and deserted shopping centres that are a feature of every reasonably-sized town in the country.
On the train social distancing is obvious too, with alternate seats vacant and the few brave travellers all sporting masks in every shade and pattern.
The UK has just entered its second period of restrictions to protect the Economy, the NHS and the people in that order.
Businesses are allowed to open but workers are advised to stay at home. Schools, colleges and universities are open, and the seasonal colds and flu that affect the majority of students as the autumn chill and rain replaces the heat of summer, strike fear into every teacher’s heart.
Everyone with symptoms is advised to get tested for Covid-19, but with typical British incompetence, it is almost impossible to get a test anywhere near to home.
Travelling through Shropshire now, the countryside is beautiful with miles of farmland, reservoirs, rivers and woods. It seems much less densely populated than other areas. However, the fields are torn apart by the motorways and dual carriageways that are almost deserted today. Travelling is very restricted due to the virus.
Entering Shrewsbury station there are more people lining the platforms. It looks like the set of a very low-budget horror film, with everyone wearing masks.
The small grubby trains of Transport for Wales soon block my view. I can’t help mentally comparing them with the sleek and spotless high-speed trains in other European countries I have visited. I do wonder if we are leaving the European Union because we simply can’t compete with many of the members on any level.
Once we are out of the EU, our government will be able to spout their rhetoric about being ‘world beating’, as we lag further and further behind. We will be left with our grotesque class system, abhorrent inequality, inadequate housing supply, struggling health system, divisive school system, hopeless and horrendously expensive transport system, crumbling roads and pavements, totally out of touch toffs in power and collapsing infrastructure.
Coming into Chester there is a Royal Mail depot with crimson red vans of various sizes manoeuvring around the yard before heading out on the road. This reminds me of all the posties who have kept on working throughout the pandemic. Along with all the emergency services, shopkeepers and care workers; these people who are amongst the lowest paid workers in the country, have kept things ticking over with some semblance of normality.
It makes me wonder why council teams couldn’t keep working to repair roads and pavements while there was little traffic and few pedestrians out and about. They would have been out in the open air and could have worked safely.
Into Wales now and passing Rhyl there are hundreds of static homes near the sea. Some are on holiday parks. They go on and on to Prestatyn. The trainline follows the coast and the views are spectacular. From here to Colwyn Bay, all along the horizon, there’s a wind farm with row upon row of majestic wind vanes.
As we leave Colwyn Bay there are some lovely big houses followed by smart farms with healthy looking cattle and sheep. And, suddenly the walls of a vast castle looms over the line. It is the magnificent Conwy Castle.
The industrial park at Llandudno Junction looks very busy with parked cars. Here in North Wales there is no sign of the lockdown that is affecting the South due to high numbers infected with the virus.
The coastline is gorgeous from here on and it is lovely to see rows of neatly tended allotments facing the sea.
The farms get more and more idyllic as we travel slowly round the North Wales coastline on the way to Bangor. The sheep and cows grazing in the fields of lush grass have no idea how lucky they are as their pasture slopes gently to the sea.
Ty Coes is a request stop and the guard comes round to ask if anyone wants to get off. Very quaint and rural! No-one does. Rosneigr is very boggy land with ducks enjoying the peace.
Then the lush, level land starts to get rockier, with boulders and bumps covered in gorse. And, in no time at all the train arrives in Holyhead. Many of the photos below were taken from the train so I apologise for the poor quality, But they do give a flavour of the beauty of the North Wales coast.
I am returning to one of my favourite subjects, and certainly one of my favourite places, for today’s blog post ~ Benhall woods.
According to records, there have been woods of some sort in this area since at least 1230. But the woods that we see today are much more recent. I have lived opposite Benhall park and near the woods, for almost 40 years now. It is a delight to have such a wild and wonderful place in the heart of our residential area. It is filled with Silver Birch, hazel and oak trees as well as blackberry bushes.
I used to bring my children here to play when they were very young. Then, as teenagers, they would play endlessly among the trees, riding their bikes (BMXs in those days), over the natural obstacle course formed long ago by the spoil from the construction of the railway that runs alongside. The bumps, dips and trenches make a perfect playground and the fallen trees add to the excitement and interest, providing endless hiding places and material for dens.
These days I bring my grandchildren to play in the woods and they love it just as much. There are always squirrels to spot and birds galore, including owls and woodpeckers that nest high up in the trees. The woodpecker even has a tree named after him as he has pecked so many holes in it. Smaller birds then nest in these holes. We regularly see a very arrogant Buzzard sitting on the ground, or pestering the life out of the other birds who angrily chase it off.
There is a stream running alongside the woods through the park. In the stream there are ‘millers’ thumb’ fish, and sometimes a heron or a great egret fishing for them!
In spring there is a carpet of snowdrops growing around the edges of the wood, followed later by banks of bluebells in wild areas where nettles flourish.
But I want to focus on a strange event that I observed recently in the woods.
Even when I do not have the grandchildren, I have to take my dog for a walk, and she loves the woods. We go in all winds and weathers and always feel relaxed and at ease among the sturdy trunks.
But one day recently the woods seemed different, darker, and more threatening. I have heard of the mysterious event referred to as a, ‘parliament of magpies’, but I had never experienced it before now. The canopy of every tree in the woods was literally alive with magpies. I have often seen one or two and sometimes up to 12 in the nearby fields, but I have never seen this many all in one place. There were dozens of them and they were not happy to have me and my dog wandering about in the woods. I clearly felt as if I were interrupting them by my presence. They grew very agitated flying from tree to tree, swooping and squawking loudly, as if to scare us away. And, I have to say it worked! I felt most uncomfortable and was worried in case they attacked my dog or me! So, we hastily left the woods and I swear that I heard a sigh of satisfaction as we did.
