Posted in Personal life, Writing

In the Eye of the Beholder

Who lives for 30 years within walking distance of Badminton Horse Trials without ever going to see them? Me, actually. Until now, neither the horses nor the shopping have tempted me, because horses and crowds, and indeed crowds of horses, leave me cold.

Then this year, singing in the choir at Great Badminton Church on the Sunday of my 31st Horse Trials weekend, I begin to see horses in a new light when the visiting preacher channels his inner Gerard Manley Hopkins and St Francis.

Now there’s great starting point for a fantasy dinner party guest list.

St Francis of Assissi (public domain image)

Gerard Manley Hopkins (public domain image)







He talks about seeing God in nature and, in particular, in the energy and vitality of the horse. When he puts it like that, whether or not the horse’s maker is God, I can’t help but appreciate the end product. Strolling back to my car, I’m admiring not the power of the stable hands’ electric bikes which had earlier caught my eye, but the perfect engineering of the horses in nearby fields.

Horse by Leonardo da Vinci via Wikimedia Commons - Public Domain
Leonardo da Vinci was also fascinated by horses and sketched them repeatedly (image here from Wikimedia Commons – Public Domain)

This sense of wonder soon spreads to other things, notably a carrier bag of organic vegetables given to me by my niece after inadvertently duplicating her family’s veg box order. Emptying the bag onto the kitchen table, I discover a high-fibre art gallery: a knobbly hand of ginger in a neat cotton string vest; the perfectly furled leaves of a white cabbage; the proud, straight seams on stalks of celery; and much more.

My father first drew my attention to the extraordinary patterns known as Fibonacci numbers that occur naturally in certain flowers, fruit and vegetables. Googling Fibonacci – or as close as I can get to the right spelling – I’m reminded that this mathematical term describes a sequence in which each number is the sum of the two previous numbers.

0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, …

When petals or seedheads develop in this pattern, they look stunning. Perhaps the most familiar example is the array of seeds at the centre of a sunflower, but the most exquisite is the Romanesco broccoli, its florets tiny miracles.

Photo by Ivar Leidus via Wikimedia Commons

Although there’s no Romanesco broccoli in my gift bag, the contents are all beautiful in their own way. I consider signing up with the veg box supplier to relive this wonder every week. Then I reflect that in supermarkets I favour misshapen veg branded “wonky”, as if it were a virtue rather than failure to comply with their buyers’ stringent quality criteria. It’s like comparing a pedigree cat with a moggy. Which to choose?

As if on cue, Bertie, one of my three rescue cats, strolls by, chirruping a friendly greeting. With random black patches scattered over his long white fur, he’s more Jackson Pollock than Fibonacci, but I pick him up for a cuddle, telling him he’s beautiful too. I like to think Gerard Manley Hopkins and St Francis would have done the same. Besides, Bertie’s a lot easier to lift than a horse.

photo of kitten asleep on weighted blanket

This post was originally written for the June edition of the Tetbury Advertiser.

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.