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Reflecting on Loughrigg

Views make the climb worthwhile

At the risk of sounding super-spiritual, there really is something soul-uplifting about walking on the fells and hills. I love that feeling of pushing myself to the point of being uncomfortable; of having to really exert myself to get up the slopes; to have to struggle to reach the top. I like the thought of it all the evening before; something akin to fear, but not dread, more like excitement. ‘Will I make it? Am I going to make a fool of myself’ – it’s always there, that little bit of doubt. That whiny inner voice that tries to convince you that you can’t possibly do it – and the assertive voice that states firmly, ‘oh yes, I can! Why not me?’

The joy of reaching the top!

I like the packing of the rucksack – loading in my butties and my flapjack; maps, GPS thingy, apple, water, waterproofs, woollies, hat, Buff(believe me, there is such a thing!!); mat to sit on, banana, gaiters, spare socks, compass….the list seems endless, and the pushing down of ‘stuff’, the rearranging of it all – it’s all part of the excitement of preparation. I love waking up early, stoking up with a big breakfast, the chatter with friends as we wait to go, (‘Do we put waterproofs in rucksack or wear them for now? Do I need my middle layer on? Have I put sunscreen on’)  then nipping back inside for a last quick ‘widdle’ and then the setting off.  There we go! That’s us – off for the day to conquer a small mountain!

Coffee on the shores of Grasmere

So we set off from Rydal Hall that sunny morning in early May, led by Peter and Ann, an accomplished and experienced couple, with the gentlest of natures, lots of patience and a tangible love for walking. I picked their walk as much for them as for the fell we’d be climbing. They advised using sticks – well, Lou and I always use them anyway, if there’s any chance of a climb. We both have shot knees and, especially on the descent, feel the agony. I actually swear by them after doing the Oxfam Trail-Trek 3 years ago. They do take so much pressure off the legs and knees, and using your arms gives you a more rounded workout.

We’ve got to get up there!

The walk we did is around 8.5 miles, walking along the Coffin route as far as White Moss, then crossing the road to walk along the river linking Rydal with Grasmere, through Deerbolt Woods and along the beach of Grasmere. A gentle start, watching dogs splashing in the waters, chasing balls and generally reveling in the morning sunshine. The good weather had brought a few young families out and it was pleasant having mid-morning coffee and flapjack on the lake shore.


Pressing on, we started to climb, gently at first, but gradually becoming steeper and the heart starts pumping, as we look back on views of the lake below. It’s worth the exertion always to be able to capture that view.

Maggie takes a breather

The walk then continues to traverse above Grasmere and Rydal to Loughrigg Terrace, where we meet the turn-off to the steep ascent path up the Fell. Bracing ourselves, we proceed and for me, every step I take I’m defeating all the voices that have proclaimed what I can’t do and I’m boldly stepping into what I can and love doing. I’m nearly 60 and I’m bagging a Wainwright! It’s steep and it’s rough and the path is eroded in parts, and sometimes I’m on my hands and knees pulling myself up, but, after taking a few stops to catch my breath and take a photo (always a great excuse to have a breather!) I finally make it! I’m at the summit, 340m (about 1,300ft) above sea-level. We’re delighted, Lou and I, every climb is another shout to the wind, of “we can do it!”

Not our most glamorous selfie!

We don’t care much what we look like and that’s just as well, as we’re never really at our most glamorous on these occasions. We’re just happy to be alive and high up.

The joy of reaching the top!

Of course, after the exhilaration of climbing up, there’s the business of having to get down! So, we’re off again, on the descent, poles bearing the strain of the steepness. Then there’s those moments of looking back and seeing where we’ve been. We did that!

