Posted in Events, Family

History is Relative

My February column in the Tetbury Advertiser reflects on my father’s role in historic events and looks forward to a talk I’ll be giving next month to the History of Tetbury Society

photo of toddler Debbie with toy washing machine
Before I was old enough to start mangling words, I love the mangle on my toy washing machine

While in my head I still feel about 12, there’s considerable evidence to the contrary, January marked my twenty-fifth anniversary of living in the Cotswolds, and then came my birthday, which occasioned a nostalgic flick through old albums of me as a child at my parents’ house. Continue reading “History is Relative”

Posted in Family, Personal life

A Tale of Two Grandmothers – and Tea Sets

(A post in praise of my two late grandmothers and their different attitudes to matching china tea-sets, crockery and cutlery)

Now here’s a little-known antidote to stress: take a few moments to admire matching crockery, as displayed on the Welsh dresser in my kitchen.

My Welsh dresser
By far the most orderly part of my house

There are many reasons why the sight of this dresser gives me great pleasure:

  • a folksy look that goes well with our country cottage
  • light and cheerful colours
  • vintage design from the 1920s (it often pops on tea-tables in period TV dramas)
  • sentimental value, the first pieces being a wedding present from a special friend
  • low cost, thanks to a factory shop that sold cheap seconds (sadly now closed)
  • ease of replacement via Chinasearch

But most important of all is that it reminds me of tea with my grandmothers, though their attitudes to china were polar opposites.

Grandma’s Matching China Tea-Service

Grandma's tiered cake plate
Who ate all the cakes?

My paternal Grandma favoured matching crockery. She had a classic set of pale sage green utility china which was brought out every Saturday when we went to tea.

For my brother, sister and me were reserved three melamine cups and saucers, long after the age when we couldn’t be trusted with breakables. My brother’s was chocolate brown, there was deep rose pink for my sister and tangerine for me.

Toning tastefully with the china, a stylish set of tiered plates sporting a 1950s fern pattern always graced the centre of the tea-table. The bottom tier was reserved for thinly sliced, fresh-cut bread and butter, with cakes and biscuits of gradually reducing size on the top two tiers. Viennese whirls, Swiss creams and chocolate covered marshmallows still make me think of tea at Grandma’s, served from those elegant plates, and eaten politely all sitting well-behaved around the table, me perched on a stool brought in especially from the kitchen because there were more people than chairs.

Toy tea set in Beatrix Potter's Mrs Tiggywinkle design
Beatrix Potter’s Mrs Tiggywinkle always reminds me of Grandma

The orderliness of the tea-table was as dependable as the bananas offered to the three of us as a treat after tea. Unlike us, Grandma remembered rationing and regretted the prolonged absence of such fruit from her own children’s diet during the war. I didn’t always want one, but I knew instinctively to pretend that I did, and accepted with gratitude.

My siblings and I were born in the same order as her children – my father sandwiched between my two aunts – and it must sometimes have felt like an action replay to have the three of us there, particularly as my brother was the image of my father as a boy.

Equally reliable was her pressing a shilling (equivalent to the modern 5p) into our hands as we left – our weekly pocket money. Our other, wealthier grandparents gave us each a halfcrown (12½p), but I was always careful to show equal gratitude to Grandma and Grandpa.

Mam’s Mad Medley of China & Cutlery

Emma Bridgewater design tea set
My daughter’s toy tea set by Emma Bridgewater

While I loved this orderly tea-time ritual, I also adored my other grandmother’s more anarchic approach to crockery. At Mam’s, we didn’t even have to sit up to the table, balancing our tea plates on cushions on our laps while we watched television. On my grandather’s salary as an accountant, they could certainly have afforded matching china, but it never occurred to Mam to buy it. Every plate in her cupboard bore a different design, and although some cups had a matching saucer, no two came from the same set. 

The same was true of the cutlery, some of which was cheap and ancient, imparting like a condiment an odd metallic flavour to each forkful. One year my parents replaced our cutlery and presented Mam with their old, still serviceable stainless steel set. She regarded it with undisguised suspicion.

My daughter's drawing of a wombat drinking tea at a tea table
My daughter would like to show you her picture of a wombat drinking tea. As they do.

Having noticed that some of Mam’s china was chipped, I bought her a beautiful bone china cup and saucer one birthday, splashing out more than I should from my student budget. The set was adorned with a delicate lily-of-the-valley designed – Mam loved lilies – and the word “August”, because her birthday fell on August 1st. I thought this personal touch would ensure that only she would ever use it, and I hoped it would enhance the pot of tea with which she fuelled herself each morning before anyone else in the household was awake. She admired it enthusiastically before tucking it carefully away for safekeeping.

Three matching coffee cups and saucers with pattern reminiscent of coffee and cream stirred together
Matching coffee cups, snapped up at a Farm Open Day recently

Like Grandma, she could not shake off the memories of the Great Depression, followed by wartime rationing. When she died not long after that birthday, not only was the August cup and saucer still in its box, but in her airing cupboard we discovered unopened packets of tea and sugar, carefully stashed away against any future risk of shortages.

Decades have passed now since both my grandmothers died, but I still sometimes have such vivid encounters with them in my dreams that it comes as a shock when on waking I realise they’re no longer with us. And what usually happens in those dreams? Well, of course, I’m visiting their houses for tea.

