Friday, March 28, 2008

Credit where credit is due.

The eyechild is posting a series of 'Thursday Thugs'. Interesting idea eyechild. Very interesting indeed - and frankly more thought provoking than most 'Wordless Wednesdays' and 'favorite photo Fridays'. We're strangers to the like of Frankie Fraser in these parts thank goodness. In Shropshire the 18th century had Jack Mytton - who might suffice in the 'mad, bad and dangerous to know' category. Curiously the County Council has named a footpath after him - 'The Jack Mytton Way' - as if he were the sort of man whose lead you would wish to follow. If you have a few moments do click the link above and read about his life - which is larger than - erm, life. Would make a good bio-pic I think.

Anyway, I thought I might just redress the balance and thank the ordinary people who, this week, have made a difference to my life.

We'll start with the lady arranging the Easter flowers in a beautiful Welsh church on Saturday afternoon, who got down from her ladder and not only answered my questions but emailed me later on to follow up my query with information of her own. A little beyond the call of duty - a favour in the favour bank I think. Thank you.

Then yesterday at Weston Park in Staffordshire - home to the 'V Festival, the Midlands Game Fair and numerous other events. A big place. 1000 acres, deer, 'Capability' Brown Landscape etc. - you get the picture. It's an attractive country estate, now held in trust by the Weston Park Foundation, but latterly was home to the Earls of Bradford. We enjoyed Paul Stamper's lecture about the 'History of Farming' (excellent by the way), lunch (delicious) and a walk round the grounds and the mansion. One might argue that the staff there were only doing their jobs in making visitors welcome - but we did feel, in the house in particular, that we were having our own private guided tour. Nothing was too much trouble. Customer service and customer satisfaction = 10 out of 10.

Finally, full marks to United Utilities who, long distance and without being jobs-worths sorted out the Problem with the Drain in Stockport, (and thanks to Rod the rodder too who actually did the dirty work). It seems that we're so used to bland officialdom or tick-box help desks that when the voice at the end of the phone is human and caring it is a pleasant surprise. Off-shore call centres please take note.

It's the small stuff isn't it, that really makes a difference?

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

In the garden

No snow today and no rain either. In fact the sun shone and with the sun on one's back it actually felt warm - even warm enough to do without the gardening hat.

I spent the afternoon in the garden. Above me birds in the skeletal trees tweet out a chorus of sorts. The brown dog goes a-mousing. In the near distance lambs and ewes basked in the sunshine - near perfect weather for them I suppose.

Today was a day for worshiping the Gods of the Vegetable Garden - gently forking the beds over and teasing out the few weeds which remain before raking to a fine tilth. If nothing else it looks orderly. A few broad beans were sown last week (I should have known better perhaps) and today I pressed a few onion sets firmly into place with the brusque instruction: 'Grow damn you. Grow.'

There's no getting away from the fact that, while shoots are stirring, everything is still very, erm, brown. After a couple of hours vis a vis with soil it was a pleasure to come indoors and find these daffodils. At first I thought them gaudy and blowsy - a 3-for- 2 bargain; but now in the late afternoon, transfused with light, they glow - soft and warm. If this day were night I could hold these flowers like a ball of moonshine.

Sunday, March 23, 2008


The small mountain kingdom of Trelystan should be alive with lambs by now but the weekend's uncertain weather has meant that all bar the strongest are confined to quarters. Sheds and barns are bursting at the seams with the little critters. Over at Fir House a temporary ovine maternity ward has been established.

At first sight it is a chaotic enterprise - but no, impressive order emerges out of apparent confusion.

The human work force is in perpetual motion, strawing down, watering, watching, assisting, ever on the move.

Pregnant ewes, bleating raucously and a tad confused, have been drawn in from off the hill and are gathered in a large strawed yard awaiting their fate. Postpartum, and depending on the number of lambs they produce, they will be penned into neat sections - singles here, twins there and the triplets to the right. A slightly sinister arrangement holds ewes who need persuasion to feed their lambs - there must be a technical term for a thing which holds a sheep so it can't turn around and butt a feeding lamb but I don't know what it is. 'Cade' lambs have a corner too. These chunky lambs born earlier in the year are motherless for one reason or another and look to any passing human with expectation. A slightly grim pile of corpses in the yard reminds us that life is not an easy passage - if birth doesn't kill you then maybe the tongue-pecking ravens will.

In this barn I scent the visceral tang of bloody birth, the sweetness of shaken straw, the earthiness of dung and, amongst all this, the sourness of life-giving milk. Here is a pleasant sanctuary, giving shelter from a biting northerly wind, offering protection to fragile new lives. Here is as good a start to a lamb's life as might be found.

I take my photographs and leave - complimenting Heather on the shed's organisation as I go. She brushes off the compliment with a laugh before rushing back into what she perceives as chaos. This is the way it is. This is what they do. I am full of admiration.

Friday, March 21, 2008

On not planting parsley and other muddled thoughts...

Good Friday.

