This post first appeared in the June 2022 issue of the Hawkesbury Parish News, in the run-up to the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee – so please excuse the out-of-date final paragraph about that event.
Since joining the village choir and taking up bell ringing, I’ve been spending a lot more time in St Mary’s Church, and whenever I enter that ancient building, I feel a sense of calm that comes from being in a building that dates back over 1000 years. Its timelessness and permanence provide a helpful anchor in the midst of a busy life and a constant when everything else seems in flux.
I’d already decided on the topic for this month’s column when by a strange coincidence at church this morning the service included a prayer giving thanks for the constants in our lives, including the village school, the community shop and the pubs. It struck me as very Vicar of Dibley to say a prayer for the pubs (and very thankful we should be), but that may have been because our opening number at last night’s concert (which you can view on YouTube here) was the television show’s theme tune (Howard Goodall’s setting of “The Lord is my Shepherd” – you can listen to it here on YouTube).
Of course, the church building is not entirely constant. It has evolved over the centuries and continues to do so, in small and large ways – from the installation of new energy-saving lightbulbs which might go unnoticed to all but the person signing off the electricity bill, to the very visible restoration of the tower and the installation of eight very audible new bells.
The same goes for the built environment of the village: here a new extension, there a new house popping up in a spare bit of garden or a disused paddock, and sometimes, oh my goodness, along comes a whole new housing estate.
More subtle are the occasional changes of use, from barns and pubs and shops and places of worship to housing stock. The original purpose and many uses of the Methodist Chapel, which sadly closed at Easter, will be a treasured part of our collective memory for generations to come.
Only when showing a visitor around the village recently did I realise just how much the built environment of the village had altered in the 31 years that I’ve lived here. Perhaps the degree of change has been slightly masked by the continuity that comes from a calendar of regular community events. While some are longstanding institutions, such as the Hawkesbury Horticultural Show (135 years old and counting), others are relative newcomers, such as HU5K (turning 10 this month) and HULF – the Hawkesbury Upton Literature Festival (now 7).
Speaking of longstanding institutions, this month we’ll be celebrating another one that belongs to this village as much as to anywhere else in the country: HM The Queen. As for most people in Hawkesbury, she’s the only monarch I’ve ever lived under. Whatever your feelings on the monarchy, the stability of having a long-serving head of state does provide a welcome contrast to the tumultuous comings and goings of our political leaders. Personally, I’m in no hurry to see a new face on our banknotes. There’s probably a joke in there somewhere about change (ho ho), but for now I’ll just wish you an enjoyable Platinum Holiday – another chapter of Hawkesbury history in the making.
Moving to Hawkesbury Upton has given me a much greater awareness of the changing seasons than when I lived and worked in towns and cities. Thirty years on, I’m still not over the novelty of having new-born lambs as near neighbours down my lane in the spring, or to hearing the birds sing with renewed vigour as the days lengthen.
Less predictable was the sudden appearance of a fox the other day in my secluded back garden, enclosed on all sides by the walls and high fences of my neighbours’ properties. I was sitting quietly reading in our back room, when a startling flash of orange out of the corner of my eye alerted me to the biggest and most beautiful fox I’ve ever seen. He was standing majestically on the outhouse roof, channelling his inner Monarch of the Glen, as in Landseer’s famous painting.
After a brief staring competition, he performed his own take on the old typing exercise renowned for using all the letters in the alphabet: the quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog, substituting for the canine my little tabby and white cat, Bingo, sunning himself at the other end of the roof. Bingo only blinked as the fox darted down the lawn and out of sight.
What I’d really like to see next – though even less likely to be found in my garden – is a March hare.
Well, any old hare, really. I’ve seen lone hares loping across fields around the parish, or sitting up, meerkat-style, to get the lie of the land. But I’ve never seen them engaging in the fabled boxing activity associated with the month of March. I’d always assumed the boxing was between two male hares competing for supremacy. I’ve just discovered that it’s always between a mixed couple, the female fending off the advances of the male early in the mating season.
