Posted in Personal life, Travel, Writing

A Penguin’s View of Tetbury

cover of February Tetbury Advertiser featuring penguin
My regular Young By Name column made the front cover in this issue (Click image to read whole issue online)

This post first appeared in the Tetbury Advertiser‘s February 2019 edition.

I make no secret of the fact that I hate February, with its dull, short days, and no redeeming feature besides brevity. At least January includes my birthday (the day I’m writing this). But by February, I am usually pining for blue skies, bright flowers, and green leaves, instead of grey, grey, grey, and I’m longing to flip the calendar to March.

But this year my attitude has changed after reading some books about early polar explorers, including Michael Palin’s Erebus: the Story of a Ship. These books have given me a new perspective not only on the frozen north and south but also on my home turf.

Armchair Travellers All

Although few of us have come close to the North or South Pole, these days we all feel we know what the Arctic and Antarctic landscapes looks like, thanks to television documentaries. Not so for the early explorers. Obviously there was no television, but even photography was in its very infancy. The daguerrotypes taken of officers before the Erebus set off in search of the North West passage were the very latest in 19th century technology. Only in the 20th century did we start to see photographic evidence such as the remarkable work of Frank Hurley, whose accompanied Shackleton and others. The only visual records of the Erebus’s journeys north and south are the crew’s drawings and paintings.

According to Michael Palin, one of the crew in the Erebus’s early 19th century polar voyages was startled at his first sight of icebergs, expecting them to be clear, like ice cubes in a glass of Scotch. They’d never seen Antarctic penguins, either, although they might have spotted variants native to South America, South Africa and Tasmania on their way south.

Picking Up On Penguins

But how much more remarkable would a penguin find the Cotswolds? There’s so much here that is completely absent from the Antarctic: trees, grass, and other terrestrial plants and flowers; stone walls dividing fields; rolling green hills instead of stark mountains; roads and automobiles; four-legged animals; and, for the most part, people.

Set a penguin down in the middle of Tetbury, or anywhere in the Cotswold countryside, and its mind would surely be blown by the extraordinary display of colour, texture, shapes and sizes, even in the middle of winter, compared to the whites, blues and greys down south. If you wanted to break your penguin in gently, you could show a bit of camaraderie by wearing a dinner suit, and find it a field carpeted with snowdrops.

So this year I have a new strategy to stop me succumbing to the February blues. Instead of bemoaning the grey winter days, I will try to view the local landscape through the eyes of a visiting Antarctic penguin. The transformation is remarkable, like the scene in The Wizard of Oz where Dorothy opens the door of her black-and-white house to reveal the glorious Technicolor Munchkinland.

Even so, I’ll still be craving the spring.


cover of Springtime for Murder
And in the spring, Sophie Sayers’ fancy lightly turn to thoughts of… murder!

If you’d like a bit of spring reading to cheer you up, Springtime for Murder, Sophie Sayers’ fifth village mystery, could just hit the spot. Available in paperback online and to order from all good bookshops, and also as an ebook for Kindle. For more information, and to read the first chapter on my website, please click here

Posted in Travel

The Green Hills of Home

From the May issue of the Hawkesbury Parish News, a post about coming home from holiday to our Gloucestershire village

Panoramic photo of hills around Hawkesbury
The Somerset Monument that towers above my village, Hawkesbury Upton

It’s always good to come back to Hawkesbury after any holiday, no matter how enjoyable. This Easter was no exception.

Gordon and Laura on path by Baltic
Somehow wed expected our first sight of the Baltic to be cold, grey and wet

We’d just spent two weeks in our camper van, touring the flatter parts of northern Europe. It was unnerving to know we were often driving below sea level, but the flip side was it made cycling a joy. Taking our bikes off the back of the van to go for a family cycle, we didn’t so much pedal as glide. The level roadways provided the perfect surface for lazy, unmuscled cyclists like me. Continue reading “The Green Hills of Home”

Posted in Family, Travel

Putting the Up in Sidcup

(This post about revisiting Sidcup, where I was born and raised, was originally written for the February 2015 issue of the Tetbury Advertiser)

 

Cotswold landscape photo across green fields to SomersetM Monument
View from the village in which I live now

“Quaint”, “timeless”, “historic” – all of these epithets will drip from the lips of tourists as they return to the Cotswolds, their numbers growing as the days lengthen. They will inevitably marvel at the ancient architecture and landscape that we take for granted, and they will boost the local economy via our tourist attractions and shops. (That’s always my excuse for splashing out when I’m on holiday: “Just boosting the local economy, dear”.)

