A blur of exotic dancing


Ann Blagdon at WI

Ann Blagdon at WI

When I saw that the prompt for the weekly photo challenge was the word ‘blur’, I was instantly transported back to a dance festival I attended in Russia some years ago.  It was the most amazing experience and included traditional dance from various ethnic groups which have settled in Russia over the centuries.  There was Greek dancing as well as Armenian, and both were wonderful.  But the most memorable was the cossak dancing.  With their boots, blousy shirts and billowing trousers, the dashing cossaks perform a truly acrobatic dance full of jumps, kicks and bends.  They really are a blur and photos are hard to take.  However, I have some super photos of a dancer that I watched closer to home.  Her name is Ann, and she gave up her day job to pursue the art of Egyptian Belly Dancing.

Ann came to our WI and gave a fascinating talk about the history, myths, legends and meanings associated with this type of dance.  She also told us about the costumes and how “Belly Dancing” got its name.  Her fascination with the dance started when her Lebanese friends in London inspired her to find a teacher.  She was learning classical Indian dance at the time. Over the last twenty years Ann has perfected her craft and she is now a very talented dancer as well as an inspirational teacher.  When Ann dances it is spellbinding, beautiful, graceful and charming. Every movement is significant and tells a story.

Her costumes were ravishing, colourful and exotic.  To cover up she wears the traditional Egyptian Galabeya.  She buys her costumes when she attends the Soukh or market at the Egyptian Hafla or party.  Most of her costumes are made in Thailand or Turkey.  According to Ann, Egypt is considered the birthplace of belly dancing, but there are variations in different regions.  She certainly takes her dance seriously.  In order to get to know and feel the spirit of the dance, she spent time living in a Bedouin tent in the Sinai desert!

She is an amazing woman and a beautiful dancer so I have picked her to illustrate this week’s post.


Blenheim Palace


It wasn’t an auspicious start when we met the coach to travel to Woodstock on 27th November 2014.  It was a misty morning, dismal and damp with drizzle.  However as always the mood on the coach was sunny and light hearted; WI ladies are such good company.  We were heading off to Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire to see the house decorated in “Glitter and Gold” for Christmas.  On the way we travelled through the lovely village of Bladon where most of the Spencer Churchill’s are buried at St Martin’s Church.

Blenheim palace is a Baroque masterpiece designed by Nicholas Hawksmoor and Sir John Vanbrugh, which took 17 years to complete.  On our tour we were told that the house was so perfect that it has never been extended or redesigned.  It was begun in 1704 thanks to Queen Anne who had just come to the throne.  John Churchill had been given the title, Duke of Marlborough by the previous monarch, William of Orange.  It was a particularly turbulent time in Europe and the Duke was recognised by most as a man of courage, stamina and will-power, as well as a brilliant military man.  He was leading the allied forces in Europe when there was a bloody and decisive battle at Blindheim, in Bavaria.  On August 13 1704, Marlborough and his men held back King Louis XIV’s troops and saved Vienna from a French attack.  This changed the course of history in Europe, protecting British interests.  The Queen was so pleased that she granted Marlborough the Manor and Honour of Woodstock and acres of gorgeous countryside as well as the promise of money to build a house as a fitting monument to his great victory.  The name Blindheim was then anglicised and became Blenheim.

This is an extract from the famous poem called The Battle of Blenheim by Robert Southey;

“It was the English,” Kaspar cried,
“Who put the French to rout;
But what they killed each other for
I could not well make out.
But everybody said,” quoth he,
“That ’twas a famous victory!

By the time we reached Blenheim via the long sweeping drive, the sun was shining and it was a perfect day to take in the impressive views of the grounds, the lakes, the bridge, and the breathtaking beauty and symmetry of the house itself.


