A Walk Around Tring, 6 February

Just before 10, Richard and I left our cars at Bulbourne (top right, about 1 o’clock; our path in green) in the car park of College Lake Wildlife Trust and stepped north-east onto the Grand Union Canal.

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At about 4° with a cloudless sky, it was perfect walking weather, at least for us. The plan was, vaguely, to get as far as Drayton Beauchamp and return, perhaps eight miles in all, and Richard, getting over a bout of bad flu, asked me, the map-keeper, for an easy walk. That was my intention as well.

We turned off the Grand Union at Marsworth reservoir, through Little Tring and onto a disused stretch of the Wendover Arm. Here, we stopped to look down at several high-vis-jacketed workers bricking up bits of the drained canal. When we got as far as Drayton Bridge we stopped for a cuppa and to agree on how we were to return to base. The map showed that we were on the brink of circumnavigating the ancient settlement of Tring (pop. c.12,000), something we had failed to do last year on account of inadequate map-reading. A short discussion ended in agreement that we should get on with the latter, despite Richard’s earlier wish for a shorter walk. I was at pains to check and double-check his unequivocal agreement

We had to get through the horrors of a huge housing development just after Beeches Farm and over the B468. Though the noise, ground-scarring from earth-movers and general mayhem we were able to cross the Roman Road of Akeman Street which once linked Watling Street with the Fosse Way. Under the A41 took us to the beginning of a steady climb past West Leith Farm, trudging up to the high point of about 800 ft. When we got to Hastoe, we were on familiar ground and celebrated our success by having lunch at Hastoe village hall, our backs to the wall sitting on gravel in the sun. Oh, what difficulty we had standing up afterwards!

Although decently refuelled, we spurned more heights on the nearby Icknield Way and took a more level path past Wick Farm into Wigginton, crossed Hemp Lane and into The Twist. Off to the right, we took The Ridgway that afforded glorious views to Aldbury,

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back north-east over the A41 and Akeman Street to descend through Chestnut Wood onto the Grand Union, near Tring Station. Here, we picked up the towpath north-east, getting into Bulbourne at a quarter past two, chuffed to see on my walking app that we had packed in 11 miles, without the slightest hint of keeling over.

Of what does one talk about on such a walk? Well, I can report the gratifying near-absence of Brexit-natter, both of us, like many citizens, exhausted by two and half years of it all. Although staunch Remainers – of different political hues, him being decidedly blue against my oscillating pink to red – we shared a quick Bollocks to Brexit, lamented the consequential state of our democracy and left it at that.

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Llanfairfechan Exchange October 2019

Tuesday 8 October
Two-hundred miles of road journey to North Wales were uneventful, but beautiful once we had got to the Welsh valleys on the A5/A470. Another pleasure was not having to spend much time on the wretched M6. Perched 300 feet above the village, the exchange house was built in the mid-19th century, now nicely developed into a three-bedroom, modern residence. It’s not new to us as we had visited it briefly en route to the Ireland exchange in August. We settled in, then I walked a little towards the village, quite a walk back up those three hundred feet. Llanfairfechan, Welsh for ‘Little St Mary’s parish’, has sat on the North Wales coast at least since Roman times in 2nd century AD, and has a population of 3,600 of whom 66% speak Welsh. It’s twinned with Pleumeleuc, Brittany.

Wednesday 9 October
Squashy, body-moulding mattresses are not to my liking but I seem to have had a half-decent kip. On the menu today was ‘Looking at the local area’ and this we did on Llanfairfechan’s wind-blown seafront; at a seafood stall against the wall of Conwy Castle; and topped off with a mindless journey in Llandudno, actually getting lost looking for Asda, even after asking pedestrians way. Back for a slap-up lunch, after which I spent 90 minutes up and down mountainsides that reminded me that five miles on the flats of Bedfordshire is worth two miles of those closely woven, wavy brown lines on an Explorer map. Left up the lane, left at the first footpath then a circular around Lls-y-gwynt Covert, picking blackberries on a puff-draining way back. A heart-stopping text from the exchange people: Verity’s cat-flap does not let her in, moving them to invoke Sod’s Law of Exchanges: things go wrong that have never gone wrong before.

Thursday 10 October
After a rain-pelting night, we set out for Beaumaris, a pretty village on Anglesey. And the morning turned out, after a sunny start, to be just as wet as the day before, heavy showers throughout our visit. The primary activity was the castle, started by Edward I in 1195, but not properly finished because his financial attention was turned to invading Scotland instead of Wales, and he couldn’t afford to do both. Boasting 16 toilets or ‘latrines’ as the notices call them, the castle overlooks the Menai Strait and is one of the stoutest that I have seen, including its own receiving dock in order to offload goods direct from seagoing craft. After Suzanne had her resting coffee and I had wandered the streets, we looked at the parish church, where I was amazed to see a marble wall-slab commemorating, in Welsh and English, an ‘Obscure Man’, not one of the posh or titled folk whose names normally get slapped up for all to touch forelocks. But there was one in memory of Sophie Wellesley, a great-niece of the Duke of Wellington, so that more than balanced the one for the peasant. Back for (my) lunch of homemade soup, slice of bread, tangerine and coffee; Suzanne had no lunch, owing to her earlier cake and coffee. As I type, she is doing her French devoir. A walk across the golf course down into Llanfairfechan this afternoon was instructive; not a great deal going on in the village, with boarded-up shopfronts and a Co-op supermarket but there was a Guardian left in a newsagent, so we got the latest on the insanity of Brexit. Best bit was the cemetery, with a Commonwealth War Graves sign on the gate, and two Portland stone headstones within: one for a 24-year-old killed in 1941, buried in the same grave as his parents who died some 40 years later; the other for a young man killed in 1918 a few weeks before the Armistice. Weather warmed up by a degree old two and I puffed back up the incline.