There are all sorts of folk tales, superstitions and nursery rhymes about birds in general and magpies in particular. As a child I would hold my collar if I saw a magpie until I saw a second one, to avoid bad luck. And I still remember the old rhyme
One for sorrow, Two for joy
Three for a girl, and four for a boy
Five for silver, six for gold
Seven for a secret never to be told ….
You may know more verses and I’d love to hear your tales about magpies. Meanwhile enjoy my photos of the woods throughout the year.
For those of you interested in history and heritage ~ When I first arrived in my little corner of the Cotswolds 50 years ago it was a very rural scene. I lived on the edge of the countryside with farms and fields all around. There was some post war prefabricated housing nearby, and a few ancient cottages such as Redgrove Cottages and Arle Court Lodge. All of these still exist. There was one unobtrusive industrial area with factories linked to the aviation industry, and their offices were in a manor house known as Arle Court. The manor was built in the mid1800s to replace the Butt family’s original Elizabethan house of the same name. In 1935 Sir George Dowty purchased and restored the house, and it became the heart of the Dowty Aircraft business. You can read more about it here
I do hope this is not becoming a trend in my blogging, but yet again I am writing in homage to a legend. The naturalist, botanist, environmentalist and conservationist ~ David Bellamy, died yesterday and I could not let his passing go unmentioned as he played an important role in my career.
Many years ago, when I was teaching, I embarked on a study of our local river, The River Chelt. I was always keen on getting pupils out into nature, so a study of the river from source to mouth was a perfect excuse to get out into the sun and get the children walking. They were around 10 or 11 years of age at the time and the river is only about 11 miles long so it was not too onerous. I believe we started the project in 1984 and I became so engrossed in our ‘insignificant stream’ as it was once described, that the project continued for the next 10 years!
David Bellamy became a part of the project when, in 1987, our work on the river Chelt was entered in the ‘Bisto Kids Wonderful World of Nature’ competition on Rivers and Streams. And our entry won!
As part of the prize, David Bellamy came to our school and landed on the playing field in a gorgeous red helicopter. He spent the whole day at school talking to the children about the importance of protecting our natural resources. I for one have never forgotten his visit or what he taught us. His message was a simple one about the importance of appreciating, conserving and sustaining the natural world, caring for others and sharing what we have. Wouldn’t the world be a much happier place if we lived according to this simple message!
It was a very special day and I hope that everyone who took part in it will have remembered it when they heard about his death.
I don’t think I will bore you with every detail of our little river. But if you are interested you can see photos and a wonderfully detailed blog about it on Cheltonia.
I will just ask you to pause and think about the fact that each tiny little raindrop that falls to earth in the Cotswolds will eventually surface in muddy little springs. From here they trickle, then flow, and occasionally flood as they become a river. Sometimes the river is hidden underground, often it meanders along behind rows of houses, factories, schools and parks unnoticed. Sometimes it tumbles over waterfalls as it runs its course along the 11 miles to Wainlodes where it joins the spectacular River Severn. The Severn is the longest river in Great Britain travelling 220 miles before it joins the mighty North Atlantic Ocean. Our little river and every tiny drop of rain in it is a part of that!
Some years after this our school was linked with a school in Kenya. The teachers and pupils of the Kenyan school wrote about how they had to travel miles to get water from the river and how their river was running dry because of the drought. They wrote of how the crops they had planted were dying. The children wrote that they were praying for rain or for someone to help.
Our pupils were horrified at their plight and decided to do something about it. They planned to build a well in the grounds of the Kenyan school, and they set about finding out how this could be done, and raising the funds to do it. They filled Smarties tubes with 20p pieces, they organised a sponsored spell. They held a bring and buy sale, and within 3 weeks they had raised enough money (£1300) to build the well. They wrote countless letters and received many faxes (remember those?). Tenders were received and contracts were drawn up. The work was started in the dry season and a borehole 55 feet deep was dug. Enough money was sent to buy a pump and maintain it for 5 years. By then, it was hoped the local people would be able to raise money themselves by growing and selling their excess crops. The well was finished by the end of August when a group of young people from Cheltenham went out to Kenya and drank water from the well which now had the grand name of Mrs Brenda’s borehole!
I hope that the children I taught will never take water for granted. They know it is the most important resource on earth, essential to all living things ~ far more precious than gold. And, I hope they learned that each person is equally important in the great scheme of things just as each tiny drop of water is to the great oceans.
If you would like to read in more detail about our fascinating little river and its history you can find more on Cheltonia.
Or if you want to see what our little river is like when it disappears underground you can see inside the culverts
I was saddened to hear this week of the death of the brilliant, and very amusing writer, poet and critic, Clive James.
I have only one link to Clive James, and that is our deep love for Japanese Maple trees! I wrote the following post some time ago and rather eerily, I was rushed into hospital with pneumonia and sepsis on the day that Clive James died.
Drained and sitting weakly by the window, I feel a cleansing warm breeze waft through the open door, cooling me down. I hear the maple tree shiver to the chinking of delicate chimes. That tree is my pride and joy, a foliate friend, a deciduous delight. At 12 feet tall it is unbridled and bushy. It is not like those at garden centres. This is a thoroughbred tree, the debutante of the Acer world, a Palmatum in its prime. Grown from first generation seed gathered at Westonbirt Arboretum, I have nurtured it for years. It started life in a humble yoghurt pot in the dark. It progressed to a plant pot on the windowsill then a tub on the patio. At three, petite and pretty, it seemed perfectly happy in its miniature world. But, by the time we moved house ten years ago, I felt it was ready for its own space in the earth. I was careful to plant it in a sheltered spot as Acers hate wind on their leaves. And, judging by how it has thrived, it seems to have found its niche. It has grown and thrived with masses of branches forming arches and tunnels. I’ve had to sacrifice a conservatory for my maple tree as I couldn’t bear to risk damaging the roots by digging foundations. So, my maple and I will just have to sit together in our shady spot growing old together. But it is worth it just to look forward to autumn when it will be glowing red and gold.
