Friday, June 29, 2007

Dead now of course......

Ruby told us she was born in 1924 and this is her 84th year. She tells us of this achievment with just a note of pride. There must be something in the water round here I think that promotes such longevity as she is but one of many elderly ladies who have shared their memories and photographs with Doreen and myself.

Ruby is pleased to have such an attentive audience. We are made comfortable in the window of her orderly bungalow where every flat surface is home to collections of ornaments. (It must be a nightmare to dust.) A fine long-case clock marks time across the room. It is not as warm as it should be and a fan heater roars at our ankles. Ruby wears socks over her stockings.

Doren and I hang on her every word as she recalls her first 10 years in the village of her birth; the youngest daughter of an innkeeper and farmer. I struggle to unravel names and dates and places - 'mother's' memories have become intertwined with her own and Ruby tells us with authority of events which happened 20 years before her own birth. She talks of her grandparents, probably born in the middle of the 19th century and the stories they were told by their grandparents - I hope she tells the same stories to her grandchildren. I very much like the narrative thread which crosses so many years and links so many generations. We are part of that chain today.

A quick check of the 1901 census does little to clarify matters - I find a tangled web of relationships. (Nothing has changed in this little village then.) Ruby's account has presented one somewhat simplistic picture; the census night snapshot another.

My picture, undated though probably from the late 1920s or early 30s, shows the children of Middleton School. Ruby is not in this picture, being only an infant, but her elder sister - a clever girl and talented musician - is. This sister left the sleepy hills for a nursing career in Birmingham and also formed a dance band. 'Dead now of course' says Ruby.

These four words were to become a refrain. Stories about the family, the shopkeeper, the bus driver, the lord of the manor, his son Master Wakeman and his stepson, Master Leek: all ending with the words: 'Dead now of course'. Such characters and not one of them ordinary: 'He was a great tall man - and the other one down here (she gestures with her hands), they'd have been on television today. All 'Dead now of course.'

It's a funny world where the dead now seem to outnumber the living. Ruby sits in her bungalow and watches the traffic pass on the road beyond, watches the changing seasons and the weather on the hills to the east. She's sitting with her memories which are very much alive. Of course.

Monday, June 25, 2007

In which a chain saw is a must-have accessory...

'Rain? What rain?' I said smugly as most of the country sheltered indoors yesterday. It looked as if the record breaking torrential downpour was going to pass us by. The sun even came out for a while and was warm on my back as I hauled chickweed from between the onions. In the late afternoon Alan lit the barbecue and that did the trick. The heavens opened even as match touched charcoal.

D and H and D's new car pulled in shortly afterwards. The car, apparently nervous at leaving the confines of Manchester's orbital motorway, was 'throwing a wobbly' and threatening not to go anywhere. Ever. Again. Oh dear. We all stood around, clueless in the rain, praying that its malaise was the proverbial 'something or nothing'. They were to drive home later in Alan's pick-up, leaving the new motor here with us.

And did it rain in the night? The works. Stair rods. Cats and dogs. And windy too. However, with places to go, people to see - namely the sickly car to our very own motor mechanic - we set out in convoy through driving wind and rain. Water was pouring off the fields, charging down the lane on its way to the saturated Rea Valley at the bottom of the hill. Here at Lower House the somewhat primitive drainage system which serves our three dwellings struggled to cope with the watery overload and soupy brown water pooled and bubbled in unusual and worrying places. Our way was barred at the top of the lane by a large ash tree which had fallen across the road.

Like re-winding a film we reversed back down the lane, got booted and suited in layers of waterproofs and collected chainsaw and fuel. Back at the top again the tree was soon dismembered, literally cut limb from limb and branches and brushwood hauled aside. This was the Trelystan Chainsaw Massacre. The lane was cleared and we were able to drive on, albeit dripping wet and hung about with twigs and sawdust.

Now generally speaking, I'm not a fan of chainsaws. They're noisy, machine-y, macho things. I can take 'em or leave 'em. But today I can't think of anything I'd rather have had with me - except for Alan of course who wielded the beast so expertly.

Sunday, June 24, 2007


Shh. Can you hear anything? No? Neither can I. The silence is deafening. It is the sound of Nothing Happening. It is most welcome.