We actually climbed that hill. Lunch in the sunshine, when we’ve descended a couple of hundred feet feels well-deserved and most enjoyable. Fruit cake tastes amazing on a hill!






pennies in a tree stump
Back down by the river
home via the bridge
Wild garlic in grounds of Rydal





Sleep Walking Through Life

IMG_0739“How on earth did I get here?” You know the scary thought I mean, don’t you? You’ll sometimes get it when you’re driving – which is quite possibly the scariest time of all to have it. You’ll be bowling along in your car, thinking you’re taking note of traffic, hazards, places along the way and suddenly you look around and think. “What?!! I’m here! But how?” And you panic , ‘Did I go through lights?’,  ‘Have I been speeding?’ It’s as though a bit of your mind had disengaged from the rest of it – like you’ve been driving on autopilot. Coming to awareness pulls you up so sharply you start to drive in a very precise way, taking note of everything around you and making doubly sure you keep to the limit and stop at every red light. You wipe your palms down and calm your breathing.  Scary!

I can’t think what that process is called, but it’s happened a few times to me, while driving and also while walking – often in busy town centres. But it happens in life too. You get to a point and you have that scary thought, “What brought me to this place” As though you don’t recall the route you took, or you can’t recall the reasons you had for making certain decisions that led you to arrive at this point – this job; this house you live in; this marriage.  As though you have been sleep-walking and suddenly you wake up and find yourself in a place you don’t recognise.  Scarier still, you find you no longer recognise the person you have become. ‘Who is this person standing in this supermarket buying this food?’

Lady feels like this.  ( “Lady’s Dreaming”. by Tobias Woolff) As the story opens, she fights to stay awake in a hot, airless car, driven by her husband.  ‘Lady’s suffocating”. Seems to me that might be a metaphor for her life – if only she could have stayed awake, she might have noticed where she was going, but she can’t have the window open, “because the air blowing into the car bothers his eyes”. Not that he’d make a fuss, he’s a nice man, “never a mean motive”. It’s an “effort of will” to keep her eyes open now – it’s so hot, it’s almost like having a fever. In this strange place – on the edge of sleep, but skirting consciousness, she begins to see more “things more distinct and familiar”. Is she coming to a place pf greater awareness now?

We learn about Robert, her husband, from her thoughts. “Tells the most boring stories. Just lethal”. Says so much. Maybe it’s the storyteller within me, but those short lines had me – I couldn’t like him from that point on! He’s a man who considers all his words. He’s careful. Orderly. He is considerate. Before the second page I find myself wanting to scream. No wonder Lady wants to stay asleep. Even though he is desperate for her to stay awake. He likes to say her name. “Shut her up in her name”. You can do that with someone. Make them a prisoner to what you say they are. He loves her name – she is what she is called. And he traps her there. Now it seems she can’t move away from it. He has defined her and curtailed her existence. She’s trapped.

He tried to call her to wakefulness but, “Sorry, sir, Lady’s gone”. Where to? “She’s back home”. Lady has escaped down the years back to a place with her mother and sisters. She’s waiting for Robert, the young soldier and her beau then, to come, but also “not waiting”. Why is that? Because the three of them on that porch are actually complete as a unit. They are at ease with other, joking and teasing each other. “Sufficient unto themselves. Nobody has to come”.

Robert is on his way to her though. Now we see him as a thoughtful man, who learns poetry and recites to her, although she laughs at that. He believes he needs to get her away from that family “among sensible people who don’t think everything’s a joke.” Where she can become the very Lady she is named for.  This young woman is so very different to the girl his family would choose for him. This washis rebellion, though it’s a subconscious one. But he doesn’t believe that you just fall in love – that’s something more purposeful, “you master your choices”. He speculates nervously about what his father will think; of her “rawness” and the fact she is “spoiled and willful and half wild”. He is so afraid that he is on his way to end the relationship. It seems he has been sleep-walking and has shocked himself when he wakes up and finds himself in this place.  “He’ll tell Lady anything except the truth, which is that he’s ashamed to have picked her to use against his father”. How could he? Having met him in Lady’s thoughts earlier, I’m now really angry at this guy. So he was going to use her to beat his father over the head with, was he? ‘You can’t make me choose the sort of woman you’d like for me, Dad, I can have anyone I like and if I want trash, as you would say, then I will have trash!’ I don’t like the man and I like his father even less.

But wait, nothing is ever so simple. Maybe choosing him is her own personal act of rebellion? Maybe she wanted out of this place more than she might admit? Or is that she actually does love him? That young girl goes to meet her young man, the one resolved to break her heart now. He sees her and tastes in his mouth the sweetness of her, even as she stands at a distance from her. It dissolves his intention and “he takes the steps as if he means to devour her”.