Not so with so-called boxing kangaroos, where two males fight for dominance, holding each other in place with their short front paws while inflicting serious injuries with their mighty clawed back feet.
Such agitation isn’t really madness in either creature, but the saying “mad as a March hare” dates back to the sixteenth century.
The image was further popularised by Lewis Carroll when he seated his Hare with the Hatter at the tea party in the crazy world of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. They also reappear in the sequel, Through the Looking Glass, as Haigha and Hatta, the King’s messengers.
In John Tenniel’s drawing, the Hare’s ears are strewn with straw, a Victorian symbol of insanity, while the Hatter’s madness is an occupational hazard of his profession. The mercury used by Victorian hatmakers in the felting process caused erethism, a neurological disorder commonly known as Mad Hatter Disease. Symptoms included behavioural changes such as difficulty handling social interactions, as Alice finds to her cost. As indeed does the Dormouse, whom, as Alice leaves the tea party, the Hare and the Hatter are trying to stuff into the teapot.
But for Hawkesbury hares, there’s good news: the hare’s mating season continues until September, so if they are troubled by March madness, their relationship issues should improve next month. Just so long as their sweethearts are not lured away in April by the arrival of the Easter Bunny bearing gifts…
This post first appeared in the March 2022 edition of the Hawkesbury Parish News
MORE SPRING READING
If you’re already looking forward to Easter, you might like to try my comedy murder mystery novel Springtime for Murder, which kicks off with a report of the Easter Bunny being left for dead in an open grave…
Or ask your local high street bookshop to order it for you, quoting ISBN 978-1911223344
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If you like ebooks and haven’t yet read Best Murder in Show, you might like to take advantage of a three-day special offer: download the ebook completely free from Amazon anywhere in the world from Thursday 10th-Saturday 12th March (US time).
In my Young By Name column for this month’s Tetbury Advertiser, I wrote about a sight I’d like to spot more often in the Cotswolds – although they are beautiful enough as they are!
Driving along a lane in the high fields near Newark Park, I spot a mirage-like splash of blue big enough to fill a field. Or is it mauve? Rippling in the late afternoon breeze, the flowering crop is changing colour as readily as the two-tone tonic suits favoured by Mods in the 1960s. Oil poured on water morphs from black to rainbow hues because the floating film is just a molecule thick, but when I park alongside the field, these plants are chest high.
I’m used to seeing cars stopping on the roadside in early summer to photograph swathes of pillar-box red poppies among the crops. A few years ago, a field just off the A46 was as densely carpeted with poppies as the famous scene in The Wizard of Oz. An instant tourist attraction, it triggered a proliferation of social media selfies.
The mauve flowers – or are they blue? – in this field by Newark Park have a far subtler beauty. It is of course a field of flax, the first I’ve seen for a long time, and an increasingly rare sight in the Cotswolds. How I wish I could substitute flax for the ubiquitous rapeseed, whose vivid flowers look all wrong in our gentle landscape. They also make me sneeze like one possessed, a yellow morning mist floating above their fields like mustard gas. While I don’t expect farmers to choose crops for their good looks, I do wish flax could be more profitable.
Flax, aka linseed, is certainly a useful and versatile crop. Chez Young, we add linseeds to our breakfast cereal and salads for their health benefits. Linseeds are rich in fibre, protein, Vitamin B, minerals and Omega 3 fatty acids.
I wish the latter didn’t sound so unappetising: “Mmm, fatty acids,” said Homer Simpson, never.
Research indicates that linseeds improve digestive health and lower blood pressure, bad cholesterol and cancer risk. If that’s not enough to win your heart, linseed oil goes into paints, varnishes, animal feeds and cricket bats.
The stalk, with fibres three times stronger than cotton, is the source of linen. The Ancient Egyptians considered linen a symbol of purity and allowed only priests and mummies to wear it. Much as I love linen clothes, that’s not a sacrifice I’d be prepared to make. Flax fibres are also used in the manufacture of cigarette papers (boo!) and teabags (hurrah!)
