What a strange coincidence, UK’s top cyclist, Bradley Wiggins and head coach for the GB cycle team, Shane Sutton both had cycling accidents within 24 hours. Fortunately, both men survived their accidents. Bradley Wiggins, the Tour de France winner, was discharged last night with broken ribs and a bruised hand according to the news.
British Cycling reported that,
Shane was taken into hospital where it was identified he has suffered bruising and bleeding on the brain. Shane was wearing a helmet. He is set to undergo more tests, and is likely to stay in hospital for the next few days. It is extremely rare that our riders and coaches are hurt while out cycling on the road, even rarer that two incidents should occur in a short space of time, and we wish Shane and Bradley a speedy recovery
Sadly, cycling accidents don’t always have this outcome. On Saturday 15th January 2011 my dear friend from college days was killed cycling on an organised 100 km club run for charity in the Severn valley. It was a foul morning, windy and pouring with rain. But Pat was a very experienced cyclist who used to be a racing cyclist and had cycled in France. I clearly remember my 60th birthday when Pat turned up in full cycle racing gear although she was a bit older than me, having ridden all the way from Berkeley to Cheltenham.
On the day she died, Pat was almost home when she was in collision with a van towing a trailer beneath a narrow railway bridge. It was no-one’s fault, simply a tragic accident. It happened near Old Westfield Farmhouse and there was a retired doctor at lunch there. He gave Pat CPR immediately; the emergency services arrived quickly, and Pat was airlifted to Hospital. It was comforting to hear from that kind doctor that Pat would not have suffered at all.
Pat was definitely one of life’s great characters and we used to have a lot of fun at college and afterwards when we shared a flat in Cheltenham. Before she came to college Pat had been a riding instructor and she continued with this in holidays from college. In the first year at college we shared a tiny bedsit behind Coventry Football Club. We had a wonderful time causing havoc in the local area with our practical jokes and outrageous (but very innocent) behaviour. We had our own favourite corner in the local pub and used to tease the local shopkeeper by asking him for exotic foodstuffs that he had never heard of.
In our second year we moved into college at Newbold Revel (the middle of nowhere) in Warwickshire, and again shared a room. Here we had more fun than ever, breaking every rule we safely could, and bending the rest. Pat loved all animals and our room was soon home to all sorts. We had snakes, guinea pigs, gerbils and hamsters, all of which Pat hid and bred from. On one hysterical occasion I remember, we had a young novice nun visiting our room ~ did I mention our college was a convent? She saw a lovely fur hat on the bed and without asking picked it up and put it on her head. Unfortunately for her, the hat was a nest full of gerbil babies. I’m not sure who got the biggest fright ~ the nun or the gerbils.
Pat’s most adventurous pet was a very young, tiny and absolutely adorable Shetland pony. I remember going to collect the pony. Pat borrowed a car and took out the back seats to put the pony in. We drove it back to college and installed it in the grounds. This Shetland pony was called Rupert and it went almost everywhere Pat went, except the Bahamas. Rupert eventually moved to Berkeley where Pat settled with her husband John and children, Lindsey and Robbie. Rupert lived for over 30 years, joined later by Old English Sheepdogs which Pat bred, and a goat called Fosbury.
After College Pat and I decided we would look for teaching jobs together. We applied in Gloucestershire because Pat had been born here in Cheltenham. Her father was the Chest Consultant at Salterley Grange when it was a TB hospital. We got a flat together and started our careers. Pat taught in a secondary school and I taught in a primary school. Every evening after school we would meet for malted milk in a Montpelier café before going back to our flat to work. We loved Cheltenham and again had a very good time and lots of fun.
Eventually we both got married. Pat’s husband went off to teach in the Bahamas and as Pat was expecting a baby, she came to live with me again. She stayed for a few months until her beautiful baby, Lindsey was born. As Pat’s husband, John, was in the Bahamas, I was allowed to be with her at the birth. Typically for Pat, the delivery started dramatically. Pat was at the dentist having her wisdom teeth out when she realised her contractions had started. When the dental treatment had finished she said we ought to go straight to the maternity hospital as she was in labour. In those days I had no car so we caught a bus!! While I got dressed in a gown and green willies. Pat was whisked off to the labour room. Before long the baby arrived. It was the most moving thing I have ever been privileged to see. When Lindsey was a few weeks old she and Pat set off for the Bahamas to join John. They were there for 5 years altogether and Robbie was born there. When they came back they lived in Cheltenham for a while before moving to Berkeley. They bought a lovely old cottage which they set about restoring. Pat was often to be found up a ladder as she personally reroofed the house. There was a large garden where Pat grew her fruit and veg. There was also a little paddock where she kept Rupert and later Fosbury. Indoors she bred her Old English Sheepdogs. Pat was an outdoor person so although she taught for a while in Gloucestershire she soon gave teaching up and became a Postwoman. This was when Pat discovered her love of cycling. She was never happier than when cycling around the villages delivering mail and chatting to people.