As she revisits this place of her youth, the girl she was is there before her, but neither of them see that early hesitation of his.  Instead this older self wants to call to the young girl, “This man is not for you. He will patiently school you half to death”. Would our younger selves ever take any notice of our older, wiser selves though? The young girl won’t listen; she is moving towards her beau even as Lady is dreaming. Oh the irony that his earlier resolve to leave her would actually have saved her from being locked in this prison he has made for her! Instead it is her sweet freshness; her rawness and her wildness that melts his heart, lulls him back into his own sleepy state and washes away his previous purpose. He is smitten. But over the years, the very charm that drew in has been smothered and now her only escape is to pretend to sleep.

We fall in love with who we see and their very differences draws us to them. Do they stay appealing? Or do we want them to conform to what we had imagined we really wanted? Do we want to be lifted from our sleepy states and awakened to something richer and wilder? Or will we try to tame the ones we love so that they fit the lives we think we need to fit?



Hidden Depths

plants_12-21In recent times I have started to really enjoy gardening. I’ve always loved gardens – it must run in my genes – my grandfather spent most of his life in his garden and grew the most amazing chrysanthemums and dahlias, as wells as beautiful rose bushes. His passion was passed on to my mum but it’s not been something any of my siblings has taken much of an active interest in. I started to be interested when I made an effort to make our back yard a bit more colourful with some pots. There was something quite exciting about seeing how plants turned from tiny little leafy things to gorgeous tall and bushy flowering plants. I had around 30 pots eventually in the small, paved gardens of our house in Marple and brought them all with me to Holmfirth.

We have a much larger garden here – with grass! And trees! It all makes me feel rather rich! And now, having more time, it’s a lovely break from sitting at the computer, to wander out into the garden and get my hands dirty in the compost, deadhead some dying flowers, prune back a few shrubs, pull up some weeds or plant something I’ve bought recently in a special little place I’ve chosen for it. I can’t tell you the thrill I get from wandering round seeing what has ‘come up’ over night. I am fascinating watching buds slowly open over days, unfurling to become something really colourfully beautiful. In the garden I can lose myself completely for hours at a time. I can take my stunted thoughts and, whilst pottering around, grubbing in the soil, I can process my thinking and move myself on; make decisions that I didn’t even know I was considering or imagine new possibilities. But gardening is also an end to itself – it’s such a lovely thing to do. And I know this too – it’s the sort of hobby that can also eat away at your budget! There are always such delightful new plants to buy at garden centres – even the supermarket or corner shop sell lovely things to tempt us to try and grow!

As I said I brought all my pots from Marple and have had such an interesting time planning where they will go and preparing a way for them. You should see how some of them have flourished now they are released from the prison of their pots! There’s also something about continuity. I was looking at an Acacia I had in a pot at our last house and seeing it now, in early Spring, rising tall above my garden wall, with its tiny buds ready to burst, just thrills me that once it overlooked a busy, noisy main road – now it is in such a peaceful setting, watching dogwalkers and ramblers make their way to the woods and the hills; smilingly watching our dog go loopy on the lawn. It’s made a journey with me and both of us are enjoying, and making the most of, our new setting.

