I’d rather be on a train

“I knew who I was this morning, but I have changed a few times since then.”

Alice in wonderland!

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The question posed for WPC this week is, what would I rather be doing today?

Well, the weather here has turned very chilly again with a covering of yet more snow in my garden. So, without a doubt I’d rather be on a well heated train travelling to an exciting destination through beautiful scenery on a great rail journey.

When I was a child in the late 1940s, our main way of getting about was by steam train from the old Felling station. Like most working-class people in those days we didn’t have a car.  My dad would cycle to work and we walked to school or the local shops.  Visiting grandparents entailed a ride on the big yellow tram, but for a special shopping trip to the city of Newcastle we first had to catch the train.  And, in good weather we would go for a day trip to the golden sands of South Shields, again by train.   That is how my great love for trains started.

I’m sure the city commuters who pay extortionate prices for their daily rail journey to work would have a different view to me. But all of my train journeys, with the exception of one best forgotten, have been great fun-filled experiences.

As an adult I have travelled on many spectacular railways to some far-flung places and I still find them truly exciting.

Many years ago, I flew to Zurich in Switzerland en-route to the Bodensee in Germany and was delighted to find that I could buy a train ticket at airport arrivals then go down several levels by escalator and arrive at the railway station platforms without even leaving the airport. All through the beautiful countryside I felt like a character from my favourite childhood storybook, Heidi.

In Poland, I was amazed to see my first double decker train when I spent a wonderful study tour travelling from Torunn to Gniezno, Malbork and Gdansk.

And just last year I had my first experience of the luxurious Renfe avehigh speed trains as I travelled at about 200 mph between Barcelona and Madrid to visit my scattered children.

Renfe Ave High Speed Trains in Madrid

Renfe Ave High Speed Trains in Madrid

I find with long train journeys that you get a much more realistic view of, not only the scenery, but the local way of life and culture. So, it was fascinating to travel on a sleeper train across Russia in the early 1990’s, a time of massive political change, observing the difference between the magnificence in the centre of Moscow and the dilapidation of the countryside.  I was constantly amazed to see beautifully decorated ancient churches alongside bleak housing, decaying factories, and neglected farmland.  Inside the train was a surreal experience as each carriage had a hostess who kept a samovar boiling all day so that travellers could have a cup of tea.  Throughout the 36-hour journey our hostess stayed in her nightie and dressing gown with her rollers firmly fixed in her hair.

Later in the 1990’s I travelled across Kenya from Nairobi to the end of the line at Kisumu. This was a totally different experience as the train passed by the slums of Kibera.  I found the level of poverty there deeply distressing yet after a short time the natural world replaced the horror with exquisite scenery.

Arguably one of the best holidays I have ever taken was a Great Rail Tour through the Fjords across the roof of Norway.  This holiday took in some great cities such as Oslo and Bergen, but the highlight was a trip on what is reputed to be the most beautiful train journey in the world, Flamsbana. Flam is a small picturesque village in southwest Norway, situated in the deepest fjord in the world.  Along the route there are majestic cascading waterfalls that take your breath away with their beauty.

Locally we have a heritage steam railway run by enthusiasts at Toddington. They have just extended the line to Broadway so this makes a lovely day out.

Although I don’t get much opportunity to travel far these days I can still indulge my passion for railway journeys by watching them on TV.

Recently there have been eight series of “Great British Railway Journeys” and five series of European “Continental Rail Journeys”, all presented by Michael Portillo following Bradshaws 1913 edition of the Continental Railway Guide. He has also made two series in the United States for BBC2,  as well as one in India.  I have put a link to one of the programmes here but I’m not sure if it will work.

Michael Portillo (pictured below) used to be a politician but now I think he has the best job in the world. He travels the world by train meeting interesting people, seeing amazing sights, and he gets paid for it!

So, on reflection, I’d rather be Michael Portillo.

Michael Portillo Rail Journeys

A Thing of Beauty

Mothers Day Gifts 2018

A thing of beauty is a joy forever: its loveliness increases: it will never pass into nothingness… by John Keats

Since I downsized from the house my children grew up in, I have let go of lots of possessions. There is simply no room for them in my new home, which is small verging on tiny.

At first, I found this ‘letting go’ hard, because every item tells a story. There was my late parents’ furniture and knick-knacks, as well as the paraphernalia that my adult children left behind when they move on with their lives.  But now I realise that the experience has actually been a positive one.  For, now that I am officially ‘old’, my mind is focussed on what I really value enough to keep.  And also, I’m aware that my children will have to dispose of it all when I’m gone!   So, these days I embrace William Morris’s golden rule:

“Have nothing in your home that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.”

My photos today are of several things that have pride of place in my home and are, in my opinion, truly beautiful. They make me happy whenever I look at them and each one has its story.

There is a pot by the local artist Molly Abbott, that is definitely not practical but is so beautiful and vibrant in colour and form.

Molly Abbott

Next there is a beautiful piece by Daffyd Rouse. It was given to me some years ago by my daughter in law.  She is a nurse now and was working for Headway at the time.  Headway is a charity that supports people with traumatic and acquired brain injuries.  One of her clients was Daffyd, a very creative and talented man.  Sadly, Daffyd had a motorbike accident in 2005, which took away his independence and left him with serious head injuries unable to pursue his love for art, prose and pottery.  He generously decided to sell his vast collection of work to raise money for charity which is how I became the proud owner of this pot.  Sadly Daffyd died aged just 65 in June 2014, but the beauty of his artwork will ensure that his story will never be forgotten.

Daffyn Rouse

And, last but not least, is the gift I received today for Mothering Sunday.

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This could be a melancholy time if three of your children live abroad as mine do. However, I feel very lucky that in my case it often means that I get three mother’s days ~ the Spanish one and the American one as well as the UK one.

I don’t know how she does it, but my eldest daughter always manages to send a gift from the USA that arrives bang on time. So today I was very excited when the postman knocked!  Once I had opened the parcel I was thrilled to find an exquisite piece of ceramic art created by Claire Prenton.

Claire used to live in the Cotswolds, which is where she and my daughter became friends, when they worked together. Co-incidentally they both emigrated to the USA, Lisa to California via Vermont and Claire to Cincinnati via Seattle!  They both share a deep love and respect for nature and animals ~ although they do differ in that Claire adores her cats, while Lisa can’t live without a dog.