We were doubly fortunate because, not only was the house decked out for Christmas, but there was a spectacular art exhibition by the Chinese conceptual artist, Ai Weihei.  Being an outspoken social activist, Ai Weihei brings politics into his work and some of it was quite controversial.  However there were some really beautiful and thought provoking pieces.  I particularly liked the ‘Chandelier 2002’, which was made of glass crystals, lights, metal and scaffolding.  Being over 5 metres tall it hung glittering from the ceiling in the grand entrance.  I was not so keen on the piece called ‘He Xie, 2012’, in the red drawing room, which consisted of masses of porcelain crabs on the exquisite carpet.

IMG_5154   IMG_5160

We managed to see almost every room in the public parts of the house learning snippets as we dipped in and out of fascinating guided tours.  Every room was different and had objects of beauty to see, sculptures, furniture, china, silverware, paintings and spectacular tapestries.  We were amazed to see huge cases filled with small model soldiers complete with arms and vehicles displayed in battle formation from many wars.  It seems that Blenheim holds the National Collection of the British Model Soldier Society.


On the first floor of the house we took a fascinating, if rather unnerving tour, called “Blenheim~the Untold Story”.  This was narrated by the ‘ghost’ of Grace Ridley who was the favoured servant of the first duchess, Sarah.  The voice of Grace led us from room to room mysteriously as she rattled through over 300 years of history and 11 Dukes of Marlborough.  It was certainly entertaining and informative.

On a very sad note, we learned that the 11th Duke had died just a few weeks ago on the 16th October this year at the age of 88.  He was a cousin of the wartime Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who was also his godfather, and he was also distantly related to the late Princess Diana.  He inherited Blenheim in 1972 and devoted his life to preserving the Palace for the benefit of future generations.  His titles will now pass to his eldest son James, Marquess of Blandford, who was born in 1955.  It is an enormous responsibility which I certainly would not relish.  However there is a strong board of trustees to help him.

The late 11th Duke of Marlborough

The late 11th Duke of Marlborough

After exhausting the beauty of the house and enjoying a lovely lunch in the Water Terrace Café, one of several eating places at Blenheim, we ventured out into the open air to enjoy just some of the many formal gardens.  We saw the water terraces, the Italian garden and the secret garden which were beautiful.  We didn’t manage to visit the park with its cascades and the Temple of Diana, where Winston Churchill proposed to Clemmie.  Nor did we walk to the huge Column of Victory or Vanbrugh’s Grand Bridge.  However we saw them in the distance and were thrilled by all we did see.  We all agreed we would be going back in the Spring.  And, we were amazed to learn that we could convert our day tickets into an annual pass which gives free entry for the next 12 months!


2015 marks many important anniversaries linked to Sir Winston Churchill, including the 50th Anniversary of his death, and the 75th Anniversary of the Battle of Britain ~ ‘his finest hour’.  There will be a special exhibition focussing on his life, from his birth at Blenheim Palace on 30th November 1874 to his days as our Prime Minister.  The room where he was born has been preserved just as it was and there is a case with his baby vest in it.  There are also 2 of his paintings and a lock of his hair.  Winston Churchill was the son of a younger brother of the 8thDuke.

There are many reasons I would like to revisit Blenheim Palace.  I would love to explore the gardens, lakes and the park.  I would also like to see the Column of Victory up close.  But I think we were very lucky to see the house decorated for Christmas with glitter and gold.  It was a very special day out.

Family ~ Weekly Photo Challenge

Many years ago, it seems like another lifetime, I was a busy single mum to 4 wonderful children. I had a full time job that I loved, a nice home that was all my own work, an adorable miniature wire haired dachshund and a stray cat who turned up one day and stayed for 17 years. Over the years I progressed from teacher to deputy head and then Headteacher of a great primary school at the heart of an estate in my adopted home town. Luckily my profession fitted in perfectly with being a single parent as I was usually around in school holidays and always at weekends. But if ever there was a crisis due to illness or something I had the backup of my mum who lived nearby and was always delighted to look after the children or pets!

My school and parish was my community and together with my family, was the source of all the joy, friendship and social life I needed. Although I knew my immediate neighbours, my life was much too busy to get involved in the local community or the people in the wider neighbourhood.

