(This post was originally written for the September edition of Hawkesbury Parish News, my local community’s newsletter)
Twenty-three years ago, when I was negotiating to buy my house in Hawkesbury Upton, there were four significant facts that I’m glad I didn’t know at the time, because they’d have made the process much more stressful. But with hindsight it seems remiss of the estate agent not to have told me:
there is an excellent village primary school
the village is in the catchment area for an equally good secondary school, with admission pretty much guaranteed for anyone who lives here
the extraordinary annual village show – the undisputed highlight of the village year – would make me proud to call Hawkesbury Upton my home
climate change and the subsequent increased rainfall would make me very glad indeed to have a house on high ground
All four of these factors have given me cause for celebration this year, when my daughter left the primary school with a glowing report, gained a place at KLB, and was picked as Carnival Queen’s Attendant for the Show – and on numerous occasions throughout the year we’ve watched copious rainwater flowing away from our house, downhill, down the middle of our road.
But as September begins, I’m mindful of two more facts omitted from the estate agent’s blurb that I was left to learn from my new neighbours:
the day of the village show is the last day of summer
when it’s jacket weather in Chipping Sodbury, it’s overcoat weather in Hawkesbury Upton
Perhaps that estate agent was smarter than I gave him credit for. Now where did I leave my overcoat?
My column in this month’s Tetbury Advertiser marks the end of an era as my daughter prepares to leave primary (elementary) school – and I reflect on the day I left school myself.
It’s nearly time for school to be out for the summer, so why am I downhearted? Because the last day of term will mark the end of an era for me: my little girl will be leaving primary school for ever.
Really I should be celebrating. Laura has had the good fortune to attend an outstanding primary school, and I mean that in the OFSTED* sense. She’s gained a place at an excellent secondary school. I’ve enjoyed playing an active part in the life of her primary school, serving on the PTA for six years. I got time off for good behaviour this last year. But every parent I know who has children at senior school assures me that life will never be quite the same again.
On Your Marks…
With an aversion to change that is typical of her age, Laura is nervous of moving up, though less so with every step she takes towards it – completing SATS, visiting Open Days, planning her new school uniform. I’m sure that, by September, she’ll be eager to embrace the new opportunities that will come her way.
I know I was when I was her age. Gaining all the trappings of secondary school status was an exciting process, even if it was accompanied by my parents tutting at the expense. The smart new uniform and blazer, shiny leather satchel, a mysterious-looking geometry set in a tin, my own little hardback Oxford dictionary – all these heralded the start of a new adventure.
Although I don’t remember my final day at primary school, I do recall sobbing as I got on the last school bus from my secondary school. I was living abroad, attending Frankfurt International School in Germany. The school was run on American lines, making much drama of our departure with a university-style graduation ceremony, complete with gowns and mortarboards.
I was voted “valedictorian” or class speaker, responsible for making a final address to the assembled parents and staff, on behalf of the graduating students. I still have the typescript of my speech, which I’d bashed out on my red portable typewriter (no home computers in those days) and sellotaped onto orange sugar paper. I spoke about how attending an international school fit us better to play our part in the wider world. The speech went down well. I remembered to speak slowly and clearly, as per the instructions I’d written to myself in big red letters around the edge; everyone laughed in the right places; and afterwards other people’s parents asked for signed copies, assuring me that I’d be a famous writer before long. Well, we were all saying what each other wanted to hear that day.
And Finally, Go!
Now, more years later than I care to confess, I’ve just published my very first fiction collection as an Amazon ebook called Quick Change. It contains twenty terse flash fiction pieces, arranged in chronological order by the age of each story’s key characters, from cradle to grave. Pre-publication feedback is encouraging: “very subtle, very English, very clever”; “sly, witty, surprising, with genuine twists”; “they make domesticity look edgy, sometimes dangerous, but they are also life-affirming”. So rather like the Tetbury Advertiser, don’t you think?
I just hope Laura fulfils her ambitions a little faster than I did upon leaving school.
