Thursday, December 29, 2011

Snatching a quiet moment

Today has been a lull, a rest day, a brief interlude between a very happy and enjoyable Christmas with our daughter’s family and what will be a similarly happy and enjoyable New Year celebration with our son’s.

On the day before Christmas Eve DH and I travelled up to Yorkshire, taking his mother with us. Between then and yesterday, when we drove back down to my mother-in-law’s home, we went to church twice, ate very well but not too much, talked and laughed a great deal, played Grandson #1’s new card game to much hilarity (well, what else would you expect with a game entitled Killer Bunnies and the Quest for the Magic Carrot?) and generally caught up with each other’s lives very satisfyingly.

Beware the Bunnies!
I even found time to knit one and a half socks out of the pair I've been promising DH for ages, often as I listened to DD and her two sons playing their various musical instruments.

Tomorrow, DS will arrive with his wife and Grandson #3 for what promises to be an equally entertaining and hilarious visit. The games will be different and there will be less music, but there will be plenty of talk and laughter and catching-up with all the details that don’t always get across in phone calls and emails. Our offspring lead such busy lives with all their work and family responsibilities and we’re always glad when we can spend more than the occasional day or two with them.

Naturally all this activity means that I’m very behind with my blog-reading, but I promise to catch up once we’re safely back home in Wales next week. In the meantime, I would like to take this opportunity to wish you all a very happy, healthy and peaceful New Year.

Images via Wylio

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Nativity - Assisi

Tucked away obscurely in a dark corner of the left transept in the basilica of Santa Chiara in Assisi is one of the most touching mediaeval portrayals of the Nativity I have ever seen. When I first saw it nearly 15 years ago, it was almost hidden behind a pile of stacking chairs and I had to crane my neck to see it properly. Despite this I fell in love immediately with this exquisite fragment of fresco, which has almost miraculously survived at least 700 years of neglect and earthquake damage.

To my frustration, when DD and I made our Big Birthday trip to Assisi in May, we found that the apse and transept have now been cordoned off and visitors can no longer get close enough to the fresco to appreciate its beauty. So, as my Christmas present to you all, here is the wonderful image of the Madonna and Child with angels by an unknown but gifted student of the great fresco painter Giotto.

It comes with my thanks for your friendship and company on this deeply enjoyable blogging journey. I wish you all a peaceful and joyous Christmas and a healthy and happy New Year.

To accompany my touching mediaeval image, I would like to leave you with this lovely rendering of one of the most beautiful and touching of mediaeval carols.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The ghosts of Christmases past

My next sister and I belong to the baby boom generation, born in the years immediately after WW2. I say my next sister because I am one of five sisters. My father was a widower with a young daughter, when he met and married my mother in the early years of the war. The year after the war ended I was born, the first of her four children.

The photograph was taken in the kitchen of our terraced house in a cotton town in industrial east Lancashire. It shows my parents and my elder sister, A, with R sitting on her father’s knee and me on my mother’s, with a book on my lap, of course, even at that early age. Looking at us, I think I must have been 3 or 4, which dates the photo to around 1950.

What a different world it was then. Our house was originally a basic two-up and two-down, though by the time my parents moved there it was one of the posher ones in the street by virtue of an extension at the back, which housed a scullery downstairs and that greatest of working-class luxuries, a bathroom, upstairs. The photo shows that the kitchen was still equipped with an old-fashioned range, but in the scullery my mother was also the proud possessor of a gas-stove, alongside the usual wash-copper and mangle.

We left this house to move out into the country before I was seven, so the Christmases I remember celebrating in this house were very early ones. I don’t recall a tree, so perhaps we didn’t have one back then, but I do remember the homemade Christmas decorations, made first by my mother and elder sister and then, under supervision, by R and myself, painstakingly criss-crossing long, narrow strips of different coloured crepe-paper and then carefully unfolding the resulting plaits for my parents to hang around the room.

Both my grandmother, who lived next-door, and my mother were good cooks, so we had our share of Christmas goodies as far as post-war rationing would allow. Turkey was unknown to us and in fact even chicken was a rare treat, enjoyed only at Christmas and Easter. But we had Christmas cake and mince pies and even a few chocolates, so it all seemed very special.