When Clive James discovered that his illness was terminal, he too found solace in a Japanese Acer that his daughter had given him.
He wrote a beautiful poem about it which I have memorised and reproduced for you here, called simply Japanese Maple. If you click on the link you can hear Clive read the poem himself:
Your death, near now, is of an easy sort.
So slow a fading out brings no real pain.
Breath growing short
Is just uncomfortable. You feel the drain
Of energy, but thought and sight remain:
Enhanced, in fact. When did you ever see
So much sweet beauty as when fine rain falls
On that small tree
And saturates your brick back garden walls,
So many Amber Rooms and mirror halls?
Ever more lavish as the dusk descends
This glistening illuminates the air.
It never ends.
Whenever the rain comes it will be there,
Beyond my time, but now I take my share.
My daughter’s choice, the maple tree is new.
Come Autumn and its leaves will turn to flame.
What I must do
Is live to see that. That will end the game
For me, though life continues all the same:
Filling the double doors to bathe my eyes,
A final flood of colours will live on
As my mind dies,
Burned by my vision of a world that shone
So brightly at the last, and then was gone.
It is comforting to know that Clive James saw 5 more autumns with his beloved maple tree. As I recover slowly from pneumonia, I hope that I see many more with mine.
There has been a lot in the UK press recently about the newly published results of a study into happiness. Called the ‘Happy now report’, it suggests that the happiest ages are 16 and 70.
I’ve written before about when I was 16, “Back in ‘63” and it certainly was a good year for me.
And, now that I’m just over 70, I have to say that I am happy more often than not. Like everyone, I’ve had my share of ‘ups and downs’ over the years. I have grieved for family members and close friends who have passed away. I live with chronic illness and pain. I worked hard for most of my life and I have a very simple home. But my happiness is not based on anything physical, financial or material. It is based entirely on spending time with friends, family, or my dog, and as often as possible, being surrounded by nature. I think being over 70 brings a certain acceptance and resilience that enables me to set aside any niggling fears, anxieties and disappointments, and just ~ be happy!
Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote,
“What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared with what lies within us.”
This weekend for example has been wonderful. I met 2 dear friends for a walk amongst the snowdrops in Painswick Rococo gardens. We do this every year around this time and it is always a joy whatever the weather. Friday was perfect, cold but sunny with no wind. You can enjoy our photos below.
Then, on Friday evening I met another dear friend to celebrate her birthday, with a simple fish and chip supper. The company and conversation were more important than the food, although the fish and chips were divine too!
Lastly, on Saturday I had an impromptu ride on a big wheel in Cheltenham with 2 of my wonderful grandchildren and their mum and dad to see the town lit up.
Simple pleasures but honestly, they made me extremely happy.
I could write about the beauty of the Cotswolds at any time of the year because there is always something to enjoy whatever the weather. From cosy cottages to magnificent manor houses, castles and cathedrals, the Cotswold stone oozes strength and security, and promises a warm welcome. The landscape too, never disappoints . There are rolling hills, lush pastures, rivers, lakes and woodland enough to please anyone who enjoys the outdoors. The towns and villages between them have enough festivals, events and attractions to keep locals and visitors entertained all year round.
But for history it is hard to beat Gloucester City.
During the recent History Festival in the city, every aspect of its past was celebrated and I was lucky enough to go to many talks, walks and events.
Gloucester’s history goes back at least 2000 years. In fact it was such an important place in Roman times that it was granted colonial status by Emperor Nerva. This meant that the citizens of Gloucester had the same rights and privileges as the citizens of Rome. There are parts of the Roman city walls still visible in the heart of the shopping centre.
Some local historians believe that Christianity was brought to Gloucester by the Roman soldiers. After the fall of the Roman Empire many of the soldiers did not return home but retired to villas around Gloucester. It is thought that ‘churches’ grew from the grass roots up, with people getting together to celebrate and share their faith.
By Saxon times Briton had a Christian King, Alfred. He was succeeded by his daughter, Aethelflaed, who was a major influence on Gloucester’s development. She designed the layout of the city so that it was easily defended from invaders. The basic layout still exists and is very easy to navigate. There are four main roads; Northgate, Southgate, Eastgate and Westgate, which radiate out from ‘the Cross’. The actual cross no longer exists but it used to be a very important focal point. The monks of Greyfriars laid pipes from nearby Robinswood Hill, to provide fresh drinking water for the townsfolk. Running off these four main roads are fascinating narrow lanes. Many with names alluding to the enormous influence of the church in the city.
By the Middle Ages, Gloucester was among the most important towns in Britain along with London and Winchester. King Edward the Confessor held his great councils in Gloucester every year. And, after 1066, William the Conqueror continued the tradition. It was here in Gloucester, probably at Kingsholm, that in 1085 William commissioned the Domesday Book as a comprehensive survey of the country.
Gloucester’s strategic importance continued, and, as I wrote in an earlier blog, the boy king Henry 111 was crowned in what was St Peter’s Abbey in 1216. This is still the only coronation that has taken place outside London.
Gloucester city went from strength to strength in the following centuries: Iron ore, coal and timber were readily available nearby in the Forest of Dean, and Gloucester had a busy inland port and ship canal. This led to thriving business and trade. Dry docks and large warehouses were built alongside the canal. Then later, the railway made the movement of goods even easier. I wrote about Butler’s Wharf once before and I am so glad that I saw it before it was damaged due to fire. It has now been renovated and is starting a new life as small apartments which are currently for sale.
For me, the best part of the History Festival was learning about all the fascinating characters who came from Gloucester and left their mark on the world. It is almost unbelievable that just one relatively small city could have produced so many influential people.