Claire makes the most exquisite and delicate porcelain pieces, which she embellishes with features from the natural world. Insects, birds, flowers, leaves and twigs, corals, pearls and shells feature in the ornamentation. You can see them here in her gallery. Last year Lisa sent me a beautifully decorated cup and this year she sent a plate from the same collection.  Claire tells me that her exquisite cup is tough enough for me to have my daily coffee in!  But, of course I love it so much that I will never use it in case I damage it.  I would rather just look at it and appreciate its beauty.

Lisa also sent me a beautiful card with an icon of the Madonna on.  I have loved and collected these for years so that was very thoughtful.  She also included a page from the colouring book which she has designed and created by hand,

Truly I feel blessed to be surrounded by such beauty and such love.

 

 

 

Otherworldly

frosty spiders web

There is nothing quite so exciting as waking up to a fresh snowfall.  The beauty of the spider’s web is out of this world.  This week our landscape has been transformed by the heaviest snowfall the UK has seen in years.  It makes for very exciting dog walks and hair-raising drives!  When I was teaching I used to love a ‘snow day’.  But now that I am a little too old for sledging, sitting at the window watching the younger generation having such fun just makes me wistful.  Then my mind drifts….

It snowed overnight and the roads are a fright,

So the schools are all closed ~ on a Friday!

Mums and dads can’t drive, their cars slip and slide

So its family fun on a school day.

Dogs in bright jackets are leaping for joy

Taken out for a walk, on a school day.

Babies and toddlers peep out of their prams

They’re going to the park, on a school day.

Tiny tots muffled in mittens and hats,

Squeal in delight, on a school day.

Giggling girls, hugging their friends,

Slide down the hill, on a school day.

Teen terrors in hoodies become little boys

Throwing snowballs at girls, on a school day.

Steep slopes draw the daring on sledges and boards,

They hurtle downhill, on a school day.

I sit at the window and, like falling snow,

My thoughts pile up into drifts.

My smiles turn to tears at the sights and sounds

Of my school days, as the frozen scene shifts.

Of ink wells and blotters, of wafers and milk,

Of chalk boards and outside loos;

Of walking to school by the RiverTyne,

Of castles, and coalmines and ships.

And then there are people, who wave as they pass,

Loved aunties and cousins and friends

A younger brother no longer in touch

A mother and father I mourned.

There are icicles hanging near a frozen stream,

The snow covered branches are bending

The field is a snow frosted wonderland

Its beauty my broken heart mending.

I wrote this poem the last time there was heavy snow on a Friday, in 2013.  Here are some of the photos I took then from my window or on my rambles/trudges through the Cotswolds.

The Long and Winding Road

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I chose this title from the song by the Beatles because I do find myself very drawn to taking meandering pathways through the countryside these days.  Paul McCartney sounds incredibly melancholy, as he sings it, and I know there was a lot of sadness in his life when he wrote it.

The long and winding road is a great metaphor for life actually.  In fact, I am reading a memoir with this title by Alan Johnson, who was a member of Parliament in the UK.  He wrote in his first book, The Boy, about his harrowing childhood but in The Long and Winding Road he writes about his meteoric rise in the labour party to become Home Secretary in 2009.  With his ‘upbringing’, it is astonishing that he enjoyed such success in politics, which nowadays seems to be dominated by Old Etonians.   Like most people, the road through my life has been been very varied.  There have been some very rocky bits where I stumbled and fell with a bump.  There have been icy cold patches when I felt abandoned and alone.  There have been muddy bits where I got bogged down in troubles and cares.  There have been dark stretches where I was afraid.  There have been forks in the road where I sometimes made what turned out to be the wrong choice.  And, just once, the road was blocked altogether and I was unable to carry on.  But mostly, the road has just been long and gently winding, so even though I couldn’t see where I was going, I knew I had to keep moving forward.

These days I look on long and winding roads purely for pleasure.

I dream of walking along a coast road, like those in Cornwall or Dorset, with the sun on my back.  Or rambling through the villages and farmland along the Cotswold Way when the rapeseed is in its golden glory.  But a jaunt through parkland and woods with my dog and the grandchildren will do just as well.  In fact, now that I’m retired and my children are happy, independent adults, I don’t mind where the long and winding road takes me.

The photo is of my daughter with her dog walking through the woods near her home in California.   I expect, like all of us, she is just a face in the crowd to passers by when she strays from her corner of the world.  But of course, to me, it matters not where she is; we will always be connected by our great loves ~ of dogs, of being in nature ~ and of each other.

Enjoy some long and winding road photos.

 

 

 

 

Hot Chocolate

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It was half term in the UK this week so I’ve been on grandparent duty.  This truly is one of the best things about reaching retirement.  I get to spend time with the children, doing what I want, and behaving as if I were a child again myself.  And this includes drinking hot chocolate covered in cream and marshmallows.  It was very sweet and utterly delicious!

Mainly what I want to do these days is walk by the sea, but sadly that is not an option when you live in the Cotswolds.  So, the next best thing is to wander among the fields and streams, or the woods and hills, near my home.  I am convinced that there has never been invented a toy or electronic gadget that can rival the outdoors for entertainment value.  Of course, it helps if the weather is good, but even in a cold, wet February, there is fun to be had indoors and out.

I feel quite sorry for parents these days as their lives are ridiculously busy and they don’t often have the chance to just be with their children.  I expect it was ever thus, but happily I choose to forget the hard times I had, and just remember the fun my children had.

As W H Davies pointed out in his wonderful poem

What is this life if, full of care,

We have no time to stand and stare? –

No time to stand beneath the boughs,

And stare as long as sheep and cows:

No time to see, when woods we pass,

Where squirrels hide their nuts in grass:

No time to see, in broad daylight,

Streams full of stars, like skies at night:

No time to turn at Beauty’s glance,

And watch her feet, how they can dance:

No time to wait til her mouth can

Enrich that smile her eyes began?

A poor life this if, full of care,

We have no time to stand and stare.

So here are more pictures from my fun week with children for you to enjoy.

 

 

 

 

These are the days of our lives

 

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I went to the funeral of a dear man this week who was my next-door neighbour for many years, and, as these occasions are wont to do, it made me rethink the value and purpose of our lives and what we leave behind.

Listening to the heartfelt words of his children and grandchildren I was reminded of the saying, “people may not remember what you did or said, but they will always remember how you made them feel.”