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Beaumaris Castle

Friday 11 October
Lazy morning, late breakfast (Conwy-bought Manx kipper for me) since the rain tipped down until gone 11. On the menu was Bangor, for supermarket shopping and plugging in the Prius, followed by Caernarfon. Talk about chalk and cheese, Bangor is a run-down town with more boarded-up shopfronts, unkempt houses, sad-looking people on the streets; a lot of immigration; drunks on the streets at midday. But we got away about 1 into the white middle-class Caernarfon. When I climbed too high up one of the castle’s towers, I felt rather panicky with the old vertigo and got lower, quickly. But the best bit of the castle was the Royal Welch Fusiliers military museum, with really smashing exhibits and text panels, all within the castle walls. When I asked an attendant a question about the Welch Regiment compared with the RWF, I got a handy chat that revealed a little about my old friend, Alan Edwards, in that the south of Wales had the WR and the north the RWF, but they are now amalgamated, the WR with its own museum in Brecon. So there. Lunch of half a toasted cheese sandwich (white bread, ugh) each, coffee and I unsuccessfully tempted by the huge piece of fruit cake. Oh yes, and this morning’s kipper was gorgeous; it was even cooked for me, compared with home when I have to fumigate the kitchen after my preparing and cooking.

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Conwy

Saturday 12 October
A quiet but not really a rest day. At 8 this morning, I walked into the village for the paper. Later we journeyed to Bethesda, where I last visited some Mum and Dad 30 years ago. First of all, we decided to take the short route, which turned out to be miles of slow driving, fingers crossed into heart-stopping blind corners in the narrow lanes. At one point we had to follow an escaped sheep; I stopped and herded (can you herd one sheep?) the poor thing into someone’s driveway, allowing us our own getaway to the village of Bethesda, now much gentrified and full of cars, the unwelcome changes when you go back to somewhere heavy with memories. Despite help from the Post Office people, although we found the street, we could not with much certainty find the house, the best guess being one that had had its façade stripped. All to no avail, so we returned to Llanfairfechan to the second bit of Saturday excitement, taking Suzanne on a nature trail by another narrow road to the Three Streams. Here I got her down several steps to the fast-flowing stream and we took photos. I thought she did very well, considering how scared she can get when underfoot is poor. And it was. Now we wait until the evening when I take her to Mass. (Reflecting: now halfway through a lovely, unhurried exchange, with North Wales revealing itself slowly. A great home to come back to. Refused an emailed offer of exchange from Germans in Hesse, as we are determined not to make another one in school holidays.) On the beach, where I frittered away an hour before picking up Suzanne, I was able to walk a considerable distance over the flats and in the gathering dark it reminded me of child,hood walking alone on a beach, picking my way through stones, looking vainly for marine life caught in rock pools; loving the solitude. I wound my way back up through the village to the church, hanging about in the vestibule which I shared with a young mum and her fretting and mewling babe-in-arms. When the priest came out to prepare to glad-hand his departing congregation, he shook even my hand and muttered something pleasant but incoherent. He was Nigerian, and Suzanne said that his English was not all that good.

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Llanfairfechan Flats

Sunday 13 October
Rain. Again. It’s almost 2. Still, bacon and mushrooms for breakfast was all right. Best excitement so far today has been the putting out of the rubbish: a special council trolley of four levels of boxes has to be trundled down the twelve steps to the lane. Got started on my latest Mick Herron ‘Slow Horses’ novel but put it down after twenty pages and stared into space, not because the book was unattractive but because there is something to be enjoyed in doing absolutely nothing constructive. Still raining. But it stopped about 4 when I walked back up towards the Three Streams, but this time I found a woodland track on the south side that took me steeply up beside the torrents and cascades. Just before that I witnessed two dog-walkers sitting on the back of the laneside bench, their filthy boots on the seat. Back in time for martinis, which Suzanne had pre-mixed at home ready for this marvellous Sunday habit.

Monday 14 October
To Portmerion, of The Prisoner Fame, some 40 miles away through stunning mountain scenery. Quite a performance ensued there, trying to find the charging point for the Prius, eventually with the kind and courteous help of no fewer than four employees in separate locations: the ticket issuer; a man sweeping out the information office; a young woman from accounts; a van driver. Lunch was a gigantic brown-bread ham sandwich and tomato soup.