So why don’t we grow more flax on the rolling hills of the Cotswolds? When I google its preferred growing conditions, I discover it’s not just a matter of money. Flax thrives on alluvial soil, ie rich in sediment deposited by running water on a floodplain. With an average elevation of over 100m in the Cotswolds, I’m guessing alluvial soil is not our long suit.
As the sky begins to darken ahead of a thunderstorm, I realise I must make the most of this rare scene, so I capture it on my smartphone before returning to my car – and, like a tourist on my home turf, to social media.
SERIES OF GENTLE MYSTERY NOVELS INSPIRED BY THE SEASONS IN THE COTSWOLDS
Watching the changing seasons in the Cotswolds is one of the inspirations for my Sophie Sayers Village Mysteries series, which follows the course of village life from one summer to the next through the eyes of newcomer Sophie Sayers.
In my Young By Name column for this month’s Tetbury Advertiser, I shared the heartwarming experience of taking my father to visit his boyhood haunts near Moreton-in-Marsh, Gloucestershire. His love of the Cotswolds from his experience as an evacuee during World War II is the reason I grew up wanting to live in the Cotswolds myself. I moved here over 30 years ago.
Here’s one way you can stop foreign travel restrictions spoiling your summer holiday this year: take a trip back in time instead. You don’t even need a time machine, HG Wells style.
Instead, take yourself to a place in this country that was important to you in your past. Such trips can spark treasured memories that lurk in the back of our locked-down brains, as well as providing the opportunity to create new ones.
A couple of weeks ago, I did exactly this, albeit by proxy. I took my 88-year-old father for a day trip to the Cotswold village of Todenham, near Moreton-in-Marsh.
Two days after his seventh birthday – and the outbreak of the Second World War – my father, his two sisters and their mother had been evacuated to Todenham from the London suburb of Sidcup, on the edge of Kent. They considered themselves fortunate to be able to lodge as a family with my grandmother’s stepfather and his second wife, rather than being separated and sent to strangers, as so many evacuees were.
This year (2021), on a glorious early summer’s day, together with my sister and my daughter, we toured territory that was still very familiar to my father.
The little village has not changed much in the last eighty years, at least on the outside.
We enjoyed listening to my father’s recollections of his time at the village school, watching the village blacksmith at work, hunting for souvenirs from an enemy plane that crash-landed in a nearby field, and enjoying cosy family evenings playing games, reading and drawing by lamplight around the kitchen table.
When we knocked on the door of the cottage in which he had lived in those days, the current owner – whom, we were glad to see, was taking excellent care of the house and garden – was hospitable and sympathetic. Although relatively new to the village herself, she was able to share news of many people he remembered from his childhood. His friend Dorothy Duckett had become a primary school teacher, for example, and his younger sister’s friend Valerie Poole had moved away but later returned to retire to the village they all loved.
We strolled around the village, going to visit the village school (now the village hall) and the parish church which as a young evacuee he had attended every Sunday. Inside the church, an elderly lady, one of the churchwardens, was welcoming visitors.
After a few moments of chatting to her, my father asked in sudden recognition, “Are you Valerie Poole?” Indeed she was, and together they shared memories that had lain dormant for over 80 years.
We returned from our day trip as refreshed, moved and inspired as from any foreign holiday. So if you’re wondering where to go this summer, you could do worse than visit your old haunts, wherever your roots may be.
As L P Hartley said in the famous opening line of his novel The Go-Between, “The past is a foreign country”. Best of all, there’s no compulsory quarantine when you return.
Footnote: We’re now planning a return visit including my father’s younger sister.
My father’s love of the Cotswolds inspired the watercolour painting that I used for the covers of my collections of columns for the Tetbury Advertiser.
HOW TO ORDER
Both collections are available to buy in paperback and ebook.
Order the paperbacks from Amazon via the links below or ask your local bookshop or library to order copies in for you (available from their usual stockists).
As regular readers of this blog will know, once a month I share here my latest column for the Hawkesbury Parish News, our local community magazine that is possibly the best-read journal in our little Cotswold village of Hawkesbury Upton, the real-life village that inspired my Sophie Sayers Village Mystery novels.