When Pat was killed both of her children were expecting babies. Lindsey, who already had 3 children, gave birth to a little boy called Isaac and Robbie’s wife had a little boy called Ollie. They were both born in March 2011 so Pat did not see them. But she would have been so thrilled with them, as she was with Lindsey’s other children. The boys are delightful and I am sure they have a lot of Pat in them.
Pat’s cycling friends said she brought a touch of eccentricity into cycling. She did time-trials with Dursley RC for many years as well as road racing and taking part in numerous cycle-cross meetings. She also joined the Stroud Valleys Cycling Club competing in time trials and races as well as fun events such as ‘man versus horse’ in Wales. Pat was a brave lady, a regular Hard Rider and particularly enjoyed the hill climbs. Her forte was as a cross-country mountain biker, and she regularly featured in the national results. One season she took the National Lady Veteran’s title. The fun touch, though, was never far away.
I remember Pat once did the 58 mile London to Brighton race on a unicycle! My children had great fun learning to ride her unicycle when they were young. In later years she took up bog-snorkelling and of course won at the Llanwyrtyd Wells mountain bike event. Pat’s determination stood her in good stead some years ago when she fell out of a fruit tree in her garden and broke her back. When the ambulance men arrived she told them not to move her as she knew she could be paralysed. She made them put her on a spinal board and drive at 4mph all the way to Bristol Hospital. Once there it was confirmed that her spine was indeed broken and she had a permanent metal framework inserted around her spine. One of her party tricks after she had recovered, which of course she did, was to put magnets on her back to amaze people. In a few months bionic Pat was back in the saddle doing what she loved most, riding her bike.
Pat she taught herself to ski and to speak French so that she could join a cycling club in France where she and John had a second home.
She was a great friend and she is sorely missed. Today’s news just brings it all back for me as I am sure it does for all her cycling friends, and especially her lovely family. The world is a sadder and duller place without her.
In Autumn hedgerow
Hummingbird Hawkmoth hovers
Humming Bird Hawk Moth (Macroglossum stellatarum)
- Wingspan 40 – 50 mm
- Not a native to the UK.
- Description: large proboscis and antenna, fan tailed thorax, orange hindwings and grey-brown fore-wings, marked with two black lateral stripes.
- Takes its name from the habit of flitting between blooms collecting nectar with its long proboscis, with a flight pattern resembling that of the humming bird.
- Although it has occasionally been known to overwinter in southern counties, this day flying moth is largely a migrant from the continent, flying any time from spring to October.
- A prolonged spell of warm summer weather and a southerly prevailing wind, can result in a fairly large presence of the humming hawk moths in the UK.
I have spotted these exotic visitors to England only twice; once in my garden, and once at the nursing home where my mum lived for the last 18 months of her life.
I read somewhere that the hummingbird hawkmoth is considered a good luck omen in malta and Italy. Apparently a swarm of them was seen crossing the English Channel flying towards England on the day of the D Day landings in 1944. My sighting was not such a good omen as I wrote in a previous post amended below!
“Just last year we sat in the garden on a sunny autumn Thursday, my mother and I. We saw a hummingbird hawkmoth, a rare visitor to the UK. Like a large bee crossed with a moth, it hovered over the flowers like a hummingbird. We were at the The Owlpen, mum’s care home, enjoying the last warm days of the year. Sitting with us were Diana, Phyllis, Agnes and a lovely Welsh lady who didn’t speak at all. Agnes spotted a plane with four wings flying round and round in circles. A training flight we thought or maybe a pleasure flight. No-one else noticed it. Diana was earnestly knitting hats for merchant seamen. She has made hundreds over the years from wool that people bring her. She says it keeps her mind alert and her hands busy. She doesn’t need a pattern now, she knows the stitches so well, but she has to concentrate on counting the rows. Phyllis is a large lady with sparkly eyes, very little hair, and sorely swollen legs. She has difficulty walking and forgets where she has put her stick. She loves to chat about her grandchildren and to hear about other people’s. Agnes is mum’s best friend at the Owlpen. She is a lovely cultured lady who reads the Times from cover to cover every day to ‘keep abreast of the news’. Agnes enjoys good conversation but gets cross with herself when she can’t remember the words she wants to say.