And so life went on and my children became adults and gradually left home. I had always encouraged them to follow their dreams and take any opportunity they could to travel and sample other ways of life and other cultures. I was lucky enough to travel extensively through my job, working with schools in Russia and Africa. I also took great holidays in America, Canada and many parts of Europe. So I think I probably went a bit too far with this advice as now 3 of my children live and work abroad!

As my children grew more independent I filled my spare time travelling to Lourdes at every available opportunity as a volunteer/helper with the sick or disabled whom we called VIPs. This was one of the most rewarding 10 years of my life. It also indirectly brought me my wonderful second husband who was also a volunteer.

I knew that I was very lucky in every way and I worked very hard to try and improve the life chances of the children in my school. But of course life has a way of turning your world upside down sometimes. For me several events occurred to produce the perfect storm that would shatter my well ordered life. I buried my feelings and worked harder and harder until my body refused to do any more and I had to retire.

There then followed 5 very gruelling years which felt like 50 years. I was caring for my mum who was disabled after a heart attack. I only ever went out of the house to shop or for their hospital appointments. I became reclusive, antisocial and anxious. By 2009 my life and social circle was as limited as it could possibly be.

Then in that Autumn my youngest daughter said some women wanted to start a WI in our area. She said she thought it would be good for me so she would go with me to the inaugural meeting. It took all my courage to turn up that night and fortunately there were only a handful of women there. In fact there were so few that almost everyone there ended up on the committee by default! My daughter said I was good on computers so could be the secretary.

Now, almost 4 years on, I know that joining the WI was the best thing I could have done. At first I forced myself to go to all the meetings as I had to take notes. Gradually it became a pleasure to attend the meetings and I looked forward to them. I joined the Book Club and started reading again. I started putting my name down for trips and events. To give me the courage to turn up for them I took my camera to hide behind and became our unofficial photographer. I ventured out to concerts and big events like the AGM in Cardiff. It still takes quite a lot of courage for me to attend these things but I know that if I am struggling I will not be alone. The friendship and support WI members offer each other is very special. I even joined the Public Affairs Committee at our Federation.

Usually I find that the speakers at meetings are so interesting that I completely forget to worry or panic and just enjoy myself!

Now the WI is my community and my family. Through joining, I have rediscovered my creative side, writing a blog at http://www.heavenhappens.wordpress.com I have become outgoing and physically active again and renewed my interest in campaigning.

Best of all, when I walk anywhere in my local area now I seem to know everyone and they all stop for a chat. I feel that I am part of a vibrant and supportive community.

The WI offers all kinds of opportunities to all kinds of women. I would advise any woman of any age to join and get involved to whatever extent you feel able.

The WI is all about inspiring women. It is a rich source of experiences, knowledge and skills passed down through generation ~ and updated every day!

WI even enriches my now rare holidays, as I try to pop in to a local meeting while I am away. It is fascinating to see how different WIs conduct their meetings. But I can honestly say that whichever WI I go to, I know a warm welcome is guaranteed.

I am so happy with my life now and I thank God every day for my wonderful family, friends and community.

That’s the way to do it!