At the front of our house here is a strip of grassed land that used to get very boggy when it rains. It’s at the bottom of a steep, sloping lawn and persistent rain often turns it into a swamp. People sometimes stepped on it, the dog would run across it and trample mud into the house. It also didn’t look very pretty. The answer was to cut the turf from it, dig it up, enrich the soil with compost and put in bog-loving plants. I had decided on rhododendrons, astilbe and geraniums. My friendly garden-labourer suggested Achtea too. ‘Beautiful shrubs’, he tells me, ‘with dark foliage and gorgeous creamy white flowers and they grow to 5 feet.’ Sounded perfect. It would be lovely to turn in the drive and see the colourful range from this grouping, set in gold and white gravel. He sent me off to a specialist nursery in Halifax, “Dove Cottage”. I rather liked it just for the name, being a Wordsworth fan. So I set off there, very excited. He’d told me that the plants there were so superior to other nurseries and garden centres. The owner could not have been nicer. She was serving when I got there, so I had a wander. All I could see were lines and lines of pots with nothing in though, but clearly there were parts of the nursery that weren’t accessible to the general public. ‘The real plants must be up those glass houses,’ I thought. It came to my turn and she asked me all about what I wanted and what sort of garden I had, where the sun came up, and what the soil was like. She agreed that an Achtea and a couple of Astilbes would be perfect. She also had some Geraniums which would enjoy that sort of ground, she said. Off she went and I expected her to be ages as the greenhouses were up a hill, but instead she went to where I had just been wandering and brought back two large pots (3 litres), filled with compost and set them down at my feet, ‘They’re really lovely Geraniums, with good spread and I know I’ve got an Achtea somewhere’ – she scooted off again and was back in less than a minute with a slightly larger pot, again with nothing in but compost and a white tag, dashed away again and I watched, open-mouthed, as she rotted among identical black pots and came back with 2 more. For a moment I just couldn’t speak. £8.50 for dirt in a pot!!

Now, if you’re an avid gardener you may wonder at my gormless reaction! You see, I’d only ever bought from a garden centre before and was used to choosing from what I could see. Now it seemed, I was being asked to take, in faith, what I could not see! All I had, for ‘proof’ of what lay beneath that compost, was a printed tag – stating the name of the plant in there, a brief description of what it would be, the heights it would grow to and the spread it would make across the garden. When I looked closely, I could see that there was something poking its way out of the compost. In one of them it looked like dead straw, which she promptly snipped off with her secateurs! I had to take it on trust that what she said was growing there, beneath the surface, was actually there and would grow, from this barely visible thing, to something beautiful – as tall as a person and as broad as a pillar-box, looking amazing when I opened my front door. I had to laugh really! Because I had been so naive. Of course, plants start life as seeds or bulbs and nurseries take cuttings, transplant root balls into pots for people like me to take and lovingly plant in their own gardens and nurture them to full life.

Several weeks on each of these plants is looking splendid in that little part of the garden. FullSizeRender (2) FullSizeRender FullSizeRender (1)

Still some way to go, but definitely heading upwards and outwards!! A lot is going on under the surface as the roots take in nutrients from our well-prepared soil and are enjoying all the moisture from what was previously a bog! John was away when I created this little garden and was delighted to see it done when he came home, but did ask me what the ‘patches of soil’ were spread across the gravel area! It made me laugh as he was obviously as ‘convenience-minded’ as me, when it comes to growth! He expected to see a fully flowering shrub growing straight away. Every couple of days I peer at my plants and I can see something more of them appearing – it’s miraculous to me and it heartens me so much.

There’s a lesson for life here, isn’t there? So often we can’t see growth happening. We can become frustrated that nothing is happening – when under the surface so much is going on. To make something lovely there has to be a lot of spade-work, clearing of debris, preparation of land, adding of nutrients, watering of soil – before the plant can take root and grow. And there needs to be plenty of sunshine to coax the thing to make an appearance! In life, we can all too often trample on the dreams of others who are trying to make things happen. It looks as if there is just ‘dirt in a pot’ and nothing much else – but under the surface there is often a lot happening that we can’t see. The thing is, if we could see, it wouldn’t actually happen quite so well, as it needs to take place underneath to be able to happen. It’s out of the way of the busy-ness of life that much work gets done – it’s in back rooms where policies get written; it’s very often in cold church halls where focus groups and listening exercises take place; it’s sometimes in back bedrooms where emails and letters are written and change programmes are planned.

There’s also things going in the lives of individuals that we can’t always see. How many times have we walked around, knowing on the surface we look just fine, but inside we are desperately anxious about something; or someone we know and live is dying and we can’t be with them; or we have to hide an illness for some reason? And there are those who might simply overlook as they seem as if they have little to say, or nothing to offer us. They don’t seem to amuse or have opinions. Who knows what is going on inside their heads? What trauma they might have experienced, or crippling shyness they are trying to overcome. I remember a little girl who never seemed to speak and one day at a party she suddenly started to recite nursery rhymes after an elderly lady had chatted to her for over half an hour without evoking any response. Eloquently and beautifully, for almost an hour, she entertained a group of us who were enchanted and applauded enthusiastically! Seen in a new light, she suddenly blossomed into a confident child and her life changed from that day. Someone saw she had something; nurtured it and warmed it with the sunshine of her smile and watered it with gentleness.

