Sunday, November 30, 2008

Sartorially shite

I hoike up my jeans to half-mast - rolling them neatly to reveal pale winter-hairy legs, blue socks and Birkenstocks and pull on my wellies. I zip up a quilted body warmer and pull a fleeced hoody* on over the top. Gloves. Mustn't forget the gloves. (Knitted, plastic-palmed, gardening - for the use of.) Somewhere beneath all this my vest is well tucked in. My best-ever gardening hat (with it's 'nothing is ordinary' badge firmly afixed) is yanked firmly down over my ears, add a slick of lip-salve and I'm dressed and ready for action. We'll ignore the whiff of je ne sais quois - the miasma of compost, poultry and wood smoke which walks alongside me. Is there a hint of Worzel Gummidge in my appearance? Perhaps. Thank goodness it's dark you might think.

Sadly this passes for day wear too.....I hear fashion correspondents the world over weep as their advice re accessories and shoeboots, silk, cashmere and must-have hand-wrought tweed apparently falls on deaf ears. But now I am going to walk a dog. In the dark.

Out on the frosty lane and under the stars - it is one fantastic night. Wilson, the most handsome bull terrier in the small mountain kingdom of Trelystan, leads the way up the lane - his nose picking up bright night smells. What information is there to be read on the breeze, in a stone or blade of grass?

...Let's turn off the torch for a while and let the stars do the lighting - how I wish I knew their names. The Milky Way is, tonight, a creamy swoosh across the sky. I wonder, as I always do, what other lives and loves are out there in that vastness. At the top of the lane and across the valley we see the scattered and earthly lights of Montgomery and to the east Minsterley and Snailbeach. We stop, lean on a gate to take in the night. We see no one and (I think) no one sees us. (Considering my costume this may be a Good Thing.)

Our own house lights glow warmly beneath us. We strode up the hill with confidence, our feet crunching on the icy gravel, but make our way down again with caution; two days of frost have left a surface like glass. My multi-layered look has kept me warm - and I'm reassured that should I fall I will be well padded too. Wilson tows me home; he goes to his stinky dog bed and I come here to tell you the news as it happens: freezin' keen, ice underfoot, clear starry sky and the prospect of sunny intervals tomorrow.

Meanwhile some fog and frost pictures from this weekend:
This little patch of the Long Mountain was like the promised land on Saturday - bathed in sunshine - while fog hangs in the valley below.
The frosted landscape this morning as seen from our field.

Boxing hares in Saturday's fog.

and erm...frosty things**:

*Said fleece first saw light of day in the early nineties when it was bought as a bit of edgy street wear for one son or another - in retrospect what a good buy it has been. An early hoodie - now Vintage - it's a real bit of wash and go.

** ...not sure about the 'snowflakes'...

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

My best-ever present...

Psst! Don't let on. Don't breathe a word...Somewhere in the vastness of the United States Pam's small son Jack has asked Father Christmas (or maybe there he's called Santa Claus) to bring him a bike. Now I know - and blog world knows - that Pam has, on behalf of F. Christmas found the bike of his dreams and that on Christmas morning one small boy will be very happy indeed. We'll keep it a surprise.

What, asked Pam as an afterthought, were her readers' favourite presents?

It didn't take much head scratching to remember a Christmas in the mid sixties when, along with the painting by numbers set and the 'sensible dressing gown from hell' I unwrapped the neatest little transistor radio - the iPod of its day. This picture - found on some radio geek's site - does not do it justice - it was immeasurably more gorgeous. It sat in all its hard plastic glory in a tan leather case. It had a strap - I think aspiring hipsters were meant to sling it over their shoulder for music on the go - which I discarded immediately as 'not cool' - although I'm not sure if 'cool' had reached south Warwickshire as early as 1960 something....

It was a license to listen and listen I did; indoors and outdoors, under the covers, in the bath or on interminable car journeys where, with it clutched to my ear, I would hope for a signal. It saw me through school and university, first home and at least 1 child. I discovered drama and comedy and to distrust anything labeled 'light entertainment.' The batteries - big chunky jobs - lasted forever. No complicated knobs, buttons and dials - I seem to remember one for volume and one for tuning; the Home Service and The Light Programme. How primitive it all seems now.