But what I remember above all else about Christmas in this house are the presents R and I received two years running. Because we were so close in age (less than 18 months between us) we were usually treated exactly alike. We would go to bed at the same time on Christmas Eve in the room we always shared, each armed with her Christmas stocking (a laddered old lisle one which had belonged to our mother or grandmother) with its handwritten label so that our presents couldn’t get mixed up.

Oh, the excitement of putting the limp, empty stocking across the foot of the bed on Christmas Eve and then waking early next morning to the weight of the miraculously-filled stocking pressing down on the bedclothes. We never had many presents, but there were always the traditional orange, apple and tangerine in the toe of the stocking, together with the essential net bag of foil-wrapped chocolate coins. There would be small presents from our only set of grandparents and from a couple of elderly great-aunts, but that was all, since by then our parents had no living brothers and sisters.

But, and it is a big but, on the floor at the foot of the bed, would be the present from our parents. Just one present, which of course made it very special. When I was (I think) five and R was four, we were given a walkie-talkie doll each. We have no pictures of them, but I don’t need any. I can still see them both so clearly. R’s had dark hair and brown eyes, whilst mine was a blue-eyed blonde. Wonder of wonders, both would close their eyes when we laid them down.

Our mother, who was a fine dress-maker and made all our clothes, had made clothes for both dolls, a nightie, a day dress and a party dress. After this length of time I can only remember the party dresses and they were wonderful. Each was made of taffeta, with a net overskirt. R’s doll had a yellow dress and mine a blue one, and, as a crowning glory, our mother had painstakingly sewn tiny sequins all over the bodice of each. Even now I wonder at the thought of her, with a house to keep and by then four children to look after, working on these miniature garments in the evenings when we had gone to bed, so that our dolls would be properly dressed.

The following year it was our father’s turn to be the creative one. When R and I woke up on Christmas morning, at the foot of each bed was a dolls-house, made from scratch in the evenings and at weekends. Rather than the front wall coming off to show the rooms within, the long sloping roof lifted up and hinged back to reveal a kitchen and living room, a tiny staircase rising from the ground floor to the first, a little bedroom and a miniscule bathroom.  All the rooms were papered and painted (our father was a painter and decorator by trade) and neatly furnished. The crowning glory this time were the tiny lights in every room, made from torch bulbs powered by a battery, which we could switch on and off at will.

There were carefully chosen presents in subsequent years, and thanks largely to my parents’ example, Christmas has always been a very important time for me. But I don’t think any presents I have received since, however special, will ever replace in my memory and affections my beautifully-dressed and much-loved doll and my perfect little dolls’ house.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

A comic interlude

For the last few days I’ve been trying, and dismally failing, to produce enough coherent thought for a proper post.  As soon as this dratted cough lets me get a halfway decent night’s sleep, I’ll be back with some real writing. In the meantime, here is an absolute gem by the wonderful Richard Stilgoe, first brought to my attention by David Cloake, the inimitable Vernacular Vicar.  Thanks, David. J

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Light in the darkness

Yesterday DH and I went shopping, a not unusual activity at this time of year, but a task usually avoided by us both like the plague, except for necessities. It was cheering to see the shops and streets decorated for the festivities, though a little worrying to see how relatively quiet they were so close to Christmas. I think many shoppers are pulling their horns in this year and the shops must be feeling the pinch.

On our return I settled down with a nice pot of tea to look though that day’s posts in Google Reader and thoroughly enjoyed the glimpse of a traditional German Christmas market, as given by Friko on Friko's Worldjust as I recently appreciated the tempting images of aspects of Christmas Spanish-style, as supplied by Annie on Moving On.

I think this juxtaposition may be why today’s shocking attack at the Christmas market in Liege in Belgium has hit me with particular force and left me feeling very unChristmassy indeed. Seeing ordinary lives torn apart by violence in the middle of the very activity DH and I had been doing yesterday brings home yet again the horror of man's inhumanity to man. It sometimes seems that our world is moving ever further from the angels’ message of “Peace on Earth and goodwill towards men”, a sad thought to ponder only 12 days before Christmas.