I am drawn to a Hardy poem – aptly title ‘In The Garden’…


We waited for the sun

To break its cloudy prison

(For day was not yet done,

And night still unbegun)

Leaning by the dial.


After many a trial –

We all silent there –

It burst as new-arisen,

Throwing a shade to where

Time travelled at that minute.


Little saw we in it,

But this much I know,

Of lookers on that shade,

Her towards whom it made

Soonest had to go.


Just for itself, this is so beautiful – there’s a calmness and stillness in the words – just waiting for the sun to come back again, hoping it will before night closes in, but holding our breath as perhaps the moment will be lost as the day ends. And sometimes it’s like the early morning sun when it does peep out from behind those thick clouds – and with that burst comes that bright hope – as if we can start all over again. Like the little girl – no one thought much of her – a shy wee thing with nothing to say. A bit of sun warming her, coaxing her from the shell she’d found herself hidden under and she was away! A new thing. Like my plants. Hidden under dirt, waiting for the right conditions to make their appearance – to grow into what they were intended to be.

So where will we let our own rays of sunshine fall upon? Who or what can we coax into the light and nurture into becoming that something they have the potential to be?

Crossing to Safety


At last the snow has cleared! It’s been hanging around since Wednesday and lovely as it looks when it’s all fresh and white, the disruption it causes is annoying. I always try to really love it and get out and walk in it with my companion, Billy – who, being a dog – finds it enormous fun to toss it about and roll around in it! But, try as I might, it’s so blooming cold and it makes you wet, and it turns to slush and makes you slide and then it ices over and threatens to help you break you neck! No, if I am honest, I have to say I wouldn’t really miss it if it never snowed here again.

Today, though, we could stride out again on our walk – that is until we reached Honley Wood, where the thick covering of snow has left a legacy of sloppy mud – and there is still heaps of it all over the site of the old quarry – with sheets of ice too that can sneak up on you unawares. It’s always good to be out when the sky is so clear though. The dismay I felt when I saw it raining first thing soon lifted as the sky brightened. Isn’t it wonderful how your spirits lift as you walk and breathe clean air? After being more or less cooped up for a couple of days, I was suffering from a bit of cabin fever so it felt even more liberating to be out today. Even countering the mud and the last of the ice wasn’t so bad – a challenge well worth facing. At one point I was in a field so boggy, with whole areas of ice covering what could well have been pretty deep swampy bits, that I really had to switch my brain on to work out the best way of jumping from one tuft of marsh grass to the next. Of course, I ended up with a bit of water down the boots, but my feet managed to stay reasonably dry. Billy certainly didn’t stay dry!! He made up for the 2 days lost opportunities of mud-splashing!

The book I’m thinking of today resonates with this business of getting from one tricky bit to another – trying to make out way across boggy ground – or rocky places – or icy patches. “Crossing to Safety” is by Wallace Stegner; I read it early in 2014 and loved it. It tells the story of two couples (Larry and Sally; and Sid and Charity) who make their way across the challenges thrown at them by life – with its love and loyalties; its trials and tragedies – and how they somehow make sense of all of that through a lifelong and complex friendship. Larry is telling the story – backwards, from his stance as an aging man looking back over the times the friends have been together, sitting on a porch while his wife sleeps. What a different place they have come to now – yet they gather at the same house where the friendship was birthed: “There it was, there it is, the place where during the best time of our lives friendship had its home and happiness its headquarters”

Each of the friends go through some tough times. We are with them as they face illness and disability; redundancies, disappointments and death. I love how they all grapple and struggle with understanding their relationships with each other – how they keep holding on to each other – even when forced apart. You’re never really sure if they truly understand each other though – if they ‘get’ one another. What seems important is that they stay on the journey together. Relationships are not easy- they have to be worked at – and just when you think you’ve ‘got’ someone, they sometimes slip through your fingers and you feel like you’re back at the beginning again. Ain’t that the truth! I guess that’s what makes it all so interesting – this people thing.