Not one of them mentioned a gift he had bought them or how much pocket money they had received if any.  They didn’t mention his house or his décor, his car or his clothes.  They didn’t mention his looks or his job.  What they all mentioned was that he was kind; always there for them, would do anything for them, and that they had fun with him.

He was an ‘ordinary’ man, one of 9 children in the 1940s, when large families were more common.  He was a happy rascal as a little boy, playing truant from school to hunt for rabbits in the countryside.  He met his wife to be when he was 15 and she was 14.  They married at 19 and have been happy together ever since.

He grew up at a time when it was possible to get a job for life in a large, local company.  He worked hard, enjoyed the job, was on friendly terms with all his fellow workers, and stayed there for 40 years.

Apart from his family, the love of his life was his garden.  We always used to look after and water each other’s gardens whenever either of us was away.   His garden was a delight but his passion was such that he eventually took on 2 allotments as well.  There he grew all the fruit and vegetables you can imagine, for eating, and to brew his home-made beer, wine and cordial.

Gardening was so important to him that this lovely poem was recited at his funeral.

The Glory of the Garden by Rudyard Kipling

Our England is a garden that is full of stately views,
Of borders, beds and shrubberies and lawns and avenues,
With statues on the terraces and peacocks strutting by;
But the Glory of the Garden lies in more than meets the eye.

For where the old thick laurels grow, along the thin red wall,
You will find the tool- and potting-sheds which are the heart of all ;
The cold-frames and the hot-houses, the dungpits and the tanks:
The rollers, carts and drain-pipes, with the barrows and the planks.

And there you’ll see the gardeners, the men and ‘prentice boys
Told off to do as they are bid and do it without noise;
For, except when seeds are planted and we shout to scare the birds,
The Glory of the Garden it abideth not in words.

And some can pot begonias and some can bud a rose,
And some are hardly fit to trust with anything that grows;
But they can roll and trim the lawns and sift the sand and loam,
For the Glory of the Garden occupieth all who come.

Our England is a garden, and such gardens are not made
By singing: – “Oh, how beautiful!” and sitting in the shade,
While better men than we go out and start their working lives
At grubbing weeds from gravel-paths with broken dinner-knives

There’s not a pair of legs so thin, there’s not a head so thick,
There’s not a hand so weak and white, nor yet a heart so sick.
But it can find some needful job that’s crying to be done,
For the Glory of the Garden glorifieth every one.

Then seek your job with thankfulness and work till further orders,
If it’s only netting strawberries or killing slugs on borders;
And when your back stops aching and your hands begin to harden,
You will find yourself a partner in the Glory of the Garden.

Oh, Adam was a gardener, and God who made him sees
That half a proper gardener’s work is done upon his knees,
So when your work is finished, you can wash your hand and pray
For the Glory of the Garden, that it may not pass away!
And the Glory of the Garden it shall never pass away!

And it reaffirmed in me the knowledge that wealth, position and possessions, ultimately mean nothing to the people who truly love you.  They remember your smile, your kindness, and how you made them feel.

Although the funeral made me sad and thoughtful, this poem comforted me.  For, like the glory of the garden, this dear man’s goodness will live on, in his widow, his children and grandchildren.  His life had inestimable value to them and to all who knew him.

In memory of my neighbour I will give you a photographic guided tour of the Rococo Gardens in Painswick which at the moment is aglow with snowdrops and hellebores.

 

 

 

A City in a Forest

Souls entwined at the Peace Pagoda

This weekend I visited relatives who live in Willen, very close to the North Lake.  Willen is one of the dozen or so ancient villages that were absorbed when the new town of Milton Keynes was built 50 years ago.  I remember driving through the area with my father when the town was being built.  I was fascinated by the ‘grid system’ of the roads, horrified by the number of roundabouts and underpasses, and amazed by the number of tree-lined cycle paths.  Driving through the city again this weekend, I was amused by the street names, delighted by the beauty of the trees and parks, and relieved to see that some of the old villages have still retained their individual identity and historic buildings.

My dream house

There are two lakes in Willen, North and South and both are beautiful in very different ways.   South Lake, and the park it is set in, is a hive of activity.  On the lake there are facilities for water sports like canoeing, sailing, windsurfing, and paddle sports, as well as an area for fishing.  In the park there are areas for golfing, cycling, football, table tennis, aerial adventures, jogging and gymnastics; as well as a wonderful children’s adventure playground.

In total contrast, North Lake is set in the most serene park I have ever visited.  It is a designated and protected wildlife and nature reserve and there are waders and waterfowl galore.  There is also a Peace Pagoda, the first ever built in Western Europe.   It was built by monks and nuns of the Nipponzan Myoholi as a symbol of world peace and is meant to promote unity among all the peoples of the world regardless of race, creed, or border.   It opened in September 1980.   In front of the pagoda stand two creatures from Japanese legend.   Shishi, the paired lion-dogs are said to have magical powers that repel evil.

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Near the pagoda is the Buddhist Temple as well as Japanese and Zen gardens.   There is such an air of serenity around the pagoda and the Temple.  It draws me to it.

Near the temple is a medicine wheel of stones, which looks a bit like the ancient stone circle at Avebury.   It is said that a ley line passes through this area and close by is a single ‘needle’ stone that catches the rising midsummer sun.  There certainly are a lot of mystical and spiritual influences in the area of Willen and Milton Keynes.  If you are interested you can read more at this link.

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There is so much to see on and around the lake.  I was very impressed by all the artwork.  There is a fascinating Labyrinth and a beautiful pure white memorial statue named ‘Souls in Love’.  The sight of this statue aligned with a pure white swan and the white peace pagoda gleaming in the setting sun was totally stunning.  Of course my photos, taken with my phone, don’t do it justice; but I hope you enjoy them anyway.

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While I was at the lakeside I saw waders and waterfowl galore, as well as the most spectacular murmuration of starlings as dusk fell.  A group of ‘twitchers’ with very impressive cameras was gathered at the edge of the lake to watch the amazing aerial display.  There must have been thousands of birds flying so close together that they seem to move as one.  I watched them swoop and soar as they selected just the right spot to roost for the night.  As they got closer and the sky got darker, the sound of their wings was deafening, then silence fell as they all settled.  The whole spectacle was breathtaking, a beautiful ballet.  Do watch this video if you have never witnessed a murmuration or check out these fabulous photos from the Guardian.

