Tuesday, March 29, 2011

A bit of a treat

One of the many advantages of living for most of your life in fairly remote places is that you rarely have to dress up. In my case that’s a great advantage, as I really don’t do dressy. With my legs I’m happiest in jeans, and with my feet high heels are out of the question. All this means that I don’t have much use for jewellery, other than my rings, of course.

This is fine by me, but a little while ago it posed a problem for my dear mother-in-law. She is a generous person, who enjoys giving presents, and at a local craft fair she spotted some pretty crystal pendants which she knew would be much appreciated by her other two daughters-in-law. Sadly for her, pretty pendants, whether crystal or not, don’t go very well with jeans and sneakers, so she sensibly didn’t buy one for me. Instead she gave me the money and asked me to get myself a little treat.

Usually, as she well knows, a treat for me takes the form of yet another book or CD, but this time I knew just what I wanted. Not something to wear or read or listen to, but something to use, something which would make one of my interests easier and more successful.

Instead of a pendant, however pretty, I wanted a proper preserving-pan – a beautiful, heavy-bottomed, stainless-steel maslin pan - for the jams and preserves I've always loved making. For years I’d made do with either a pressure-cooker (too narrow) or my old, cheap, aluminium preserving-pan (too flimsy) which had been all I could afford at the time.

But now, at last, I had the real thing and I was thrilled. No more boiling-over because the pan was too small. No more burnt-on jam because the base was too thin. There was no stopping me and I went mad – filling the store cupboard with more jams and jellies than the two of us could hope to eat in years – so many that I had to start giving them away, to stop us both expanding to the approximate size and shape of barrage balloons.

Thankfully we’re all different and my idea of a treat probably isn’t yours. Nevertheless my little treat gives and will go on giving me enormous pleasure and satisfaction. OK, I can’t wear it, and other people will probably never see it, but every time I take my pan out of the cupboard and set to work, and the kitchen fills with the tantalising aroma of freshly-made jam, I think of my dear mother-in-law and realise yet again what a very lucky woman I am.

You’ll have to excuse me now – I have some marmalade to make. It’s a bit of a treat.

Friday, March 25, 2011

The day I fell in love

Until it happened, I didn’t know it was possible. Like most teenagers, by the age of 18 I’d been in love, or thought I had, but that was always with a person, and, sadly for me, he was usually completely ignorant of the fact. I had no idea whatsoever that one could fall in love with a place.

Growing up as I did in industrial east Lancashire, just outside a typical cotton town, I was very used to seeing mills and shops and rows of small terraced houses snaking up the hillside, or the sturdy, grey stone cottages in the scattered moorland village where we lived. What I was not used to was architectural beauty on a grand scale, at least not in a place where it was possible I might actually live.

In my mid-teens I was lucky enough to visit Paris and Arles on a school French trip, and later Hamburg on a German-language exchange, and was bowled over by their beauty and antiquity. But these were holiday destinations, not places where I could imagine myself living.

Everything changed when a couple of my teachers at the local grammar school encouraged me to consider applying for entrance to Oxford University, and believe me, I needed their encouragement.

We were a working-class family, with no experience of higher education, let alone Oxford; indeed my parents hadn’t even had the chance of a secondary education, but had to stay at their elementary schools until they reached school-leaving age at 14. Because of these missed opportunities they believed strongly in education for their daughters and supported me to the hilt when I said that I wanted to try.

As a family we knew no-one who had ever been to Oxford and thus had no idea which of the five women’s colleges I should apply to. In those days the colleges didn’t even produce a prospectus, so I felt completely in the dark as I tried to choose.

The decision was made for me one evening, when my father called me away from my homework to watch University Challenge.  The winning team was from Lady Margaret Hall and I took it as an omen. I sent in my application, in due course sat the entrance exams, and, to my amazement, was called for interview.