To comfort myself and remind myself that Advent is all about hopeful expectation, even in the midst of sadness and suffering, I have just listened again to the exquisite Advent Song, written by Christine McIntosh and set to music by her husband John, and posted very recently on her blog blethers. The words are here, and the music, sung by their church choir, is below. I hope it may speak to you as it has to me.

Image: Paul Brentnall /

Friday, December 09, 2011

Small is beautiful

Sitting at my desk on a cold, damp day, with pictures of the dreadful storm which struck Scotland yesterday still vivid in my mind, it’s already hard to remember that this year in Europe we enjoyed one of the warmest autumns on record. This meant that for the second year running I was fortunate enough to have glorious weather for most of my stay in Prague. Even the mere memory makes me feel warmer. So to distract myself from the winter weather outside my window, I would like to take you with me on a walk around my favourite part of Prague.

Mala Strana, or the Little Quarter, lies across the Vltava River from the centre of the city. Most visitors come to it across the historic Charles Bridge from the city centre. However I discovered that it can also be approached through the large and lovely Letenske Park and this second route rapidly became my favourite.

It takes you through the park, with its wonderful views over the centre of Prague and past the Belvedere, the beautiful Renaissance Summer Palace, into the Royal Garden and towards to Prague Castle. Walking in the shade of magnificent specimen trees, with views of the castle dominated by the towers of Saint Vitus’ cathedral, was something I never tired of. 

Prague Castle, still the seat of government and one of the largest complexes of royal buildings in Europe deserves a post of its own, by someone more knowledgeable than I about its history. Having explored the castle last year, this autumn I preferred to walk through or round the castle and down one or other of the long flights of steps which lead from the castle heights to the Little Quarter below.

It’s also possible to walk down the steep and beautiful Nerudova Street, famed for the historic emblems on its house-fronts, which were used to identify individual buildings before the introduction of numbering in 1770. 

Once at the bottom of the hill the Little Quarter just begs to be wandered around, almost at random. Its mixture of streets and squares of mostly C18th buildings, interspersed with glorious Gothic and Baroque churches and towers, is made to be explored on foot and alone, so that you can linger at will.

One of the many things I love about Prague, in Mala Strana and elsewhere, are the little side streets, alleys almost, which tempt you to leave your planned route and explore. On one such side street I found a reminder of the fact that for nearly 400 years Bohemia and its capital Prague were part of the Hapsburg Empire and the official language of government and education was German, not Czech.

Today Mala Strana, with its fine town houses and mansions, is a favoured location for embassies and other institutions. It is haunted by tourists, who are bowled over by its history and beauty, but also keeps its quiet places, where you can feel a million miles away from the hustle and bustle of the main streets. It is a quarter with personality and deep charm – living proof, if any were needed, that size bears little relation to importance and worth.  Mala Strana - small is indeed beautiful.

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Handel galore

A friend just gave me this link and now, on a cold, wet, miserable, December day, I'm sitting here with a great big grin on my face. Enjoy.....and I promise not to make a habit of this. J

Sunday, December 04, 2011

Strong words

Today is the second Sunday of Advent and this morning at church our Bishop will be with us for a confirmation service. It will be a very happy occasion and during it we will listen to the prophet Isaiah's great message of encouragement from chapter 40, one of the set readings for today. It is one of my favourite Old Testament passages and is indelibly associated in my mind with Handel's immortal setting from his Messiah. 

When I was growing up in the north of England in the 1950s and 1960s, the annual public performance of the Messiah was an essential part of the approach to Christmas for many people, either as performer or listener. Fifty years on I still make sure I find time to listen to it at some point during Advent. Another tradition which enriches my life. I hope you enjoy this as much as I do.

Friday, December 02, 2011

And so a tradition was born

Yesterday I went out for lunch. Hardly earth-shattering news, you might say, and you’d be right. But it was a very satisfying lunch for me in more ways than the obvious one, because it was the 10th such lunch in a series that goes back to my early days as the vicar of three country parishes.