All in all a very enjoyable weekend.

Transformation

It is truly amazing what a transformation takes place when a mural is added to a boring wall.

BJ Kennels2

On the rare occasions when I travel, I put my little dog, Toffee, into kennels.  The facilities for the dogs are great and no expense was spared when they were built.  The owner of the kennel used to be a RSPCA inspector so his standards were always high.  The kennels were sited near our small local airport.   As the airport got busier and the planes got bigger, it became necessary to extend the runway.  As the kennels were right in the way the owner was made a very generous offer to move.

This was a once in a lifetime opportunity for him to build a state of the art facility.  He travelled the country researching the best kennels and what they offered.  he then had his new kennels built to the highest standards.  Each kennel has its own  little exercise area.  There is underfloor heating.  The walls and floors are finished in hospital quality anti bacterial finishes that can be easily washed down.  There are open fields behind with country walks, and enclosed exercise areas for play.  There is even an agility course and grooming salon!

Altogether, this makes for a beautiful environment for the lucky pets who spend any time there.  The staff are also first rate.  They treat every visiting dog as if it were their own and give lots of love, care and attention as well as exercise.

However, the outside walls, which faced the carpark, were a bit boring to say the least.  But on a recent visit, I was delighted to see murals by a local artist had been painted on the outside walls.

One was based on the film 101 Dalmations.  The other reminds me of the stage musical, Cats.

BJ Kennels

I absolutely love them.  I took my puppy-loving granddaughter along to see them and she loved them too.  They have even continued the theme along the fences with puppies here and there.  It is adorable.  Enjoy my photos of this very special place.

 

 

Remembrance Sunday

Back of hotel

Following last week’s exciting trip to Spain, I had a marvellously luxurious weekend at the local Tewkesbury Park Hotel to celebrate a family birthday.  All of this travel and excitement is experimental for me as I have been a bit housebound over the last few years for various reasons.

While some of our group played golf and some had spa treatments or relaxed, I went for a stroll around the grounds with my camera.  Being set high on a hill there are amazing views, towards the Malvern Hills, Brecon Beacons, River Severn and Tewkesbury itself.

There is so much to see in Tewkesbury with its medieval buildings and alleys, and two powerful rivers, the Severn and the Avon, that meet there.  There is always lots of activity around the river, whether it be pleasure-boating or fishing.  Occasionally of course the rivers flood the town, but the locals are so used to it that they are very well prepared and cope brilliantly.

At the heart of the town is Tewkesbury Abbey.  There is so much history surrounding this abbey that it is worth visiting over and over again.  I used to take school groups there when I was teaching, or foreign visitors when I was involved in Global Footsteps.

There is also a fascinating history in the hotel site too.  I am one of those people who has to find out as much as I can about everywhere I go, so I started to delve.  I was thrilled to discover that recorded history goes back to when the park was enclosed between 1185 and 1187.  The park covered 200 acres then and was stocked with deer.  By the late 14th century there was a large medieval timber and stone manor house on the site, which was called Tewkesbury Lodge.  By 1540 records taken after the dissolution of the Monasteries showed that the deer park covered 80 acres with the rest being agricultural.  There are no records of deer at the park after that.

The original manor house was at times owned by the crown or by the abbey as well as private individuals including the Clare family who used it as a hunting lodge.

kneeling knight

But, one of the most fascinating owners for me was Edward, Baron Le Despenser, who died in his 30’s in 1375.  He has a beautiful monument known as ‘The Kneeling Knight’, in Tewkesbury Abbey, which I have often admired.  It seems unusual for a knight to be depicted kneeling above a chapel.

At some point the medieval house was demolished, and the present building was built in the 18th century by the Wall family.   The last private owner was Violet Sargeaunt who lived there from 1933 until her death in 1973.  Finally, a superb golf course was developed, which opened in 1976 and the hotel prospered alongside it.

I walked down to the heart-wrenching field that lies at the foot of the hotel’s driveway.  It is called Bloody Meadow and it recalls The Battle of Tewkesbury which brought to an end the Wars of the Roses between the house of York (white rose symbol) and the house of Lancaster (red rose symbol).  The Yorkist King Edward 1V was victorious, while Edward, Prince of Wales, son of Henry V1 and last Lancastrian heir to the throne, was killed, aged just 17.  His burial place lies in Tewkesbury Abbey with a Latin inscription which translates as,

“Here lies Edward, Prince of Wales, cruelly slain whilst but a youth, Anno Domine 1471, May fourth. Alas the savagery of men. Thou art the soul light of thy Mother, and the last hope of thy race.”

Grave of Edward, the Lancastrian Prince of Wales

Also in Tewkesbury Abbey high up on the ceiling there is a spectacular carving which shows the badge of Edward 1V, the ‘sunne in splendour’.   It is admirable on the one hand that both winner and loser are remembered in the Abbey, but I find it rather gloating that the massive ‘sunne in splendour’ dominates the roofspace and ‘lords it’ forever over the poor defeated young prince.

medieval sunne in splendour

At the entrance to the ‘Bloody Meadow’, a commemorative plaque on the fence reads,

The field has been called the bloody meadow for more than 500 years, and tradition says that it is the meadow where so many were taken and slain.  This is possibly where Edward, Prince of Wales, met his death.  Other Lancastrians killed in the field almost certainly in the rout, include the Earl of Devonshire, The Marquis of Dorset and Sir William Rous.

The field is long and constricted, a death trap for men who are edging backwards whilst trying to avoid lethal blows.  How many fell is not recorded. Only important people were named.  Those who escaped the Bloody Meadow were faced with crossing the Mill Avon, and many drowned.

I took photos here but felt incredibly sad for the common soldiers who were buried in this meadow in anonymous pits while the nobles were interred in the Abbey and its graveyard.

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When I left the hotel, I stopped at the roundabout on the outskirts of Tewkesbury to marvel at the commemorative sculptures officially called the Arrivall.  I like to call them Victor and Vanquished.  This is a high vantage point from where the army of King Edward 1V could have seen the Duke of Somerset leading King Henry V1’s ill-fated army.

I have written about this sculpture before but on this day, being Remembrance Sunday, it was embellished with a ‘Lest we forget flag’, which somehow just reinforced the ongoing inevitability, futility, and tragedy of war for me.