Professor Collywobbles 1
Can you guess what links the English Civil Wars (1642–1651) between Oliver Cromwell’s ‘Roundheads’ and King Charles’s ‘Cavaliers’, Samuel Pepys’ Diary, Charles Dickens’ ‘Old Curiosity Shop’, the famous Geordie inventor Robert Stephenson, a pub in London’s Covent Garden, and the Italian clown Joe Grimaldi?
Well, last night at WI we were enlightened and entertained by Professor Collywobbles, who managed to squeeze them all in to his talk on the history of Punch and Judy!
To be honest I was not keen to go. Having never been that keen on this traditional seaside entertainment, I was going to give it a miss. But I am so glad I went.
Now Punch and Judy shows would seem to be as British as fish and chips, but in fact we learned that they hark back to Italy’s commedia dell’arte, a type of improvised comedy based on stock characters. Punch is probably based on the character of Pulcinella, a nasty, aggressive fellow with a long, beaky nose.
We were told that the first reported show was seen on May 9th 1662, and was immortalized by no less than Samuel Pepys in his diary when he wrote about seeing, “an Italian puppet play…the best that ever I saw” in Covent Garden. It was performed by an Italian puppet showman, Pietro Gimonde, known as “Signor Bologna.” But they may well have started even earlier because of Oliver Cromwell. He closed all the theatres during the Civil War apparently, so sketches with puppets or Marionettes were put on at street corners and public places. These anarchic early shows were aimed at adults but children did gather to watch them with their family.
Before long, Punch and Judy shows had sprung up all over London. Judy was at that point known as Joan.
We heard how, by the 19th century, thanks in part to Robert Stephenson, the railways were taking off, and people were travelling to the seaside for days out or holidays. ‘Professors’ saw the opportunity to make money from the crowds and so they began tailoring their shows for children while still retaining some adult jokes. Thus began the tradition of Punch and Judy shows at the seaside.
Professor Collywobbles told us that early Punch plays would have been performed with marionettes, but as the show developed glove puppets were used. They were cheaper to make and easier to carry. Soon mobile booths were designed to carry everything in, and, covered in red and white cloth, these became the stage with the addition of a decorative proscenium arch. The man who operated the puppets was called a ‘professor’ and he often had an assistant who was called a ‘bottler’. The bottler would usually play a musical instrument, warm up the crowds, and collect money in a bottle. Sometimes a live dog, called Toby was used alongside the puppets.
Punch’s screeching voice was, and still is, created with the aid of a swazzle, which sits at the back of the mouth and is pushed to the side when other characters are ‘speaking’. It is quite difficult to understand all the words Punch says so the bottler or other puppet characters often repeat his lines.
I discovered that other countries have long had their own shows with the Pulcinella character. It was very popular in France. In America, George Washington is recorded as buying tickets for a puppet play featuring Punch in Pennsylvania in 1742.
I read that across Europe shows might star Punch himself, or St George and the Dragon, the Spanish Don Cristobal, the German Kasper, the Turkish and Greek shadow puppet star Karagoz, the elaborately costumed French icon Polichinelle, or the pleasant-faced comic, Guignol. Nowadays, In the USA The contemporary fan can see the Sid & Nancy Punk Punch & Judy Show in Brooklyn, or on the West Coast, catch a performance of Punch & Jimmy, which is Punch “with a Gay twist”.
The professor told us that in the UK, the storyline of a Punch and Judy show can be different in every performance, with stock characters ranging from crocodiles to policemen. Changing public taste and social awareness of issues like child abuse however, means that the traditional nature of the show is being adapted. ‘Unsuitable’ characters like the Devil or Pretty Polly, Punch’s mistress, are now less common, while Punch’s unacceptable habit of beating his wife and baby is often left out.
There is an annual gathering of Punch showmen in the grounds of St Paul’s Church, Covent Garden. In 2012 the TV reported that Punch and Judy professors from all over the world gathered at Covent Garden for “the Big Grin”, a celebration of Punch and Judy’s 350th anniversary. They performed in front of the Punch and Judy Pub. Built in 1787, this pub was thought to be named after the puppet show performances that took place in the nearby piazza for the children of flower-sellers – Covent Garden originally being a flower market.
A typical Punch and Judy show today will probably include traditional characters such as:
Mr Punch ~ a violent, rude and not at all politically correct, character who solves his problems by using a ‘slapstick’ which is where the phrase ‘slapstick comedy’ comes from, plus Judy ~ his long suffering wife and the Baby. There may also be a Policeman, a Crocodile, a Skeleton and a Doctor. Often there are props like sausages.
Joey ~ the clown, based on the real life Joseph Grimaldi (1778-1837) who was a tragic character and the world’s most famous clown, is a traditional character.
Other characters, which used to be regular but are now only seen occasionally, include Toby the dog, Hector the horse, Pretty Polly ~ Mr Punch’s mistress; the Devil, the Beadle, the Hangman ~ known as Jack Ketch, and Mr. Scaramouch.
Some characters are now only seen in historical re-enactment performances including the Servant or Minstrel, and the Blind Man.
My Collywobbles told us that he rarely uses other characters including Boxers, Chinese Plate Spinners, topical figures, a trick puppet with an extending neck (the “Courtier”) and a monkey.