There’s this wonderful bit in the story when the couples leave their children with Charity’s mother and nanny while they go off into the wilds of Vermont. The plan ( and as always it is Charity’s plan – she plans everything, including everyone’s lives) is to take a horse, backpacks and really rough it – using ‘Pritchard’s’ notes (Pritchard being a real intrepid explorer and camper). And she intends to follow it to the letter…..

“On this trip [canes] have been declared compulsory. Pritchard, whose book on the outdoors Charity has been reading in preparation for the trip, recommends walking sticks, blackthorns, alpenstocks, or some other support for rough terrain and as a protection against hostile dogs.”

The husbands make fun of Pritchard – but not when fearsome Charity is around of course. One of the things he definitely recommends is double-checking your list to ensure everything is packed. So, just as they are about to set out she has them unpack to try and locate the tea. She berates Larry for not packing it and this threatens the harmony of the whole endeavour until the lovely Sally goes to fetch tea from the house and they can finally set off. Sid is angry with the way Charity speaks to Larry, “she acts like his mother, not his wife” he says to Sally and is often irked that Larry doesn’t fight back. On this occasion, it would seem that Larry too is rattled. In an usual fit of anger, he throws his stick away to Larry’s astonishment, who ends up keeping is – “but then, nobody is making me carry it”. Later they are waiting for the wives to catch up:

“He is still sore from that scene at the loading, his nose is still bloody. But notice. When [Charity and Sally] are within a few hundred yards he stands up and goes along the wall picking late raspberries and ripe chokecherries, and when they chug up, pink with exercise, exaggeratedly puffing, he goes to them, Charity first, and holds out a handful of berries as if expiating something.

“‘ Why thank you! she says, extravagantly pleased. ‘oh, don’t they taste good, and natural? I love their pucker’

In a few minutes we start again, Charity now in front with Sid, Sally and I leading Wizard behind. But as we begin to move, Charity notices a lack. ‘Where’s your cane? Have you left it somewhere? Already? Oh, Sid!'”

So much for subversive behaviour! You have to admire that moment of revolt though – and even more so that gracious offering of tender fruit.

Some of the most unlikely people come together well in relationship when many of us would be thinking “that’ll never work”. And don’t you find yourself wondering “how does he/she put up with that?” Mostly, we just don’t know what’s going on – what hidden depths there are to be uncovered by someone who really cares. I bet there are more than a few who think I’m the boss in our marriage – they have no idea how much I depend on that most marvellous man and I doubt they could guess at just how much I adore him and he me. It matters really only to us. You see, in the end, he’s the one I head for – my own place of safety – and I’ve crossed a fair few bogs to get here.

To Have and to Hold

untitledI have doll’s houses on my mind today. I’ve been looking at them in town, wondering whether to buy one for little Jessica – or would it be better to buy Duplo, or Lego and let her build her own? We just want to do the best for our children or grandchildren, don’t we? We want them to have toys with the most ‘play-value’.

There’s a short story about a Doll’s House by Katherine Mansfield, that I love. Written in 1922 and set in rural New Zealand, it’s a tale about the cruelty of class distinctions. I’ve read it several times in groups and it never fails to enchant and always gets people talking. There’s something about the heartlessness of the adults and the way the children are sucked in to that that speaks to our sense of injustice.  But it also makes us think hard about our own attitudes to the differences between social classes. Like many stories, we look for ourselves in the telling and wince as we see shades of our beings right there between the lines.

Today, I’m not thinking about that theme though – it’s the joy of having a doll’s house that captured me in this story when I very first read it and does so each time. The picture painted in words is just delicious:

The hook at the side was stuck fast. Pat prised it open with his penknife, and the whole house-front swung back, and – there you were, gazing at one and the same moment into the drawing-room and dining-room, the kitchen and two bedrooms. That is the way for a house to open! Why don’t all houses open like that? How much more exciting than peering through the slit of a door into a mean little hall with a hat-stand and two umbrellas! That is – isn’t it? – what you long to know about a house when you put your hand on the knocker. Perhaps it is the way God opens houses at dead of night when He is taking a quiet turn with an angel…..