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Victor represents the Yorkist army under Edward IV and is located on the roundabout itself. This part of the sculpture shows a horse and rider, the rider has a traditional lance with a pennant on top.

Vanquished, that represents the defeated Lancastrian army. This army was led by the Duke of Somerset, supporting Henry VI. Vanquished is a riderless horse, with its head bowed and a lance leaning on its back.

Here is a link for anyone seriously interested in the history of this fascinating area.

Take a peek at my week

Blue Skies over Madrid

My photos will give you a peek into the variety of exciting places I’ve been to recently.  It has been a most unusual time.

Over the course of 7 days I got in or on 2 planes, 4 underground trains, 4 taxis and countless lifts.  Anyone who knows me well or has read my post about my attempted trip to the USA, will know that I find travelling challenging to say the least!

I used to travel all over the world for work, twinning, conferences, pilgrimages, or just pleasure and you can read some of my travel blogs on these links Russia, USA , Lourdes, Kenya , Poland.

But, this time I was heading to Spain for my grandson’s christening.  And, with a trusted friend for company, I made it.

We breakfasted in London, spent 3 nights in a gorgeous apartment in the beautiful town of Tres Cantos, attended the Christening in the ancient town of Manzanares el Real, and celebrated with a wonderful family lunch in Madrid.

We managed to do a bit of sight-seeing in each of these very different places, then returned to London and reality.

Tres Cantos is a beautiful ‘new town’, which has been really well planned.  The wonderful weather and seemingly perpetual blue sky helps of course.  But everywhere was spotless with parks, fountains, and lots of pedestrianised areas.   It has the advantage of being close enough to Madrid for commuting too.

Central Madrid, or the small area that we saw, is exquisite.  The impressive white buildings gleam in the sunshine and the roads seemed incredibly wide.  Here too we found beautiful tree-lined pavements with water features, fountains and statues.  Since we were in the city, coincidentally, during the demonstrations in support of a unified Spain, there were Spanish flags flying from many buildings.  We were told that one of the flags is the biggest in the world!

We were very impressed to see a huge banner across the front of the Palacio de Communicaciones, which has got to be the most impressive ‘Post Office’ in the world.  The banner reads, “Refugees Welcome”.

A little further on and we saw the National Museum of Prado.  For almost 200 years this world-famous art gallery has given visitors the opportunity to see the best of the best in painting and sculpture.  I would love to go back to spend whole days in there.

So, we relaxed in Tres Cantos, were blown away by the culture of the city of Madrid and its people; but what of Manzanares el Real?  Well, 20 plus years ago I visited Yellowstone National Park in America and literally could not believe my eyes.  The geology of that place seemed totally other-worldly with its extraordinary geysers, hot springs, mudpots, steam vents, and bubbling rivers.   The wildlife too was totally alien to me.  I saw bears, bison, moose, elk, antelope, marmots, chipmunks, and even a mountain lion!  So I didn’t expect this relatively small and ancient town to surprise me as much as it did.  It is truly unusual and spectacularly scenic.  I believe the name means ‘Royal Apple Orchard’, and it gives its name to the River Manzanares which flows from the Sierra de Guadarrama, on through Madrid.  The ‘royal’ bit comes from the fabulous restored castle which we visited.

The town is set at the foot of a spectacular mountain range called La Pedriza.  The whole area is dotted with huge granite boulders which are unusually rounded and smoothed.  They are everywhere to the extent that the houses in the area that I visited are just plonked on, in, or around the boulders.  This makes for very unusual gardens, and brings a whole new meaning to the phrase ‘man-cave’, as there really are caves in some of the gardens!  The whole area is a dream for rock climbers and nature lovers.  There are also spectacular views of the huge Santillana reservoir, which attracts large colonies of water birds as well as birds of prey.  Higher up among the boulders; I was informed by my son who runs there daily with his dogs; there are red deer, wild cats, wild boar and wolves.

And he wonders why I worry!

Photos from Madrid

Photos from Manzanares el Real

The scale of the tragedy

The scale of the tragedy

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26 foot Knife angel made of surrendered knives

We hear awful things about gun crime in the USA, which is really worrying.  In the UK we don’t have gun crime on the same scale because we do not have the right to own or carry guns thankfully.

However, knife crime is a serious problem here with even quite young teenagers taking knives out with them for ‘protection’.  The consequences for many young people and their families are tragic.

The government, police forces and traders have been working together to tackle the issue in many ways.  One of the ideas was an amnesty on knives that were handed in or placed in ‘surrender boxes’.  These are secure boxes that are placed in police stations and YMCAs amongst other places.

Recently I went to see what has happened to all the knives that have been handed in so far, and I was staggered.  Artist Alfie Bradley has created a 26-foot sculpture in the shape of an angel out of the 100,000 or so  that were surrendered nationwide.  It took him 2 years to create his memorial, which can be seen at Oswestry’s British Ironwork Centre.

The many coloured handles form the surface of the body of the angel, while the blades form the wings.   I can’t describe just how moving this sculpture is, as many of the knives have actually been used in crimes.  It has an expression of such tragedy on its face that it reflects the awful pain felt by those who suffer the consequences of knife crime.

The Knife Angel will be travelling around the country eventually to be displayed in other towns, but for now it is a thought-provoking entrance to the amazing artwork on show at the British Ironwork Centre.

I can recommend spending a day at the British Ironwork Centre.  It is in a beautiful, unspoilt area of the country and the displays of art and craftwork are spectacular.

Here are photos of some of the other pieces of iron art on display.  All are truly beautiful, but the gorilla is very interesting because it is entirely made of spoons donated by  children from many countries after an appeal by the magician Yuri Geller.

Layers of Love

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I have always been fascinated by stone because in one form or another it has been around since the world began, and, in one form or another, will still be around when we are all gone!

As a youngster I lived for a few years in the Lake District, where slate has been mined for centuries, and still is.  There were wonderful shades of green and  blue-grey, which you can still get today.  The colours depend on what minerals and organic materials were in the shale when it was laid down. There was even a silvery grey called Coniston Old Man! Geologists reckon it was laid down over the course of 500 million years, from sedimentary rock under low heat and pressure.  This natural slate can withstand the most extreme environments and conditions, which makes it ideal as a building material.