It was a cold, grey day in December when I arrived in Oxford by train. The taxi ride from the station to the college passed in a blur of excitement and nerves, and I couldn’t have told you anything about the town through which I’d just been driven. The college was welcoming and the interviews, though nerve-racking, were fair and encouraging, and by the next day I knew, without a shadow of doubt, that I desperately wanted to study there. What had been an abstract ambition had become an urgent desire.

When all the interviews were over, I had a free afternoon before catching my train next morning. So I decided to walk into the city centre and explore a little, before the short winter daylight disappeared. The weather was still cold and grey, indeed it was starting to become foggy. It was the worst possible day for discovering a new place, but it was the only chance I had and I took it. Having bought a town plan, I started to wander. What followed is still as vivid to me now as it was when I tried to describe it to my parents on my return home.  

As I wandered past the ancient college buildings and along the little back streets, walked up the majestic High Street or down Broad Street to Christopher Wren’s Sheldonian Theatre and the world-famous Bodleian Library and Radcliffe Camera, I fell hopelessly in love with Oxford.

I loved the extraordinary beauty of its buildings and the profound sense of history which permeated the place, an awareness that for 700 years at least people had been coming here to study and learn and increase the store of human knowledge and understanding.

I knew that it would be the most enormous privilege to be allowed to be part of it all for three years and I still feel this. When I was fortunate enough to be awarded a place, I was aware that life would never be the same again for me and so it proved. For it was in Oxford that I met DH and fell in love for the last time, but that is another story.

Even today, 46 years on from that unforgettable winter's afternoon walk, Oxford is still for me one of my most special places. We all have them, and our lives are the richer for them. I’ve told you one of mine, will you share one of yours?

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

A tree for all seasons

Living as we do, high in the hills of Mid-Wales and with no near neighbours, frosted glass in our bathroom window is, thankfully, unnecessary.  I say thankfully because the view from the bathroom window is one of the best in the house and it would be such a shame to waste it. Whatever the time of year or the weather, it does the soul good to stand there every morning, cleaning your teeth and gazing at the majestic ash tree just below the house and at the fields and hills beyond.

The tree was a fair size when we first moved here and the intervening thirty-eight years have seen it grow into a very big tree indeed. It isn’t the only ash tree around, or even the biggest, but its distinctive shape and dominant position mean that it will always be the ash tree to us.

Luckily its main branches are widely spaced, so that it is only in the height of summer, when the its leaves are fully out, that the view is largely blocked. At other times of year we can at least glimpse the hills and fields through its gracefully drooping twigs and when these are completely leafless, as now, the view beyond is lovely.

In spring we wait eagerly to see when it will start to break into leaf, always remembering the old weather saying:

“If the oak before the ash,
Then we'll only have a splash.
If the ash before the oak,
Then we'll surely have a soak!

The problem has always been that by the time summer finally arrives, none of us can actually remember which came into leaf first. Sadly it seems that global warming may be altering the pattern to the advantage of the oak, but we still like to think our old ash tree can predict our summer weather.

In autumn our ash tree is generous. It doesn’t just drop its leaves to nourish the earth, but many of its twigs as well. My mother, a keen and talented gardener, always called the ash a messy tree, far too ready to shed its twigs and even branches when the autumn gales roar in from the south-west. I’ve lost count of the hours I’ve spent sweeping up its leaves and other debris, that carpet the yard or pile up against the house wall after a gale has blown itself out.

In many ways it is winter that best highlights the strength and grace of our ash tree, especially the hard winters we’ve been having recently. The sight of such a large tree after a heavy snowfall, with even the tiniest twig bearing its ethereal burden of snow, is magical, while its sturdy trunk and branches, outlined by the driven snow, have an abstract beauty all their own.

No wonder I waste so much time cleaning my teeth and brushing my hair every morning. With all that subtle and constantly-changing beauty to distract you, wouldn’t you?