If you’ve been following my blog for more than five years, (and if so, gold star to you!), you may also recall that I gathered together my earlier columns into a book called All Part of the Charm. The columns in that book ran from January 2010, when I gave up my last full-time day-job to write, through 2015. I also included some essays I wrote about moving to the village in 1991.
As the end of 2020was approaching, being a fan of round numbers, and also to celebrate 30 years of living in Hawkesbury Upton, I decided it was time to collate my next batch of columns into a new book – 60 columns in all, one each month from 2016 to 2020. Rereading them to refresh my memory of their content before writing the introduction, I realised what an extraordinary five years they had been, and how much change – turmoil, even – they had brought to our lives. Yet throughout my columns, written for a local audience in our small corner of the Cotswolds, ran a common thread:
In an ever-changing world which seems to be lurching from one crisis to the next, it’s comforting to have some events in life that are dependably consistent – and to live in a community in which everyone looks out for their neighbours, not only in the season of goodwill, but all year round.
Wherever you are in the world, if you’d like to feel like an honorary or adoptive member of the parish of Hawkesbury, reading this little book will take you there as surely as the back of a certain wardrobe transports us to Narnia.
Below I’m sharing the introduction I wrote to this new book, which you can order now in ebook and paperback.
The paperback is now available from Amazon at a special launch price of £3.99 or equivalent in your local currency until the end of January.
It’s a slimmer book than the first volume, as it doesn’t include any additional essays, and I’ve changed the layout to be less extravagant with paper, but I hope you’ll think it’s great value at that price – and that you will be what it says on the cover: still charmed.
Foreword to Still Charmed:
Thirty Years On
This week, in celebration of 30 years since moving to the Cotswold village of Hawkesbury Upton on 4 January 1991, I dug out my old diary to revisit my initial impressions of village life, starting with a hectic first day in our new home.
“The log man came, bringing 15 sacks of logs, then the sweep came and cleaned both chimneys amazingly cleanly. I’d expected him to be covered in soot. Felt a little out of place when I realised that not only was I straining to understand his accent, but he was straining to understand mine.”
Next day, my husband “went to the shop for eggs and bread. Lots of people friendly there – one man knew he was from the old post office already.”
The house, unoccupied for eighteen months before we bought it, was somewhat spartan, the only heating provided by a vintage single-bar electric fire in the bathroom and an inefficient open fireplace in the front room. For several weeks, we slept on the floor in front of the fire, as everywhere else was too cold and damp. But by the second day, I was already acclimatising to our new home, a mid-nineteenth century stone cottage:
“Even though it seems in some respects that we’re roughing it, the convenience and comfort are infinitely greater than they would have been for the original occupants. When I put off going to the loo here as it’s so cold and damp, I ought to remember they would have gone down the bottom of the garden to the privy.” (Two outdoor toilets, buckets beneath holes in wooden planks, were still intact when we moved in.) “I understand the attraction of chamber pots for the first time.”
In the intervening 30 years, the house has been transformed to modern standards of comfort while we’ve retained many original features and added whimsical new ones of our own. My husband is building a mezzanine floor above the kitchen as I write. We’ve also become completely immersed in village life and are charmed by it.
During that time, I’ve served on many committees and volunteered for various community organisations in one way or another, and for the last 11 years, I’ve been writing a monthly column for our local parish magazine, the Hawkesbury Parish News, which, despite our village now boasting a high-speed internet connection, is just as much the hub of local news as it was when I first moved here. If you want to know about events, developments, future plans, and the traditional hatches, matches and despatches in our community, all you need to do is invest 50p a month in the parish mag, a fee that also includes optional delivery to your door. These days, electronic delivery is also available.
Although I often write articles for the various local organisations I’m involved in, such as the annual Hawkesbury Upton Literature Festival which I founded in 2015, my monthly column has no particular brief. I just write about whatever is front of mind as the deadline looms, which is usually seasonal or otherwise topical. The aim of my contribution is to entertain, amuse, divert and share experiences that I think will make my local friends and neighbours smile. There are plenty of jokes at my own expense, and my chosen topics are often village-centric.