Being so far inland, pirate stations London and Caroline were but whispers in my ear - but lying in bed on a school night with my radio alongside me on the pillow I would strain to listen to John Peel's idiosyncratic 'Perfumed Garden Show' a pot pourri of blues, folk, rock and West Coast wackiness. Radio Luxembourg with its crackles and whistles was never quite as enticing. And Radio 1, the hip answer to the Light Programme? I suppose it had its moments.

I can't remember when we parted company. I wonder if something more sophisticated* came on the market. It's more likely that old age and one accident too many involving bath water meant an untimely end. RIP little radio. Gone but not forgotten.

* I've just remembered. Indeed it did - in the form of a 'Brixton Briefcase' - a 'ghetto blaster'; an amalgam of cassette decks, loudspeakers, controls, aerials, bells and whistles. What a waste of space that was.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Pimp that Trug...

My glamorous assistant has been busy in his shed making these trugs. They are made of English Oak, have bent beech handles, copper rivets and copper rose-head nails. I want to keep all of them; one for the garden, one for kindling, one for odds and ends, one for my embroidery....etc, etc, but they are destined for the Craft Fair to be held in Marton tomorrow. All made in the small mountain kingdom of Trelystan - there's a usp.

I wonder if they will sell - not sure if Marton is a 'truggish' sort of place or whether its inhabitants can be persuaded to buy at what might be described as rather un-Marton prices. Perhaps I will have one for every occasion after all.

Not wishing to put all his energies into one basket, so to speak, there is also a small sideline in decorative bird houses:
We have Chalet-style, New England Ecclesiastical and the Neo-Classical. A bargain at a tenner apiece.

I have fruit jellies; crab apple, quince, red, black and white currant and blackberry. £2.00 a pop. Does that sound about right?

Anyway, if you're passing - the village hall doors open at 10.00am. Do call in.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Now what?

There's now a big Latin shaped hole in my week - the 8 week course delving into the mysteries of medieval Latin finished yesterday. No more homework; no nouns to decline or verbs to conjugate today and the photocopied sheets we have pored over and tried to read remain in the folder. The crabbed handwriting of the clerk will remain undeciphered....

No, no, no. I am curious enough to continue - and nosey enough too. Court Rolls, Parish Registers, Deeds, Charters and Wills afford a look into lives far removed from our own. Go beyond the jargon - and I feel even the clerks grew tired of jargon with their shorthand of curls and squiggles - to find the minutiae of life. (Their shorthand incidently makes extra work for the transcriber - not only must medieval Latin be translated into English but the handwriting must be interpreted too. Master that only to find that writers used a series of abbreviations in place of parts of words.....) Drill down to catch a glimpse of the lives of the common man. It's all there: 'litle calffes', Ewe shippes', 'Brasse potts' and 'Brandardes'. (Bequests of 'peticoats' and gowns too - who wants to wear dead mens' shoes these days?)

Life in the small mountain kingdom of Trelystan is not much different in some ways even now - I feel the husband's spelling and that of the medieval clerk have much in common....the shippes on the hill nibble peacefully and we have litle calffes in the barne. The fire of Oke and Ashe which rises from our hearth, its pungent smoke wafted by a brisk north westerly wind tonight, would be familiar too.

So a sort of aimless day here; planted a tulip bulb or two, swept some floors.....photographed a sunset. Went to bed.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

In which we are asked to keep our eyes open....

Towards the end of the afternoon yesterday there was a rap on the door. Heather stood outside.

'No,' she said. She wouldn't come in right now: 'Dirty boots see.'

She'd come down to see to the cattle in the shed; there are some cows and calves and a wheezing bull - which may or may not be impotent - in there for the winter. Over the next few months they'll munch their way through the bales of hay which are stacked in an adjacent barn - feed which is supplemented by an eagerly awaited daily ration of nuts.

'Could you keep your eyes and ears open' she asked, nodding towards the barn ominously - 'and if you were to smell smoke.....loose out the cattle straight away. Straight away - just let 'em go.'

She made an expansive gesture. 'Just loose 'em all out, it doesn't matter where.' Her arm indicated that anywhere in Powys would be better than a blazing barn.