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Please tell me what you think

It’s exactly a month ago today since I finally decided to create a blog and published my very first post. Being absolutely ignorant about all aspects of blogging, I chose the simplest possible format and plunged straight in. Since then I’ve had a wonderful time discovering other people’s blogs and writing my own, but in that month I’ve not spent much time actually looking critically at my own as you see it.

Today, after two afternoons of carting logs for firewood, my back is reminding me that I’m not as young as I was and had better do something less strenuous for a while.  So I decided to have a good look at how my blog appears and compare it with others and, not surprisingly, found that there was definitely room for improvement. 

I don’t use photos every time, so there can be an awful lot of uninterrupted text in my posts, and to my shame I found it not as easy to read as I’d thought. I don’t have very good sight and am therefore critical of published material with poor contrast and separation, and yet that is what I was inadvertently producing.

I’ve had fun ferreting around in Blogger’s store of formatting goodies and after some interesting experiments have come up with something that I hope looks more varied and also makes individual posts and other sections of the blog easier to read and distinguish. It would be really helpful if you would take the trouble to tell me whether this works for you, in terms of how it looks and how it loads, and if not, why not, so that I can try to improve it further. After all, it’s you, poor things, who have to read it, so this is your chance to help me get it right. J

Friday, March 18, 2011

The novel that changed my life

One of the many things I’ve appreciated since becoming involved in the blogging world is the number of really excellent book recommendations I’ve come across, often for books I would never have thought of trying without such suggestions.

Perhaps I can return the favour by telling you about a book which has meant more to me than I can easily express. Its author was Rumer Godden, probably not as widely read as she used to be, but very well worth discovering. In a long writing career she wrote over 60 books and she was widely praised for her vivid, highly atmospheric writing, especially in her works set in India. A number of her novels were made into successful films, including Black Narcissus, The River and Greengage Summer.

The book I want to write about isn’t one of her best-known works, though it too is a good read, but to me it’s so much more. Its title is In This House Of Brede and it tells the story of a woman in her 40s, who gives up a very successful career to become a Benedictine nun. It is beautifully written, well characterised, and extraordinarily absorbing in its portrayal of a very different and demanding way of life.

I first read it in 1975, at a time when I was neither a church-goer nor even a nominal Christian. I hadn’t been to church, other than for weddings and funerals, for nearly 10 years and wasn’t in the least interested in changing that situation. It was the purest serendipity that led to my picking up the book in the first place. It was lunchtime, it was raining, and I wanted something to read while I ate my sandwiches in the staffroom of the library where I worked.  After a hasty search along the fiction shelves, my eye fell on a book on display, which I didn’t remember having seen before. It looked different enough to catch my interest and make me decide to read it over lunch. The rest, as they say, is history.

Once I started reading, I could hardly put it down. I devoured it, reading late into the night, even though I had to get up early for work the next day. Even before I finished it, I knew that my world-view had altered. For the first time in my life I realised that faith isn’t just something believed in the head, but something that has to be lived out, something that changes people profoundly, and, hopefully, for ever. This realisation didn’t immediately make me a Christian, but it was the first small step on a road which led me within a year to confirmation in the Anglican church and years later, after many twists and turns, to ordination and eventually to full-time parish ministry.

As a librarian, I knew in theory the ability of books to change lives. Now, as a retired parish priest, I can testify from my own experience just how profound this change can be. Books are powerful, otherwise why would oppressive regimes try to ban them?  Books are powerful and to be treasured and my copy of In This House Of Brede is very treasured indeed.

Image via Wylio

Wednesday, March 16, 2011


As the horrifying events in Japan have unfolded over the past days, I’ve been very aware of being a mere onlooker, safe on the other side of the world. But as our TV screens have poured out their reports from the stricken areas, I’ve found my mind filled with indelible images.