But although Hawkesbury Upton is surrounded by fields and reached only by winding country lanes, most of them single track, our rural idyll does not escape the harsh realities of the outside world. The period this volume covers began in the run-up to the EU referendum and ended literally on the day we in the UK left the European Union. One of the last things I did in 2020 was apply for a new passport, as my old one was due to expire on 2 January 2021. The new one will be blue, not red, and will not bear the words European Union on the cover.
Also, as I wrote the first column shared here, the US presidential election that resulted in a win for Trump was in full swing. As I wrote the final piece, Biden’s victory was assured.
Collating these columns for the collection last week, I gasped when I realised the first entry would be titled “Flu Fury”, a jokey piece written while I was on the mend from a dose of winter flu. I’m glad I didn’t know then about the coming Covid-19 pandemic, nor the disruption and devastation it would bring to the whole world. Even Hawkesbury Upton, tucked away in the Cotswolds, with its moat-like surround of agricultural land, has not escaped unscathed, and my heart goes out to all those who have lost loved ones or suffered long-term health complications.
During this extraordinary five-year period, I have lost count of the number of times I have said to my daughter while watching Trump supporters invade the Capitol, “Take note of this, we’re witnessing history in the making”, and last night, as I was planning what to write in this foreword, I said it again.
This time, she replied in her teenaged wisdom, “Everything is history these days”.
Yet truer than ever are the pieces I’ve written celebrating the joy of coming home to Hawkesbury after holidays away and my gratitude for living “in a community in which everyone looks out for their neighbours, and not only in times of crisis or the season of goodwill”. (Who Needs Wifi When You’ve Got Good Neighbours, January 2018). I also often remark upon the continuity of village life. “In an ever-changing world which seems to be lurching from one crisis to the next, it’s comforting to have some events in life that are dependably consistent.” (The Comfort of Consistency, July 2019)
During the pandemic, we may have lost the events that provide the consistency – the Hawkesbury Horticultural Show, the Hawkesbury Upton Literature Festival, the midnight carol singing on Christmas Eve – but the community spirit is stronger than ever, not least due to the continuing presence of the Hawkesbury Parish News, which appeared as regularly as ever throughout lockdown, a comforting dose of normality in the midst of the most abnormal of years. In the absence of events news to fill the pages, the editor, Colin Dixon, persuaded more villagers to write articles, reproduced copy from the archives, and kindly shared extracts from my novels to help keep people entertained.
On a brighter note, the five years represented in this volume have included the culmination of my lifelong ambition to become a novelist, with the first of my eight novels published so far unveiled on 1 April 2017. It may have been no surprise to anyone familiar with my columns that my novels have been inspired by my delight in village life, although I hasten to add that all the characters, settings, and situations in my Sophie Sayers Village Mysteries, my Staffroom at St Bride’s series, and my Tales from Wendlebury Barrow Quick Reads are entirely made up. So if you enjoy reading these columns, you should find my novels just your cup of tea – and vice versa. (You’ll find a full list of the novels published so far in the back of this book, and there are plenty more to come.)
Now writing my ninth novel, and with the deadline of my 134th column for the Hawkesbury Parish News looming, I’m grateful for the enthusiasm and support of its readers and production team spurring me on. First Fiona Rowe and now Colin Dixon have worked tirelessly and meticulously, with the support of a hardworking and efficient team behind the scenes, to take the magazine from strength to strength, growing it thicker and more interesting each year. Whatever history has in store for us, I will be proud to write for the Hawkesbury Parish News for as long as I am able, and may it forever be a source of comfort, entertainment and pleasure to its readers.
COMING SOON: Travels with my Books – a new monthly series of guest posts by authors talking about the setting for their novels
First on the list: B M Allsopp, author of the Fiji Islands Mysteries – follow my blog (click button in the sidebar to the right of this post), if you don’t already, to make sure you don’t miss this intriguing exclusive interview!