This post was originally written for the July/August 2014 issue of the Tetbury Advertiser. Here are some other recent columns I’ve written for this popular local magazine:
*For the benefit of my non-British readers, OFSTED is the government’s official school inspection board which visits all state schools every few years and reports on their standards. The highest level of praise they give is “Outstanding”, which is what they designated my daughter’s school earlier this year.
(In which the English heat wave of July 2013 has me raiding my old Greek holiday wardrobe, conjuring up nostalgia for island-hopping holidays and Greek island society – with Noel Coward’s “Mad Dogs and Englishmen” never far from my mind.)
The Gloucestershire village that I’ve made my home is not known for a warm climate. There’s a reason that the Tropic of Hawkesbury Upton did not feature in Noel Coward’s wonderful song about hot places, “Mad Dogs and Englishmen”. But this summer its lyrics have been playing on a loop in my head.
Perched high up on the last rise of the Cotswolds before they fall away into the Severn Vale, Hawkesbury usually has lower temperatures, higher winds and more snow than in Bristol, at sea level, just 20 miles away. Even nearby Chipping Sodbury has a warmer microclimate than ours.
“When it’s jacket weather in Sodbury, it’s overcoat weather in Hawkesbury Upton,” was a favourite saying of James Harford, the aged sage who lived next door when I moved here 22 years ago.
Yet the current Hawkesbury heat wave has had me rummaging in my wardrobe for clothes that haven’t had an airing since pre-baby holidays on the Greek islands.
Transported to Greece
My favourite Greek holiday clothes include an airy turquoise beach kaftan and a Mediterranean-Sea-blue sarong, patterned with the sea turtles indigenous to the island on which I bought it: Kefalonia. Teamed with earrings from Lefkas, enamelled in the colours of the Ionian Sea and sky, they transport me back to my halcyon days of island-hopping.
Fortunately, these items still fit, despite subsequent post-motherhood pounds. You’d have to have a lot of babies to need to upsize your earrings.
It’s not just my old Mediterranean wardrobe that I’ve adopted to cope with this hot spell. Other useful habits acquired during our Kefalonian days include:
closing wooden window shutters against the heat of the day (though ours in Hawkesbury were installed to keep heat in))
carrying a water bottle wherever I go
savouring cucumber salads so refreshing that they almost qualify as a drink
looking forward to stepping outside at dusk, to be enveloped in air as cooling as diving into a swimming pool
And then there’s the perfume that instantly whisks me back to the Greek islands. No, not the sharp scent of wild herbs on arid hills, but the soft, fruity scent of suncream. These days my aura is Factor 50.
When we first started holidaying in Greece, my then boyfriend (now husband) and I were the classic Mad Dogs and Englishmen (sorry, Gordon, Scotsmen). We saw nothing wrong with going out in the midday sun.
But after a few visits, I began to side with the locals, who spent the afternoons safely battened into their cool, bare houses. From beneath the shade of a beachside taverna, I’d smile and shake my head at conspicuously pale, newly-landed compatriots making a bare-headed beeline for the beach.
If smartphones had been invented in those days, I’d now be able to illustrate this point with a vivid image of a pasty English family of four, two adults, two teenagers, that I spotted one day in Zakynthos Town. Clad in Marks and Spencer t-shirts and shorts, they looked shocked that their cheap hats, emergency purchased from a nearby stall, did not make a dent in the afternoon sun. I suspect they bore that startled look for the rest of their fortnight on the island. It was as if they’d got off at the wrong stop on their plane:
“GREECE? What do you mean, we’re in Greece? Our tickets very clearly stated Grimsby!”
Only in the evenings, after dark, did the locals emerge en masse from their quiet, shady houses. Suddenly noisily sociable, they paraded gleefully about the town squares till well after midnight, toddlers whizzing past their ankles on tricycles whose saddles were too hot to sit on before sunset. It was as if this were a nightly wake for the overheated day: there was a real party atmosphere on every town square. On first encounter, this has much the same surprise factor for foreigners as the wooden silence of the Trojan horse transformed by hidden Greek soldiers’ battle cries.