Images of swaying buildings and tumbling furniture and people holding on or running desperately as their world shook and groaned. Of an inky-black wave of muddy water rushing inland over neat, rectangular fields and carrying everything before it. Of cars and containers bobbing like corks on the surging torrent streaming along a city street. Of train carriages lying on their sides, scattered across the ground like children’s toys abandoned and forgotten. Of small wooden houses which had withstood the earthquake, only to crumple into matchwood under the force of the sea. Of debris piled higher than the houses that once stood there. Of mud and emptiness.

Now, a few days later, the images are changing, but just as unforgettable. Images of toiling rescuers, of desperate searches for those who are missing. Of stunned survivors coming home to find their world completely changed. Images of the stricken power station, rocked by repeated explosions, of workers struggling to contain and limit the danger and the damage. Elsewhere there are Images of empty supermarket shelves and silent factories, of power cuts and transport difficulties, as the utilities and conveniences we take so much for granted in developed nations falter in the face of such repeated blows.

But amidst the devastation there are images of hope, of joyful reunions after days of separation, of dogged determination to carry on or start again. The dignity, courage and stoicism of the Japanese people in the face of such overwhelming catastrophe are deeply impressive and have moved me to tears more than once. They deserve the world’s support in the enormous task of rebuilding which lies ahead.

As a distant onlooker I can do little but pray and care and try not to let tomorrow’s fast-changing news make me forget what has happened in Japan, just as I try not to forget the people of Haiti and of so many other troubled areas of our small and threatened planet. My ageing memory isn’t as retentive as it once was, but over the past days it has been filled with images which I think it may never forget, images of the overwhelming force of nature but also of the indomitable spirit of humankind.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

The Wild Wood

Long, long ago, when the world was young – or at least when DH and I were young – we moved with our two small children into an old and decrepit farmhouse high in the hills of Mid-Wales. It came with about half an acre of neglected ground, part would-be garden, part a small, steep, infertile paddock above the house to the north.

In my first flush of enthusiasm at having space to grow things, I started a vegetable plot in the garden behind the house, with some modest success. The following year I decided to try to clear the paddock by planting potatoes there, but the ground is so steep and the soil so poor that this was an experiment I wasn’t tempted to repeat. So the paddock lay fallow for a couple of years, until DH managed to set it alight during the great drought of 1976 and we nearly lost our few trees as well.

Once we had recovered from the shock, we decided something different had to be done with this poor patch of ground, and the sight of our singed trees gave DH a brainwave.  He would plant trees! Lots of trees, beautiful specimen conifers (DH loves conifers) which would fill up the paddock and enhance our surroundings. Well, that was the idea….

Unfortunately, when he went to the local tree nursery for his infant conifers, they happened to be having a sale of larch seedlings at a giveaway price. You can guess the rest. Being of Scottish ancestry and therefore not one to sniff at a bargain, DH went mad and bought about fifty of the baby larches, in addition to all the specimen conifers he had already chosen.

Back in those days I worked in a public library, so my first instinct when faced with dozens and dozens of seedling trees was to bring home a book on their planting and care. It was written by a tree specialist, so one might have thought DH would welcome advice from such a reliable source. Not a bit of it! The writer stressed the importance of preparing the ground before planting. DH simply dug lots of small holes. The writer emphasised how essential it was to give trees plenty of room to grow and even provided a useful chart of planting distances, based on eventual height. DH just looked at the seedlings, particularly the tiny larches, and planted them really, really close together, so they would have company. 

It should have been a recipe for disaster, and in terms of a formal garden, I suppose it was. The first surprise was just how quickly the seedlings established themselves and grew. Given the poor soil and exposed position of the paddock, we rather expected to lose many, if not most, of them in the first few winters. Gripped by frost, buried in snow, battered by south-westerly gales they might have been, but nothing seemed to deter them. They just grew and grew and grew. Even though they were so closely packed in places that their branches became entangled and they had to strain upwards to the light, still they managed to grow, until today, nearly 35 years later, many of them are towering 40-footers.