But, when slate is turned on its side, it can be easily split with a hammer and chisel into separate layers of differing thicknesses.  It is these qualities of timelessness, strength and layering that were in my mind this week.

I imagine that inside of each one of us there are layers of love being laid down.  Daily life is the mud between the layers and the surface may be riven by life’s ups and downs.  But, hopefully we will all have layers of love laid down for our parents, siblings, children and extended family, whether natural or adoptive, who form the bedrock of our emotional lives.

There will be other layers formed by people we hardly knew but who made a deep impression on our hearts.  I’m thinking of my grandmother who died when I was just 5 but whom I loved with all my heart because she made me feel safe and loved when I was tiny.  They say children won’t remember what you said or what you did, but they will remember how you made them feel.  That was certainly true in her case.

Special friends will lay down other layers, which will still be there even when the friends have passed away.  I’m thinking here of my dear friend, Pat, who died in a cycling accident some years ago.   I have such fond memories of her as we had such fun together at college and for years after.

But there will be other people we meet during the course of our lives whom we respect and admire so strongly that a love develops that transcends normal feelings and is often inexplicable to others.  And this is the point of my post.

When I retired from decades working in education, I was drained in every way; physically, mentally, spiritually and emotionally.  My well had definitely run dry!  I knew that I needed to be in a peaceful place where I could restore my energy and regain my ‘joie de vivre’.  So, I went to work as a housekeeper at St Peter’s Grange, which at the time was a retreat and conference centre run by the Benedictine monks from Prinknash Abbey

This was a labour of love and I learned a great deal about life from the Benedictine monks I shared the chores with.  Fr Alphedge especially was an inspiration.  He was always so happy, building up the fire, sweeping the floor, even scrubbing out enormous pots and pans.  His philosophy was to treat every moment as a sacrament, and every task as a gift to God, not a chore.  He did each menial job with reverence while radiating joy, peace and stillness for almost 40 years.

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Fr Alphedge in L’Astazou, Lourdes with our ACROSS pilgrimage 1993

Fr Alphedge left this life last month, and I found myself grieving and reflecting on all I had learned from him during those beautiful moments of quiet contemplation that we shared, over the soapy suds, dusty cobwebs and sooty ashes.

And it boils down to love.  I learned to love myself again, to love life, to love the people I come into contact with, and to love the work in-hand.  This is not a shallow kind of love.  As Fr Alphedge would be the first to admit, some people – monks included – can do irritating things that temporarily annoy one.  But, deep inside, love is laid down like the mudstone that changes over time to riven slate.  The people we meet are like the crystals of quartz embedded in it and the formative experiences we have are like the minerals and organic matter that give the slate its colour.

Many years ago, my parents picked up a large slab of slate in the Lake District and carved letters from their names into it, which they painted gold.  It reads ‘Terstels’ from Terry and Stella, and is still on the front of the house where they lived until they died.  I pass it every day and it reminds me that although they are gone, my love for them is still as strong as ever.  I guess it is the first layer of love I laid down.

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I think we each have a limitless capacity for love- it costs nothing, takes up no space, and it is very precious.

Another monk, a Salesian this time, who was rather irreverently known as Bro. Joe, taught me not to hide love but to spread it, share it, give it freely, and let others know that they are loved.  This poem was printed on his funeral order of service and I think it is very good advice!

If with pleasure you are viewing
Any work that I am doing,
If you like me, or you love me, tell me now.
Don’t withhold your approbation
Till the Father makes oration
And I lie with snowy lilies o’er my brow.
For no matter how you shout it,
I won’t care so much about it,
I won’t see how many tear drops you have shed.
If you think some praise is due me.
Now’s the time to slip it to me,
For I cannot read my tombstone when I’m dead.

More than fame and more than money
Is the comment warm and sunny,
Is the hearty warm approval of a friend.
For it gives to life a savour
And it makes me stronger, braver,
And it gives to me the spirit to the end.
If I earn your praise bestow it,
If you like me, let me know it,
Let the words of true encouragement be said.
Do not wait till life is over
And I’m underneath the clover,
For I cannot read my tombstone when I’m dead.

 

I need to thank Michelle at Honister Slate Mine for the great photos

A Circular Walk

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Tramway Bridge in Stratford on Avon, now just for pedestrians

I lead quite a pedestrian life these days, but I am very grateful that I am still reasonably fit, and can still enjoy regular walks.  Today I am especially grateful, as this autumn is glorious in the Cotswolds.  The sun is shining through the trees in the woods where I take my little dog for her walks, and the ground is covered with golden leaves.

Another walk that I never tire of, and take as often as I can, is the circular walk beside the river Avon in Stratford.  As a teenager I used to walk to school along the old bridge built in 1822 for horse trams.  It is now a pedestrian bridge, which leads to Bancroft gardens and the town.  But if you turn left, instead of crossing the tramway bridge, you can take a beautiful walk alongside the river.  Here you will get the most spectacular views of the Shakespeare Theatre, and Holy Trinity Church, which is the burial place of William Shakespeare.  The path goes on past the ferry, weirs and the old mill, but there is a bridge which you can cross to get into the oldest part of the town.

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Weir on the Avon at Stratford

Whenever I have visitors, I take them to the Old Town to see some of the most beautiful places in Stratford.  I start at the British Legion memorial garden which is always peaceful and very moving.  There are several plaques on the wall about both World Wars.  There is also one of the most beautiful garden seats I have ever seen.  It is wrought in iron and has a design of soldiers marching amongst poppies.

WW1 memorial garden seat

British Legion memorial garden bench to remember the centenary of WW1

From there I walk past the Jacobean home of Shakespeare’s daughter Susanna and her husband Dr John Hall.  The main part of this beautiful house was built in 1613!

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Halls Croft

I then turn left into Church Street and walk on to Chapel Lane where there are some of the oldest buildings in the town, which were built for the Guild of the Holy Cross. This guild virtually controlled the town in the middle ages.  First you see a row of almshouses for the poor and needy parishioners.

As a teenager I used to collect shopping for a wonderful old French lady who lived in one of the almshouses.  Inside, the rooms had solid oak floors which creaked, and low timbered ceilings.  I believe they were renovated in the 1980s and brought up to date inside, but the outside is thankfully unchanged.

Next door to the almshouses is the Guild Hall where you can visit Shakespeare’s actual schoolroom.  Then there is the Guild Chapel, with a history dating back to 1269!