I arrived in the parishes in the spring of 2001, in the middle of the appalling foot-and-mouth epidemic which ravaged so much of rural Britain that year. On my arrival I found three welcoming and hard-working congregations, a number of deeply-worried farmers and a moribund branch of that stalwart Anglican organisation, the Mothers’ Union.  

Like the Women’s Institute, the Mothers’ Union can often be the butt of jokes and the victim of some misunderstanding, but it’s an organisation for which I have a great deal of time and respect. Yes, its members are mostly on the wrong side of 50, but that’s true of a lot of organisations nowadays, both religious and secular. In today’s pressured world, how many younger people, desperately juggling work and family commitments and also trying to have a bit of time for themselves, have much time or energy to spare for joining things?

I joined the MU, as it’s usually known to its members, twenty years ago, when I was curate in a small market town. The branch I joined was large and lively and made a big contribution to parish life. Its monthly meetings had interesting speakers and were very enjoyable and I quickly learned to value the way in which the MU encourages its members to get involved in a wide range of socially useful projects, from making tiny baby clothes for premature babies to running parenting courses or helping to staff contact centres for separated parents or crèches for those visiting prison.

In my time as a member, among many other activities I’ve knitted baby clothes, raised money for literacy programmes for women in Africa and collected toiletries for the local women’s refuge, so that women and children arriving with nothing can at least look after their personal needs.

So it’s hardly surprising that one of my priorities on becoming a vicar was to revive the local MU and make it an area branch, covering a number of rural parishes too small to support their own branch any longer. The new branch went well and as Christmas 2002 approached, the members agreed that they would like to mark the end of its first year by having a Christmas lunch.

In the past this would have meant going out to a local pub or restaurant, but the costs quoted for the special Christmas menu were higher than most could comfortably afford, so we came up with a splendid alternative. The vicarage had a very large living-room, easily big enough to put up a couple of folding tables and accommodate all the members comfortably. We made out a menu and asked each person which favourite dish she (or he – we had a husband and wife who were both members) would like to bring for our shared meal.

The lunch duly took place and it was so enjoyable, and the food so good, that we thought it might be fun to invite others to share their favourite recipes with us, and to compile a recipe booklet to raise money for parish funds. The recipes poured in and a week’s hard work on my part (it should have been a week’s holiday, but needs must….) saw the booklet compiled and printed in time to go on sale for the summer. I don’t know about other people, but I’m still using mine.

Two years later I moved to a new post in England, but happily the MU branch I left behind went from strength to strength under its new branch leader and was still flourishing when I retired and moved back to Wales. Of course I immediately rejoined and was more than pleased to find that the tradition of the bring-and-share Christmas lunch had continued unbroken.

Yesterday’s lunch was in the village hall and I duly turned up with my contribution, including the bread rolls for which I've been famed from the beginning, thanks to my bread machine’s infallible ability to make perfect dough. J  We sat at a beautifully decorated table, ate well, swapped news and had fun, and I came home feeling very contented, both from the excellent food lovingly prepared and in the knowledge that a small and very personal tradition was still enriching the lives of those concerned. Bon appétit!

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

A walk to remember

Last Wednesday was DH’s 65th birthday and as always we celebrated the event with a special meal (home-made by choice). We had also planned to mark his entry into official pensionerhood by taking a trip out somewhere, but the weather forecast for the day itself was decidedly unfavourable.

As luck would have it, the day before his birthday dawned bright and sunny, so on the spur of the moment we decided to take our favourite local walk, to the ruined castle on the headland opposite the house. Caisteal Bharraich or Castle Varrich was the ancient seat of the chief of the Clan Mackayand MacKay is still the most common local surname, as witness the village war memorial.

The footpath from the village to the castle runs past the end of our street and makes its way down to the river, passing fields on one side and the village’s small, neat, and totally inoffensive, reed-bed sewage farm on the other. The footbridge across the lovely little wooded river is an ideal place to play Pooh Sticks, even at my age!

Once across the river the footpath skirts a small area of peat bog before starting to climb the hill through another patch of woodland, a rarity in the vast, open expanses of windswept mountains and valleys which make up the landscape of North-West Sutherland. Most of the trees are gnarled and stunted silver birch, though there has been some new planting recently and DH (a tree-lover to his boot-soles) said there is lodgepole pine among the new saplings, which will certainly provide a contrast in the future.

