The Matter of Magpies

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

https://www.dowtyheritage.org

Lost Legends

Brenda and pupils with David Bellamy

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 recently 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.

Below are some of my River Chelt photos taken between 1984 and 1997 ~ not in the order in which the river flows I’m afraid, as I can’t seem to get to grips with the media editor! But if you hover over each photo it will tell you where it is.

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 culvert

And finally a lovely Year 3 class of River Chelt explorers from 1996.  I wonder where they are now ~ 23 years later!

 

A Final Flood of Colours

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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.

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Were you happiest at 16 or 70?

Were you happiest at 16 or 70?

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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.

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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.

 

 

 

What did Stanley do?

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Stanley, what did you do at nursery today?

 

Did you … go to the airport with an alligator?

Or go to the beach with a bear?

Did you eat in a café with a camel?

And frighten the people there?

 

Did you build a den with a dinosaur?

Or run through the grass with emu?

Did you go to the fairground with a fox?

And did he win a goldfish for you?                                            

Did you play houses with a hedgehog?

Or go ice-skating with an impala?

Did you jump on a jeep with a jellyfish?

Or fly kites with a koala?

 

Did you eat lunch by the lake with a lamb?

Or play marbles with a monkey?

Did you go on a nature trail with a newt?

Now that would be quite funky!

 

Did you peel an orange with an octopus?

Or splash in a puddle with a pig?

Did you quiver and quake at a queen bee?

Then did you go out and dig?

 

Did you ride on a roundabout with a reindeer?                      

Or go to the seaside with a snake?

Did you climb up a tree with a tiger?

Now that would be a mistake.

 

Did you run upstairs with a unicorn?

Or drive a van with a vole?

Did you put wellies on a whale?

Or did you do nothing at all?

 

Did you swim with an x-ray tetra?

Or sail on a yacht with a yak?

Did you go to the zoo with a zebra?

Tomorrow are you going back?

 

 

 

As sure as God’s in Gloucester

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

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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.

Warehouses

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.

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 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.

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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.

 

Grandma’s House

 

I am often inspired to write poems or stories for my grandchildren. Here is one I wrote a while ago. Enjoy it, read it, share it.

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My Grandma’s house is very small

Just 2 bedrooms off the hall

A tiny kitchen, shiny-floored

A larder where my treats are stored

A shower with a seat inside

Wardrobes where doggy and I can hide

An archway leads into the lounge

Where furniture gets moved around

To make a station for my trains

Or an airport for helicopters and planes

Sometimes it’s a racetrack for my cars

Or a farmyard with tractors, paddocks and barns

Grandma puts blankets over the table

To make a den, a forest or a stable

In the garden there’s gravel that scrunches when I walk

And a patio where I can draw pictures with chalk

In granddad’s shed there are drawers full of tools

Boxes of nails, tubes of glue, jars of screws

A little mouse is nesting inside the wood store

While outside live birds, bees, hedgehogs and more

Grandma says her shed is a magical place

It’s furnished, and carpeted, and curtained with lace

Lavender hangs drying from the painted ceiling

While pine shelves are covered in things that have meaning

Like Icons from Finland, and medals from Lourdes

Calabash from Africa made out of gourds

Matrushkas from Moscow, maracas from Spain

I can’t wait for summer to play there again

Grandma loves it when I come to play

She makes indoor picnics we eat off a tray

She has lots of photos all over her wall

The best one is my mummy when she was small.