Opposite the Guild Chapel is the site of New Place with its gorgeous gardens.  When Shakespeare bought New Place it was the second biggest house in Stratford.  It was his family’s home from 1597 until he died there in 1616.  Sadly, the house was demolished in the 18th century, but visitors can really connect with Shakespeare in the garden through imaginative artworks reflecting the plays.  It is believed that Shakespeare wrote the Tempest here and this summer there was wonderful artwork on that theme.

Nash's House next to New Place

Nash’s House next to New Place

On the other side of the road, on the High Street, is the oldest pub in the town.  The Garrick Inn, like many buildings in the old town, is a timber framed and dates back to the 1400’s.  It revels in its colourful history of plagues, fires, priest holes, and ghosts!

 

The Garrick Inn and Harvard House

The Garrick Inn and Harvard House

Next door to the pub is Harvard House, where John Harvard was born in 1607.  He married and emigrated to Massachusetts in America where he was a preacher and teaching elder.  When he died of TB he left 230 books and a very generous legacy to a fund for the founding of a new college.  This was to become Harvard College, the oldest institution of higher education in America.  The house is preserved thanks to the work of Marie Corelli, the writer.  She lived in Stratford at the height of her fame and was passionate about preserving the old buildings in the town.  She bought Harvard House in a dilapidated state and was determined to save it.  In 1905, Marie met an American couple, Mr and Mrs Morris, who agreed to help pay for the restoration as a sign of friendship between UK and USA.   Between them, they donated the house to Harvard University, and, at the grand re-opening in October 1909, the American ambassador, Whitelaw Reid, declared it ‘free to all visiting sons of Harvard, and a rendezvous for all visiting Americans’.

I would probably go on to Shakespeare’s birthplace from here.  It really is worth going into the Birthplace Trust just to find out what Stratford was like in his day.

From there I would go back towards the theatre and the Bancroft Gardens and return to my car via the Tramway, picking up a whippy ice-cream on the way.

I have written other posts about Anne Hathaway’s cottage, the Theatre and Holy Trinity Church, which you can read by clicking the links.  But for now, you can enjoy some of the photos from my last circular walk!

 

 

 

 

Layers of Leaves

Layers of Leaves

I can’t resist the photos of my grandchildren, layered in clothes, playing in layers of leaves in the woodland.  Autumn has arrived in the Cotswolds, and it is certainly a magical time of year.

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Layers of leaves lie

Overwhelming the senses

Deep in the forest

 

 

 

No more Waiting for Wags

No more Waiting for Wags

Let me introduce you to Wags.  He was found as a stray and taken to an animal shelter in California, where my daughter lives.  This shelter has a high rate of putting down unwanted dogs, so kind volunteers, like my daughter, go in regularly to check for cases just like Wags, who are older and in need of veterinary care.  Peace of Mind Dog Rescue sponsored him and took him to a vet for evaluation.  He was only waiting there for 2 days before my daughter decided to foster him herself.

By piecing together what was known, it seems that Wags had been living on the streets for a while, probably with a homeless person judging by his behaviour – he has a habit of climbing into cardboard boxes to hide or sleep.   No-one knows for sure but he was possibly abandoned because he needed very expensive treatment for his many medical problems.

He had periodontal disease which was so severe that his teeth had to be removed along with half of his lower jaw.  As well as that he has occasional epileptic fits if he gets stressed.

But, for my daughter, he is the perfect pet.  He just loves to sit on her lap at the beach or in the park, ride in her bicycle basket to the woods, or snuggle into his special car seat on her way to work.

He still has medical needs and he has a special soft diet, but he could not be in better hands.   I am so glad they found each other.

My own little dog Toffee just celebrated her first birthday by being spayed!  She has recovered really well and is back to her usual bouncy self, haring at full speed across fields, or picking her way through the woods with her nose to the ground.  She is a joy to be with and I feel very lucky to have her.

Her life could have been very different as she was born, unknown to me, in a barn on a puppy farm owned by gypsies who had been banned by the RSPCA from keeping animals.  Thankfully I was able to adopt her at just 8 weeks old so I don’t think she had suffered.  What it does mean is that I have no paperwork for her and no proof of what breed she is.

I was told that she was a Pembroke corgi crossed with a dachshund, but everyone who sees her says she has a lot of beagle in her!  I don’t really mind what her pedigree is because I love her.

I had her spayed because there are too many unloved and abandoned dogs in the world like Wags who need a home, so I feel it is unnecessary and a bit anti-social to breed more.

Here are some more adorable photos of Wags now that he is healthy.

Walk this Way

Walk this Way

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Almost the end of the summer here in the UK and Autumn is definitely in the air.  So, I went with the grandchildren to Westonbirt Arboretum.  The arboretum is so popular that the car park was overflowing, but once inside the woodland is so vast that it didn’t seem crowded at all.   The aim of the visit was to go on the Gruffalo trail but we found that a bit disappointing.

However, a new experience for us was the bridge-like structure which takes visitors right up into the canopy of the trees.  The bridge is very cleverly built with angled slats on the sides so that even the smallest children or wheelchair users can see the trees every step of the way.  At intervals, there are viewpoints like ‘crow’s nests’ with information and pictures of the wildlife you can find.  Some of the wildlife was a bit too realistic as there were swarms of bees building hives in some trees!

Up there on the walkway you get a totally different view of, and perspective on the 15,000 trees from all around the world which thrive there.

All around the arboretum there are woodcarvings and buildings created from the trees in the woods.  They are magnificent.  But the grandchildren’s favourite was in the adventure play area.  There was a sea theme with a huge pirate ship, small canoes, sharks and fish, all carved from the wood.   The grandchildren loved it and I can’t wait to go back in Autumn when the trees have turned golden and red.

Wooden Walkway and other structures at Westonbirt

Trees are structures just made for climbing up and over, or jumping off!

The Western Red cedar is a spectacular structure

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And lastly,  a woodcarving

A crocodile in the corner

 

There is a fascinating corner of the Cotswold’s in Compton Abdale with a very unusual spring, which a respected builder from the nearby village of Hazleton built from Cotswold Stone in the 19th Century.  Presumably some local landowner paid for it.  The feature is shaped like a crocodile’s head and the spring water has been gushing out of the crocodile’s mouth ever since.  Some days after lots of heavy rain, it is a truly spectacular sight.