It has been a busy week what with one thing and another. No time to draw breath etc. Today, however, I am home alone. Alan has gone to Chester to pursue the fine and contemplative art of gilding, dogs are in their beds idly scratching fleas and the world outside the window is almost still - only the gentlest breath of air ruffles the leaves in the dingle. The drone of a light aircraft disturbs the silence briefly, as does the twitter of a wren. I am keeping my head ducked below the parapet the better to enjoy my time alone - to all intents and purposes I am not here.

I venture off into reverie, for such is the luxury of solitude. In philosophical mode I wonder if this is what it would be like if I really were not here. The 'goings on' in the world outside my window, the fledgling birds, the magpies stealing hen food and the sheep's silent perambulations - are they less real because I am not out there amongst them? I have often flown over cities and imagined the various lives of their inhabitants - which I know to be happening - but their reality seems more remote than the height of an aircraft.

Then with a jolt - the phone rings - I am back to the here and now. A dog presses its nose, cold and wet, against my elbow. D and H and D's new car are coming for tea. Hurrah!

..........but there is no need to be sociable just yet.

A WI tea

I know why I was there but it didn't stop me asking myself - with a shake of a dazed and confused head: 'What on earth am I doing here in a village hall, eating a ham salad tea with a ruck of pensioners whilst listening to a vicar play the piano accordion?'....)

(This was the occasion of the WI's annual Senior Citizens' tea where according to WI tradition tables bowed under the weight of food, tea flowed like wine and no one would leave until completely sated and belts had been let out a notch or two.)

In the circumstances I suspended belief and tucked in with the rest of them. Then went home for a glass of wine.


A snail. Not a particularly mighty or spectacular specimen but a snail none the less.

'Stamp on it. Throw it to the hens' I hear you say. But no, I feel benevolent. When they are a distance from my lettuces and with their feelers out I think they have a certain charm - besides, the juxtaposition of this snail and this piece of wood give me great pleasure.

The piece of wood is the remains of a very ancient boat - possibly from the Bronze Age - which was retrieved from the peaty lands that are now adjacent to Marton Pool, just down the hill from here. In the distant past these self-same lands stood at the water's edge but modern drainage schemes have wrung them dry and they are now rich and fertile fields. Forged by primitive tools from a trunk of oak maybe 4 millennia ago the simple craft drifted between the reeds, alders and oaks of this watery place and was finally abandoned - who knows why - to settle into the silts. The deep-digging shares of a powerful modern plough brought it to light a few years ago.

It's about 4m long and .7m wide, slightly curved at one end and a hollowed shape can just about be discerned on one side. In truth some imagination is needed to identify it as a boat, lying as it does at present in a hedge bottom and not in a glass case with informative labels. Rowley's House, latterly Shrewsbury's Museum has one similar and we are informed with authority that this is a boat too.

Local history meister Doreen ran it to ground and arranged for us to meet the farmer who found it and now has it in his care. Sadly the local museum service are unable to curate it so it stays down on the farm. Our farmer though, appreciates its antiquity and cares for it - in his own way. It is not after all mending a hole in a pigsty door or patching the barn roof. He also has some magnificent pieces of bog oak from the same source, which he touches fondly and 'has plans for'. He turns the plank-of-wood-that-is-the-boat so we might get a better look, and the little snail, disturbed, slithers away to find another damp sanctuary.

We dutifully take notes and photographs and wish that we ourselves could unearth something like this. Or gold maybe. Gold would be good.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Thunder like rock 'n' roll.....

Another mighty storm today - rocking and rolling round the end of the Long Mountain, flashing and crashing, shaking windows and doors. Man and beast dive for cover. The sheep, I notice, are in the lee of the hedge, a line of hunched silhouettes against a slatey sky. The air is warm but the rain sharp and cold as nails.

The storm passes, leaving only a strange metallic tang and some spectral wisps of cloud winding across the dark conifers of Badnage Wood. That's enough for now.

Sunday, June 17, 2007


Looking south along Long Mountain

Isn't it wonderful, this countryside of ours?

Today, from 2,000 feet up, a glorious panorama unfolded beneath us; rolling hills sheltered crinkled clefts and creases. In the valleys sluggish serpentine rivers eased through ancient fields; leasows, meadows and crofts - a pattern of a myriad of greens and browns, sprinkled with cattle and sheep. And here and there, tied together by path and road and lane, those places we call home.

This is the place we call home:

.....and this is the place my predecessors called home. It's somewhere in the top centre. It has helped seeing the plots marked out. It's where Elizabeth Cross, widow of Sam Cross was a farmer of 5 acres. Sam was a lead miner but at the time of his death, presumably when too old to be a miner, he was a ratcatcher. An honourable trade or calling I like to think.