Our farmers are worried; a fourth farm blaze has got them rattled. The Fire Service cagily recommend vigilance and urge landowners to keep an eye on their property and to check the temperature of stored hay. Hay, if stored with the moisture levels too high, can spontaneously combust - this year a lot of grass was cut late and in less than ideal conditions. This is a plausible explanation. However, our neighbours suspect a more sinister cause: arson.

What a terrible and terrifying act, especially senseless and cruel when livestock is involved. We will, of course, 'loose 'em out' if the worst comes to the worst. I make a mental note to work out in advance how best to do this - bearing in mind that it will undoubtably be dark, raining and we would be dealing with frightened large animals.

Heather leaves to go up to Fir House to pass on her message there and we contemplate what an uphill struggle farming must be at times; the battle with the elements, the escalating costs of feed and fuel, the low prices at market, the endless bureaucracy...the devastation that was Foot and Mouth and the threat of Blue Tongue which is omnipresent. The list is a long one. They cope.

.....then out of the blue comes a fool with a box of matches.

Monday, November 10, 2008

The Laundry God

This is the other piece I submitted in the writing competition:

The Laundry God

In my utility room - just over there by the sink and held in the tiny gap twixt broom cupboard and wall - is a small black and white photograph. It is of my father.The picture was taken some time ago in the early 1980s and marks his retirement. It’s an informal shot; after a lifetime’s teaching he’s casually dressed, perhaps in anticipation of leisurely days ahead. The local newspaper printed it alongside some words about years of loyal service, the love of a good woman and happy families – the usual platitudes. We didn’t really need to read it. We knew our Dad.

He was to enjoy a good few years of retirement; widowed he seemed to discover a new sense of freedom and independence. He saw his grandchildren grow up and became a dear friend as well as a parent to us, his own children, too.

He died. We mourned. It was on one of the house-clearing sorties in the dark days that followed that I found the picture amongst a lifetime’s ephemera and stuffed it for safe-keeping into the back pocket of my jeans. It emerged only slightly crumpled and narrowly missed a cycle in the washing machine. I smoothed out a crease or two and wedged it out of harm’s way behind the pipes of our basement laundry and got on with life. My guilt at putting my recently deceased father’s photograph behind a cold water pipe gradually diminished as he, overlooking the daily laundry attained the status of Household God.

We moved on about 5 years ago. I packed up methodically – the very model of organisation. Room by room, like with like; into the box of washing powders, soap and Stain Devils went my father. He emerged 100 miles down the road, slightly more care worn but so sweetly scented. In the flurry of unpacking I found him a new niche and tucked him up where he is to be found today.

He smiles down at me from here, his kind face as creased and lined as the paper it is printed on. He is my Laundry God. ‘O spare me from shrinkage and fugitive colours’ I beseech as I sort whites from coloureds or indulge in the rare ceremony of hand-washing.

Perhaps he deserves a more venerated home than the laundry. I remind myself that ‘cleanliness is next to Godliness’. He would see the joke.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Something to read on a rainy day

It would be easy to blether on about the weather...rain blah blah, more rain, blah, blah, blah. Oh yes - my hens would be better off with webbed feet. It really is that bad, and we are on the top of a mountain blah blah...

Instead I offer up my entry in the 'WI Life' magazine 'Write a Column Competition', which apparently put me in the shortlist (of 150 entries). On Friday I learned that I will not be that columnist. In truth it's a relief not to win. This is not a club I want to belong to.

The topic was: What is the greatest challenge facing the Women's Institute today? 400 words - this is what I wrote:
A Question of Age

The Ladies of Marton WI are once again discussing the increase in Subs. They need little provocation - the slightest hint of things financial and they’re off; complaints and observations rise to a shrill and muddled crescendo. To my left I hear, like distant thunder, a rumble of discontent about ‘That Magazine.’ To my right Lil, oblivious to war of words around her, is trying to interest Margaret in the current state of her bandaged leg.

I’m sitting at a table at the front of the room next to El Presidente who attempts to maintain a modicum of order. I’m endeavouring to keep track of this multi-level discussion in order that it can be recorded for posterity in the Record Book. We are going over familiar ground; I suspect that if I switch off now and tune in again later I won’t have missed much. A bit like following the Archers really.

I find myself idly counting heads. We are a small group of only 16 members.

