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. 

Posted in Travel

Signally Challenged In Scotland

New Mobile Cell Phone Technology

If you think the mobile phone signal in Hawkesbury isn’t great, you should try touring the coast of Scotland. In our week long trip around Fife (that’s the bit that sticks out to the right above Edinburgh), there was hardly a day went by when I could text or call home. Even my usual Hawkesbury tricks – holding the phone above my head or next to a window – would not  persuade a single one of those aggravating little bars turn black. If we’d been in the Scottish Highlands, I’d have understood the problem: no line of sight contact with mobile masts. Those pesky mountains do get in the way sometimes.

I was once involved in a BBC outside broadcast at Westonbirt Arboretum. The technical guy complained that the proximity of tall trees was the one thing to avoid when trying to make a transmission. (Cue to sack the location scout!) But when you’re in treeless ground at sea level, there really is no excuse.

Mary, Queen of Scots

Ironically, we encountered on our coastal tour some surprisingly successful communication feats using old technology. While imprisoned in Lochleven Castle, Mary, Queen of Scots used her pearl earrings as a signal – she gave them to a secret messenger to send back to her as proof that his mission had succeeded.

RRS Discovery English: Museum ship RRS Discove...

The intrepid polar explorers who joined Captain Cook on the RRS Discovery (now a floating museum in Dundee) packed rockets to use as distress signals. They didn’t seem to have an alternative for good news.

Bell Rock Lighthouse

But my favourite was the system used by Robert Stevenson’s Bell Rock Lighthouse, built 200 years ago 11 miles off the coast of Arbroath. To indicate to those on dry land that all was well, the lighthouse keepers had to hoist a large brass ball to the top of the lighthouse tower each day. If on any day the ball did not appear, shore staff assumed there was a major  emergency at the lighthouse (e.g. serious illness or death of the keepers) and sent out a rescue boat. There was only one tale of an unnecessary emergency mission: when a large seabird nested in front of the light, obscuring the view of the ball.

So even the least technical solution isn’t failsafe. I think I’ll stick with my mobile. And dry land.

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(All photos by Wikipedia – must get my camera fixed!)

This post was originally written for the May issue of the Hawkesbury Parish News.

If you enjoyed this article about my recent Scottish trip, you might also enjoy this one:

Dorothy Was Right: There’s No Place Like Home 

 or this one:  New Respect for Old Fishwives

Posted in Family

Another term, another topic, another school trip…

Sidcup station platform signage, in Southeaste...
The starting point for all my childhool journeys (Photo: Wikipedia)

These days, it seems a term does not go by without the children being taken on a school trip. This policy is especially valuable in these rural parts, where our children do not have as much opportunity to travel as their city-dwelling peers.  I’m quietly envious every time Laura comes home clutching a permission slip for the current term’s trip. I was raised in suburbia and by the age of 12 I was regularly taking the 30 minute train ride into London to visit museums and parks at weekends. Not only did I travel without an adult, I also used to take my much younger cousins – unthinkable these days for reasons you don’t need me to go into here. But we had very few school trips, and none at all in primary school.

Laura’s school outings are always carefully planned to enhance the term’s topic, and the destination is not always obvious. I wondered where on earth would they go to study the Second World War. It emerged that for visiting schools, the Steam Museum at Swindon will recreate an “evacuee experience”. I had a lump in my throat as I packed her off to school that day. She had to wear a 1930s frock and take a teddy, wear a gas mask box over her shoulder and have a luggage label bearing her name pinned to her cardigan. However did my grandparents cope with those farewells? (I’m thankful that they did: it was my father’s evacuation to the Cotswolds and his consequent love affair with the area that made me realise at a very young age that I wanted to live here too.)

Demonstration of Roman army shield formations
Taking health and safety precautions a little too far on the Roman topic school trip

I thought I’d guessed the destination for Laura’s “Ruthless Romans” topic trip. Surely it had to be either Cirencester, Chedworth Roman Villa or the Roman Baths at Bath? But no, they headed off to foreign parts – across the border into Wales for a fabulous day at Caerleon Roman Remains. The photos of the children dressed as legionnaires made it look as though they’d travelled back in time. It was a trip they will remember for the rest of their lives.

Where, then, would they go for this term’s topic? It’s “The Awesome Outdoors”, and not, as one child first reported, “Automatic Doors”. (Her mother thought this unusual theme would lead to some interesting science and technology lessons. It was several days before she realised her daughter’s mistake.)

I love the alliterative titles teachers give to their topics. It’s great psychology for generating excitement. I wondered where would their “awesome” destination be. I thought about my own travels when I was Laura’s age. I was lucky enough to spend my ninth year in the USA, where my father was working. We saw Yellowstone Park’s geysers, the Badlands, the Grand Canyon, the Great Lakes – all pretty awesome to a child who till then had thought Sidcup was the centre of the world.

Laura produced the note from her bookbag with a flourish.

Spring blossom at Westonbirt Arboretum
Westonbirt Arboretum - just 5 miles away

“We’re going to Westonbirt Arboretum!” she cried excitedly. A pause.“Where’s that again?”

Of course! Where else? The environment on our doorstep is hard to beat in terms of awesomeness. The Arboretum’s education department is second to none, so I know her class will have a fabulous, memorable time and come back filled with wonder.

To children, any trip is far from school if it requires a coach to get them there – and there should just about be time for a sing-song on the way. There’ll be plenty of opportunities for globe-trotting when she grows up.

(This post was originally written for the Tetbury Advertiser, April 2012)

If you enjoyed this post, you might like to read about another of Laura’s outings in The Ring of Truth

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.)