National Trust tea tray showing a tea party
My favourite tea tray, bought eons ago from the National Trust

If you enjoyed this post, you might like other articles about my grandparents:

Posted in Family

Let It Snow: My Best Childhood Christmas Memories

If, like me, you are worrying about whether you’ve got the right Christmas presents for your children, you should stop right now.  Because thinking back to my childhood, I’ve realised that all the best Christmas memories have nothing to do with the presents.  In fact, I can hardly remember what they were, though I’m sure I had my fair share.

BABYCHAM DAYS

My fondest recollections are mostly about special events with my family. There was the year that my cousins Jackie and Fred came to us for Christmas dinner.  As the youngest in a crowded house, the three of us, aged about four to eight, were given our Christmas dinner around the coffee table, along with a miniscule bottle of Babycham and three liqueur glasses – unthinkable now, but a pretty good strategy on my parents’ part to guarantee a quiet Christmas afternoon.  Not long after, my cousins emigrated to Canada, making this one-off event an extra-special memory.

AVON GIFTS FOR GIRLS

Then there were the predictable annual visits from other less adventurous relatives. Auntie Shelagh and Uncle Alan, with their brood of four, would come to deliver an assortment of Avon products – for the girls, a peach-shaped soap on a rope or a bottle of cologne with a peach-shaped plastic stopper that I’d try to make last all year.

SEEING THE LIGHTS

Journeys to and from relatives were fun when there were Christmas trees to count in the windows of the houses we’d pass, walking Scout’s page (ten steps walking, ten steps running) to keep us warm.  This was another smart strategy on my parents’ behalf to stop us clamouring to get the 51 bus instead, though our family fare would have been just 1/2d (“two fours and three twos, please”).

But there were bigger trees to admire.  One special night each December, we’d catch the train from Sidcup to London Charing Cross, half an hour’s ride away.  We’d stroll through the West End, admiring the lights put up to decorate Oxford Street and Regent Street.  These days they are a disappointment, with the same pattern echoed along each road, but in those days, every string was different.  We were dazzled by simple 1960s technology: coloured light bulbs on a wire. After that, we’d head to Trafalgar Square, a stone’s throw from our train home, and admire Norway’s annual gift to our country: a huge Christmas tree that seemed nearly as big as Nelson’s Column.  We never tired of joining in the community carols around it.

SCHOOL CELEBRATIONS

Then there were school festivities to enjoy.  For one infant school Christmas party, we were excited to be allowed to make a hat on a theme of our choice out of crêpe paper.  I remember being incredulous that the teacher did not recognise the inadequacy of yellow paper for my requested nurse’s hat.  Presumably all the white had been used up for the inevitable scissored paper snowflakes that adorned the school hall.

It was also at infant school that I first became aware of the power of Christmas carols to move an audience.  As I stood on the stage with my friend Patrick, both of us chosen as soloists for “In the Bleak Midwinter”, I found it odd that the grown-ups could look so tearful when I sang what seemed to me  a happy song.  It’s still my favourite carol today, though I struggle to suppress the purist objection that it never snows in Bethlehem.

THAT SPECIAL SNOWMAN

When I was in the juniors, I was thrilled when my grandparents were persuaded to stay at our house one Christmas Eve.  There really was no need, as we lived within walking distance of each other.  Perhaps they came because the previous year we’d been living the other side of the world, in California, and they wanted to make up for lost time. They slept on the sofa bed in the lounge by the tree and must have loved being woken up by us at the crack of dawn (well, maybe!)

Better still, that afternoon, my grandmother volunteered to come outside into the garden to play with me in the snow.  Together we made a real, proper snowman, a little smaller than me, and we dressed it in the pink plastic mac that I’d just grown out of.

BEST CHRISTMAS EVER

But best of all was the first Christmas that I’d been deemed old enough to go to midnight mass.  This was not because I was religious (I’d got over my holy stage by then, fostered by the evangelical church we attended in California), but because I wanted to be allowed to do the same as my big brother and sister, and didn’t want to miss out on this grown-up privilege.

I forced myself to stay awake to trudge the mile or so to the Church of the Holy Redeemer.  This was the plain grey, low (in every sense) church in which my parents were married, we children were christened, and my grandfather was choirmaster. The evening was drizzly, chill and grim as we entered the church, which was bright and warm and welcoming.  We all took the time to admire the colourful crib scene lit up by the altar. The vicar, Mr Daniels, was a family friend, small, rotund and gentle, and it felt more like going round to his house to hear him talk rather than anything religious.

The service came to an end quite quickly (maybe I’d nodded off for a bit), and soon we were all heading for the exit – a black arched door half way down the side of the church.  Mr Daniels had already sprinted round from the vestry to bid us all goodbye there, shaking the grown-ups’ hands and kissing children like me on the forehead, seizing our young heads in both hands to secure his target.

As we’d sat in the middle of the church, we were near the front of the departing queue and stood back as Mr Daniels threw open the heavy door for the first to leave. And then came a moment of wonder that surpassed anything mentioned in the service.  For the churchyard was covered in the most perfect blanket of snow. We all gasped in delight, transfixed by the big flakes still falling steadily against the orange glow of sodium street lamps.  We’d never guessed that the weather could be so transformed in such a short space of time.  You had to admire God’s timing, for there it was – the real evidence of Christmas.  Deep and crisp and even, snow on snow.  The best Christmas present ever.

May your Christmas this year be just as blessed.

(What are your favourite Christmas memories?  I’d love to know!)