The footpath up the hill is relatively new, having been constructed a few years ago to replace the old, precipitous, and often treacherous wooden steps which previously provided access to the castle. It winds its way up the steep, north-east facing hillside, which at this time of the year is mostly in shadow, thus making it a little too chilly to enjoy using the two or three sturdy wooden benches which have been placed to take advantage of the view and allow newly-fledged pensioners like DH and me to rest our legs and catch our breath.

One of these benches draws our attention every time we make this walk. It stands overlooking the junction of the river and the Kyle and has a wonderful view out to sea towards the Melness peninsula and the Rabbit Islands.

On either side of it a small heather has been planted and these were still in bloom, while the rest of the heather was already dry and shrivelled.

You have to go round to the front of the bench to see why it has warranted such care and attention. I never knew the person so lovingly commemorated here, but I like to think that this was a favourite spot of hers and that the bench was given in her memory to allow others to enjoy it as she used to do.

Once past the memorial bench the castle begins to loom above the walker. It stands at the tip of the headland, giving a 360 degree field of view and easily defensible, surely the reason it was built in this inaccessible spot. Gaunt and neglected, it juts upwards into the sky like a broken tooth, and one approaches its crumbling fabric with care. But it is worth the steep climb to reach it, and sit or stand under its walls, gazing at the breath-taking view over the mountains, the Kyle and the sea.

This time we were there when the tide was out and we could see flocks of seabirds and waterfowl feeding on the sandbars and mudflats. It is then that one realises just how shallow the Kyle has become, as it gradually silts up since the building of the causeway. At high tide it looks like the deepest of sea lochs, but this is an illusion. The navigable channel is narrow and winding and over the rest of the area the sand is taking over.

Late November weather, even on the sunniest of days, isn’t conducive to lingering for too long in such an exposed place, and we were soon making our way back down the path to the village, my ageing knees protesting with every step. Up is actually much easier than down nowadays, but as long as I can get up to Castle Varrich from time to time to take in the view and the air and the peace of the place, I’ll put up with a few twinges on my homeward path. 

Thursday, November 24, 2011

It's that time of year again

As often happens, real life has overtaken good blogging intentions and I don't have time today to write the post I had planned to. Instead DH and I will be racing the weather to get the van packed before the forecast wind and rain arrive later in the day, and tomorrow we will be taking the long road south again.

So in place of my normal pearls of wisdom, I will leave you to get into the mood for the forthcoming festivities with the help of the inimitable Tom Lehrer. With that out of the way, we can all settle down and concentrate on Advent instead. J

Friday, November 18, 2011

Like pearls on a thread

A couple of weeks ago I walked to church on a bright, sunny, Sunday morning, along a road with perhaps one of the most beautiful views in Britain. As I did so, I found myself thinking back over the different churches which have played such an important part in my life since childhood.

In one of my earliest posts I wrote about the way in which living among hills has been a constant thread in my life. Alongside that thread runs another, made up of a variety of usually old, often beautiful, and sometimes spectacularly-set buildings, which have found their way into my heart.

Tockholes URC chapel
The thread begins for me with a small, plain, Congregational chapel in the little village in which I spent most of my childhood. The building itself is not particularly old, but its past is historic. It stands on the site of one of the first Nonconformist chapels, founded in 1662 when the Act of Uniformity of that year led to the expulsion from the Church of England of over 2000 clergy, who refused to comply with the compulsory use of the Book of Common Prayer in public worship. My memories of childhood are inextricably linked with this austere little building and my mother’s parents are both buried in its churchyard.

St Michael's Church, Trefeglwys
The next pearl was added to the thread in Mid-Wales, where at the age of 30, after having moved completely away from church-going in my late teens, I was confirmed into the Anglican Church. The story of how I came to this life-changing decision is told here. The parish church I began to attend was a mid C19th rebuilding of a C12th original, and a little research among the local history collection in the library in which I worked turned up the fact that until the Reformation it had belonged to Haughmond Abbey in Shropshire. It is right in the centre of the village and one day, to complete the circle, I shall be buried in its large and lovely churchyard, where in the past, as its Vicar, I myself conducted many burials.