Mr. Collywobbles certainly taught me to appreciate this art form and inspired me to go off and search the internet for more information. There is a basic plot or storyline in Punch and Judy which was actually printed in 1828. Prior to that the storylines were handed down and developed orally. But, like most good showmen, Mr. Collywobbles adapted his performance brilliantly to the audience, and kept the humour topical.
And as for Charles Dickens? Well he was a great fan of Joe Grimaldi and he loved Punch and Judy shows. In 1849 he wrote,

In my opinion the street Punch is one of those extravagant reliefs from the realities of life which would lose its hold upon the people if it were made moral and instructive. I regard it as quite harmless in its influence, and as an outrageous joke which no one in existence would think of regarding as an incentive to any kind of action or as a model for any kind of conduct. It is possible, I think, that one secret source of pleasure very generally derived from this performance… is the satisfaction the spectator feels in the circumstance that likenesses of men and women can be so knocked about, without any pain or suffering.

—Charles Dickens, Letter to Mary Tyler, 6 November 1849, from The Letters of Charles Dickens Vol V, 1847–1849
Charles Dickens referred to Punch and Judy shows in several of his books to make a point or draw an analogy. Indeed in the Old Curiosity Shop he introduces a Punch puppeteer and his Bottler in the characters of Short and Codlin. They meet and travel with Little Nell and her grandfather throughout rural England revealing a lot about life on the road.

All in all it was a great evening. True to the WI ethos it was inspiring and educational while being a lot of fun.


Sahara Marathon ~ ultra long distance race in the desert’.

We had a great speaker at WI who fits in beautifully with our Haiku Heights prompt word for this week, Desert.

Tortuous terrain,

Melancholy Marathon,

Desert of Despair

Celia Hargrave, talked about her experience of running in The Marathon Des Sables.  No British woman had ever taken part in the race and it was advertised as “The Toughest Footrace on Earth”.  Both of these factors were a challenge to Celia so she decided to sign up!

Celia running near her home

Celia is quite an amazing woman.  She is over 60, a former head teacher of a large Birmingham school, and a member of Sheepscombe WI.  Like many WI members, Celia contributes hugely to her community.  She is a magistrate, a fundraising co-ordinator for Sheepscombe Village Hall, and she and her husband open their garden for the National Garden Scheme.  Her garden is about 3 acres set in small woodland with panoramic views.  She has a variety of herbaceous and mixed borders, a rose garden, extensive vegetable plots, and wild flower areas, plantings of spring bulbs with thousands of snowdrops and hellebores, a woodland walk, 2 small ponds, a waterfall and a larger conservation pond.  There are also wooden sculptures in the garden, which is all grown on organic principles.

Panoramic View from Celia’s garden ~ Trench Hill

And, as if that were not enough, Celia co-ordinates a club for the elderly and housebound in her area!

Celia had run before competitively in the Stone Masters Marathon, The Chelmsley Wood 24 hour track Race, the London Marathon in 2 hours 46 minutes, London to Brighton Race and Lands End to John O’Groats so she was no novice!  Her longest distance was over 120 miles for which she was ranked sixth in the world. However the Sahara Marathon or MDS is a 6 day 243 km or 151 mile endurance race in which all competitors have to carry everything they need for their survival.  So this was to be an enormous challenge.

Celia sought medical advice and drew up a training programme which involved running every day.  She did some 50 mile races for charity and started to raise money for her challenge.  Fortunately Celia’s own WI at Sheepscombe organised her fundraising and got TV, radio and press coverage for her.  In order to adapt to running in extreme dry heat conditions, Celia started running in her local sauna!  This caused some consternation among other spa users but helped Celia get used to taking in fluids while running.