Mum’s eyes do not sparkle today. They look milky and dull like an aged pet. She is not joining in the conversation and does not appear to be enjoying the lovely day. It worries me that she seems so quiet and a bit confused. I fear she is fading in mind and body so I ask the nurse to make an appointment for the doctor to visit.
On Monday I arrive early to be there when the doctor comes. He is young, gentle and kind and asks mum lots of questions. She is overawed by him and doesn’t want to be a nuisance so she says she is fine. I gently coax the symptoms out of her. Didn’t you have a pain in your tummy mum? “Yes, a little bit”. Doesn’t it hurt your back when you are moved mum? “Yes, a little bit”. Haven’t you gone off your food because it makes you sick mum? “Yes, a little bit”. Bless her, it breaks my heart to see how dependent and deferential she has become. Where is the proud, strong, creative lady? What happened to the northern matriarch who watched over the whole extended family for the last sixty years?
The doctor says he won’t distress her further as she seems a bit down. So I stay for the whole day. We read the book of Old Gateshead and go down ‘memory lane’. We have coffee and share a bit of cake. At lunchtime I sit with her and she manages to eat a whole bowl of soup. She is so animated now that we decide to have a girlie afternoon. Fortunately I had brought my manicure set and some nail varnish. I cut her nails and massage her hands with Wild Rose Beauty Balm from Neal’s Yard. Then I buff the nails to smooth them and paint them Midnight Bronze. By the time I leave she looks relaxed and radiant, and the room is filled with the smell of roses. I have never felt closer to her and I will treasure the memory of that day forever. My mum died before the week was out.
I would give the world to be able to see my mum today, take her for a drive, or make her a special lunch.”
It was such an exciting evening at the last WI meeting. There was passionate, fiery and exotic music, rare footage of filmed tango, a fascinating talk and beautiful dancing demonstrations. Janet Earl and Adrian Barsby, who teach together but are not regular partners, did a double act chatting in a relaxed fashion and inviting members to ask questions or interrupt whenever they wished, rather than wait until the end. The talk was so informative, explaining the background and history of the dance as well as describing the different types of tango.
They explained that Tango is a social partner dance which originated in South America. In spite of its name, ‘Argentinian Tango’, Uruguay and Chile also lay claim to originating it. Argentine Tango should not be confused with ballroom tango which is a sanitised version of the dance developed in Europe in the 1920s and 1930s because the Argentine brand was considered a little too steamy.
Salon tango (the most social version) is a fully improvised dance, though it clearly follows rules which give it its appearance. The leader, who is usually the man, expresses himself by interpreting the music in his own steps and those which he invites the follower, usually the woman, to make. Historically, there is an element of “showing off” the woman by making her dance well. Their classes are generally based around this style of tango. There is often a tragic story being danced out!
Another style of tango is called Canyengue, which has a slightly higher stepping characteristic (possibly due to its having been dance in the sawdust and blood on slaughterhouse floors).
Tango Fantasia is a show version of the dance which is more likely to be choreographed and includes aspects of jazz and ballet dancing.
Socially, dancers also dance Milonga, which is more uplifting and happy, and Vals (Waltz) which is more graceful. Tango is danced in bars of two beats each but phrased in two lots of two bars, giving a phrase of 8 beats. Milonga is also in bars of two beats each, but phrased two bars at a time. Vals is in bars of 3 beats (though usually fast enough to be in 1), where the first beat of each bar “corresponds to a whole beat in tango”.
Janet and Adrian explained the instrument used in tango traditionally is the Bandoneon which is rather like an accordion. They played beautiful recordings of Tango music on the instrument. They delighted us by showing a clip of Rudolph Valentino and Alice Terry dancing in “the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” in 1921.
They explained how Tango spread to USA and came to Europe in the 1920s, mentioning lots of very famous singers, dancers and musicians whose names I cannot spell ~ Carlos di Sarli, Asto Piazzolla among them!
Janet showed us her beautiful dance outfits and her exquisite shoes, which she buys in Argentina. They finished by recommending several performances of Tango that members may wish to see locally:-
Tango at the Music Festival on 11th July, Tango, Tango at the Roses Theatre in October, Midnight Tango in Oxford and Bristol in July etc.
I woke up very early one morning to the sound of a pickaxe pounding the pavement opposite my house. Being naturally curious as well as a member of the Neighbourhood Watch scheme I got up to see what was going on. And there they were, two men, one ‘little’ and one ‘large’, digging holes in the pavement right opposite my front window! On the back of their white flatbed truck they had an assortment of tools and what looked suspiciously like a bus shelter. Since no-one had contacted us to inform us that this might be happening I rushed out in my pyjamas to find out what authority they had for the work. They told me that we should have been contacted, but their orders were to put up a bus shelter right there.