This is the village of Snailbeach:

...and on the western slopes of the ridge known as the Stiperstones is the village of Stiperstones:

One-Eyed Riley - Part 2

It wasn't the best start to the day. A sick bird and a decision to make.

He's been injected, dosed, bathed, anointed and cossetted. He's flagged and he's rallied. But were I truly honest I'd have to admit he's not really got much better at all. And over the last few days I've begun to suspect that he's not actually lost an eye at all, but fallen victim to some horrid infection. (Apologies all round to the Scraggy Hen who stood accused of malicious pecking.) Picked up at the Show where we bought him perhaps? It happens.

Yesterday at close of play he was fine. This morning though, a dejected and ailing bird reluctantly came out into the run - and it was obvious that he was in distress. With regrets a coup de grâce was administered and One-Eyed Riley went swiftly to his final roost. R.I.P.

The End.

Friday, June 15, 2007

I see.....

The good news is that since my last eye test two years ago my eyes haven't deteriorated at all. Hoorah!

From my optician's point of view, the more cheering and lucrative news is that I'm going to buy a new pair of glasses anyway.

I'm only slightly concerned that he kept steering me towards 'elegant' and 'smart' frames. (Wearing which an elderly stereotypical matronly-secretarial-librarian stares back at me*.) He's thinking sensible. (God preserve me from sensible!) I'm thinking 'hip' and Hoxton. I'm thinking 'Crikey. I might live at the end of a mountain in Wales (just) and spend my days ministering to hens, pulling out weeds and watering tomatoes but that doesn't mean I can't wear something vibrant and natty.....after all my husband has just bought me a bracelet, which in his words I could 'wear to feed the hens in'. (Have to admit that does mystify me a bit. Bit de trop perhaps?) Humph.

I try on most things in the shop. Metal, plastic. Rounded. Square. Colours, blacks, whites, silver, gold. Bi-colour, duo-tone - whatever - that's the thing. We do Ted Baker and D&G and a gamut of other fashionable names. I am surrounded by frames. They litter every surface; plastic and titanium twisted and entwined, phoney glass lenses besmirched with finger-smears managing a feeble glint. I cannot remember which I like and which I do not like. A demented woman stares back out of the mirror, hair wild and tumbling. It is me. Pretty soon, I think, Mr Optician will be opening his box of glasses for batty women with Very Special Needs.....or politely but firmly ushering me out onto the street.

So I choose the ones I liked first of all. They are green and wiry, kind of wrap-around, kind of rimless too. Fairly cool. I do hope I'm not to old to say that.

I think they meet my criteria. We'll have to wait and see what the hens think.

*I mean absolutely no offense
whatsoever to matrons, librarians or secretaries...some of my best friends are.......STOP. Digging. The. Hole. Even. Deeper....)

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

If it ain't broke - don't fix it?

If you're a regular visitor, then maybe you'll notice something's changed.

I've had a bit of a 'furtle' this afternoon - regular visitors may notice this space has gone from dotty to pristine white with a misty atmospheric topping.

'How brave' - I hear you collectively murmur - ' to delve into the uncharted depths of Blogger's dashboard and single-handedly re-configure widgets, html and other unspeakables.'

Too damned right. Faced with the distinct possibility of losing all my breathless prose this was a nerve-wracking exercise. I unwound a hypothetical ball of string all the better to retrace my steps.....and proceeded with great caution. I'm not skilled enough to make more than a 'tweek' here and a 'tweek' there and feel mildly frustrated by working within the template's constraints. (The inner graphic designer is surfacing.) Will somebody please send me a small instructive child as a mentor?

However, my new space is clean and white. Here are some lovely roses to make it feel more like home:

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Tagged - again

I have Un Peu Loufoque to thank for this: 8 (eight!!) interesting things about me. In theory this should be easy - writing about oneself I mean. Very indulgent.

I wonder if I could recycle my previous 'tagged' revelations? No. I thought not.

I do find it quite difficult, so I'll approach it like taking medicine. Quickly. In a gulp. Here goes:

1. I have had beer and doughnuts for breakfast only once.

2. Coursing through my veins is a drop of Huguenot blood. Why this should excite so much I don't know. In earlier days my silversmithing and diamond dealing ancestors pounded the Dickensian streets of London's Clerkenwell and Islington. I am delighted by the serendipitous union between Alice Stewardson and Bertram Cross - my grandparents. She a jewellery worker and he an escapee from Shropshire's lead mines. A precious and a base metal....