Saint Idloes Church, Llanidloes
Twelve years later came another pearl, when I was ordained deacon and became a part-time, unpaid curate at the parish church in our local market town of Llanidloes, while still carrying on with my work as a librarian. If I had to choose which of the many churches I have known and loved is the most important to me, it would have to be Saint Idloes. It was the church where my vocation to ministry was nurtured and found expression. It was also the church where I had the joy of conducting the marriage of DD and her husband. It stands almost on the banks of the River Severn and is both beautiful and historic, and I love every stone of it.

Saint Llonio's Church, Llandinam
After thirteen happy years here I travelled downstream to another lovely village, when I went into full-time ministry and was appointed Vicar of three small country parishes, including the one where I had been confirmed. DH and I moved into the Vicarage, from where we could look across at the spur of land on which the parish church stands, high above the Severn in its cradle of hills. I have worshipped in many churches, but this is the only one where I have had to stop halfway up the steep path to catch my breath, only to have it taken away again when I turned round to look at the view. My third church was a tiny, simple building in a small hamlet, where the old rectory was probably bigger than the church itself, but where the equally tiny congregation was loyal and enthusiastic.

Saint Gwrhai's Church, Penstrowed.
St Michael and All Angels, Fringford
My subsequent move to a group of parishes in Oxford Diocese brought a complete change of scenery and a new historic link, not with a monastery or a Celtic saint or two, but with a writer whose work recently found great popularity, when it was dramatised for TV. For three years DH and I lived in Fringford, immortalised as Candleford Green by the locally-born author Flora Thompson, whose memories of her childhood in late 19th century rural Oxfordshire were captured so beautifully in her trilogy Lark Rise to Candleford.

Since my retirement four years ago, we have been back in Mid-Wales, where I can again worship in the local churches which have played such an important role in my life. When in Scotland I worship at the parish church in Tongue, where the view from the church gate encompasses both mountains and water, or sometimes at the little church overlooking the sea at Melness, one of the most northerly, still-used, church buildings in mainland Britain. In France I often attend the local RC church in the village on the hill above our cottage, a church which, like many in the area, had to be rebuilt after being totally destroyed in World War Two.  History again, but of a very different kind. 

St Andrew's Church, Tongue

Melness Church
The church at Juvigny-le-Tertre

So many churches, so many pearls on the thread of my life.

Monday, November 14, 2011

In praise of comfort food

Picture the scene. It’s a dull/grey/damp/cold day (delete as appropriate) and you’re not at your brightest. Or it’s any kind of weather, but you’re tired or stressed or just plain fed-up. A meal-time is approaching and you just know you have to have something that will make you feel better and be blowed to whether it’s good for you. Calories are out, comfort is in. What do you choose?

Chocolate (dark, of course) would be one of my first choices, but sadly it isn’t generally considered a staple foodstuff, so the search goes on. Growing up as I did in a fairly large working-class family in industrial east Lancashire, high on my list of comforting dishes come the faithful old standbys of soups and stews. Warm, filling, meal-in-a-pot recipes, which can be made from very basic and inexpensive ingredients and can be relied upon to satisfy the appetites of growing girls.

I’m thinking here of Lancashire hotpot, or ham and pea soup, or a big pan of meat and vegetable broth with dumplings. Dishes like these were the background to my childhood, and though my culinary repertoire is very much wider and more adventurous nowadays, when the chips are down (with or without fish) I still instinctively turn to them for comfort, especially in the cold, dark days of winter. And that’s before I even think about puddings, which, given my current waistline, are probably best avoided.

Fruit crumble, with custard naturally - cream was only for birthdays and Christmas. Or bread-and-butter pudding with lots of raisins, or my mother’s unforgettable rice pudding, with the crispy bits round the edge we girls would squabble over. I could go on, but you get the picture.