Now as you can just see from the photo my house is right opposite a lovely park with a stream and a small wood which is a delight throughout the year. I simply could not allow an ugly bus shelter to block my view. Yes I am a NIMBY!
‘Large’, who clearly underestimated the power of a woman in pyjamas, said there was nothing I could do about it as they had their orders. I said well you can’t carry your orders out if I am sitting in the hole, which I promptly did ~ yes …. in my pyjamas. At this point ‘little’ got into the van to have a smoke and ‘large’ very gallantly offered me his fluorescent yellow jacket as it was starting to rain.
Knowing me well and realising I would not be backing down any time soon my long suffering husband brought me out a cup of tea and a telephone to ring the council. Pah! The same council who had not even bothered to inform, never mind consult, the residents, I would not be wasting my time phoning them – anyway it was far too early. I would phone my MP direct. Fortunately I had his number as this is not the first protest I have been involved in. Poor ‘large’ was completely thrown when my call was put straight through to the MP’s mobile as he was at the House …. of Commons that is!
By now ‘little’ had started to get edgy and asked how long I was planning on sitting in the hole. I informed him that I could stay there as long as it took to get the decision reversed, so he called his boss. At this point passers by on their way to work had started to notice and one even took photos. I began to realise I was causing a bit of a stir – and so did ‘little’ and ‘large’. They reported this to their boss along with the fact that I was on the phone to my MP. ‘The Boss’ immediately ordered them to fill in the hole and abandon the site.
Quite bewildered but in very good humour the two men did as told and tarmacked over the holes. They never did come back and to this day there is no bus stop opposite the house, just beautiful views.
As a postscript to this I will just say that the next day I was taking my elderly mother to the cemetery to put flowers on dad’s grave when we passed the local newsagents. Mum looked at the display of newspapers in the window and said – “you’re in the papers!” To my horror on the front page was the not very fetching photo of me sitting in a hole wearing my pj’s and a yellow fluorescent jacket!
The world and his brother have seen it and that is how I came to be known as “bus stop brenda”.
Journaling my Journey
Some years ago when I was feeling very low, my daughter sent me a copy of The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron. I started writing ‘morning pages’ as Julia suggested. It was just 3 pages of stream of consciousness words, whatever came into my head. Sometimes, if words just would not come, I drew sketches.
I used to get up very early in the morning anyway as I was finding it difficult to sleep. So before I listened to the radio, read the paper, did Sudoku, filled in a crossword, switched on my computer, or had any distraction or outside input I would write my morning pages. I did this religiously (interesting word) every day for the weeks and months that followed. I did not read the pages back and I did not show them to anyone. In fact if I was really down I would wrap the pages round with Sellotape and hide them in a cupboard, figuratively locking away the pain that was revealing itself on the pages.
The Artist’s Way is of course a 12 week programme for creative discovery and/or recovery. However, apart from the urge to draw little sketches alongside my pages I did not discover any hidden artistic talent during those 12 weeks! Nevertheless, I continued writing my morning pages and taking myself off on ‘artist’s dates’ for another couple of years, and my depression lifted.
In Autumn 2011 I saw an advert for a course at the Isbourne Foundation on “The Artists’s Way”. Knowing how much I had enjoyed following the book, I was intrigued and inspired to sign up, which I did. There I met tutor Dr Lesley O’Neill and joined a small group of women whom I immediately felt connected to. So I read the book again and inspired and encouraged by Lesley and the group, I discovered to my joy that I did have some creative talents. Poetry popped up, Haiku hurtled out. I dabbled in drawing, played with Plasticene, discovered Zentangles, started writing stories, and carried my camera everywhere I went. Now, I wrap my pages in pretty ribbon, not Sellotape, and I save them in a beautiful turquoise box with doves all over it. I now live the Artist’s Way. I am part of a small local community of creative and inspiring women and my life is transformed. With them I am free to be myself and express myself, with no pretensions, no explanations and no alibis required. There are never enough hours in the day for all I want to do. I have several writing projects on the go including newsletters, travelogues, competition entries, children’s stories, my blog, and of course my morning pages. But now I realise that they too are transformed into Journal entries. I realised this after seeing a recommendation for the book “Life’s Companion, Journal Writing as Spiritual Practice” by Christina Baldwin on the New Hampshire Writer’s Group blog www.nhwn.wordpress.com that I follow . I bought the book and look forward to continuing my journey of discovery ~ discovering myself!