Tradition has it that today is the day on which to plant parsley seed - perhaps because on this day alone the Devil is deemed to be powerless. It's slow to germinate too, so don't expect to see anything for a number of weeks; my father always told me this was because the seed is reputed to go to Hell and back 6 times. We may plant it for its flavour and decorative qualities but Parsley has associations with doom and death - which are not things you want to see garnishing a prawn sandwich.

However, bearing that in mind, I shall tempt fate and leave the packet unopened today. It's very windy here and I think a handful of seed would be blown quickly to the 4 corners of the kingdom of Trelystan. The forecast is poor for the weekend - but it is only the end of March after all.

And today is Good Friday - the saddest day in the Christian Calendar. I'll go along with that - although you'd have to search hard to find a holy bone in my body. Some years ago it was hard to find a shop open, shutters were down and doors firmly closed. It was most inconvenient, decidedly gloomy but quite appropriate. Members of the local Churches would process with solemnity along our main street - a faintly self-conscious pilgrimage - the sturdiest of their number had the job of toting a large and rugged cross. A stream of traffic backed up irritably at the rear.

A similar pilgrimage takes place here, over the course of the day, between the churches of a number of local parishes. It's quite a long and taxing walk, taking in some hilly terrain and today, I think, some inhospitable weather. It seems a good and purposeful thing to do. While I might not choose the prayers and services, the chance for quiet and contemplation would be welcome. A chance to 'go placidly amid the noise and haste'. (Although that always did remind me of something plodding, submissive and bovine.)

Otherwise things are much the same are they not? Sunday hours, a holiday weekend, TV specials and another retail opportunity.

I think what I am trying to say is this: whether one believes or not there is no denying that the barbarous events on a Jerusalem hillside 2 millennia ago have had a significant effect on culture and society in the western world. That must be worth thinking about. Quietly. Surely we can all manage without a visit to B & Q for 24 hours?

Sunday, March 16, 2008

7 things about Me...

Cometh the hour - cometh the tag....thanks to cowgirl. Here are the rules: Link to your tagger and post these rules on your blog:

Share 7 facts about yourself on your blog, some random, some weird.
Tag 7 people at the end of your post by leaving their names as well as links to their blogs.

Hmm. Have I done this before or not. Scratch head. Anyway - harmless fun - off I go to the weird and wonderful 'Facts About Me Department.'

Fact 1:The badge on the right of this picture is the badge from the straw boater worn by the uniformed and smirking dumpling of a schoolgirl in the photograph. The girl is me - on one of my estimated 2,590 stops in Leamington Bus Station between 1963 and 1970. My journey to school took 45 minutes in each direction - so 1½ hours per day, which is - believe it or not - nearly 81 days worth of travel. Time enough to go round the world with Jules Verne. But no, I only went as far as Kings High School, Warwick and back a lot of times. I received a good education but remember it with very mixed feelings.

Fact 2
I would like in indulge in time travel. I'm not greedy - half and hour in a place of my choice (probably in the past) would be fascinating. Think about it, half an hour is probably about right. Enough to leave you wanting more but sufficient when you consider early medicine and earth closets and remember those moments when one's children were little savages.

Fact 3:

What's there not to like about a silly hat and a brown cow? (Had 'cute' had been invented in 1954 or was I ahead of my time?)

I had a great childhood.

As children we had the run of 600 acres of farmland as our playground - elf 'n' safety hadn't been invented so we could indulge in all sorts of ventures and adventures. I know what happens if you put a banger in a biscuit tin, fall out of a tree or try smoking dock leaves in a piece of the Stratford Herald. I know that it was possible to cycle the 9 miles home from Leamington virtually no-handed.......

Fact 4
The best thing I ever learned to do was to read. I cannot imagine a world without words and books.

Fact 5
I am convinced that the pictures are better on the radio. Give me Radio 4, the Afternoon Play, a room to decorate and I am a happy bunny.

Fact 6
Favourite food: cold chinese takeaway eaten at the door of the refrigerator in the wee small hours. No calories you see, if eaten standing up. And if you believe that you'll believe anything! Check the link for other helpful dietary tips.
Runner-up in the food category - toast.

Fact 7
I believe - as the badge on my best gardening hat says - that 'Nothing is Ordinary'. Nothing is, is it? It's a truly remarkable world with surprises around every corner. Hoorah for that.

At this point I'm supposed to 'tag' 7 more bloggers but can't believe there is anyone left on the planet who has not yet disclosed 7 random facts about themselves. If you've not already taken part in this infectious meme, please don't wait to be asked. Start scribbling now.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

The Rev. Waldegrave Brewster's Carvings

Built in 1842 - its architect unknown to me as yet - this country church, probably no different from countless others, has little to distinguish it. Grey stone, green glass and an open door.

The open door, in these suspicious and thieving times is unusual - but most welcome. I knew, having studied the Commonplace Book, that a visit to Holy Trinity Church, Middleton would not be far behind. Today we stepped out of a storm-tossed blustery landscape into an equally chill interior. White peeling paint, two lines of pews, an altar stripped of all but a simple cloth. Cold to the heart of stone. One would have to love one's God, one's Church, one's fellow man, to worship here. But maybe faith should be above such worldly comforts as warmth.