As I have a daughter who lives in America, I was particularly interested in how far back our strong links go. For instance, did you know that the oldest bells in North America were made in a Gloucester foundry in 1744 by one of the Rudhall family? Abraham Rudhall (1657-1736) was the first of a whole family of bell founders in Gloucester. The peel of bells was transported, free as ballast, by sailing ship, and hung in Old North Church in Boston. These bells, which still ring out today, were rung by one of America’s greatest folk heroes – Paul Revere. The bell tower actually played a crucial role in the American War of Independence. A coded signal was arranged, one lantern in the tower would warn that British were advancing overland, while two lanterns meant they were coming by sea. Paul Revere rode through the night to warn troops in Concord that the British were advancing overland from Boston.
Another Gloucester man, George Whitefield (1714-70), became an itinerant preacher and evangelist. At Oxford University he met the Wesley brothers and joined their Christian Society, becoming a Methodist. He travelled to America several times and was famous, although not always popular, for his preaching abilities. He was a friend of Benjamin Franklin and to this day he is more famous in the states than here in the UK.
Here is one man’s assessment of George Whitefield:
From time to time until his death his whole life was taken up in travelling and preaching not only in Britain but in Ireland and America.
Thirteen times altogether he did cross the Atlantic.
His journeyings by land amounted to tens of thousands of miles. The number of sermons he preached almost exceeds belief – nine, ten, twelve, fourteen in a week – sometimes four in a day, on one occasion seven!
In churches – and when turned out of churches, in chapels, drawing rooms, barns, streets, fields; at early morning, noon and night, his voice was lifted up, proclaiming to rich and poor the glad tidings of salvation.
These labours were often carried on amidst opposition from Bishops and clergymen, magistrates, mobs and buffoons. Again and again his life was in danger from the fury of wicked men. He was abused, slandered, beaten, stoned.
His constitution was feeble and his sickness frequent; yet, not withstanding all, his zeal glowed with a flamewhich no flood of opposition could quench, and for thirty four years he toiled on, fearless and unflagging, in the service of his Lord.’
A third Gloucester man who is better known in the States than the UK is John Stafford Smith (1750-1836), the musician and composer. He was the son of the Cathedral organist and he is best known for composing ‘The Anacreontic Song’. This tune became very popular and in 1814 was set to a poem by Francis Key called “The Defense of Fort McHenry”. In 1931 both the music and lyrics were adopted as the National Anthem of the United States with the title of ‘The Star-Spangled banner’. John Stafford Smith is buried in Goucester and there is a memorial plaque to him in the Cathedral which is very well tended and has both the Union Flag of the UK and the Stars and Stripes flag of the USA above it.
There were many other fascinating men and women that I heard about during the history festival, including Hubert Cecil Booth (1871-1955). He invented the vacuum cleaner. His machines were used at the request of King Edward V11 to clean the carpets of Westminster Abbey for the Coronation in 1902. I was surprised to learn that he was offered a Knighthood but turned it down! He also designed ‘Great Wheels’ and suspension bridges.
But surely, the most amusing Gloucester character must be James (Jemmy) Wood (1756-1836). Jemmy inherited Gloucester Old Bank in Westgate Street in 1802. He was a mean and miserly man and such a shrewd businessman that he was one of the richest commoners in the land, a millionaire when he died. It is said that he was the inspiration for the character of Ebenezer Scrooge in Charles Dickens’, a ‘Christmas Carol’. Charles Dickens often visited his friend, the writer and social activist, Sir Arthur Helps, in Gloucester, so he would have known of Jemmy. In fact he actually mentioned him by name in his book Our Mutual Friend. It is said that there were crowds cheering in the streets of Gloucester on the day of Jemmy’s funeral. I’m sure he must have been turning in his grave when most of his fortune was wasted on legal actions to sort out the disputes over his will! The disputes were well documented and it is believed that they inspired Charles Dickens to write Bleak House.
By the way, in case you were wondering, the title of this post is a very old proverb about Gloucester, which was well known and recorded from the Middle Ages right up to the 17th century. It probably refers to the large number of churches which existed in the city. By Tudor times, when the population of Gloucester was about 3000 people, there were 300 churches to cater for them!
I will leave you to enjoy some of the photos I took during the History Festival.
I have written several times about Gloucester and there are lots more photos on these posts. You can see them by clicking on the word Gloucester in the tags and categories.
I have been thinking and reading a lot about this writing life recently and trying to gather all the hints, tips and advice I have gleaned. One of the bloggers I follow, Jamie Lee Wallace says:
A writer’s voice is that often intangible yet unmistakable something that defines the author’s work. Like literary DNA, it is as unique and complex as a fingerprint. Syntax, diction, dialog, and punctuation are combined with characterization techniques, scene delivery, and other stylistic elements and then distilled into an elixir that lets us see the world through the writer’s eyes.
But I think there is more to it than that.
The words a writer uses are like the lava flowing from a volcano. The story may have been churning and burning deep inside for many years; changing, developing and demanding to be written. The overflow of words is edited away like so much waste gas and ash, until the lava cools and sets into a final draft. Once published, the writing is set like stone and the crust that protects the writer’s vulnerability and privacy has been split open irrevocably. For make no mistake, the heart and soul of the writer is laid bare by the writing process. It takes courage to put your thoughts, feelings, experiences and imagination into print for all to read.
The need to write is an itch that won’t go away; a fire inside that won’t be quenched except by expressing your own inner life in prose or poetry. It is an incredibly personal thing that sets each writer apart from every other writer. What you need to write comes from deep inside. It was probably always inside you and was determined by the journey you have travelled during your life. Every story you consumed, every experience you enjoyed or endured, every trauma, doubt, dream and question became part of your writer’s voice.