When I first visited the Cotswolds decades ago, I would have been one of those tourists. Now that I’ve lived here for nearly a quarter of a century, a refugee from London suburbia, I realise the area is not as static as it looks. Edge-of-town superstores have effected a sea-change, while high streets evolve less perceptibly but just as unstoppably. I can’t even remember now what preceded Tetbury’s Tardis-like Yellow-Lighted Bookshop (was it the bike shop?), which feels and looks, in the nicest possible way, as if it’s been there forever, and I’m glad that it’s there. The same goes for Hobbs House Bakery.

While some changes will always be more welcome than others, it’s natural to be sceptical and even fearful if too much changes too fast, even though change often brings fresh blood, new ideas and younger populations to keep cherished traditions and old institutions alive.

Photo of house in Burnt Oak Lane
The house in which I lived from ages 3-14

A recent trip to the land of my birth – Sidcup, Kent, on the edge of London’s urban sprawl – made me look afresh at the nature of change in residential areas. Many years ago, I was outraged to discover that half the garden of the house I grew up in had been sold to developers. A three-bed semi on a corner plot in a 1930s garden suburb, it had the generous proportions that came as standard in an era when housebuilding land was cheap and plentiful. When subsequent owners built a new house on that plot required the demolition of my old swing, my father’s garage and his beautiful rose bed, I was outraged.

Photo of 52 Corbylands Road
The house where I was born (when it had neither loft conversion, garage nor cars)
Photo of woodland with brook
The brook in which we played behind my Grandma’s house still looked the same

Revisiting just before Christmas with a more mature eye, I noticed that newcomers had addded style, substance and care to the whole neighbourhood – double glazing, extensions, new doors, smart signage. Even the humble bungalow where I was born had been extended upwards and outwards and had expensive cars on the drive. As a child, I travelled everywhere by bus. The area had leapt upmarket, yet the many parks and green spaces remained. I found myself thinking: “What a lovely place to bring up a child!”

 

Photo of 262 Old Farm Avenue
Where my maternal grandparents lived (the house with the blue car)

So I started the New Year feeling twice blessed for the double life I have led: half in the suburbs, half in the country, and grateful for the subtle changes that help both places to evolve and survive for future generations to enjoy.

Photo of 34 Oaklands Avenue
Where my paternal grandparents lived the house with the black front door – it still has the same 34 on the wall by the door as when they lived there)
Photo of Beaverwood School for Girls
My secondary school – once Chislehurst & Sidcup Grammar School for Girls, then Beaverwood School for Girls in my day (and still a Grammar), and now Chislehurst School for Girls
Photo of Days Lane School
My primary school – exactly how I remember it, without the new security gates (not in photo)

Do you ever revisit the place you grew up? Or do you prefer to keep your memories intact? I’d love to hear your story. 

 

Posted in Travel

Dorothy Was Right: There’s No Place Like Home

Living as I do in an area that’s a tourist destination, I’m always curious when I go away on holiday to see whether I can find any other tourist spots that are equally homely. It’s rare to find another place that’s a match for our little corner of the Cotswolds.

Cropped screenshot of Judy Garland from the tr...
"But, Toto, how will I ever get home to the Cotswolds?" (Photo: Wikipedia)

I’m therefore taken aback to come across a small Scottish town that seems on first glance to meet my demanding criteria.

Late one afternoon, en route in our camper van from Perth to the coast of Fife, we encounter a small market town with a familiar air. Spotting brown tourist information signs to a nearby castle, we decide to stay the night and visit it in the morning. We find a place to park near the centre of town, and while my husband reads the paper and my daughter plays with her toys, I combine a recce with a run (I’m in training for the Bristol 10K).

I gently jog down the narrow high street, making a mental note of the facilities. There’s a craft bakers, an award-winning butchers, two charity shops with a high class of junk, and a useful old-fashioned hardware shop.There are signs to a library and a leisure centre and an edge-of-town supermarket. (Sound familiar, anyone?)

The calorific perils of a chippy, a Chinese and an Indian take-away are offset by a slimming club in the old market hall,which also hosts a cafe offering hearty soups, sandwiches and cakes. (Well, this is Scotland). I jog on to the end of town and I’m immediately amidst farmland, where fingerposts beckon me on to pleasant footpaths through sheep-strewn green fields.

Hmmm, this is home from home, I begin to think. I could get to like this place.

Mary, Queen of Scots
Mary, Queen of Scots, wishing she had Dorothy's ruby slippers (Photo: Wikipedia)

There’s even a local royal connection, albeit not one to ever make the pages of Hello magazine: Mary, Queen of Scots, was once a guest at the local castle and later a prisoner.

Turning left onto a footpath, I jog happily round the perimeter of the town and am rewarded with a glimpse of the castle, in the middle of a small loch. I pause to catch my breath by the ticket office and mentally book a family boat trip to it for tomorrow. Culture, a boat and a spooky-looking setting that would do Scooby-Doo proud – there’s something here to keep all the family happy.