English Summer Sayings
Will there be such a wake in Britain for our current heat wave? I doubt it. Hot summers are so rare that we’re never happy to bid them goodbye. But when it ends, we’ll be very British and accept it. With heavy rain predicted for this weekend, it won’t be long before our recent mantra of “I daren’t complain about the heat after the winter we’ve had” segues into one of our commoner British summer catchphrases:
“Well, the sunshine was nice while it lasted”
“All this rain will be good for the garden”
“What a shame for the children’s school holidays!”
And I’ll be tucking my Greek clothes back into the drawer, along with heady memories of the 2013 summer heat wave.
For the full lyrics of Noel Coward’s wonderful song, “Mad Dogs and Englishmen”, click here.
OTHER POSTS YOU MIGHT LIKE
What is it with me and holiday clothes? I’m easily brainwashed by my wardrobe, as this post about our French holiday shows:
Picking gooseberries in my garden today for the first time in years, I murmur (with apologies to Dylan Thomas) that gooseberries do not go gentle into that dark night (of my deep freezer). I’d forgotten just how painful they are to pick, due to the long, sharp spines cunningly interspersed between the fruits.
In the early evening sunshine, it’s a battle of wills. I want to harvest its fruit at the peak of ripeness, before the forecast thunderstorms arrive and turn their now firm berries to mush, but the spiny bush seems determined to repel me. But I don’t give up. To stop myself fretting about how much time it’s taking, I fall to thinking of when I first became aware of gooseberries, when I was a child.
There was a neat grid of soft fruit bushes at the bottom of our next door neighbour’s garden. The man of the house tended his soft fruit carefully, and I watched the berries fatten from a distance. Although I was friendly with his children, and used to go next door to play, I was never allowed to taste a single berry; nor were his children allowed to pick them from the bush. They were forbidden fruit.
But I did get to taste gooseberries regularly at my Grandma’s house, where I went at school dinner time every day during my primary school years. (In those days, it was a case of eat school dinners or go home – I don’t know why packed lunch was not an option.)
Grandma’s gooseberry tart was sublime. She baked it in an old-fashioned dish, which lent a not unpleasant tinny flavour to her delicious pastry. After it was cooked, she sprinkled caster sugar over the top, which pooled in little indentations where the pastry lid undulated over the gooseberries. We’d eat the pie cold, as she’d have made it for Sunday dinner with my Grandpa the day before. From the first bite, its chilled acidity coated the inside of my mouth. As I ran back up the road for afternoon school, I carried the delicious tang with me. I can even taste it now.
Cottage Garden Idyll
20 years later, finding soft fruit in the garden was one of the reasons that I was desperate to buy the cottage I live in now. For a long time, I had enough blackcurrants, redcurrants, gooseberries and raspberries to justify jam-making. By the end of August, one shelf in my larder had the look of a jewellery box about it, rich colours shining out through deep rows of neat glass jars.
But about ten years ago, these bushes reached the end of their natural lives. In the interests of crop rotation, their former beds were designated for less beautiful foods – potatoes, courgettes, beans. All useful staples but none to make your colander look like you’ve plundered Aladdin’s cave.
Then last year a kind gardening friend bestowed upon us some surplus soft fruit plants. Thanks to the wet spring and recent heatwave, I’m now able to pick my own blackcurrants, raspberries and gooseberries for the first time in a decade.
A decade is long enough for me to have forgotten how prickly gooseberry bushes are. Picking gooseberries is as hazardous as clipping a hedgehog’s toenails. My arms and hands are quickly etched with scratches.
These fat red fruits may be raging against the dying of the light, but soon they’ll be in the dark depths of my freezer (not quite enough for jam this year). In a few months’ time, I’m planning to rustle up my own gooseberry pie. On a dark winter’s day, it’ll be a great way of bringing back memories of this summer’s heatwave – and, from a much more distant past, the warmth of my grandmother’s love.