There are some things that are just too sad to write stories about and so I write Haiku.
Scored in syllables
Sharp shards of sorrow spill out
solaced by sharing.
One of these is the auction of of my parents’ possessions, relics of my past. The setting was ironic ~ an old school, and the weather was in tune with my feelings ~ the heavens hurling their hurt on the deserted playground.
The timing could not have been worse, viewing on what would have been my father’s 89th birthday. There is no happy ending here, a family stripped of its history under a hammer, and the grieving just goes deeper.
An unforgettable day for me was Easter Sunday in 1997. I had travelled to kisumu in Kenya with a group of educationalists from Gloucestershire.
Sunday is market day in Kisumu and Easter Sunday is no exception. Strolling around among the goods laid out on the ground, we saw an abundance of bananas and mangoes, maize, and spices galore. There were shoes made out of old tyres and handsewn clothing. Dolrosa bought a live chicken for our evening meal. Purchased goods were carried home by the women in baskets on their heads. Heavy goods were bundled on top of a matatu, a type of minibus.
I went off to Mass at St Theresa’s Cathedral where I was due to meet the Archbishop. I had brought gifts of rosary beads, bibles and prayer books from STM to be distributed among the small churches in the tribal villages. I also brought a silver Chalice for the Archbishop. The Mass was a total revelation to me. The congregation were dressed in the most beautiful and colourful outfits I had ever seen. The children were adorable and particularly well dressed as they were to make their First Holy Communion. The Mass was in Swahili which I did not understand but the singing was absolutely wonderful. It was accompanied by African drumming.
It was cloudy, hot and humid outside but lovely and cool in the Cathedral. When Mass ended and we walked out, the heavens opened and the rain came down in torrents. In no time at all the roads were awash and there were puddles appearing by the roadside. From out of nowhere children appeared stripped to the waste and leaped into the puddles. They were full of joy and having a whale of a time. It was great fun to watch them.
When the rain stopped the children all vanished then reappeared carrying empty tin cups, jugs or buckets. This fascinated us and we were curious as to what they were waiting to collect. Within minutes of the ground drying we found out. Flying termites!! They crawled out from every nook and cranny and took to the air. But the children were obviously expert at this and they caught millions of the creatures. They were so proud of their haul as they showed us how many they had caught.
By the time we reached home we were curious as to why they would want all these termites. We soon found out when we got back to Dolrosa’s house. There she was sitting on the kitchen floor over a gas ring with a frying pan full of flying termites. She was preparing them as a treat for our Easter breakfast after church.
Memories of another March and a pilgrimage to Lourdes
For me Lourdes is a very special place on Holy ground. The Spirit moves there in the rushing waters of the River Gave, and in the gentle breeze that wafts down from the mountains. The Spirit moves there in the souvenir shops where the staff will literally move the doors, displays and furnishings to enable a wheelchair bound customer easier access. The Spirit moves in the cafes where no-one minds if you just buy a drink but use their toilets and take up all of their tables and chairs to eat your own picnic. The Spirit moves in the Churches, the Grotto, the Basilicas and all around the Domain, where the sick and infirm are the VIPs who go straight to the front of any queue, getting the most attentive care.
I have fond memories of travelling as a helper on many ACROSS trips to Lourdes by Jumbulance. Trips were usually made up of 10 VIPs and 10 helpers, with a Doctor and 2 nurses ready for any medical emergency, and a Priest to celebrate the sacraments whenever and wherever the need or opportunity arose.
We all stayed in specially adapted accommodation at L’Astazou where attentive staff catered for our every need. We helpers were there to make it possible for VIPs, whatever their physical limitations, to take part in and enjoy all the wonderful experiences on offer in Lourdes and the countless opportunities for prayer and Liturgical celebration in spectacular settings.
Amongst the most memorable celebrations I attended, apart from those in the Grotto itself, was an International Mass at Pentecost. It was celebrated in the amazing Underground Basilica and attended by more than 30,000 people of all ages and in all conditions. Mere words cannot describe the emotive power and overwhelming joy of celebrating Mass with that number of people singing as one to the Lord in such a vast and impressive setting.
Yet another was celebrated on a mountain-top in a thunderstorm complete with lightning! We often had to improvise in unusual settings, as when we used a wheelchair for an altar and celebrated Mass on a grassy bank beneath the statue of Our Lady of the Snows, with the sun in the sky and a breath-taking backdrop of the snow-capped Pyrenees.
I imagined sharing such experiences with a very dear friend who was very sick, we will call her M, who, although she had travelled far and wide had never been to Lourdes. I suggested that we could go together and her immediate response was, “Yes, we should”. She was keen to make the pilgrimage as soon as possible and we thought Holy Week would be a special time. So, I set about making the arrangements and she prayed for the strength to travel.