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The Whimsy of Portmerion 

Tuesday 15 October
A fair day dawns but still dark, several illuminated big ships out at sea, while closer in twinkle the lights of Llanfairfechan. The tide is in so that you cannot see the large sandbank in the middle of the strait, normally looking like a long, sleepy, half-submerged whale. Just over the lane is the golf course, across which is the handy shortcut to the village. I have seen few players so far, and I remember young days in Scotland where the links abutted the beginning of the Highland wilds of bracken, heather and exposed, mossy stone. Today we are in Llanberis and Suzanne has gone up Snowdon in the only rack-and-pinion train in Britain. A wonderful feeling, to put on your walking boots, set off late morning and have little notion of where you are going. Leaving the severely overpriced car park (£8) I approached the main drag of the village, but on seeing a big, brooding church I turned up its lane, merely to sit in a back pew and check the map. Well, it was steep and I climbed for half an hour. And up and up I went, over marshy fields with Snowdon a distant presence. Further down I was stumped with the map and backtracked over a field of sheep, one of whom with curly horns looked balefully at me, and I hurried just a little to the stile. Back in the village I was looking forward to my lunch of half of yesterday’s ham sandwich, tap-water, an apple and best of all, the Guardian. But although I sat on a bench in the sunlit churchyard with my eatable goodies, of my paper there was no sign. Ok, it’s sure to be in the car. On the way, I noted that the further you got from the little station and its huge rip-off car park, the cheaper it got; from the eight quid I paid, I could have halved it to four for the sake of a few hundred yards. Back in the car, I scrabbled about in. a furiously but futile search for the paper – Suzanne must have taken it with her up that mountain. Anyway, the short story, dear reader, is that I had forgotten that we had not bought a paper that morning.

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Slate Mines at Llanberis

 

Wednesday 16 October
The last full day of an exchange, with cleaning up and rubbish to take care of is often a let-down and, on this occasion, a little mixed. Although we had a good plan to tour Anglesey using the Michelin Green Guide and the Rough Guide, after an interesting museum of Anglesey history the day threatened to fizzle out. We did, after false starts, manage to find a prehistoric tomb in the middle of a field of sheep but not possible for Suzanne who can’t walk on the sort of surfaces that sheep manage easily. Then we headed for National Park sand dunes on the west coast, where again we were frustrated by hostile walking surfaces. After refusing a £12 per head charge for a visit to a stately home where all we wanted was the garden walk, we returned to Llanfairfechan for ice cream and a stroll along the promenade. For once, no rain and no wind. 

Thursday 17 October
Return.

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The End

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

House-Exchange Ireland 4-14 August 2019

Day One Saturday. Ampthill–Llanfairfechan–Bangor

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A little while before leaving for the overnight stop before the Holyhead ferry on Sunday, we received a call from the hotel: ‘Sorry, we have overbooked you and you are offloaded onto the Travelodge’. The booking was made three months ago, expressly to have an evening in Bangor at the Bryn Mor hotel on the sea front, however, it turned out that it wasn’t such bad news after all. Although the Travelodge was all right for a one-night stopover, there with no food outlet, so we took advantage of the Bryn Mor’s guilty offer of a complimentary meal. If being sat alongside a coach tour of noisy drinkers from Liverpool wasn’t bad enough, the fish and chips was so awful that we both reckoned to be the worst meal we had eaten in a restaurant. Terrible. Back to the Travelodge, with dogs in the corridor and giants’ nocturnal stomping on the flimsily constructed ceilings. Earlier, we visited the October exchange-house in Llanfairfechan, a few miles east of Bangor, a house alarmingly but spectacularly built on the side of the beginning of the soaring Snowdonia National Park.

Day Two Sunday. Bangor–Holyhead–Dublin–Crecora/Manister

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Splashing out on Club Class proved to be correct, from the priority boarding to the booked seats facing the front and the complimentary finger food. Crossing at 10.40 took two hours and a quarter, with nary a wave-bump, and soon we were on the motorway to Limerick and the House-With-No-Address. I had managed to eke out the address from our fellow exchanger via the boat’s Wi-Fi and WhatsApp, but with no street number, no postcode and no house name, it was bit concerning. The seven-bedroom house sits in a very rural area south of Limerick, which is only 20-minutes’ drive but a world away.

Day Three Monday. Adare–Croom–Crecora

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Disused Church

First irritation of the day is that my iPhone external keyboard will not work, although it did when I tested it at home, two days earlier. Took a short drive for orientation to the ‘Prettiest village in Ireland’: Adare. Discovered that there is no safe walking from the house, but we did amble down a cul-de-sac lane to a disused church, but pretty boring, ten minutes out, ten minutes back. I wasn’t game to walk along narrow, winding roads along which vehicles speed at 50 mph. Also, there are no footpaths as in England; a major disappointment. Crap sleep.

Day Four Tuesday. Limerick

Castle St., Limerick
Castle Street from the Battlements

 

Limerick is slow-paced and pleasant, and that feeling was to extend and deepen as the days went by. We visited King John’s (the one forced to sign Magna Carta) Norman castle built in 1210 by him to help subdue the Irish. Also saw the stone believed to have been rested on in order to sign the Treaty of Limerick in 1691 which helped to secure the English throne for Protestant succession. Very enjoyable, and I also liked Thomond Bridge where a siege was set up by Irish rebels against the British, called the Limerick Soviet and lasting for 12 days in 1919. In the evening, the first of the arguments developed on how to play the DVD, thoughtfully placed by the house-owner on video through, yes, you’ve guessed it, WhatsApp

Day Five Wednesday. Adare
Got my pension from Oz as usual with three ticks on an app that moves any currency into any other. You have to trust thousands of pounds to something you cannot ‘see’ and people you will never meet, but it avoids the tiresome procedures that British banks wield against anyone moving their own money in and out of what should be publicly owned institutions. Lunch at Adare. Walked up and down the cul-de-sac again. Yawn.

Day Six Thursday. Cliffs of Moer–The Burren

The Burren
The Burren

 

 An early departure at 8.45 got us to the Cliffs of Moer in 90 minutes, where there were only seven coaches in the car park. The steep paths difficult for Suzanne. When I struck out on my own on the cliff path, there were just too many trippers to enjoy it as a nature visit, especially with people climbing over slate fences onto the dangerous margins of the cliff face. Stupid. After an hour there were thirteen coaches in the car park. After that, the best bit of the day was the excavated hillfort (there are 45,000 in Ireland) showing life in the country in pre-Christian time. In particular was an elderberry bush that had grown out of a break in the drystone wall; apparently it was left that way and the wall not repaired because elderberry had magical powers of saving you from bad things, or something like that. The Burren is quite spectacular, devoid of soil, vegetation, only heaps of stepped rock, at one time anyone’s for the taking as building material. At the Neolithic standing-stone called the Poulanbrone Tomb, we saw further Pagan evidence. There are stern warnings not to pick flowers because of the delicate environmental balance, but there you are, an American was ostentatiously and painstakingly taking posed pictures of his wife, while their son put wildflowers into her hand. Pagan enough?

Day Seven Friday. Ennis­–Bunratty–Quin 

Abbey Quin
Franciscan Friary, Quin

 As a consequence of another dreadful night’s sleep for me, owing to rain battering on the Velux, I have moved again, having now slept in three bedrooms. Ennis, county town of Co. Clare is further confirmation of the delicious, slow pace of Irish country life. At Bunrattty Castle, we eschewed the €17 a head entrance to the castle and ‘folk garden’, especially when we saw another coachload of odd fogeys piling in. At Quin, the Franciscan Friary remains were lovely, with swifts darting in out and around the tower. A victim of the 1520s Dissolution of the Monasteries by Henry VIII, it was quite lovely, with a little cloister allowing shafts of rain-interrupted light. I walked almost around the whole thing, inhaling a warmish day beside a brook with water-meadow approaches.

Day Eight Saturday. Limerick

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‘Now, where is that wire?’

Minor disaster, as the power to the electrical sockets had gone off in the night, and that spawned frantic calls to the house-exchangers in Ampthill but they would not answer and we had to ask a neighbour to go down and bang on their/our door. All fixed, eventually, by dint of the arrival of Pat, their electrician-neighbour who did the business but not before he alarmed us by balancing on the arms of a wooden chair to get at the fuse box. In the interim, we bypassed a visit to the RC cathedral [remember the Prod one, earlier on]? because of a funeral, and a dirty great one with hundreds of cars. While Suzanne sat in a Lebanese café, I walked to O’Connell Street, discovered the Apple reseller, O’Mahony’s bookshop and a neo-Romanesque Augustinian church built there in 1942, now in the middle of a shopping area. But the big find of the day was a charge point for the Prius, and free at that. According to the attendant ‘They were going to charge for it, but hadn’t got around to it’, and in answer to my statement that we would be parked more than the time it would take to complete the charge: ‘We close at 6. I don’t care if you are there all day.’ And so we got 65 km’s-worth for free.

Day Nine Sunday. Limerick

Rain prevented the original plan now pushed to Day Eleven, so we went to the Limerick Art Gallery by Pery Square. On view were only paintings by Mary Swanzy and Robert Ryan, not too bad but not too good either. I walked for a bit, enjoying a growing appreciation for the slow, quiet life that this town of 84,000 people exudes, at least for me, and has swamped my feeling last week that ten days is too much, and ‘I want to go home’. Bought a Sunday Timesbelieving it to be Irish, but sadly it was British and Murdoch’s.

Day Ten Monday. Limerick

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The Hunt, Limerick

We tried to do another country tour but gave up in the face of torrential rain, although it turned out nice later in order to mock us. To the city’s Hunt museum we went, near which the same car park afforded us another 25 km of free electricity. The exhibition of Sir John Lavery (1856-1941) and Walter Osborne (1859-1903) Osborne was tacky. Came home and now I am doing this. Which reminds me: I have read Storm and Steelby Ernst Jünger with great pleasure and am now on Ali Smith’s second of her season quartet,Winter. They are, of course, real, second-hand paperbacks, but my other reading is via the great cloud in the sky: New Statesmanand The London Review of Books.

Day Eleven Tuesday. Cleaning up – Glenstal Abbey – Killaloe – Mountshannon – Graves of the Leinstermen–Killaloe – Lough Derg

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Killaloe Cathedral

Another fine sleep! Cleaning up took very little time but the knowledge that it is doneis the trick of it. A tour to Lough Derg through three counties was pleasant enough but didn’t actually see the graves of the Leinstermen, as there was poor signage on top of the mountain and Suzanne was again, as yesterday, thwarted in her bid to sail the ten minutes to the Holy Isle. The Prod cathedral in Killaloe was impressive inside, with a tall Celtic cross and Romanesque door. Lunch was a cup of machine coffee and a biscuit at the rather nice tourist office, beside which a much-needed public toilet swallowed my 30 cents and refused to open; a little later the lough benefited from my contribution. Another unruffled (almost) not straining for world records, and it did not rain on our parade until we had reached home and shelter.

Day Twelve Wednesday. Dublin

Similar to the accommodation let-down on Day One, a 7.15 a.m. text message informed us that our 1.50 p.m. ferry was cancelled and would we like to leave at 9 that night, getting in to Holyhead gone midnight. Wonderful. All because the weather had prevented our smaller, faster ferry from sailing and the bigger Ulysses could better cleave the Irish Sea. We opted to leave the crossing until 8.05 Thursday morning; with hindsight a bad decision. Staying in a horrible and overpriced Dublin B&B overnight almost ruined our holiday, but we did manage a pleasant hour or so at Dublin’s National Gallery of Ireland and had a fine evening meal, drowning our sorrows with two bottles of Sauvignon – yes that’s right, one each.

Day Thirteen Thursday. Dublin–Holyhead–Ampthill
Sailed and drove all day to reach home after 5, a draining, door-to-door journey of ten and a half hours. My unbalanced dosha now correcting by drawing on reassuring familiarity – home.

Phew! Fin!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Aunty Lily

She had passed away in a nursing home on Saturday 8 June a few weeks after her 92ndbirthday. Lily was my last aunt or uncle. Well, there were only three to begin with.

Yesterday the 20th, we drove the 177 miles to Bury leaving at six in the morning  getting to the funeral director’s just in time to be second car following the hearse. Through the busy streets of Bury the route took us past Uncle Jack’s old house in Bell lane and a few seconds later past Lily’s in Bond Street, in which she had lived the last 40 years of her life. (Both these houses are owned by the council.) At one point as passed, a man walking a dog crossed himself. Our gentle procession left Bury for Radcliffe – broken only by having to give way to the siren and flashing of a fire engine – to get us to the crematorium and some fifty other mourners, including my sister and cousin. Since she was a lifelong non-practising Catholic it was a non-denominational service led by a beautifully-spoken Scottish humanist celebrant, who read out the eulogy written by Lily’s close friend, a local Conservative councillor (but I don’t hold that against her). The Lord’s Prayer did manage to get in somewhere. I also said a few nervous words ‘representing the Yates’ and declaimed Henley’s ‘Invictus’ as typical of Lily’s own indominable persona; I had read the same poem at Dad’s funeral.

What you have to know about her is that despite her mother dying when she was a child, her first husband in 1948 a bad lot, her second man (Uncle Jack) no better, never having owned her own house, occupation barrow girl, predeceased by son Christopher with schizophrenia so bad that he had been in a secure unit for it when he died age 53, despite all that she was an energetic leading light in charitable movements for the mentally ill and their carers. For this she was awarded the MBE in 2007 and one of the highlights of my life was being with Lily at Buckingham Palace when the Queen pinned the gong on her. Lily lit up any room she entered; she was one of the loveliest human beings I have known, and I loved calling her ‘aunty’.

Afterwards, at Elton Liberal Club’s Sinatra bar (how she loved Frank!) we handful of cousin-survivors from Mum and Dad’s marriage gathered. There were never cousins on Mum’s side but from Dad’s only sister came Joanne who lives and works in Melbourne, and Melanie, sisters of John who died two years ago, age 48. So, aside from a couple of spouses (no disrespect) there were three of us present, in age order: Chris, Amanda and Melanie. Thin pickings when you compare with other families.

(Our day had not finished. On getting back in the late afternoon, I received am email from a good friend to say that his 44-year-old-son had that morning been killed in a car accident. Grief upon grief.)

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73 Whitepit Lane

She’s bought now, three-up, three-down,
A place of rest for them, Mount Joy beckoning,
And what do I ponder on, now for me at home?

Will they rage at night, their ageing feuds extended,
Or will they be at peace, one for the other?
I think they still will battle, I wish each fair strength.
…………..
This land is dry, hot winds sweep the gums,
Fires rage inland, the soil has ulcers;
But it’s for her I weep, full of Mum and Dad and me.

And also for soft rain, for a low dark sky,
And sweet green grass, soothing a childhood sole,
And old shillings of bathwater, grudgingly poured.
………….
I have seen her like the smudge on the horizon
Passing from the castaway, ignorant to his plight,
Quite still to the eye, soon a trick of disappearance.

Better that I think, ‘She’ll always be there’, like a
Mother hardly dialled or a church bell ignored.
Only, there she is, and here I am.

Hunters Hill,
9th October 1994

People often ask me why I left Australia and usually I say, truthfully, to be near the grandchildren, or grandchild as it was in 2004. But about ten years earlier I had a different yearning for England, having lived away for 25 years. (It’s not generally known that one quarter of British immigrants – especially the Ten Pound Poms –  returned home, so when it did happen I wasn’t in a small minority.)

In the northern autumn of 1994 I made a business trip to the US, and as usual tacked on a visit to see Mum and Dad. They had just moved in to a semi in Newport, Isle of Wight, and to help them out financially I had bought a third share. It was the first property I had ever owned in England, and it happened to be in the town where I was born. Travelling back, I realised how much I was attached to the idea of the house, and began to imagine how it might be to live there. A friend comforted me by comparing the house to your mum whom you called much less than you should, saying: ‘Despite that, she’ll always be there.’ Notions of house and mother got rather blurred after that.

Mount Joy is a nearby cemetery where my maternal grandparents lie in a shared grave.

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Boom Gates

The guardroom corporal clanged the boom gate into place behind me. Released, I left the camp and trudged up the Sussex country lane to a bus and train, and home to Mum and Dad. A June afternoon in 1965, it was a month since my twenty-first birthday and I was a civilian for the first time since November 1962. And one of the first things I was going to do was see Oh What A Lovely War!, a bitter-sweet prospect considering my buffeting of the last unpleasant two and half years. Goodbye and good riddance to the Intelligence Corps. Hello again, Civvy Street.

Forty-seven years later, I found myself, also alone, passing through another boom gate of theirs, one that rose and sank at the press of an unseen button, soundlessly. Why was I here? We had moved to a small town in Bedfordshire in order to be nearer our grandchildren, and I discovered that my old corps was now a few miles away, and that they had a museum. I suppose I was curious, wondering about myself and the scars of that naive encounter of the 1960s.

An elderly museum volunteer escorted me from the gate to a rebarbative, one-storey building. Outside was a large board whose banner blared Share the Secret! On the way, I had seen a squad of marching young soldiers and … some were women. Astonishing. Not in my time. Inside, my chaperone introduced me to a short, elderly, fair-haired man in a crumpled suit and faded regimental tie.

‘Good afternoon Mr Yates,’ he said. ‘Alan Edwards.’

Lilt. Welsh.

‘Hello.’ Looking round at the exhibits, I ventured, as if I couldn’t wait to get it out, ‘I was in the Corps in the mid-sixties. I do feel rather strange being here after all that time.’

Alan himself had been in the Corps since the fifties as an officer and immediately I put bad memories between us, couldn’t help it, all that saluting stuff. He struck up with a history of the Corps, which I had known little about when I served, quietly and carefully giving words to the displays. Here a large, glass terrarium with a life-size SOE woman hugging a sub-machine gun, her head and eyes thrown back, looking for danger in the night; there a single, blancoed gaiter belonging to a hero; another a rusty metal canister used by the IRA as a bomb. In the photo interpretation room, ‘I know them, they’re stereoscopes,’ I cried. ‘You can estimate the height of buildings using those, in 3D.’ Alan smiled. The only photograph of wartime-built Maresfield camp where I had trained, was disappointingly of the officer’s mess, where I was once drinks steward, and got extra pay. The unhurried tour took two hours, Alan unfailingly interesting, unflaggingly amusing.

‘Would you like to visit the Corps archive, Chris?’

And I really don’t know why, but that’s where we went, and where my retired life unexpectedly changed. Here was another flat-roofed, nondescript, building, blinds firmly drawn against nature’s light. Although he had been the Corps historian for over ten years, Alan was not supposed to take visitors to the archive, whose three cramped rooms were run by Joyce, the archivist. Politely accommodating my innocent presence, she glowered at him while he busied making tea. An officer, serving me tea. I looked around at desks of untidy piles of books, papers, some delicate, yellowing foolscap, not an inch of wall showing between tall metal bookshelves. Untended computer monitors mutely waited for their keyboards to be fingered.

Alan showed me some document, explaining it was an enquiry from a former serviceman about old comrades and could the archive put him in touch with them. A common enquiry, as I was to discover.

‘I wonder if he’s a sergeant major I worked for in 1964,’ I said.

‘Oh that’s Micky––,’ Alan said. ‘Did you know Micky?’

‘Well, it was not usual for privates to call warrant officers by their first name,’ I said.

An academic, quietly researching in a corner of the archive, sniggered. Alan didn’t hear that, or even all I said, for he was a little deaf.

‘Where were you in Germany?’ he asked, remembering what I had said in the museum.

‘Hubbelrath, with the Guards.’

‘Ah, the Guards. I understand.’ Alan nodded slowly, and in that moment something moved me closer to him.

Later, as I was leaving, he asked, ‘How would you like to work here, Chris?’

I write this seven years later.

(Alan had met former Private Chris Yates, BA, M Litt, Boys Brigade, civil servant, regular soldier, driver’s mate, labourer, HR manager, senior lecturer, home tutor, Samaritan listener, lifelong fretter. I met retired Major Alan Edwards, OBE, B.Sc., Boy Scout, national serviceman, regular soldier, colonial policeman, civil servant, historian, teacher of English to immigrants, raconteur, server of Christmas dinner to the homeless.)

I work in the archive one day a week. On arrival, and when he could remember the door combination, Alan would throw open the door, delivering a ‘Wie geht’s’ or a ‘Habari ya asubuhi‘ or a ‘Bore da’ to me toiling at a desk. Whatever the task, he would have a joke for it.  Whatever my question, he gave his entire attention to me, no matter the time, no matter how important his own work. Until my problem was solved, we were locked in pure enquiry. Some of Alan’s palpable love for his Corps would waft towards me; I couldn’t share his love but I could take pleasure from his.

Although he had had a distinguished career, receiving his OBE for broadly unreportable work in Washington, he was self-effacing and would often say, ‘If I didn’t come first, at least I got into the first three.’

Another volunteer, a former Corps national serviceman would sometimes attend; he and Alan bantered, at ease with each other’s persiflage. Mistakenly, I thought that Peter had been an officer but he said, ‘Oh no, I was a sergeant, not like Alan; majors were ten a penny when I was in the Corps.’ Unsure of my ground, I smiled weakly.

Later, the archivist asked me if I’d like to interview Alan, officially get down his service life, ‘Just for an hour’. Something I jumped at. We ended up together for six hours, Alan talking into a recording machine that I constantly fiddled with, praying it was working. A career soldier since the early 1950s and later the Corps historian, there was much to record about this gentle little Welshman who had played in many of the endgames of Empire. For example, when on leave from foreign parts, he was given to taking long journeys home by car and boat.

‘Once I was stood down in Kenya and took a slow boat, but round the Cape see, not Suez. A knockabout freighter with the captain suffering a few passengers.’

This is why it took several hours.

‘I’d always wanted to go to St Helena,’ he said, ‘and we tied up there in the evening, and the passengers were going ashore the next day to see it all. But the crew had a party on board that night.’

‘The crew?’ Weren’t you a passenger?’

‘Well, we were not supposed to fraternise, but that night I was the only non-crew member at the party.’

Resigned, I asked him how it went.

‘Chris,’ his blue eyes on me intently, and spacing his syllables ‘it was a party beyond belief.’ At which I nodded in soldierly communion.

‘And St Helena?’

‘Got to bed at about 8, half an hour later the passengers couldn’t wake me so they went ashore. Zonked out all day in my pit, I was. Never saw St Helena.’

Alan started to slow up, leaving uneaten sandwiches on cabinets, crumbs over his pullover, undrunk coffee, sometimes he forgot people’s names, paltered over the simplest of enquiries. The boss got worried. Dementia was mentioned. One day he did not come in and his wife phoned to say that he couldn’t, ever. I never saw him again.

His sad, corporeal demise was simultaneous with my own late-life ascent of archival skill and re-interest in the Corps. With a life that had already been full, for me it was like Concord’s second take-off, soaring upwards from a runway in the air. His museum tour had delightfully hooked me into the archive; his good humour and knowledge kept me there.

Alan inhabits the archive still. Several years after he left and died, we still call where he sat: ‘Alan’s desk’. His signature, initials, and neat, handwritten notes are ubiquitous. Only the crumbs are gone.

He’s just got to meet me and show me round after I go through that Final boom-gate.

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Wilfred, RIP

Wilfred has appeared on these pages once or twice. Born in Sale, he came to us in April 2005 as a bundle of light-brown fur and soon became part of the family unit, moving from Clayton West to Ampthill via Southend-on-Sea in 2006 when he got the deep chocolate colour of his breed. Mid-way through 2018, he started to go off his food, lost his famous penetrating meow and generally slowed up. Fair enough for the last bit, as he was in his thirteenth year, well advanced in equivalent human years. Vet treatment didn’t help much and he continued to be unusually finicky with food, until just before Christmas he stopped eating and drinking altogether.

After New Year, we took him to the animal hospital in Barton-le-Clay, where, as a nice young vet called Ed examined his nether parts, Wilfred’s eyes gazed soulfully at us. ‘Perhaps a blockage in his intestines,’ said Ed, ‘best to leave him in overnight.’ We left him there and that’s the last we saw of Wilfred. Ed said Wilfred had an inoperable liver tumour and only palliative care could be offered, so we decided not to prolong the agony for all of us: I gave the dreaded instruction to have him put down. We cried a little, and I began to put away Wilfred’s bits and pieces for feeding and sleeping. Then we cried a little more.

It’s been six days or so since he’s not been present in the household, and in our minds he has joined the other lovely Brown Burmese that we have enjoyed: Boycott, Yorick, Hedley and Blythe. Of course a cat isn’t a human, and grieving is necessarily shorter, but remembering Wilfred will last for as long we have breath.

Those who know us might have already spotted a compensatory fact. At about the same time in midsummer when Wilfred began to fade, the gorgeous Verity came to us (now it seems as if from heaven) our first girl cat, and, by the way, Wilfred’s great-great-niece. If similar to Wilfred’s, when her own time comes to pass ‘neat through the loophole’ to the other side, I might be 89.

Cats no less liquid than their shadows
Offer no angles to the wind.
They slip, diminished, neat through loopholes
Less than themselves; will not be pinned

To rules or routes or journeys …
 
Arthur Tessimond
1902–62


Verity

Jim

Most of the back gardens in our street are nicely decked out with well-mown lawns, ornamental ponds and fittingly planted flower beds. At least mine is. Not so that of my near neighbour and friend, Jim, whose unmanicured patch is given over to beans, tomatoes, marrows, squash, fruit trees, raspberries, strawberries. Jim tends this in a wandering sort of way, picking his way through tangled thickets of unkempt plants, for Jim is one of nature’s socialists, enjoying the unkempt garden sprawl of his garden as a foil to our small-town conformity. For him, plants, brambles and shrubs can shift for themselves like an unfettered market, sadly, much at odds with his lifelong socialist dream of a planned economy. A retired GP and practising Catholic, Jim cares for fellow human beings at large as well he did for his erstwhile patients. This gentle affection is carried into and from the vegetable garden, where he can be seen pottering much of the day occasionally pulling out something eatable for himself and Mary, both vegetarians. Jim not so much harvests as gleans his own produce.

He is also a devoted, if too tolerant, grandfather. Once, in his September garden I asked  why he was not propping up several six-foot sunflowers, falling over and into themselves like drunken Triffids.

‘Oh,’ he said, ‘I grow those only for the children so they can look up and be amazed.’

‘As one would to heaven?’ I asked.

Rarely provoked, he gave me his quiet smile.

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Spitting on Blackberries

Legend has it that if you pick pick your blackberries after Michaelmas (29 September), the Devil spits on them. So, giving that horror a wide berth, we picked a few on the last day of August, and they ended up in two delicious apple and blackberry pies. From bramble to tummy was at most five hours.

We had tried at a favourite spot just outside town earlier in the week, but the problem was that it seemed to be a favourite for others as well; it was a bank holiday with people and cars everywhere. Racking my brains for lesser-known alternative, I remembered that while hiking I had seen several bushes on a little-used road out of nearby Steppingley, a couple of miles from home. Appearing in the Domesday Book, the village boasts a fine parish church in St Lawrence, built in the Early Decorated and Perpendicular styles of the fourteenth century. Not only that but also the village supports a cricket club with a fine pavilion and ground.

