Friday, November 30, 2012

Season of mists

As autumn turns to winter here in the hills of Mid-Wales, this was the view from the field behind our house earlier this week. Mist lying like spilt milk in the river valley in one direction and drifting gently upwards across the fields in another. This was weather for finding an extra sweater, stoking the fire and getting on with another pair of warm socks for chilly feet. 

When in doubt, hibernate!

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Time out

Since our return to Wales just over a week ago, I seem to have done nothing but chase my tail. Now, on a cold and increasingly wet Sunday afternoon, it’s time to relax. For me today that means a big pot of tea, some hot buttered toast with homemade damson cheese, and one of my very favourite cartoon characters. Ahhh, that’s better….

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

The best-laid schemes

Rabbie Burns was right! We mere mortals can plan things to our heart’s content and then along comes the randomness of human existence and all our careful arrangements are overturned. Having comfortably settled in for what was meant to be a six weeks’ stay up here in the Highlands, DH and I now find we have to go south again by the end of the week.

So it’s back to the packing and the farewells, almost before the last echo of “Hello, how are you?” has died away. In addition, we have to find some way of piling all the furniture in the middle of each room, so that in our absence the local decorator can at last do the long-delayed repainting of our very shabby walls and woodwork. Wish us luck!

This song is only vaguely linked with the above, but it takes me right back to my university days, when I was young and supple and bits of me didn't creak when I bend and lift. 


Wednesday, November 07, 2012

An ordinary life

Thirty years ago today a woman died in a Lancashire hospital after a short illness. She was sixty-six years old, a widow with five children, all girls, and twelve grandchildren. She had lived in or near her birthplace almost all her life and to all outward appearances had led a very ordinary, quiet life. Yet those outward appearances masked  a woman of intelligence, talent and deep determination, who achieved a great deal against considerable odds. Her name was Annie, she was my mother, and in another three days I will have outlived her.

My mother was born in the middle of the First World War in the cotton town of Darwen in Lancashire. Her father, a builder’s labourer before and after the war, was serving in the army supply corps, and her mother had worked in a cotton mill before her marriage. She was their first child, and after the death of their second baby, Jack, remained an only child.

The schoolgirl

Her childhood was overshadowed by her mother’s ill-health. Money was very short and though Annie won a scholarship to the local grammar school, she was unable to take it up, because the family income wouldn’t stretch to cover both doctor’s fees and all the extra costs of secondary schooling. So she stayed on at her elementary school, where she shone at art and design, winning awards in local art examinations, until she reached the then school-leaving age of fourteen.

It was 1930 and Britain’s economy was sinking into the Great Depression. Unemployment in the industrial north was rising fast and the only job my mother could find was daily domestic service. It almost broke my grandparents’ hearts to see their beautiful, clever and artistic daughter going out charring, as it was known, but Annie’s determination and capacity for hard work meant that she did not remain in this kind of employment indefinitely. 

The young woman

As well as art, she had always had a flair for arithmetic and soon began to go to night-school classes after work to study book-keeping. My knowledge of dates here is sketchy, but certainly, before she was out of her teens, she was working as a book-keeper at the local branch of Burton’s the tailors and later was employed by Unilever, the big soap manufacturer, at their factory at Port Sunlight

The bridesmaid

Not content with this achievement, Annie continue to educate herself, taking night-school classes in art and design until she was qualified to find work in the textile industry in her home town as a fabric designer. When, in 1941, she married my father Arnold, a painter and decorator, she was actually earning more than he was, an amazing achievement for a working-class woman at that period.

The wartime bride
My parents met at a dance in November 1940. What Arnold was wearing I have no idea, but I know exactly what Annie was dressed in and it is no wonder she caught my father’s eye. Tall and slender, and a skilled seamstress who made all her own clothes, she must have been striking in a full-length dance frock of dark-brown net, with a wide flounce round the hem, over a petticoat of flame-coloured taffeta. The reason I am so sure of this is that, as children, my next sister and I spent many happy hours dressing up in this same frock. 

When they met, my father was a widower, with a three-year-old daughter. Within a short time they were planning an April wedding, but unfortunately my father became ill and the wedding had to be postponed until June. By then wartime rationing was biting severely and the wedding cake was only a single layer, carefully disguised under a three-tier cardboard shell, though my mother still managed to collect enough clothing coupons for the traditional white wedding gown.

Annie and Arnold on honeymoon

After a weekend’s honeymoon at Garstang, my parents set up home in Darwen until my father was called up for military service in 1943 and joined the navy. When he was posted to a base on the east coast of Scotland my mother moved up there with my elder sister, so that Arnold’s short and infrequent leaves could be spent with his wife and daughter, rather than on the train to and from distant Lancashire.