In Oliver Todd’s lovely little guide, The Lourdes Pilgrim, he describes a pilgrimage as,
“a reflection of our life’s journey towards God, with all the decisions and demands that this makes on us. On a pilgrimage, which might last only a week, we encounter the spiritual milestones of our lifetime’s journey in faith”.
Well my life’s journey towards God has at times resembled stumbling across a minefield on a foggy night in hobnail boots, so I thought I had better get some help! As there were no organised trips available when we wanted to go, I turned for help to one of my soulmates and a Lourdes veteran, whom I shall call C, to do all the driving and practical stuff so that I could devote all my attention to caring for M. Thankfully he agreed.
M’s doctor was very keen for our venture to succeed but it was not possible for her to travel with us in person. So, she visited M at home and made sure that she had everything needed to make the trip as comfortable as possible. She gave me all the reassurance I needed that I would be able to look after her and assured me that qualified medical help is immediately available in Lourdes itself in case of emergencies.
I then turned to Tangney Tours for help with travel and they could not have been more helpful. They organised a flight from Birmingham to Toulouse so that we would not have to endure long uncomfortable drives or flights. They organised the perfect ‘people carrier’ for us, a Kangoo, to drive from Toulouse to Lourdes in. It had plenty of space for luggage and wheelchair, and it was almost brand new with only 500km on the clock. They also booked us into the central Hotel St Sauveur where we had excellent rooms. Last but not least they gave us the phone number of their permanent representative in Lourdes, who was most helpful and even came to visit us at the hotel. So, there was no escaping now.
Lourdes here we come!
Monday~ The journey to Birmingham airport was pleasant and short with M resting comfortably in a reclined passenger seat complete with pillow. The airline company had been informed that we would be travelling with a wheelchair so we got very good service. A lovely young lady called Sue met us and took us all the way to the plane. Sue was very interested in our trip and wanted to hear all about Mary, Bernadette and Lourdes. She asked of Mary, “wasn’t she the one who had a baby?” Sue told us about a pilgrimage she had been on to the shrines and temples of India, and about her confusion over the Bible, and different Christian religions. Such deep conversation and we hadn’t even left Birmingham Airport!
The flight was short and M slept most of the way while C and I chatted about all the places we would like to visit with her. The landing made M feel a bit queasy but a cup of tea and a sandwich soon made her feel better. We then picked up our Kangoo and set off for the drive to Lourdes by the scenic route ~ because I was navigating! It was picturesque and the weather was dry. We stopped on the way for refreshments and to give M a chance to stretch her legs. We nattered, laughed, reminisced and generally relaxed, as we got closer to Lourdes via Tarbes. We arrived in good time for dinner at the hotel.
One of the surprises of the week was that M really enjoyed her food and ate heartily at every meal. This was a great relief as she had refused point blank to bring any of the nourishing liquid meals that she had on prescription.
After dinner we settled into our rooms, a shared twin for M and me and a single for C. We could almost see the Basilica from our window and we could clearly hear the singing from the Torchlight Procession. But after all that travelling we were happy just to listen for tonight.
Tuesday~ We made our first visit to the Domain to say hello to Our Lady at the Statue of the Crowned Virgin. We then went straight to the Grotto where the Brancardiers cleared a way for us and M had her first glimpse of the spring from which Bernadette had drunk, and the actual Grotto where Our Lady had appeared. We put our written petitions into the petitions box, handing them over to Our Lady, then touched the cold rock and blessed ourselves with the water trickling down. We then made our way past all the candles and saw that there were no queues at the baths. M was determined to go into the baths so we went straight to the ladies’ entrance, as C went off to the men’s. As always, I found the baths very humbling – and incredibly cold. M bravely entered the bath after me and was almost fully submerged as she walked slowly towards the little statue of Our Lady in penance. I think she would have stayed there all day she was so moved by the experience. She didn’t mind the cold, she felt invigorated. C was out much quicker than us and got into conversation with a Vietnamese lady. She told him she was only in Lourdes for one day with her doctor son. She had wanted to bring her husband who had cancer, but sadly he had died before he could make the trip. His name was Joseph.