When I head back into town, the charity shops are opposite me, and I notice for the first time that they are in aid of a Scottish children’s hospice. A little further down the road, in the direction of the other end of town, is a sign to that very hospice. A few yards further I pass the high school. It is closed down and boarded up, peppered with danger signs. I’m sure there’s no connection between the closure of the (dangerous) school and the presence of a children’s hospice, but it still makes me shudder with horror. I’m so sad for the children affected by either building.

I run on, hoping to find something cheery to negate the effect of these discoveries. A little ahead of me is a large building, by far the most grand and imposing on the high street. I run a little faster, spirits rising. Level with the gated entrance, I read the sign. It is a funeral directors.  Now feeling thoroughly chilled, I turn on the heel of my trainers and plod back to the van, to find my family waiting. I couldn’t live here, not amidst all this sadness. After all, there is no place like home.

(This post was originally written for the Tetbury Advertiser, May 2012 issue.)

If you enjoyed this post, you might also like this one about the lure of home: East, West, Our Village Show’s Best or this one about another country dear to Mary, Queen of Scots’ heart:   Lost In France.

Posted in Personal life

How to Make A Weather Forecast More Meaningful

Cropped screenshot of Judy Garland from the tr...
"Oh, Toto, I sure wish I'd listened to the weather forecast!" (Image via Wikipedia)

“Are pirates real, Mummy?” my daughter asks out of the blue one day.

As a child I lay awake in fear at night worrying about Captain Hook, so I’m anxious to allay her fears.

“No, darling, they’re only in stories like Peter Pan.”

A few days later, the BBC Radio 4 lunchtime news scuppers my deception with a pirate attack off the coast of Somalia. Laura looks at me accusingly.

“Oh, but they’re not pirates like Captain Hook,” I try to reassure her. “And there aren’t any in this country, anyway.”

The trouble lies in the terms of reference. To Laura, all pirates have wooden legs, parrots and hook hands, not motor launches and polybags of heroin.

The same problem crops up with the weather forecast. One morning the radio alarm wakes us up with a report about a tornado in Birmingham.

“But you told me we don’t get tornados in this country!”

“Well, not big ones, like the one in The Wizard of Oz,” I explain. “In Birmingham, there won’t have been any cattle swept up into the sky or barns blown flat – it will just have seemed a bit windy.”

Despite my attempt at reassurance, Laura is on the lookout for flying houses all day.

These national reporters of news and weather have a lot to answer for. They bandy about terms that may make good radio but which mean very little to us normal human beings. And when they do come up with a clear, evocative description – such as the infamous “barbecue summer” that the weathermen have been promising us these last two years – their promises usually turn out to be false. (Or maybe weather forecasters like barbecuing on cold rainy days. I suppose it would minimise the risk of starting a forest fire.)

So for this autumn I’ve formulated some new definitions that are much more meaningful to those of us living in the Cotswolds. Not for me the Richter scale of earthquakes (I was disappointed to find a friend experiencing a 4.5 reported in Amsterdam did not feel the earth move). Nor the anthropomorphising of hurricanes. Calling the latest one Irene did nothing to make her more amendable to my American friends stockpiling groceries and bottled water in their cellars. No, I’ll be using terms of reference that relate directly to what I see when I look out of my cottage window.

First, there’s the Tetbury Wind Scale. Force 1: autumn leaves are becalmed on trees. Force 2: a breeze flaps them about a bit. Force 3: the leaves depart the tree before their time. Force 4: twigs are blown down too. Force 5: look out! Bigger sticks are falling from the sky. Force 6: wind enough to fell a whole branch. Force 7: and the rest of the tree as well – beware of them on the roads as you drive to work. Force 8: Uh oh! Westonbirt Arboretum’s had to close while they make it safe – but there could be some nice carved wooden souvenirs on sale next summer.

Then there’s the Gloucestershire Snow Scale. Force 1 and we all just think how pretty it is, especially on the fields and trees. Force 2: we can still go about our daily business provided we take it slowly. By Force 4, only the 4x4s can make it through the lanes. Force 8 and you’ll need to find a friendly farmer and borrow his tractor.

And then there’s my Cotswold Drystone Wall weather gauge. Force 1 means you’ll spot the odd little trickle of tiny stones after a mild frost, whereas Force 8 is an avalanche: whole walls tumbling down either side of every main road. This in turn is a harbinger of a spring spent admiring the day-to-day progress of the skilled and hardy stone wallers repairing it as you drive to work.

I just hope it’s not going to be another Pothole Winter.

(This post was originally written for the October 2011 edition of The Tetbury Advertiser.)