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

Thursday, November 10, 2011

A quick word of advice

This is meant as a temporary post and I'll probably remove it before long. Since the beginning of the month I (and, I think, many others) have had enormous difficulty following new blogs or pruning my list of blogs followed.  There is obviously a great big new bug in Blogger's following software and it's had me gnashing my teeth in frustration, as blogs and new posts flicker randomly in and out of my list of blogs followed and Google Reader itself. 

The only way round it as far as I can see is manually to add new blogs followed to my blogroll, thus totally bypassing Google Friend Connect and Google Reader until Blogger finds the problem and fixes it.  I have a shrewd suspicion it is connected with the ongoing major revision of Blogger and its integration with Google+.  However, that's Google's affair.  Mine is to go on being able to follow the interesting new blogs I've recently discovered and to offer my newly discovered workround to those suffering similar frustration. At least this way I can reliably see when a blog is updated and avoid missing posts.

Monday, November 07, 2011

Music while you work

Here on the north coast of Scotland the sun has been shining from a cloudless sky for the last couple of days and we’ve been thoroughly enjoying it. At this time of year in this area, as the days get shorter and shorter, you take advantage of the sunshine while it lasts.  However you can’t see the sun from our somewhat gloomy, north-east facing kitchen, so while making lunch today, I decided to listen to some music to brighten things up.

Because of our peripatetic lifestyle, I’ve got into the habit of bringing with me to each location a random selection of CDs from our base in Wales.  This time my choice ranges from Mozart concertos to the Beatles, from Fauré’s Requiem to the soundtrack from the musical Chicago, from the Tallis Scholars singing Allegri’s Miserere to Tom Lehrer singing his wickedly satirical songs to an appreciative audience back in the 1960s. I chose the last-mentioned to accompany my vegetable-chopping and put the salad together in record time. J

Thinking about my eclectic (to put it mildly) musical tastes, I wondered whether they are a sign of broad-mindedness or simply woolly-mindedness, because I lack the application to refine and train them. Am I the only one with a truly ragbag collection of music or are there other musical magpies out there, and if so, what catches your fancy?

Image via Wikipedia

Thursday, November 03, 2011

The Versatile Blogger

Last Friday, as we were in the final throes of packing to come north, I took a quick coffee break to catch up with that morning’s blog posts in Google Reader before my computer was switched off for the trip. As I sipped my coffee and nibbled a biscuit, I was delighted to read on the always excellent Ayak’s Turkish Delight that she had just been given the Versatile Blogger Award by another blogger based, like her, in Turkey.

As Ayak explained, there are conditions to receiving this award. The winner has to tell you five quirky things about him or herself and then pass the award on to five more bloggers. You’ll have to read Ayak’s five lovely quirky things for yourselves, but I can tell you that I was extremely, if pleasantly, surprised to find that I was one of her five nominees. As I commented to Ayak, I’m not sure how versatile I am, especially at that time of the morning, and I’m certainly not sure how quirky I can be considered, but in all fairness I have to try to live up to the honour. J  So here goes…..

1.       I hate Marmite! I know the world is divided into Marmite lovers and Marmite haters and the former seem to predominate, but I can’t stand the nasty, salty stuff.

2.       I’m a sock knitter to the bottom of my soul. I like all kinds of knitting, but as I've mentioned before, socks are my perfect project for all sorts of reasons, being small, light, and cheap to make, but also nicely challenging to do well. One can never have too many socks.

3.       I have never watched Strictly Come Dancing or the X-Factor or even The Apprentice or Dragon’s Den. I realise that in some circles that makes me not just quirky but barely a member of the human race, but I can’t help it.  I don’t like reality TV or game shows, as I just can’t bear to watch people being publicly criticised, belittled or made a fool of, even if they’ve volunteered for the privilege.

4.       I love Christmas. I know it’s fashionable to bemoan the secularisation and commercialism of the festival, but to me it has a meaning and a magic which is irresistible. I even enjoy singing carols (all the verses, mind you) and writing Christmas cards, as well as receiving them. A hopeless case…..

5.       The nearest I ever came to meeting a real celebrity was back in the mid-60s, when I was a student. (I’ve led a very sheltered life since then. J) Coming out of a coffee bar in a little side-street near the centre of Oxford, I almost collided with Paul McCartney and Jane Asher, as they walked past the door. She was appearing at the Playhouse and I'd barely heard of her at that time, but was a huge Beatles fan. Imagine my horror if I’d actually knocked him over.....

Now for my nominees, all of whom I think write great and versatile blogs.  They are:

Tuesday, November 01, 2011


This afternoon I was merrily checking on a couple of the blogs I follow when I noticed that instead of the usual cheery thumbnail image of yours truly next to each of my past comments, there is now a scarily threatening black and white exclamation mark! No, it isn’t a leftover from Halloween, as I first thought. A quick glance at the Blogger help forum shows that other bloggers have recently been reporting problems with photos disappearing from their blogs and being similarly replaced.

In my case I think it may stem from an unwary deletion last week of a duplicate of my profile photo in the Picasa web album where all my blog pictures are stored. There is still a copy there and I’ve even reloaded it, but Blogger is obviously extremely picky and won’t accept any substitution retrospectively. Thankfully the real me has now reappeared alongside new comments, but where older ones are concerned, I'm afraid it seems you will all have to learn to live with the unappealing images with which Blogger has chosen to highlight my carelessness. J