It was not until the year after the war ended that my mother gave birth to her first child – me - followed eighteen months later by my next sister. The others arrived at longer intervals, in 1951 and 1957, the last being the only one to be born in hospital. Call the Midwife really did reflect the primacy of home births in the after-war period.

After her marriage Annie was a stay at home wife, caring for her children, home and husband as women have traditionally done. Her workload was made heavier by the fact that I was a sickly child, often ill and needing nursing.  So it was only when I was older and stronger and her youngest daughter had reached school age, that she took the post of dinner lady at the village primary school, serving and clearing up after the mid-day meal.

The catering manager

Before long she began to train as a school cook and when qualified ran the kitchen in the same school. Later she applied for and gained the post of head cook and manager of the kitchen in the big secondary school in the neighbouring town, which my sisters and I all attended over a period of some twenty years.

Here she was in her element, using her book-keeping training and organisational skills to plan menus, order supplies and keep accounts for a large and busy catering service. Sadly, before she could retire and enjoy more leisure time with him, my father, who was nine years older than Annie, was diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer and died within a year.

One of the last photos of my parents together

Two years later my mother finally retired and settled down to enjoy her little house and her much-loved garden, gardening being another of her many talents. She was still very fit and well and we all looked forward to seeing her enjoy a long and active retirement, but it was not to be. After only two years of retirement, out of the blue she suffered a cerebral haemorrhage and just ten days later she died.

Thirty years is a long time, almost half my life, but my memories of my mother are still clear and strong and happy. She and my father gave unwavering support to their daughters’ education and their encouragement of our talents was life-changing. Neither of our parents was fortunate enough to have had secondary education, yet four of their five daughters went to university and the fifth trained as a nurse.

I often think of my mother and, knowing what she achieved through her own efforts from such a difficult beginning, wonder what she might have become, if she had been given the same opportunities as my sisters and me. I think the same of my father, but that is for another post.

Annie may have lived what to the onlooker seems like a very ordinary life, but to me she was an extraordinary woman. I still miss her and I owe her more than I can say.

Sunday, November 04, 2012

The necessity of trees

As many of you probably know by now, our favourite view from our house in Wales is dominated by the magnificent ash tree outside the bathroom window. The possibility that it and its companions may one day fall victim to ash die-back fills me with a mixture of sadness and dread. Yet, even if no longer carpeted with trees as in the past, Mid-Wales still has a wonderful variety of them, especially in the valley of the River Severn, where ancient and gnarled reminders of the mighty Montgomeryshire oaks once used to build ships for the British navy, still stand proudly in hedgerow and field.

In Normandy the garden in front of our house is overshadowed by three huge cherry trees, but in stark contrast to the lush fecundity of more favoured areas, here in the far north-west Highlands of Scotland, trees of any size are a rarity and to be treasured. Most are stunted and bent by the harshness of the climate and the poverty of the soil, but in sheltered places some do manage to flourish.

One of those places is our front garden, where, protected from the worst of the weather by hills on three sides, we have not only a few small fruit trees and ornamental bushes but also a graceful silver birch. Though nowhere near the size of its cousins further south, its beauty draws the eye in all seasons and at all times of the day, especially in the evening as the sun sets behind the fretwork tracery of its branches.

To me trees are one of the essentials of nature and a world without trees a nightmare beyond imagining. Trees are the anchor of the landscape, linking past, present and future and I love them in all their wondrous variety of shape and type. Here is the scene I contemplated yesterday, as the last of the sunset afterglow drained from the sky and night fell over hill, tree and water. 

Thursday, November 01, 2012

Settling in

I must be getting old. Even though we enjoy the journey north very much indeed, it does seem to take us longer to get over it each time. Still, we've caught up on our sleep, got the stiffness out of our knees and are starting to pick up the reins of life in the chilly north.

Now the rain has stopped and we can get outside without getting soaked, DH is happily occupied filling his new shed with all his ‘stuff’. I on the other hand have been to my first Knit and Natter of this visit, where I finished yet another pair of socks for him. I’m also tackling the garden, as our few shrubs have grown wildly since our last visit. When we arrived, late on Sunday, we almost had to hack our way through the enormous buddleia outside the kitchen window to get to the door.

A view to wake up to - the Kyle of Tongue from the bedroom window
The weather today has been cold, but brilliantly sunny, and the landscape is looking breathtakingly beautiful. It’s definitely soup weather, so I tried a new recipe today and am feeling wonderfully replete.  Small, inconsequential details of a very quiet life, but oh, so satisfying. 

Socks - for Rubye J