So it was with me. Firstly, I wrote my own life story. I needed to deal with a traumatic event in childhood, a disastrous first marriage, family things, work things, ill health and major depression. I wrote it all out ~ then I shredded it and burnt it before I moved house! This was so therapeutic, I not only put it all behind me, I wiped it off the face of the earth. Because that was not me! All of that was what other people, situations or events had done to me. And, I made a conscious decision to try and live the rest of my life as who I wanted to be. And to…Get a life worth writing about.
Whatever kind of writing you would like to pursue, here are my tips for you:-
Take a course ~ Artists Way, Creative Writing, Futurelearn, anything that will stimulate and unblock you
Read some self-help/motivational books such as Change for the Better by Elizabeth Wilde McCormick or Life’s Companion, Journal Writing as Spiritual Practiceby Christina Baldwin, if you are blocked by any of life’s unresolved issues
Buy Writing Down the Bones, Freeing the Writer Within by Natalie Goldberg
Start a Journal or more than one
Save poems, ideas for stories, photos, cuttings, inspiring phrases in spiral bound notebooks
Buy pens that feel good to hold and flow nicely. Many writers use fountain pens but I prefer gel pens
Find a colourful box big enough to store all your magazines, books, pens and journals together
Start a blog on WordPress or Blogger, it’s easy to set up and you can safely practice and develop your creative skills,
Subscribe to, or borrow and read Writing Magazine (www.writers-online.co.uk) ~ hard copy or online ~ endless supply of ideas, advice, competitions, courses and opportunities
Get involved in something that involves meeting other people ~ I was WI secretary, on the Campaigns and Public Affairs Committee, an Extra for BBC ~ I did charity work and joined a Choir and local theatre group
Observe the world, daydream, imagine, embellish, invent ~ all the things that got me into trouble when I was a child will enhance my stories!
Carry a notebook and pen with you always, or a fancy phone that takes notes and photographs! Jot down and capture anything that strikes you as interesting, unusual, meaningful or beautiful. You will be surprised at how often a phrase or snatch of a song or poem touches you.
If so inclined, take photos whenever you see anything that inspires you
Maeve Binchy said her greatest tip was to, “Write as if you are talking to someone”. I have always written about day trips, places I’ve been and things I’ve done. And, I used to write a monthly article for a charity magazine, but I didn’t think I was a ‘writer’.
When I had grandchildren that changed.
Initially my role models were Beatrix Potter and Kenneth Grahame who were unashamed of creating an escapist world with the animals. So I started off by writing stories for Ben and Rosie, my grandchildren. I wrote about Humphrey the pheasant who hangs out at the fishing lake, and Bart the cocker spaniel who emigrated to Vermont and had lots of adventures. Humphrey and Bart are real but their adventures come out of my head or were embellished. My plan was to write just for the grandchildren, and about the grandchildren, in order to help them develop their reading and writing skills. Success was achieved when Rosie told me to stop making up a particular story about a tortoise because she wanted to finish it herself! I was over 50 before I realised that ordinary people could be writers, she was 5!
I wrote the blog posts to rationalise and record positive aspects of my life’s journey.
Teaching; Twinning in Kenya, Russia and Poland; Trips to Lourdes; Travelling in USA and Europe; Becoming a carer; Joining Amateur Dramatics and a Choir; Working as a BBC Extra; Performing in Cathedrals, studios and theatre; WI committees; Charity volunteering: All of these experiences informed and enriched my writing.
My inner critic was silenced because I didn’t think anyone else would read it. But gradually a community built up with whom my writing strikes a chord. There are over 750 readers now who follow my blog. I feel I have found “my place in the family of things”.
Wild Geese by Mary Oliver
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting-
over and over announcing your place
In the family of things.
Just give me the grandchildren and I’ll make up the stories
Now that I have 4 more grandchildren, I have reached a point where I want to publish some of the stories I write for them. Every thing they say or do, and everywhere we go to play, inspires me to write more. So, I have decided to start a new blog in addition to this one, just for my stories. I realise that it is highly unlikely that any of them will ever be professionally published. So, I will just post them for my and others’ pleasure. I will of course retain the copyright just in case!!
Now what on earth should I call my new blog? Suggestions please in the comments …
I’m feeling a bit overwhelmed today having listened to the Ten Pieces Prom on BBC Radio 3. If you have any spare time it really is worth clicking on the link to listen to bits of the programme
I was already rather pensive as a friend and former work colleague died this week unexpectedly. I was very close to her for many years, and she lived quite near to me. Yet, I had not seen her in months. Life, with all its routines and demands, gets in the way of the people who should matter sometimes. Of course, I make as much time as I can for family; but friends, neighbours and acquaintances are too easily neglected.
This all came home forcefully while listening to one of the ten pieces referred to in the title of the above radio programme ~ Antonin Dvorak’s New World Symphony. Dvorak, a Czech, wrote the New World Symphony while he was working in America in the 1890s. It is incredibly moving and reflects the homesickness he felt. Dvorak understood the anguish of the African Americans which came through in their spiritual songs. He was also influenced by the native Americans’ music as well as by the beautiful poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow called, The Song of Hiawatha. I won’t reproduce the poem as it is very long, but I would recommend that you click on the link and read it yourself as it is incredibly beautiful.
The Ten Pieces project is a wonderful initiative designed to introduce classical music to school children aged 7 to 14. Working in their own schools they were inspired to produce creative responses to one of ten much loved pieces of classical music. The results were impressive.
I have always felt a total ignoramus when it comes to Classical music in general, and opera in particular. The infant phase of my education just after the war, was missed altogether due to illness. Then, the Junior phase was spent in an almost Victorian school, which was a converted chemical works by the banks of the river Tyne. We literally used to play on hills of smouldering sulphurous waste from the chemical factory or along the, then thriving, dockyards of the Tyne. I do remember going to an amateur performance of the Mikado in the church hall once as a very young child. I was mesmerised by the costumes and the Gilbert and Sullivan song of Three Little Maids!