3. ....there's a story there somewhere. Someone else can write it. I prefer having ideas to carrying them out.

4. My favourite flowers are snowdrop (Galanthus nivalis plena), Dianthus Mrs Simpkins and Rosa rugosa alba.

5. One of the most exciting things I can think of (right now) is the overture to La bohème. The house lights dim and in those first notes are such promise. Opera demands the ability to suspend belief in reality. I can do that.

6. As children we didn't travel much as a family - going as far as north Yorkshire was as adventurous as it got. I expect for the times that was going some, and count myself lucky. To discover France in the mid 60's - a strange world where, amongst other revelations, lettuce was frissée and dressed with freshly made mayonnaise and not Heinz Salad Cream - was a bit of an eye-opener. I questioned the familiar from then on.

7. Boiled eggs must be eaten pointed ends DOWN. Only a fool would do it the other way round.

8. Loggos, Paxos. Can't think of anywhere better to spend a week. Shady olive groves, crystal clear Ionian. Calamari and chilled beer at Spiros' Kantina, dinner at Gio's Taverna in the village. Scraggy cats, Metaxa and a ride on the ancient island bus. However, it's my second favourite place. First prize goes to the road over Long Mountain, an ancient route, with Wales to the west and England to the east. It's not beautiful though the views are stunning. It's a place to draw breathe between points a and b, 8 miles of alone.

Phew, I'm exhausted. I hope this outbreak of 'tagging' is over with soon. If anyone wants to be 'it' - go ahead. Be my guest.

Wild Things....

Memory is an inexact science - I wouldn't want to rely on mine in time of national crisis. It lets me down in the supermarket and I'm too familiar with those 'top of the stair' moments when you find yourself asking: 'But why am I here?' - and one thing is for certain - it's not to discuss philosophy. Not bad in the pub quiz though. I can dredge up useless snippets from the glory-hole that is the bottom of my brain; Vietnamese currency? The Dong. Lord Kitchener's first names? Horatio Herbert. Dross really, but points win prizes.....

Anyway, what I started out to say was: I can't remember a year when the wild flowers have been so spectacular. Pillows of creamy primrose, then bluebells, creeping out from hedgerows - the last remnants of ancient woodland - waxen blue heads amongst virginial white stitchwort. Shy violets, this year quite brazen. Oxalis and the little barren strawberry. Then pushing through the roadside grasses come campions, red and white, and cow parsley with its fizzing frothing umbels of tiny white flowers. On our field another umbellifer, known to me only as 'Pig nut' is flowering. Its root is edible. My father told me that many years ago. He dug down beneath the plant with his pen knife and harvested the small nobbly root. It got a cursory wipe on his hankie and was given to me to taste. It was OK. Nutty.

The Hawthorn has flowered and now the hedges are draped in honeysuckle; orangeyellowpink and white and cream. Heavily scented. Heavenly. Wild roses too have unfolded simple papery petals, flowers held on thorny arching stems.

So many flowers this spring - and many yet to come. I can't remember one quite as colourful as this.

Thursday, June 07, 2007


It's 9.55pm. The sky is the colour of a Collar Dove's wing; soft and pink-grey. Not a breathe of wind either. Air, leaf, branch and blade are still. The cobweb of dark that is Night drops into the stillness and over my shoulders. Damp.

Up on the little field a Pheasant shrieks fear and dread at the dying of the day. There's a Thrush too, up in one of the sycamores, melodious, repetitive and why?

Badnage Wood is black - from its borders, from the streams and dingles, clefts, nests and crevices come creeping, stirring, snufflin' those night creatures - pressing cold noses into hedge bottoms and through damp grass. Be on your guard all you things that scamper, squirm and sliver: beetle and worm, mouse, snail and slug - the warm licking tongues and crunching jaws of Messrs. Badger and Fox are but a bite away.

It's the chill around my shoulders that eventually brings me indoors - but also (and only a little bit) the thought that out there somewhere in the gloaming is a something bigger than me.

The hottest s**t kickers in Trelystan

Ordered late-ish yesterday afternoon over t'internet. Just arrived. On the feet. Bliss.