So now you know how I try to insulate myself, at least at mealtimes, from life’s ups and downs, do let me into the secret of your particular comfort foods.  Who knows?  There might be a cookbook in it. J

Image via Wylio

Friday, November 11, 2011

They shall grow not old

In the summer of 1964, when I was 18 and had just done my A-Levels, the BBC began to broadcast a very moving and detailed documentary series called The Great War, to mark the 50th  anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War.  At the time my widowed grandfather (my mother’s father) lived next-door to us.  Each week during that summer and autumn, I went round to his house to watch the new episode with him and talk to him about his memories of that same war.

Granddad had served in France throughout the war and came home with severely damaged hearing from prolonged exposure to the noise of the artillery, which it had been his job to supply with ammunition. Even worse, his whole family had been devastated by the death in action of his younger brother, the baby of the family, on 16 February 1916 at the age of 21.
My grandfather in uniform
Uncle Walter in uniform

Before the war Walter had been a labourer in a cement works in his native Hull. On enlistment he became a private in the 7th Battalion of the East Yorkshire Regiment and, as his medal card shows, went to France on 13 July 1915. However, Walter did not serve as a combatant, but instead as a regimental stretcher-beareras can be seen from the SB armband he wears in this photograph.

I'm indebted to our own family historian, my next-to-youngest sister, for most of this detailed and poignant information and she points out that being a stretcher-bearer was no guarantee of safety: “ It was very risky moving stretchers through the trenches, but especially trying to rescue the injured from No Man's Land.”

According to official regimental records, in the early morning of 15 February 1916, Walter’s regiment was moved up from Divisional Reserve to the Ypres Salient, to a place called The Bluff, at one end of the infamous Hill 60 and just north of the Ypres Canal. Late in the evening of the same day, the regiment took part in a poorly-planned and ineffective attempt to retake trenches captured by the Germans the previous day. 
The official account continues: 
The East Yorkshiremen were then ordered to consolidate the ground they held. The 16th was comparatively quiet. At night the Battalion was relieved and, by 5 p.m. on 17th, all Companies were back in Reninghelst.

This was the first action in which the 7th Battalion was engaged, and it is interesting to note what the C.O. said of his men in his report to Brigade H.Q. :—"l wish to express my appreciation of the excellent conduct of all ranks of the Battalion during these operations. Pelted by the snow storm, continually hampered, halted and pushed on the road by transport, soaked to the skin, ordered back on arrival and again forward on getting back, were a severe test of their soldierly qualities and which, in my opinion, they came through with credit. Later they were operating in unknown trenches, over unknown ground and under heavy shell fire most of the time and again acquitted themselves well."

The Bluff - part of the Ypres Salient
In this aerial photograph of the battlefield, taken on 20 February 1916, the frozen canal, the craters and the German trenches can clearly be seen.  The operations in the area of the Bluff, from the start of the enemy attack on 14 February to noon on 17 February, cost the British 1,294 casualties, of whom my great-uncle was just one.

Although Walter’s death was witnessed, he has no known grave, which implies either that his body was not able to be recovered from the battlefield or that his grave was subsequently lost. He is commemorated on Panel 31 of the Menin Gate Memorial at Ypres.

Walter's name on the Menin Gate Memorial

The report of Walter’s death in the Hull Daily Mail for 26 February 1916 reads: “Pte. W. Sutcliffe, a young Hull soldier of the 7th East Yorks., whose home was at 4 Earle’s-row, Wilmington, has been killed while attending a wounded comrade. An intimation has been received to this effect. Private William Nicholls, a friend in the same regiment, writes to his relatives: “He was dressing a pal’s wound when he was hit, and died a few moments later.  God bless “Jack” he has done his duty well. He was well liked by all the officers and men of the battalion.” Private Sutcliffe, who was 21, had recently been home on leave.

It’s all a very long time ago now, but the repercussions have come down through the years to this day. My memories of my grandfather, with his damaged hearing and his enduring sense of loss at the death of his brother, are still vivid. Two months after her young uncle’s death, my mother was born and a new little family looked towards the future. But there was a gap which was never filled. Rest in peace, Great-Uncle Walter. I wish I’d had the chance to know you.
My Great-Uncle Walter

My grandparents and my mother - Summer 1916