I digress. This church does though have some unique features - some carvings - which do make it stand out amongst other similar buildings. It is these I have come to see - the work of the man who was vicar of this parish between 1876 and 1901. My hunch that he's somewhat eccentric is about to be confirmed.

Our man - the Reverend W. Brewster - carved pew, pillar and corbel with the stuff of magic and legend. The story of the Fairy Cow, who provided milk in time of local famine until milked dry by a malicious witch, is carved in soft red sandstone on one side of the church.

On the other side, signs of the zodiac run around the top of a pillar.

The Reverend Brewster's chisels were never still.
He set to and carved pew ends:
What was his source of inspiration? His congregation maybe? The farmers and mining folk he saw on parochial visits perhaps? The keen eyed will spot, amongst various grotesques, a Negro slave, a native American and a bow-tied hound. The saints and religious scenes a Victorian vicar might have been expected to portray are nowhere to be found.

Finally, we make a furtive visit to the old rectory garden where brambles and lethally thorned old roses snatch at our clothes. (OK, we were trespassing but curiosity can be a rewarding thing.)
Here we find the remains of the Reverend Brewster's Orchard, now home to nettle and rabbit and pheasant. How sad is this wilderness? Hand me my machete. I may be some time.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Sheep and lambs - ahhh!

Shortly after dawn Heather 'loosed' a couple of ewes and their lambs onto our field. I heard the quad bike but didn't stir from my cosy bed.

Mid morning, Danny and Phil came along with a few more so now we have a little flock. The lambs are 'box-fresh' and crumpled. They seem to have too much skin for their bodies; it lies in wrinkly folds. This one, below, is a tiny scrap compared to his brother and at about 24 hours old has learned the wisdom of turning his back to the wind and weather. Hardly common sense, more innate behaviour I think.
I hope his mum will take him down into the dingle where there is a little shelter in the old hedge line. It's a bit inhospitable out there today - not much of a welcome to the world.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

The Rev.Waldegrave Brewster's Commonplace Book

With the temperature on the thermometer threatening to dip into minus figures and a bitter wind sweeping across the County making it seem lower still, the prospect of flicking through gauzy summer clothes held little appeal. The remnants of last season's wear - the sensible woolies and fleeces in the odd colours, styles and sizes that nobody wanted - were to be found tucked away in a corner and labelled 'Final Reductions! 30% Off! Sale Must End Soon!' Blow that for a game of soldiers too.

So having a couple of hours to spare before the train was due I took myself to the archives and whistled up a book - The Commonplace Book of Holy Trinity Church, Middleton in Chirbury. It's the Parish Log Book and mostly the work of the Rev. Waldegrave Brewster BA, Middleton's incumbent during the last quarter of the 19th century. His bold hand records, as I expected, the day to day accounts of the Parish, audits and events, visitations and parochial observations.

But hang on - here's a plan of his orchard; 2 sheets taped into the book. Apples and pears, plums and gages, a couple of walnut trees. I do not recognise the names for the most part - they're old varieties which have gone out of fashion perhaps. He has also plotted the mean monthly temperature and rainfall - 2 more sheets of figures to go alongside the expected offertory and attendance statistics.

The Rev. Brewster is clearly fascinated by the history of his parish - and it is a parish steeped in the stuff of myth and legend: Wild Edric, Mitchell's Fold, the Fairy Cow and half remembered tales of Holy Wells and mighty bulls from the deepest darkest past. He writes, draws, measures and notes snippets of information; dialect words, old peoples' tales as told to them by their fathers are faithfully recorded between Church teas and lists of choir members. I began to wonder if this interest was to take over the Vicar's life - obsessed him in a minor way perhaps. During his latter years in the Parish Brewster embellished his church with carvings of astrological figures and the story of the fairy cow. These I have not seen yet.

I was very tempted not to return this little book to the librarian. Its busy pages covered in the fading ink of Brewster's busy pen would keep me occupied for hours. However back in its box it went and back to rest deep in the archive.

I went home then out to the WI where they attempted to teach me to crochet. Give me strength.....Give me batty vicars any day rather than a keen woman armed with wool and needles.

Saturday, March 01, 2008

Dazed and confused?

It was a bit of a surprise this morning to look out of the window and see that one of the hen houses was not where I'd left it last night. A gust of wind had not only blown it over once, but several times. It was down the field, belly up.

On reflection I think the residents, Mrs Scraggy-neck and the two Wynadotte bantams, were even more surprised than me. They, after all, were the ones bowled over in the night's terrifying windy darkness. I imagine them swept off their perch and floating in mid-air like birds in a space rocket, surrounded by hen-house detritus; a nest box, a grit hopper, clouds of shavings and wisps of hay - all suddenly and unexpectedly weightless. They emerged a bit wide-eyed and clucky but were soon mollified with a handful of corn.

So all's well that ends well. The hen house is now reinstated and I have ensured tonight's stability with a sturdy oak beam used flying buttress fashion. It's always good to see an architectural principle in practice isn't it?