My next experience of classical music was watching the Sadler’s Wells Production of The Magic Flute at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford upon Avon in 1963 on my very first date! But, by the time I left secondary school, Bob Dylan was ‘Freewheelin’ and Joan Baez was performing ‘We Shall Overcome’, which awakened a social conscience in me. I was also totally obsessed with theatre, particularly Shakespeare’s plays, once again classical music passed me by. So, I wish there had been something like the Ten Pieces Proms when I was at school. It is absolutely brilliant at introducing children to the range of classical music and making it relevant to them.
One of the most moving parts of the programme in response to the New World Symphony, was a poem created and read by Brave New Voices ~ young refugees, asylum seekers and migrants from across London. These children, many from Syria, have had to leave their own homes in traumatic conditions and have found a home in the UK. Listening to them describe the sights, sounds and smells of their homeland as well as the people they have left behind was heart-breaking.
And, I wonder, can we truly appreciate our own homeland wherever that may be before we leave it? And, can we truly appreciate the people we love ~ and show it ~ before we lose them. My friend and long-time colleague lived for her family and her faith. So I am sure her soul is now at rest in Heaven.
I have written before about the beauty of the Cotswolds but, I simply have to revel again in the variety of things to do and see here this July. I have had such an interesting week!
I went up to the Lavender fields at Snowshill to catch a glimpse of the crop before it is picked for processing. The fields high up in the Cotswolds are baked dry from the relentless heat this summer, but the lavender can cope with dry conditions so it looked perfect. I haven’t seen many poppies this year but there are a few scattered about.
distant views from Snowshill
poppies are in short supply this year
Ponies searching for grass
I was thoroughly spoiled by my daughter who took me to Cowley Manor Hotel for a luxurious Spa followed by a scrumptious afternoon tea. This 19th century manor house has a fascinating history and has had some interesting residents. In medieval times the manor belonged to Pershore Abbey. But following the dissolution of the monasteries, it passed to a Royalist supporter, Henry Brett, who built himself a grand house on the land in 1674. By the 1850’s the land was owned by a London Stockbroker, who built a huge house in the Italianate style on the site of Brett’s house. This house had fabulous gardens with cascades and lakes running along the River Churn. Then, in 1895 the manor was bought by James Horlick, the inventor of Horlick’s Malted Milk. He made lots of changes to the house and extended it greatly. He added a ballroom and a huge stable block to house his grand coaches and horses. He also built many of the cottages in the village and planted thousands of trees. Today he is remembered at the hotel where the restaurant is named Maltin his honour.
In the 20th century Cowley Manor had a very chequered history. For a time during the second world war it was leased to Cheltenham ladies College, presumably for the safety of the ‘gals’! At the end of the war it was sold to Gloucestershire County Council as offices and an education centre. I remember going to conferences there as a young teacher in the 1970’s. But, in the early 1990s there was a macabre twist to the tale of Cowley Manor, when the children of Fred and Rosemary West were placed there by the council’s child protection officers. It was there that the children kept mentioning their sister Heather being buried under the patio. But, it would be a year later before the true extent of the infamous couple’s crimes were uncovered. There was a brief spell when the Manor was used as a nursing home, but by the start of the new millennium it was being converted into the hotel we enjoy today.
Of course, I have been back to my regular haunt of Cotswold Wildlife Park with my little granddaughter. We made a special trip to see the 3-day old zebra. We were amazed to see such a young animal frolicking around beside its parents.
Lastly, at the weekend, I went to celebrate the centenary of the Royal Air Force at the Royal International Air Tattoo (RIAT) in Fairford. The sheer excitement of this annual event is hard to describe. There are single aircraft and whole teams from all over the world on display. But this year seemed extra special. For a start we are in the middle of a heatwave so the sky was a perfectly blue backdrop to the aerobatics. There was very little wind so the pilots were able to perform all their spectacular manoeuvres. And, because it is the centenary year, there were some unique line-ups commemorating planes through the ages, from the Lancaster Bomber, the Spitfire, and the Tornado through to the Typhoon and the new F35.
It is hard to imagine that the RAF was formed just over 10 years after the very first powered and controlled flight. The bravery of the pilots and crew of those early planes is impossible to exaggerate. At Fairford, we saw a military plane of the future ~ the amazing unmanned MQ-9B SkyGuardian. It took 24 hours to fly the 3760 miles from North Dakota in the USA to Fairford in the UK. It was entirely remotely piloted. I can appreciate the technical genius involved, but I do feel deeply uneasy about the ability to cause death and destruction with clinical precision, remotely!
Apart from that I found the whole event breathtaking. I love the deafening roar of the F16s, the glamour of the Red Arrows’ Hawk T1 fast jets, the practical beauty of the new Juno and Jupiter helicopters, the dignity and history of the Avro Lancaster 1, Douglas Dakota 111, Hawker Hurricane 11c, and the Supermarine Spitfire. We owe them our gratitude. But for sheer entertainment I really enjoyed the Spanish Airforce acrobatic team, Patrulla Aguila. They were just amazing and all 7 Aviojets landed together in their signature move. The Italian Frecce Tricolori were just as spectacular. All I could do was watch and gasp as they mocked gravity and played with the sky. I am sure that the routines these display crews perform should be impossible but they do them anyway. And I loved every minute of it.
Of course my photos are pathetic as everything moved so fast, but I will add a small selection to give you a flavour of the day:
One of the lovely things about the UK is the number of old churches that still exist at the heart of many communities. And, now that we are experiencing the longest heatwave since 1976, they are literally and metaphorically the coolest places to visit.