11 of those heads are grey; another 3 have taken steps to appear otherwise. The hair atop our 2 newest members is the glossy auburn of comparative youth. A quick sum in the margin of the agenda shows the combined ages of our ladies is in excess of 1,000 years. Crikey! Another reveals our average age to be 68. I foresee problems ahead when the inevitable happens and age and infirmity take their toll.

This problem is not ours alone – I’ve attended County meetings with a similar demographic. I reflect we may be part of an outward-looking organisation for modern women but we fail to attract the younger ones. At this rate the survival of the organisation is threatened. What sort of future do we have without new blood?

It’s about image versus reality – the public perception of the WI remains that of ‘Jam and Jerusalem’ regardless of how many ‘sexy’ press releases leave the offices of the National Federation. How do we persuade young women that the WI has opportunities for them but needs their involvement to inject the vibrancy they perceive it lacks at present?

I am saved from finding a solution by a jab in the ribs from El Presidente. Shortly we will learn to crochet and be refreshed with a cup of tea and a biscuit. Time to go and set the world on fire?
The other piece - again 400 words - was to be on a subject we cared deeply about. I wrote about my father's unique role as the 'Laundry God'. I'll save that for another rainy day.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Fog. All alone in the world.

Perhaps it was foolish of me to take the road that snakes across the top of the Long Mountain when there is a sensible alternative, but I do like to think that even at 10.00 o'clock at night the spirit of adventure lives on.

In the 5 years we've lived here this 8 mile stretch has wormed its way into my affections and, given the choice, that's the road I'll take for journeys to or from Shrewsbury. Like all love affairs it's irrational - common sense would take me along the valley bottom on a road which is fast and efficient but also carries more traffic. Up here on the spine of the mountain is solitude. It's unusual to meet more than a couple of vehicles along its length - 5 or 6 constitutes 'very busy'. I can dawdle along undisturbed taking in the verges, the hedgerows and the changing scenery and seasons. Wales falls away to the west and Shropshire's Blue Remembered Hills are to the east. I find, even in the wildest weather, a sense of stillness here atop the world. There's room to contemplate and collect one's thoughts and drift off into a state of blissful relaxation. Wait! Watch out! This is a road for heaven's sake and it definitely pays to stay alert.

As I climb up out of the village of Westbury, on to Vennington and through Vron Gate (where the old pub The Seven Stars is being reburbished) there is a hint of mist in the air; mist which thickens as the car climbs up the narrow road. The radio prattles amicably in the background, I am cocooned and warm. All is fine and dandy. As I drive past Dot and Dave's (I'm looking forward to their Christmas Lights again) and then past Mountain Farm I realise that my field of vision has become very limited indeed - the light from my headlights glares as it bounces back at me. The beams seem solid - carved out of light, almost as if some child had drawn them. Dipping them seems to help. Up at Nant-y-myssels the mist is thick fog, swirling grey flannel blankets of it. I am driving - and will drive for the next 5 miles or so - relying on the edge of the road to be my guide.I creep along, hunched over the wheel now, my eyes searching for the road under the lights' glare. Every so often a field gate or farm lane interupts the edge of the road and I have lost my guiding line. I could be anywhere, moving in shapeless, undefined space. As a driver, moving and not knowing where is a disturbing experience. My concentration is absolute. I am dis-orientated, though realise that I know more or less where I am from the shapes of the road sides and verges which I can see. This is some comfort.

Up on Heldre Hill - where the common land is - and a bleak old windswept place at the best of times - I'm going so slowly I stop. Curiousity gets the better of me. What's it like out there?

I roll the window down the better to look and listen, letting the cold wet air creep into the car and over my face. Without the engine it is an eery world indeed, not a sound to be heard, only muffled silence, oddly still. It is a night for imagining the ghostly shapes of the long forgotten peoples who once laid their kinfolk to rest on this hill. A sacred place for them; their tumuli are over to my right. It's a night when one might hear the tramp of a Legionnaire's boot as he marched from Forden Gaer to Wroxeter, cursing the deplorable weather and food of this benighted island and longing for the sighing pines and thyme scented hills of Rome.

What else might be in the shadows? It's better not to whisper 'Is there anybody there?' too loudly lest I conjure up some lonely wraith.... We won't go there.

