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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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.

 

My Literary DNA

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On a sea of ink

I sail to oblivion

On a paper boat

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 Practice by 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!

Then I had to find something else to write about, so I started my blog at http://heavenhappens.me

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.

 

Story time

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  …

 

 

 

Ten Pieces Prom

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.

Rest in Peace my dear friend

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Reach for the Sky

 

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.

 

 

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 Malt in 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: