Posted in Personal life, Travel, Writing

In the Footsteps of Robert Holford

Photo of tall shadow of Debie cast over castle by Loch Ness
On the trail of the Loch Ness Monster last month (Castle Urquhart is on the banks of the loch)

Dare I confess that in 27 years of living within walking distance of them, I’ve never been to the Badminton Horse Trials? And in the last few years, as a frequent traveller to Scotland, I’ve spent more time on Loch Ness than at Westonbirt Arboretum.

image of Debbie Young by Lesley Kelly
Speaking at the Ness Book Fest in October 2018

While in Inverness at the start of October to speak at the Ness Book Fest, I squeezed in a quick tourist cruise on the loch. When the tour guide asked at the end how many of our party of about 30 had spotted the legendary monster, an elderly lady put her hand up. One in 30 – that’s pretty good odds.

Home Turf

On my return, determined to make up for lost time, I renewed my Friends of Westonbirt Arboretum membership for not much more than my one-off Loch Ness boat trip had cost me. The new Welcome centre at which I signed up was not the only change I noticed. Last time I came, the treetop walk was just a glint in the Forestry Commission’s corporate eye. Nervous of heights, I was relieved to discover the broad, steady boardwalk, not a bit like the rickety rope bridge I’d imagined from watching travel documentaries about rainforests.

As I renewed my acquaintance with the familiar pathways of the Old Arboretum, I espied a life-sized Gruffalo (yes, of course Gruffaloes are real). I don’t remember seeing him before, but maybe he has been there all along, and it was just my lucky day to spot him. Perhaps he’s Westonbirt’s equivalent to Loch Ness’s monster or the Himalayas’ yeti.

selfie of Debbie with Gruffalo coming up behind her in the woods
Back home, the monster is after me – on the Gruffalo trail at the National Arboretum at Westonbirt, a few miles from my house

Plus Ca Change…

But of course there was still so much that was the same. Just as I surprise myself by knowing all the words to pop songs from my youth, I remembered particular views before they appeared at each twist and turn of the skilfully designed paths. As I walked, I fell to reminiscing about the many times I used to come here in my lunch hour or after work, when I was employed across the road.

Working at Westonbirt School, originally the private house of Arboretum founder Robert Holford, gave me a special affinity for him, as if he were a family friend. 15 years ago, I even wrote a playscript performed as part of the school’s seventy-fifth birthday celebrations. I had fun putting words into the mouth of the great man, gamely played by the school’s then Head of Drama, Henry Moss-Blundell, sporting my knee-high brown leather boots as part of his costume. He reprised the role – and borrowed my boots – many times more to lead heritage tours. I still have the boots, so that’s another way I can walk in Holford’s footsteps.

Only when I was on my way home from renewing my Westonbirt membership, legs tingling after my bracing walk, did I realise that it’s not only the Arboretum that has changed since my earlier visits. In those days, I used to run round the paths. 27 years on, my Holford boots are strictly made for walking.


Cover image of November 2018 issue of the Tetbury Advertiser

This post was originally written for the November issue of the wonderful Tetbury Advertiser, which has just won yet another award, this time for the quality of its editorial content. (Well, who am I to argue with that?!)

It also raised a huge amount of money for local good causes and helps local businesses raise awareness and attract custom. So all in all, a very worthwhile magazine to write for, and I’m proud to be associated with it.

Read the whole magazine online for free by clicking the image, left. If you’re into Twitter, it’s also worth following the magazine at @LionsTetbury – the editor never fails to make me laugh.

You can also read earlier Young By Name columns in paperback format, in the book of the same name, which covers the 2010-2015 issues. Find out more about that book here. 

Posted in Personal life, Writing

She Stoops to Conkers*

This post first appeared in the November 2018 issue of the Hawkesbury Parish News

(Photo of conkers by Dawid Zawila via Unsplash.com)

While I was growing up in a suburb where many roads were lined with horse chestnut trees, playing conkers was one of my favourite autumn games. I still can’t walk past a freshly fallen conker without picking it up and slipping it into my pocket. My grown-up excuse for collecting conkers and taking them home is that they’re an effective spider deterrent.

Nature’s timing is perfect, because the conker harvest coincides with the mass migration of spiders from our gardens into our homes. Escaping from the chill and damp outdoors is the arachnid equivalent of flying south for the winter.

However, I’ve just heard on the radio that ingesting conkers can be harmful to dogs. They contain a toxin called aesculin, also present in every other part of the horse chestnut tree, which can make dogs very ill and in rare cases prove fatal.

On his podcast, the radio presenter, Rhod Gilbert, wondered how to reconcile his arachnophobic wife who fills their house with conkers and a pet dog who perceives every conker to be a dog toy. How to keep both of them happy and safe?

My cat Dorothy suggests the answer. All summer she’s been snacking on flies and moths. Rhod just needs to follow her example and cut out the middleman (the conker).

If he trains his dog to eat spiders, his problem will be solved.

For more information about dogs and conkers, visit: www.bluecross.org.uk/pet-advice/conkers-and-dogs.

(photo of 1905 performance – public domain)

* With apologies to 18th century Irish playwright Oliver Goldsmith for repurposing the title of his excellent and very funny play, She Stoops to Conquer.


Meanwhile in other news…

cover of Springtime for Murder

I’ve just launched Sophie Sayers’ fifth Village Mystery,
Springtime for Murder,
now available in paperback and ebook.

 

cover of Murder in the Manger

If it’s a more seasonal read that you’re after,
check out her third adventure,
Murder in the Manger
a cheery antidote to festive stress.

 

Coming in 2019:

  • Murder Your Darlings (Sophie Sayers #6)
  • Flat Chance (Staffroom at St Bride’s #1)
Posted in Personal life, Writing

In My English Country Garden

Cover of October Issue of Tetbury AdvertiserThis post was originally published in the October issue of the award-winning Tetbury Advertiser.

After my husband’s summer war against overgrown trees, shrubs and flowerbeds, some old outbuildings, no longer camouflaged by ivy, were just asking to be given a new lease of life.

The first step in our resurrection of two old privies, a pigsty and a Wendy House was to discharge their contents onto the lawn. (Thankfully the privy buckets had disappeared decades before.) I liked to think of the resulting installation as “Tracy Emin’s Shed”.

Photo of new-look shed
From Wendy House to Art Studio

After multiple trips to the tip and a couple more to IKEA, the conversions were complete. A few coats of pastel-coloured fence paint and the addition of minimal furnishings turned the Wendy House into an art studio fit for our teenage daughter. Once a new clear roof panel had linked the privy building to the pigsty, the introduction of a workbench provided my husband with a carpenter’s workshop. I was the only one in the family without my own outhouse.

A Room with a View

Then one day, admiring the orderly view of the restored buildings from my favourite armchair, I realised we’d done much more than tidy the garden. We’d evolved our own little village.

Not that we’ve been slashing and burning like a fast-food chain through rainforest. Our approach was far more respectful of local wildlife. I’ve never heard as much birdsong in our garden, and the frogs in the pond are flourishing.

photo of garden with ladders, tools etc
A work-in-progress: the taming of the garden

Not Strictly for the Birds

photo of buddha statue with pear
As the old poem goes, “You’re nearer God’s heart in the garden, than anywhere else on earth”

Like any decent village, our garden includes plenty of facilities for humans too. There’s a play area with a swing set and trampoline for the benefit of young visitors. For older, wearier souls there are plenty of benches at strategic intervals. For the peckish, there’s plenty of nourishment to be had from the trees. It’s been our best year ever for pears. Once we’ve finished resurrecting the kitchen garden beds, the last task on our list, there’ll be soft fruit and vegetables too.

If it’s spiritual nourishment you’re after, a buddha statue holds court in the shade beneath the damson tree. He’s a handy distraction from our miniature civic amenity centre: a row of compost bins offering their own “ashes to ashes” message about the circle of life.

Finally, for everyone’s peace of mind, Dorothy, our stately calico cat, provides a round-the-clock Neighbourhood Watch service.

As the dark nights of winter approach, it’s a comfort to be able to look out on my own little world. This Englishwoman’s home is her castle.

And if Brexit goes horribly haywire, I can always place an order with the carpenter’s shop to set about making a drawbridge.


cover of Young by NameIf you’d like to read more of my columns from the Tetbury Advertiser, Young By Name, this collection of pieces from 2010-2015 is available in paperback (ISBN 978-1911223030) and ebook.

To find out more about the award-winning Tetbury Advertiser, visit their website: www.tetburyadvertiser.co.uk.

Posted in Personal life, Writing

Tuning In at John Lewis

New on my This post was originally published in the October issue of the Hawkesbury Parish News

cover of parish mag with my John Lewis card
October issue with my new John Lewis card

The finishing touch required for our new extension was a little background music.

My tastes in music are eclectic, but when I’m reading or writing, I prefer to listen to something without words. I needed a machine to do justice to classical music.

Going to John Lewis to buy a modest CD player to fit the space, I quickly discovered it’s nigh impossible to buy a stand-alone CD player. All seem to come with a DAB radio attached.

How the Other Half Shops

While awaiting my turn for the assistant, as I browsed the machines in the lower price bracket, I couldn’t help but eavesdrop on the elderly couple the young man was serving. For them, money was clearly no object: they were inspecting the product range of a brand fancy enough to have its own display area. I assumed they must have a more discerning musical ear than mine.

Not so. “Please may we try it on BBC Radio 4?” asked the elderly lady.

Once they’d been despatched with their purchase, when the assistant came to help me. I said to him, “Only in John Lewis would a customer ask to test your best hifi on Radio 4.”

The couple must have been working their way round the department, because the two models I’d been looking at were also tuned to Radio 4. Stephen Fry was in full flow on them both.

“Perhaps you should have him playing on a continuous loop,” I suggested. “His velvet tones would sell any sound system more easily.”

The assistant smiled conspiratorially.

And almost before I knew it, he was ringing up my sale on the till.


Cover of All Part of the Charm

Every month, I write a short column like this for our local community magazine, the Hawkesbury Parish News. I’ve collected the first six years worth of columns in a book, All Part of the Charm: A Modern Memoir of English Village Life, along with several essays I wrote about living in the village when I first moved here over 20 years ago. It’s available in paperback and ebook format via Amazon and elsewhere. 

Posted in Family, Personal life, Travel, Writing

The Best Time to Travel

cover of the September issue of the Tetbury Advertiser
Click the image to read the whole of the September edition of the Tetbury Advertiser online

Due to the fortnight’s lead-time for publication, I filed my column for the September issue of the Tetbury Advertiser from the wilds of Glencoe while on holiday in Scotland last month. (Only last month? Seems a lot longer now!)

 

If, like me, you are restricted to taking family holidays outside of term time, here’s a handy tip: you can gain a psychological advantage by spending August in Scotland.  The academic year is different north of the border, with the autumn term starting around the Glorious Twelfth. Local children returning to school add a frisson of guilty pleasure to our Scottish summer holiday. It feels as if we are bunking off.

This year, as ever, when we arrive in Scotland in early August, we make a pit-stop at a supermarket to provision our camper van. Here we find ourselves rubbing elbows in the aisles with brisk Scots mothers and stony-faced children bracing themselves for the imminent start of their new school year.

Gleefully my daughter calculates that even though we’re staying in Scotland for a fortnight, when she gets home, she will still have nearly three weeks of holiday left before the start of her new term. By then, these poor Scottish children will have been stuck into their studies for a month.

Suddenly our holiday feels much longer, as if we’ve stepped through a time-slip, albeit one from which we can return at will.

Travelling in Time

I can’t help wishing that real time travel was available as a holiday option.

My favourite tourist destinations are those that offer a sense of connection with the past. Some of these places are ancient, older than mankind itself, such as the Munro mountains that I can see from my window as I type this column. Others are much more recent. A highlight of this trip so far has been an afternoon at a traditional weaver’s cottage that pre-dates the Industrial Revolution. The cottage has been so sympathetically conserved to suggest that the occupant has just stepped away from his loom for a moment and will be back at any minute. By chance, one of his descendants was visiting that afternoon from Canada, adding to the feeling that this was indeed living history.

I’m sure I’m not the only tourist who hankers after time travel. A few days ago, my brother texted me from his family holiday in Rhodes to tell me about the tourist in front of him at the tourist information office. “Please can you give me directions to the Colossos?” the man asked. One of the seven wonders of the ancient world, the Colossos –  the same size as the Statue of Liberty and a similar symbol of freedom that once graced Rhodes harbour – was destroyed by earthquake over two thousand years ago. But if the tourist information officer had been able to provide effective directions – “Just step through this portal, sir, and stop when you get to 226BC” – I suspect my brother would have gone along for the ride.


Cover of Young by Name
The cover of this essay collection features one of my father’s watercolours
  • Read the whole of the September issue of the Tetbury Advertiser here (and you’ll also see the fab picture of the Colossus that the wonderful editor, Richard Smith, used to illustrate it)
  • Read some of my previous columns from the Tetbury Advertiser in paperback or ebook here