I wish I could capture the sound of the pure rushing water for you but my photos will have to do.

I marvel at the fact that nature produces a constant supply of fresh water for us here.  Would that other parts of the world were so lucky.

My corner of the world

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When I first arrived in my little corner of the Cotswold’s 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.  There was one unobtrusive industrial area with factories linked to the aviation industry, and their offices were in a manor house which was known as Arle Court.  The manor was built in the mid1800s to replace the Butt family’s original Elizabethan house of the same name and it has a fascinating history.

Today the area around the manor house has become very built up with a supermarket and DIY store, a pet shop, a park and ride bus service, new housing, and an enormous car showroom and garage!  Most of the old factories have been converted and now house a private hospital, a gym, offices, and a film studio.

But when I go to the area these days, I make a point of taking a little detour to what can only be described as an oasis of peace and a little treasure trove of nature.   Despite everything around, there is still the stunning manor house set in 7 acres of beautiful formal gardens with a lake and woodland hiding it from the busy modern, commercial world.  It is called Manor By The Lake now and is a quirky hotel, perfect for weddings, special events and conferences.  The decor inside is simply gorgeous as you will see if you look on the website.

There are herons and ducks in the lake, woodpeckers galore in the gardens, and an abundance of wildlife in the woodland.  I used to be able to walk my dog there, but now it is all private and there are development plans afoot for the woodland.  I just hope that a little corner can be preserved for future generations to enjoy.

 

The Cotswold Lion

The Cotswold Lion

 

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Cotswold Lions at Prinknash Abbey farm

‘In Europe the best wool is English and in England the best wool is Cotswold’
(12th century saying).

This week I am thinking about texture.  

There are two types of texture, actual texture which you can feel or touch, and visual texture which uses marks to give the illusion of a textured surface.  It fascinates me that the word texture originated from from the Latin textilis ~ woven, from texere ~ to weave and the 17th century word Textile has the same root.  A textile is literally ‘that which has been woven’.   So this weekend I set out to learn more about it.

There can’t be a more random selection of textures than stone, wool, water, grass and brass; however, there is a link!  And it is at the heart of this beautiful area I live in called the Cotswolds.

The Cotswold land is ideal for sheep grazing and in medieval times the Abbeys and Monasteries kept huge flocks of the native breed, which was, and still is, known as the Cotswold Lion, because it has a long shaggy mane over its eyes.  These are stocky animals that breed well and grow quickly.  Their wool is so long, fine, white and soft that it was known as the ‘golden fleece’ ~ because of the wealth it created, not the colour.

From the earliest times the wool itself was traded, but by the middle ages whole cottage industries grew up to process the wool into cloth.  The clothier and his family prepared the raw wool then gave it to his neighbours to be spun by the women and children.  It was then woven by men in their homes.  The weavers’ cottages had long, low windows in order to give maximum light to the looms.  After processing the cloth was extremely dense and almost waterproof due to the nap, which was ideal for the military, huntsmen and landowners.

The merchants who traded in this fine cloth became extremely wealthy. They used their wealth to build wonderful houses out of the local Cotswold stone and to build and furnish exquisite churches in the market towns and villages, with stained glass, stone carvings and brasses.

Yes, the rolling fields, honey coloured stone cottages, ancient mills and beautiful churches that make up our landscape are all here because of sheep.  The names of the villages such as Sheepscombe reflect the trade, and even our pubs and inns like the Fleece or the Ram are reminiscent of the wool trade.

I visited the church of St. Peter and St. Paul at Northleach today.  It is one of the largest and finest wool churches in England.  There are some fascinating brasses in this church with images of the merchants with sacks of wool or sheep as their footrest.  They date back to the 1400s.  One or two of the brasses were particularly interesting as they showed that women could be wealthy merchants too.  And, one particularly striking couple had their 15 children shown on the brass!

By the 16th century the industry was moving away from the small towns and villages to be nearer to the Stroud valley where the fast-flowing streams supplied the power to drive the fulling mills.  In its heyday, there were around 200 mills in the Stroud valley and many of them are still standing today.  They are converted for other industrial uses now or renovated into rather swish apartments.

I learned some fascinating facts today.  Who knew that subsequent to the ‘Burial in Wool acts of 1667 and 1668’, all bodies had to be buried in wool unless they died of plague.  This law was only repealed in 1814.  It stated that,

“No corps should be buried in anything other than what is made of sheep’s wool only; or put into any coffin lined or faced with any material but sheep’s wool, on pain of forfeiture of £5.”

The old saying – “You can’t pull the wool over my eyes”, came from being buried in a shroud of wool, and meant that “I am not dead!”

You may know that there is a large wool-stuffed cushion or seat covered in red cloth in the House of Lords.  This is called the Woolsack and is where the Lord Speaker sits during Parliamentary proceedings with the Mace on the woolsack behind him.  It was introduced by King Edward III (1327-77) and originally stuffed with English wool as a reminder of England’s traditional source of wealth – the wool trade.  There is also a larger woolsack where senior Judges sit during the State Opening of Parliament.

Here are some photos from Northleach where wealthy cloth merchant John Fortey paid for the church renovations

 

Here are some photos from Bibury where wool was treated on Rack isle

 

And lastly some photos from Nailsworth where the Fulling Mills refined the texture of the cloth.

 

And lastly, to the pub, The Fleece at Bretforton!

 

I could write so much more, but if you are interested I can recommend these very knowledgeable and interesting websites:

http://www.cotswoldjourneys.com/cotswolds-guide/the-cotswolds-wool-trade/

http://stroud-textile.org.uk/history/background-to-the-local-wool-industry/

 

Satisfaction achieved

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This photo shows me and my four children just before setting off for my son’s wedding.  It is definitely the moment that sums up my feelings of deep pride, joy, and satisfaction.

If my children ever read my blog, which they don’t, they would be mortified to see themselves publicly displayed.  Young people are never satisfied with how they look, and mine guard their privacy to greater or lesser degrees!  However, I am so proud of having raised these wonderful, kind, caring, funny, hard-working and loving people that I am going to risk it.

We are so rarely all together, as three of them live abroad.  But when we are together there is a bond so strong it feels incredible.  We will all be together again in less than 2 weeks for my 70th birthday and I can’t wait.

I feel blessed to have such a family.