Of course, congregations are shrinking and ageing. Many people, today either don’t go to church at all, or, they go to the more vibrant ‘evangelical’ churches, of which there are many.
However, there is something quintessentially English about a country village church. I have written previously about the Ivy Church at Ampney St Mary.
Congregations have an uphill struggle to maintain and repair these old buildings and are constantly putting on events to raise the necessary funds. It is really hard work for small communities. And, Sandhurst is a small village; but it has some rare treasures and a wealth of history within the grounds of its beautiful church. So, this week it was a pleasure to support them by visiting St Lawrence Church For their flower festival.
The festival was entitled, “Strictly Music and Dance”. All the floral displays were based on the theme. There was an amazing variety of music and dance styles represented from the old playground song, ‘Oranges and Lemons’ to Stravinsky’s ‘Firebird’.
There has been a church on this site since the time of Henry 1st (1100-1135), when it belonged to St Oswald’s Priory in Gloucester. The present church is partly 14th century but was mainly rebuilt in 1858. It has some impressive features.
Outside there is a lychgate which was decorated with flowers, then at the entrance to the church the porch was surrounded by them. Inside the porch was a magnificent display of sunflowers. Once inside the door there is a truly remarkable baptismal font made of lead. It is thought to have been made around 1135 near Bristol, out of lead mined in the Mendip hills. It is beautifully engraved with scrolls and figures. My favourite was the figure of Jesus. Apparently, there are 6 fonts of this type in Gloucestershire so I must find the other 5. It is exquisite. This font was surrounded by flowers ‘A La Ronde’ to remind us of country dancing round the maypole on a village green.
There is also an antique carved oak pulpit from the time of King James 1st (1603-1625) which was surrounded by a sparkling floral display showing the glitz and glamour of Ballroom dancing.
One of the features of any old church is the stained glass and this little church has some beautiful examples. But for me the most moving were a fairly recent one to commemorate the local men who died in WW1, and one to honour a young man from the village, Frederick Watts, who died in WW2. I was very moved to meet an elderly lady at the church who knew this young man. She told me that he was her brother’s playmate from childhood and she remembered him well.
It was quite difficult taking photos because of the backlight from the stained-glass windows but I hope you enjoy those I managed to take:
The Chancel with 3 types of dance
Dance for Joy, Viennese Waltz and Argentine Tango
Gently Flowing Waltz
Dance for Joy free dance
Splendid altar cloth
Lovely stained glass behind the altar
Vibrant oranges coordinate with victorian tiles
a dramatic Firebird
A beautiful carved lectern
Palm Court for a leisurely afternoon dancing to a string quartet
Refugees Welcome sign on official building in the centre of Madrid
Is it just me or is the UK becoming a less caring place?
For many years while I was working, I was involved with an educational charity, which is still going strong, called Global Footsteps.
Through exchanges, travel, conferences and volunteering, young adults from many countries developed their understanding of global issues and became immersed in other cultures. At an individual level, this broadened their minds and some long-lasting friendships developed.
On a wider level some really good projects were carried out. A much-needed health centre was built in Kenya. Classrooms were made secure and weatherproof. Boreholes were dug and water tanks supplied in villages and schools where previously water had to be collected daily from the river or lake.
These days I can’t travel that far so I support others who can. There is a wonderful charity called Hands Around the World and a friend of mine does amazing work with them. I also sponsor a child through Compassion UK, a charity that another friend of mine is deeply involved in.
So, I know there are still lots of good things happening and lots of good people trying to improve the environment and enhance other people’s lives.
However, reading the daily news is heart-breaking and fills me with despair, especially the traumatic plight of refugees worldwide. I can tolerate most things, but cruelty to children is just a step too far. And, the US policy of taking children away from their parents is just intolerable. The long-term consequences of the emotional and psychological damage this will cause to the children and their parents are dreadful to contemplate. Imagine if you had your children forcibly removed from you just because you were homeless and hopeless!
I know there has always been a refugee problem, even Shakespeare wrote about it when he collaborated on the play about Sir Thomas More. His character appealed to Englishmen to be compassionate to refugees, who were called strangers…
‘Imagine that you see the wretched strangers, Their babies at their backs and their poor luggage, Plodding to the ports and coasts for transportation.’
Today we do see it, daily, on our TV screens.
According to the Refugee Council there are over 65 million people around the globe who have had to flee their homes. Can you even imagine how awful that would be? It is like the entire population of the UK being displaced. Millions of these people then have to flee their country and become the refugees we read about daily. BUT IT COULD JUST AS EASILY BE US.
So as ‘Refugee Week’ ends I want to do my tiny bit to raise awareness of the top twenty facts as revealed by the Refugee Council and based on asylum statistics.
Hopefully they make interesting reading…
1. Last year, 362,376 people arrived in Europe via sea. Just under half were women and children.
2. While the pictures we may see on TV perhaps make us think that most refugees are coming to Europe it simply isn’t the case. The UN’s Refugee Agency estimates that nearly nine in ten of the world’s refugees are sheltered by developing countries.
3. Most refugees just move from one poor country to another. Uganda hosts a staggering 1 million refugees from South Sudan. In two weeks alone, Uganda offered refuge to more people than Britain did all year.
4. Britain is not Europe’s top recipient of asylum applications. In 2016, Germany, Italy and France all received at least twice as many asylum applications as the UK. In Germany alone, 722,265 asylum applications were made.
5. Given the world is facing the greatest refugee crisis since the Second World War, comparatively few people make it to Britain in their search for safety. Asylum applications in the UK actually decreased by 25% to 27,316 in the year ending June 2017.
It’s hardly surprising, given the barriers people face in reaching safe places to rebuild their lives. Britain offers no asylum visa. In fact, there are very few, legal ways for refugees to safely escape their country and claim asylum in another country. The truth is, when war breaks out, countries like Britain often close down refugees’ legal escape routes. Refugees don’t place their lives in smugglers’ hands because they want to. They do it because they often have no other choice.