Eventually Celia took off for Casablanca in Morocco and travelled to Ouarzazate to meet the other competitors.  The majority seemed to be French that year but there were 20+ from the UK.  Other competitors came from all over the world.  They spent one wonderful night in a 5 star luxury Moorish hotel before setting off on a coach out into the desert.  After several hours they had to get off the coach and walk the rest of the way to their campsite.  Two things that impressed Celia there were the desert orchids and a woman in red high heeled shoes both of which seemed incongruous!

The campsite seemed to be in two halves: one for the competitors, which was very basic; and one for the non-competitors, which was comparatively luxurious.  Celia was sharing a ‘tent’ with 12 to 14 men and women competitors and they had very little space.  In the tent they had to store everything they had brought and carry it on their backs in a rucksack daily.  The rucksack was to be no more than 7 kilos in weight when filled.  Celia had reduced her packing to a minimum but still had to carry her map, day book, compass, medical kit, sleeping bag and food.  Each competitor was allowed 9 litres of water a day which was rationed and given out at each checkpoint along the way.  The 9 litres was for everything ~ drinking, washing clothes and self!

When at last the first day of the race proper arrived, the tent was removed at 6.30am ready to be transported to the next stopping point 15 miles away.  As the temperature can quickly reach 120°F Celia was hoping for an early start, and was not happy to be kept hanging around for hours in the heat.

The Marathon Des Sables is run in sections over 6 days, or 7 for some slower runners.  This is the equivalent of 5½marathons.  That is a speed of between 3 and 14km an hour.  Competitiors can be aged between 16 and 78 years old.

Day 1 ~ 25 km, Day 2 ~ 34km, Day 3 ~ 38km, Day 4 ~ 82km, Day 5 ~ 42km, Day 6 ~ 22km

Celia described the terrain on the first day as ‘dunettes’ and the second day as much higher dunes.  Over the course of the race she would run on sand, rock, dried river beds, oases and dunes. She remembered the wind as well as the heat; but her abiding memory was of the horizon which never seemed to get any closer, and the breathtaking vision of a huge sky where every star was visible because of the total darkness.

By the third day Celia had developed a blister which was treated with iodine in the medical tent.  This was so painful that she determined not to go back there again.  The heat and rubbing really takes its toll on the feet.  Some competitors lost nails or got infections in blisters which can put them out of the race.

Day 4 was a rest day. Then day 5 was the toughest day.  It took Celia 13 hours of non stop running/walking to cover the 50 miles of barren wilderness.  Some competitors had to run right through the night, some taking 32 hours altogether to cover the 50 miles.  Celia had the deepest admiration for these slower runners for their self discipline, determination and sheer perseverance.  Those who know reckon that, while physical fitness is really important,  mental stamina constitutes at least 50% of whether competitors finish the race or not.

By this time Celia was on a high and pleased to be coping so well.  She was way ahead of some competitors, male and female.  But on day 6 all that changed.  Instead of relying on her compass, Celia took a route that others seemed to be following.  This led her to high rocky ground and a precipice which she fell over.  Amazingly her rucksack got wedged in the rocks.  Celia became disorientated, being in pain and in shock.  She began hallucinating.  However she managed to release her bag and carried on a further 11 miles to the end of the stage.  All the time she was worried and anxious in case she could not finish.  But at last she arrived on the tarmac road which marked the last kilometre leading to the finish at the small town of Tazzarine.  Here Celia kissed everybody she met with sheer relief.  She was then taken by jeep to a mud house with a fireplace in the wall and a wellspring of hot water.  This she played in, delighting in being clean for the first time in a week.  She then had some food and was taken by coach back to a hotel for a celebratory Gala Dinner.  It turned out that Celia was 1st among the UK entrants, beating all the men as well as the women.

It was later discovered that the fork in Celia’s rucksack had stuck in her back during her fall over the precipice causing the injury which was causing her so much pain.

Celia has done two other desert events since then, one being the Trans 333, a 208 mile race which she did in 86 hours with only two lots of two hours sleep.86 hours!

She truly is inspirational.

Celia at a checkpoint in the desert