Judicious selection at the side of the road got us thirteen ounces of fine berries in plastic containers. Sadly, the ritual of blackberrying is diminishing, consequently for most there’ll be fewer childhood memories of stained fingers and clothes, not to speak of pricked skin and futile reaching on tiptoes for the highest delights. My own memories were set in September and often beyond the onset of Satan’s expectorating, since the fruit ripens later in Scotland where I spent most of my early life.

What are the benefits of eating blackberries? Among the claimed fruits of eating the fruit are improved immunity; weight loss; healthy bones, skin and eyes; digestion; and cognition. They also prevent endothelial dysfunction, which squeamishly I don’t want to go into. And I’ll be pretty pushed to get all that advantage from my annual consumption, typically a half share of this year’s harvest.

Pre-cooking tips are to soak them for an hour in water just before using them, then rinse well before eating. But they should be refrigerated unwashed. Just so you know.

In 1960, an Irishman expressed it better …

Blackberry Picking

Late August, given heavy rain and sun
For a full week, the blackberries would ripen.
At first, just one, a glossy purple clot
Among others, red, green, hard as a knot.
You ate that first one and its flesh was sweet
Like thickened wine: summer’s blood was in it
Leaving stains upon the tongue and lust for
Picking. Then red ones inked up and that hunger
Sent us out with milk cans, pea tins, jam-pots
Where briars scratched and wet grass bleached our boots.
Round hayfields, cornfields and potato-drills
We trekked and picked until the cans were full,
Until the tinkling bottom had been covered
With green ones, and on top big dark blobs burned
Like a plate of eyes. Our hands were peppered
With thorn pricks, our palms sticky as Bluebeard’s.
We hoarded the fresh berries in the byre.
But when the bath was filled we found a fur,
A rat-grey fungus, glutting on our cache.
The juice was stinking too. Once off the bush
The fruit fermented, the sweet flesh would turn sour.
I always felt like crying. It wasn’t fair
That all the lovely canfuls smelt of rot.
Each year I hoped they’d keep, knew they would not.

Seamus Heaney, 1939–2013

If you like, listen to him at: https://estraden.wordpress.com/2012/06/14/seamus-heaney-blackberry-picking/

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Fleshpots of Ampthill

 

Living as a temporary bachelor for the last week has had its good and bad points. Notably good is the freedom to have several items in the kitchen where my mother used to call ‘to hand’, rather than stowed neatly so as not to offend the eye. Not so good is the amazingly rapidity with which dinner comes around, when instead of finely cooked repast, I have to have remembered at breakfast to start to thaw items. For example, this evening is a chicken curry among many made last month in bulk, and I eschewed one plastic container of that same food, but whose date was in July last year. Surely the shelf life must have passed even in deep freeze?

It’s not that I get lonely – who would with such a voluble cat as Wilfred – but sometimes you like another human around. Accordingly I got my friend to visit. In the throes of trying to bring to a decent conclusion a complicated divorce, he resides in two houses: one the former marital 18th-century pile in Essex; the other, his own fine-looking Victorian building in New Brighton. (On first hearing about this place I thought it was a housing development on the outskirts of the southern city, but it rests in the Wirral where the River Mersey meets the Irish sea.)

Pretty much the sole idea is to tackle the fleshpots of Ampthill, the first of which after plodding through the rain, is the Queen’s Head. Anything that refers to the queen in this town is after Catherine of Aragon, for it was in the long-since demolished castle here that Henry VIII detained his wife for two years until his divorce came through. and we all know what a kafuffle that caused. On one occasion the current landlord substituted Catherine’s face on the pub sign with that of the Duchess of Cambridge and was there a to do about that! Anyway, here the landlord dispenses some of Bedfordshire’s finest (it is a Charles Wells pub) but I have a pint of Courage Director’s while my friend, not an ale-lover, goes Continental with a Peroni. For six years I lived just across the road and sure enough there is someone I know in the bar, and he comes over to chat for a while about landlords and customers past.

After a couple, we move down to the red light district that is the market square and have an agonising choice between Indian and Italian. Fratelli wins, especially as they have a pretty good table for us, and even now there is another who knows me. Luciano is one of the three brothers who own the restaurant and lives over the town butcher’s, remembers me. He becomes Latin-lavish with promises of closely attentive service, nothing too much …. The food is superb, as always, especially bolstered by a bottle of Pinot Grigio.

Homeward-bound I plan an attack on the 1950s cocktail bar that we brought from Australia, the one dubbed with a warning by a friend out there: ‘Abandon hope all ye who enter’. As that became increasingly prophetic, I persuade him for us to polish off one of the bottles of Pálinka that a Hungarian friend presses on me when she visits. This one is szilva (plum) from the Körös Valley and at 40% proof soon gets that abandonment going nicely, especially knocked back in proper schnapps glasses. On and on into the night with a good old-fashioned booze, two men in their early 70s reminisce about … what do you think when you’re 70? Loves lost and found, what ifs, one or two tears, all underpinned by crying egészségedre (and that’s the correct second person singular for ‘cheers’).

A stinking hangover in the morning one of those when it feels like you are wearing a balaclava inside your head, just don’t get them like that any more. But my friend handled it all better than I, and was off in his car in the morning to the Essex fork of his yet-to-be settled life.

Back to Wilfred, my thankfully totally abstemious companionfor another three weeks.

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