Naturally some have succumbed over the years, but they don't go to waste. Indeed, one fine afternoon earlier in the week we were up in the wood, where DH had just sawn up a dead tree, carting the logs down the hill to be split and stored for firewood. As we always find ourselves doing when we’re up there, we kept stopping work to take in the atmosphere of the place: the slanting sunbeams, the sound of the wind high in the treetops mingling with the muted song of birds tuning up for spring.

We stood looking downhill through the trees, down past the house to the wonderful view of the valley and the distant hills, and realised yet again that we have inadvertently created our very own Wild Wood. Tiny, it is true, and not exactly well tended, but with its trees and bushes and brambles a haven for wildlife, a playground for children, and, in its own small way, a magical and mysterious place, where one feels a million miles away from the outside world. It isn’t what we set out to make all those years ago, when DH brought home so many baby trees, but it is living proof that sometimes what happens by accident is better than we could ever have planned.

Saturday, March 05, 2011

The tale of a swing-seat

Isn’t it odd what we set our hearts on, even if it’s totally unsuited to our circumstances? As I mentioned in my last post, DH and I have lived for many years in an old farmhouse high in the Welsh hills, with an unkempt apology for a garden, no appreciable lawn, and not a neighbouring house in sight. And yet what did I yearn for?  A swing-seat, that’s what, the kind of garden equipment that cries out for a barbered lawn or neat patio, neither of which this place has ever had or is ever likely to have.

Ten years ago we left our house in the tender hands of tenants and moved into the huge Edwardian vicarage which went with my new post as vicar of three small rural parishes, a few miles away across the valley. Lawn we then had aplenty, a full tennis-court’s worth in fact, but I was so busy that I hardly ever had time even to look at it, let alone think about putting a swing-seat on it for my rare leisure moments.

It wasn’t until I moved to Oxfordshire three years later, to a part-time post that carried with it a nice, modern house in a small village, that we acquired the kind of garden that could reasonably be graced with a swing-seat. On leaving my previous parishes I’d been given a gift of money as a farewell-present, so what better way to remember the kindness and generosity of my former parishioners than to treat myself to something I had dreamed of for so long.

Thus it was that my swing-seat entered my life. We bought it in a garden centre as a kit to take home and assemble, before placing it in our back garden which boasted a small lawn and an even smaller patio. What could be more simple? Just lay out the components on the sitting-room floor, read the instructions and, in next to no time, voilĂ , my heart’s desire in my very own garden. Several hours, much muttered cursing, and the odd pinched finger or two later, DH and I finally threw down the instructions, which might as well have been left in their original Chinese for all the use they were, and staggered into the garden with the finished product.

But oh, it was worth it! I sat on it, swung a little, and was mentally transported into a timeless (and probably idealised) world of long, leisurely summer afternoons in the garden, with tea on the lawn and a restful read or doze on the swing-seat, all my troubles forgotten or disappeared.

That was the theory and, just occasionally, the practice. More often it became a place for sitting with parishioners to chat or listen to their problems and concerns, and from time to time a plaything for visiting grandsons, or somewhere to cuddle them and read them a story.

Then, quite unexpectedly, it became the place where I could sit with family and friends, as I came to terms with my second cancer diagnosis in seven years and faced a possibly very uncertain future. Sitting and swinging gently as we talked didn’t take away the uncertainty and fear, but it made them more bearable, because they were shared with people who really cared. Later the swing-seat became the place where I could rest and recuperate during the lovely Indian summer days which followed my surgery, until I was well enough to go back to work and the swing-seat was put away in the garage to wait for the return of summer.

Finally, it came back with us when I retired and we returned to Wales. Now that we spend every summer in Normandy, it isn't getting much use here and seems to have entered upon a well-earned retirement of its own.  Perhaps one day DH and I will summon up the courage to take it apart and reassemble it in France. Until then, whenever I see it I’m reminded of how important our dreams are to us, even if they don’t always come true in the way we imagined.