We then found each other again and went to see all the places of interest in the Domain. First, we visited the Crypt, which was the first church to be built in answer to Mary’s request. It was blessed on Pentecost Sunday 1866 and the first of countless pilgrimages started. Next, we went to the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception, or Upper Basilica, a Gothic style building consecrated in 1876. Inside there are many chapels to see and beautiful stained-glass windows, which depict the story of Lourdes. Onward we went to the Rosary Basilica, opened in 1889 and consecrated in 1901, where we were pleased to see that many of the mosaics have been restored to their original beauty. There is a large mosaic of the Virgin Mary with arms outstretched and an inscription ‘Par Marie a Jesus’ which means ‘Through Mary to Jesus’. We saw an interesting exhibition about the Turin Shroud at the Chapel of Cosmos and Damian before going back to the hotel for a very welcome lunch. M requested chicken and chips followed by apple pie and ice cream. After such a busy morning we had an hour’s rest before getting onto a petite train for a tour of the museums and town of Lourdes. This was very successful as we all saw places we had not seen before. We decided to get off and visit the rather overpowering Chateau Fort for the fantastic views over Lourdes, and to see the model villages and floral displays. M took lots of photos then we returned to ground in a dreadful old lift and decided to go shopping. There is a special shop in Lourdes with a very eccentric owner, an obsessive collector, who seems totally unimpressed by customers to the point that he simply ignores them. His shop is stuffed to the gunnels with treasures and every year it gets harder and harder to see his stock because it is so cluttered. But it really is so wonderful we just had to battle through his defences. Onward we went buying candles and postcards until M spotted the River Gave. The river was like a raging torrent crashing over huge rocks and hurtling round bends. M was very fond of water, the wilder the better, so we found a place where we could climb down and we sat against a wall basking in the sun like a pair of lizards until it became uncomfortable. We then had a hot chocolate in a café and headed back to the hotel for a well-earned rest before dinner. That evening we went to the torchlight procession. The procession was very small because the big pilgrimages don’t start until Easter week, and it was very dark because the wind was so strong that the candles kept blowing out. But we made our way down and were ushered straight to the best place in front of the Basilicas. Our candles were relit and we sang the final hymn, ‘As I kneel before you’. C remembered talking to a priest who knew the girl who wrote this hymn after an experience in Lourdes.
Wednesday~ M had a good night’s sleep after our very full day yesterday and she was very chirpy at breakfast. We are letting M set the pace and choose what we do each day so it is a very different experience from the larger ACROSS group pilgrimages. Today we planned to drive to St Savin to see the old Benedictine Abbey. On the way I popped into a Chemist to stock up on the dressings, which made M a lot more comfortable. She posted her cards and had a look at the local street market with C. She was very unimpressed with the prices! We then set off on the road to Argeles, which would lead us up into the hills and to St Savin. The weather was not good with drizzling rain so the expected superb views were tantalisingly obscured. But we arrived and had a wonderfully peaceful time in the ancient abbey. We settled down by Our Lady’s Altar and lit 3 candles, one for each of us, and our intentions. As the three of us prayed together in silence, a deep peace settled on us and it lasted and lasted and we rested in it. To our right a small arch framed the Blessed Sacrament on the altar at the other side of the church. We quietly left the abbey and headed for the ‘Poste-Café’ for some hot drinks. We settled down and started talking. M mentioned the Infant Jesus of Prague and was invited to tell us more. She gave us a moving account of the story of the statue and we shared some of our journeys through life. We all need the healing touch that only the Lord can give. Going from the sublime to the ridiculous, which is a hallmark of pilgrimages I find, we each went into the loos to marvel at the floral toilet seats and animal pictures on the walls. We had parked the “Roo” in our favourite spot and headed back there for our picnic. The drizzle had eased and the clouds had lifted to reveal a panoramic view of the snow-covered Pyrenees. It was made more breathtaking by the black kites flying just a few metres away from us. “It’s a wonderful day – praise the Lord”, as Brother Joe would have said. Bro. Joe was a Salesian who had travelled to Lourdes with us several times and he was always in charge of the weather, since wherever he went the sun went too. However, his philosophy was that the sun did not follow him, he just knew where to go to find it! So, following his example we decided to just drive and see where the Lord took us. M had warned us that she does not like being driven up steep roads so we convinced her that the Pyrenees were not steep as we headed straight for them. Fortunately, she was so captivated by the views of the rushing river Gave, the waterfalls and snow-capped mountains against the deep blue sky that she failed to notice how high we were climbing until we arrived in the ski resort of Gavarnie. Here we all turned into children again, throwing snowballs at each other and enjoying the warmth of the sun. M’s joy was complete when she saw the small row of shops selling souvenirs and wonderful sheepskin goods – and so cheap. She raced through the whistling dolls and cowbells looking for presents for her much loved family, with some success. We then walked as far as we could with M in the wheelchair towards the frozen waterfalls, the source of the river Gave. We passed donkeys, skiers, and intrepid souls who walk or cycle the Pyrenees for fun! After refreshments in a café we headed back for Lourdes enjoying the spectacular scenery once again. A more pleasant way to spend a day would be impossible to imagine. And when we got back to Lourdes we went straight to the Underground Basilica for the Blessing of the Sick.