I am utterly alone in a little fuzzy world of grey, surrounded by walls of fog. No light. No sound bar the thump of what must be my heart pumping. Nothing.

With a shiver and a flick of the key we're motoring again - slowly, as before. Gradually as the road drops down the hill I leave the fog behind and see the twinkle of house-lights in the distance. Back into the real world again it seems.

Edited 07.11.2008
My photos are not of course taken at night. Wanting to capture some of landscape's atmosphere, I nipped back in daylight with the camera.

Monday, November 03, 2008

'Clever with Clothes'

How could I resist this slim little book with its orange dust jacket? It draws me like a beacon when I find it amongst a ruck of others - the usual dusty fare of the second-hand stall. I'm attracted by the slim and elegant figure sketched on its front; she's pert of breast and trim-waisted, the epitome of poise and chic. This capable gal taps her foot and menacingly points her scissors at the matronly gown on her dressmaker's dummy. This capable gal means business. What lies within 'Clever with Clothes' I wonder. For £1.00 I can find out.

I do not have to look far; the first - and only - colour plate encourages me to make blouses and aprons out of mens' shirts. This is 'a book of renovation ideas.' Aha! It might come in handy in these recessionary times.

I get the picture - it was published in 1946. Hostilities had ended and the country was no longer at war. However, Peace had not yet bestowed the blessings of plenty and Britain still did not flow with milk and honey. The nation must continue to make do and mend. Our plucky women must continue to use their skills and ingenuity to feed and cloth their families. Knitted garments were carefully unravelled to be knitted up again, coats become jackets, stockings were re-footed. Why not make a cardigan and a skirt from a man's suit? Why not make crocheted covers for the linoleum soles of your new (home-made) slippers - or you might use plaited string?
'Slipper making is a very worth-while form of sewing, for you can make these necessary items almost without cost for every member of the family. It is quick too; you can make a slipper in an evening, perhaps even the pair, and you can do the work pleasantly in an armchair, or pick it up at any odd moment.'
Yes, that's as maybe. Underwear and nightgowns apparently are a problem, wearing out as they do. Well, mend them. Unpick and resew the worn seams. Combine the good fabric from two garments to make one new one. 'Build' yourself a brassiere - a veritable over-the-shoulder-boulder-holder - click the image for details. Renew your knickers; let in extra strips of fabric if necessary - shorten your worn out woven directoire knickers into panties to wear under cami-knickers.... I am losing the plot here - pants under pants?Nothing is wasted; not a scrap. It might 'come in' - and it might need to 'come in' until clothing rationing ends in 1949. Until then the likes of 'Clever with Clothes' will firmly and cheerfully guide the sewing kits of the nation.

I think about L P Hartley's now almost proverbial quotation: 'The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there'. This, our recent past, is within the living memory of a sizeable proportion of the population but so removed are we today in terms of life style and culture we may as well be considering Medieval or Tudor times. We are strangers to frugality, strangers to making do and mending. We want stuff and we want it now. But how much do we actually need?

I flick through the pages of my little book again. Nope, I'm not inspired to remake old clothes otherwise destined for the charity shop or for gardening in - and I do think the place for old underwear is in the bin - but I'm filled with admiration for the women who set to with needle and thread and did just that. In fact any woman who can achieve the covetable embonpoint of the clever seamstress on the cover with the sole aid of a home made bra deserves the highest award.

Sunday, November 02, 2008


What's there not to like about this fantastic addition to my poultry empire? I'm so chuffed with it I might even move in there myself. I think Ikea are well versed in the art of fitting out small spaces....

It has everything the pampered bird might crave; perches, popholes, ventilation, doors and 4 pretty red wheels. A panel lifts off at the back for ease of cleaning. Provision has been made for a nest box but in the first instance we hope to raise a few birds for the table so that is blanked off at present.

Above, my glamorous assistant demonstrates how to open the door. He also designed and built it. I'm very proud of him. I'm not sure how easy it would be to persuade him to built another one though. For light relief he has moved on to the next project - carving a 'decoy' lapwing. (If you are all very good I shall photograph the finished product.)

PS: I forgot to mention the towing hook - firmly attached so we can haul it behind the pick-up into position on the field. Come to think of it, in these credit-crunched times my new hen house could double up as a touring caravan. Or perhaps not.