Sunday, June 03, 2007


The Young Farmers had scrubbed the shed to within an inch of its life. It gleamed. Only the residual pong of its previous inhabitants lingered to remind the guests at Huw's 'Do' that this was the beef cattle's winter quarters.

A well stocked bar, seemingly constructed of old pallets and black plastic silage wrap, awaited the thirsty. The caterers were primed and ready to stuff beef into baps. The guests; young and old, grannies and grandads, babes in arms, friends, neighbours, most of Shropshire YFC and a couple of opportunistic dogs assembled to celebrate Huw's 21st birthday.

But what's this in the corner? And why are those leggy girls wearing ersatz lederhosen and Bavarian titfers?

'This in the corner' turned out to be a Bavarian style oompah band. This was Bier Keller night - and probably the most fun you can have in a cow shed with 200 other people. There was swinging and swaying, drinking and dancing on the tables, all to the most curious medley of songs accompanied by piano accordion, drum kit and euphonium. The three members of the band were dressed appropriately, displaying very hairy legs between their very short hosen and knee length socken. A strange costume.... The girls were all Young Farmers making good use of costumes made for an event at the West Mid Show last year. I'm very impressed that someone went to the trouble of appliqueing 'Huw's Do' on their seat - complete with correct apostrophe too. The old farmer next to me studied her behind for a long time - but on reflection I don't think grammar was on his mind.

We clapped and stamped, linked arms, sang and slurped noisily into the night, leaving shortly before midnight with oompahs ringing in our ears. What a good party that was.

All was very quiet and still back at Lower House. Very quiet.

Saturday, June 02, 2007

A walk round the garden...

It's been a curious sort of week. Like the curate's proverbial egg; good in parts. On the plus side I count the visit of a much loved old friend and on the minus side the continuing poultry problems.

Out in the garden most things are planted up now. The vegetable garden looks quite spruce and green shoots are poking up towards the light. Roots, legumes, brassicas, onions and salads outside, more tender plants in greenhouse and coldframe. The soil felt quite warm today as I was tucking the last tomato plants into what I think is called a 'Three sisters bed' - squash, sweet corn and tomatoes grown in harmony. We really don't need to grow any more tomatoes but it seemed a shame to abandon such healthy plants to the compost heap. We need some clement weather now so everything will grow. It is allowed to rain at night.

The vegetables are at the back of the barn. There's an orchard to the side. It was one of the first things Alan planted and although only 3 years old has produced a little fruit. We compete with the birds for the privilege of eating it.

The 'pretty' bit of the garden is at the front. This is a corner where pinks, whites, blues and purples jostle for space. It's quite blowsy. It looks its best in the summer when everything is in flower and fragrant too. There are yews planted at the back - which I will clip to obelisks eventually - to provide some structure in the winter months.

There's also a border where I'm playing with white and silver plants - but I think this will go the way of all flesh. It demands more discipline than I can summon up to tear up the colourful self-seeders. Those naughty pink foxgloves look beautiful rubbing shoulders with the white Polemonium......

I've 'hot' border just inside the gate - if you're looking across the garden at all the pinks and blues and whites it's behind you and not a distraction. A strip of grasses runs alongside the boring gravel bit where the car is parked.

The last two have been the most fun to plant up and devise as both were unfamiliar. The reds have been particularly exciting - we're not talking tasteful but big, brash and bold. This is a picture I took at the end of last summer so I could remember what needed to be changed this year but if it looks like this again I won't be too displeased. The climbing rose, Etoile de Hollande has now grown big enough to be seen - beautiful velvety red flowers. Scented too.

This is our 3rd summer here. In 2005 this space was a concrete farmyard - all vestiges of which are nearly gone. The old stone hovel, once home to calves has nearly been transformed into a bijou summerhouse. Provided no birds decide to nest in some of the artfully crafted nesting holes we've left in the walls, the job will be completed shortly. We'll be able to sit in the evening sun, glass in hand, surrounded by fragrant flowers and the sound of water chuckling in the rill.
We make all these places to sit and contemplate the fruits of our labours but too rarely do we use them.

There's still a lot to do of course; the wilderness beyond the pond - which is destined to be tamed - but only slightly. And the pond, excavated before work started on the house because the digger was there, has been largely neglected since and now needs some tlc. Trees and hedges to plant. A field shelter. A prairie border. Maybe.

Oh dear, from feeling quite smug that all the jobs were in hand I've created a long, nagging 'to-do' list. There'll never be time to sit in the sun.