6. The lack of safe and legal routes for refugees to reach safety and claim asylum has deadly results. Already this year 2,410 men, women and children have lost their lives during their desperate attempt to cross the Mediterranean Sea. Every death was a tragedy. Even those who make it have encountered many dangers in their journey, not just in their countries of origin. We hear horrific stories of kidnap, rape, imprisonment and torture in countries refugees are travelling through, including Libya.
7. Fewer women than men come to the UK in search of safety. In 2016, 25% of asylum claims in the UK were from women. Most people claiming asylum in the UK will have made a dangerous journey to get to safety; for many women this means risking sexual violence.
8. People who are seeking asylum make up a tiny proportion of new arrivals in Britain. Today’s statistics show that 588,000 people arrived in Britain in the last year– but just 27,316 of them were seeking refuge here. Of course, not all people seeking asylum will be granted permission to stay in Britain.
9. World events often correlate directly with asylum applications; last year people were most likely to seek refuge here from the Middle East, desperate to escape on-going conflict and the murderous advance of ISIS. The top 3 countries of origin of people applying for asylum in Britain in the twelve months to June 2017 were: Iran, Pakistan and Iraq.
10. The British asylum system is extremely tough. Just 34% of initial decisions made in the year to June 2017 have been grants of protection (asylum or humanitarian protection). However, many refugees had to rely on the courts rather than the Government to provide them with the protection they need. The proportion of asylum appeals allowed over that time was 36%.
11. 594 children granted asylum whilst they were still under 18. A further 240 had to wait until they were over 18 to receive the news that they are safely protected here for five years. The top country of origin during that period was Afghanistan, followed by Eritrea. More unaccompanied children applied having fled Sudan than any other country, in the last quarter.
Unfortunately, being granted protection as a refugee means that those children will never be able to live with their parents. Shockingly, the UK deliberately prevents unaccompanied children from bringing their parents and siblings to live with them in safety.
12. In the twelve months up to June 2017, 48 children were locked up in immigration detention, despite a Government promise in 2010 to end the practice. 83% of the children who left detention were released, rendering their detention not only harmful but futile.
13. The UK Government has the power to detain people who are here seeking refuge. Today’s statistics show that in the last 12 months, 27,819 people were imprisoned in immigration detention centres; among them many people seeking asylum. 52% were released back into the community rendering their detention pointless. Some nationalities are nearly always released from detention; over 90% of Iranians detained were released during this time period begging the question why they are detained in the first place.
14. In contrast to most European countries the UK has no limit on the length of time someone can be detained. At the end of June, 271 people had been locked up for longer than 6 months, purely for immigration reasons.
15. The number of Syrians who have sought asylum in Britain since the conflict began in 2011 stands at just 10,858. That’s just 0.21% of Syria’s refugees. Like most of the world’s refugees, very few Syrians come to Britain in their search for safety.
16. The number of Syrian refugees resettled in Britain stands at 8,283 since the conflict began. In September 2015, the then Prime Minister David Cameron promised to resettle 20,000 Syrian refugees by 2020. That’s just 4,000 a year. There are over 4.8 million Syrian refugees.
17. In the year to June 2017, just 916 non-Syrian refugees were resettled in Britain via the Gateway Protection Programme run in conjunction with the UN’s Refugee Agency (UNHCR). Sadly, just 1% of the world’s refugees will ever be resettled which means many refugees face a long, uncertain wait to hear if they will ever be able to rebuild their lives in safety.
18. Shockingly, at the end of June 2017 10,033 people who had made asylum applications had been waiting for longer than six months for an initial decision. The number of people having to wait this long has risen by over 50% in the last year.
19. At the end of June, 38,954 asylum seekers and their dependants were being supported by the Government. This figure has risen since 2012 but is still below the figure for end of 2003 when there were 80,123 asylum seekers being supported. This does not mean asylum seekers live in luxury; far from it; people have no say in where they live and are often left to survive on around £5 a day
20. In the last three months, the UK has agreed to provide protection (refugee status or humanitarian protection) to 2,005 applicants and their dependants. Unfortunately, a large proportion of them will face homelessness and destitution as they struggle to secure an income and a rental property before they are evicted from Home Office provision
This last fact brings me back to my opening question. Are we in the UK becoming less caring?
I believe as a country we are, and I believe the government is unwittingly helping to make it so. ‘Austerity’ measures brought in by the government have impacted negatively on every aspect of ordinary people’s lives, and on society as a whole. Whether it be the changes to funding or the regulations imposed on local councils, the support structures are beyond breaking point. It is obvious to all that roads are falling apart and our rail services are inferior to most of Europe. Hospitals and schools are struggling to cope and social services can no longer provide the level of support needed by vulnerable people. Housing policy is not providing enough affordable homes so homelessness is on the rise. The police are losing the battle against ‘small-time’ criminals who make neighbourhoods feel less safe and secure than they were in the past. And charities are being surreptitiously turned into businesses to paper over the cracks.
My aim is to write a mainly positive blog, but this week I find little to feel positive about.
My adult step daughter is deaf and has learning difficulties which make her very vulnerable. She has lived in sheltered accommodation since 2001. Here she has been safe and received the support she needs to lead her life as independently as possible. But now that austerity measures have crippled the county’s care sector, her package has been removed. Consequently, she, and the other girls she lives with, have been given notice to leave their supported accommodation, which we thought was a home for life.
Having searched for alternative accommodation, we now see the extent of the problem. There just isn’t any suitable and affordable one-bedroom accommodation to be had. I have no idea how this will end but it is causing us deep anxiety and sleepless nights. I know there are countless people worse off than us, but, it is hard to be positive today.