The service was well attended but we were able to get right to the front with the wheelchair. C was struck by the beauty of the cross with figures of Mary and John below. In front of it was a floral display, which we had noticed in other Basilicas. It comprised a large palm, which seemed to form the base and the back of the display; rising in front and from it were sprays of white flowers and some red tulips. It symbolised Holy Week from Palm Sunday, and right up to the Resurrection. The Blessing was very simple and moving and then we went back to the hotel exhausted. Supper was delicious as usual and M managed all four courses. Afterwards she felt so well that we went for a drink in the bar before bed.
Holy Thursday ~ Today was planned as a special treat for M as we knew how much she loved markets. Ray from Tangney Tours had told us that Tarbes market is the biggest and best around so that was our destination. At the sight of all the stalls M got a new lease of life. She abandoned the wheelchair and was off. It was all we could do to keep up with her. I have to say the market was impressive with beautiful French designer clothes at bargain prices. Still M haggled and got prices even lower until hardened stallholders were visibly despairing. We felt it was time to rescue them and lured M off to a café for drinks. After a few more forays and a few purchases she was satisfied and we set off for our next destination, Bartres and Hosanna House.
Hosanna House, home of the HCPT, had been spring cleaned ready for the arrival of the big Easter Pilgrimage. The English staff had just arrived and the head of the ‘Handicapped Children’s Pilgrimage Trust’ was expected any minute to inspect the house. However, as always, they welcomed us with open arms and let us browse round their lovely little shop. We could have spent a fortune, in fact two of us did, but we were getting hungry so we set off to find our favourite café in Bartres. We passed the sheepfold where Bernadette had worked as a shepherdess in 1867. The Bergerie (shepherd’s hut) that Bernadette would have known so well is still there and visible from the road. After another delicious picnic and lots of hot chocolate we set off for Lourdes once again by a different route. This time we passed L’Astazou and glimpsed the ‘chateau’ where we had stayed so many times with ACROSS. It was sad to see it all shuttered and empty but the ACROSS sign was still on the gate. Back in Lourdes M had a rest while C went out to buy all the water bottles, candles and last-minute gifts for the people who were with us in spirit. He found a wonderful new shop selling religious items but kept it secret, fearing that M and I would plunder it if we knew its whereabouts.
After a quick meal we set off for the Mass of the Last Supper in the Underground Basilica. This was impressive with quite a big crowd. Being well wrapped up with blankets in the wheelchair, M slept through some of the incredibly long homily, which was entirely in French. C and I had to kneel on the cold stone floor for almost two hours so we managed to stay awake. We would have loved to ‘stay and watch’ all night at the Grotto but we were all very tired and it was raining hard so we went back to the hotel to pack and sleep.
Good Friday~ Our last day in Lourdes and we intended to spend as much of it as possible near the Grotto. We took candles of various sizes with us and lit them, placing them on the special stands and praying for our intentions and for all of the people who helped and encouraged us and made this pilgrimage possible.
The Grotto has changed, with a new altar made out of rock, and steps possibly for a lectern being cut into the face of the Grotto as well as new candleholders around the inside.
We went to fill up our water bottles with Holy Water from the taps then decided to follow the Way of the Cross in the Underground Basilica. We had no books with us so we took it in turns to say a few words at each station and to pray again for our intentions. Then we set off on the return journey to Toulouse.
We stopped briefly so that at the Holy time of 3pm on Good Friday we were sitting together deep in our own thoughts and surrounded by icons in the exquisite Ukranian Orthodox Church. Looking out of the window we saw the snow-covered mountains bathed in sunlight. It was a beautiful way to leave Lourdes and we had a wonderful journey back. The scenery was beautiful and we passed numerous shrines, churches and crosses along the way. The kites seemed to follow us and we were all totally relaxed. M slept peacefully throughout the flight as C and I recalled all we had seen and done. We agreed that it was a gentle pilgrimage. We felt that we had been drawn to Lourdes by Our Lady and guided and blessed by her son. What a privilege it had been to share that precious time with M. And what an inspiration she was. My abiding memory will be that even though she was so ill, and she knew it, she never once complained or worried about herself. She was incredibly brave and so considerate. Her petitions were always for others not herself.
M died less than a month after we returned from Lourdes.