Don’t you just want to hug yourself with delight at this? I could almost hear myself squeal. We had one – at our home in Mill Lane – my sisters and I sharing ownership. It opened just like this one and, joy of all joys, it was wall-papered with brick patterned paper on the outside! We loved it. They always had hooks, didn’t they? You could just unfasten that hook, let that front swing back and, just as it says “there you were, gazing…”. All of us seem to love that very idea of being able to see all, at the same time. Of having control of every room – of being able to position the chairs – just so – with the little peg dolls, lolling back with their sticky-out legs at awkward angles, sitting on them.  Trying to tuck those limbs under tables, or popping them onto beds which were ridiculously out of proportion but none of it mattered, because they were our people in our house and we were putting them where we thought they should be. I could tell stories with those people – they had great and happy lives in that house with me in control.

It’s that swinging back image that continues to thrill me most of all. The very idea of being able to see so much. It does sort of give us an insight into how it might be for God and I love that Mansfield puts that image in there of Him tiptoeing around the quiet streets after dark, accompanied by and angel, checking up on us all……

“I’ll just slip this hook off, Gabe, and have a peep in here. She was a bit upset earlier today, so I’ll just pop my head in and see….oh that’s ok, she’s sleeping soundly. All is well again here. Hang on; what’s that going on downstairs? Oh I see her youngest is up raiding the fridge again! Does that boy never stop eating?”

I see God shaking His head at such wayward greed, but never intervening – we make our own choices after all – and then quietly closing the front of the house up again before He and Gabriel continue on their way. Of course it’s a ridiculous image but it’s also a comforting one to know that I am watched and looked over. Although, I guess the actual thought of having the front of my house opened up to the elements in the dead of night is not particularly comforting – given we’re in West Yorkshire and it’s always so blooming cold here!

There were always lots of lovely, little things in doll’s houses – miniature clocks or coat-stands, for instance – that warranted being inspected in close delight. I have in mind just now a tiny box of oranges that Nicola, my daughter (11 years old at the time) once bought from a little specialist doll’s house shop in Marple Bridge. She didn’t even have a doll’s house – she was simply entranced by the loveliness of this piece. In the story, Kezia, one of the little girls who becomes a joint owner of the doll’s house is entranced by one object especially….

But what Kezia like more than anything, what she liked frightfully, was the lamp. It stood in the middle of the dining-room table, an exquisite little amber lamp with a white globe. It was even filled all ready for lighting, though, of course, you couldn’t light it. But there was something inside that looked like oil, and that moved when you shook it.

Goodness! You really want to see that lamp, don’t you? So did another little girl in the story. A girl from the wrong side of town. She hears about the lamp and something inside her is touched – but she dare not even dream of being able to see it. I won’t spoil it for you if you haven’t read it, by saying how it happens that she does see it, but there is this beautiful moment when she snuggles up to her sister …

But now she had forgotten the cross lady. She put out a finger and stroked her sister’s quill; she smiled her rare smile.

‘I seen the little lamp,’ she said, softly.

Then both were silent once more.

It’s within us all, it seems, this desire to peer at something exquisite and sweet – a likeness of something real – yet something small enough that we might take in our hand, hold and turn about and simply find joy in. What part of us is this speaking to? I wonder could it be that connection we have with our own Creator? He that fashioned us in His own likeness – and cares about every little bit of us (even, we are told, the very hairs on our heads) I often think of the delight He must have in looking at what He has made and seeing what we get up to. Of course, I think He wouldn’t always be happy with what He sees – we get up to awful mischief and make a mess of things repeatedly. However, like most parents of wayward children, He must surely find lots to smile about as well as plenty that amuses Him!

It’s made me think – all children should have access to doll’s houses and the most exquisite little pieces to cherish and coo over. Something beautiful to have and to hold……and make us smile.

When Walls Come Down

Dry-stone walls proliferate the countryside of West Yorkshire. They dominate the landscape. They ramble over fields, moors – line the lanes – march around the edge of meadows. They’re striking in the most beautifully, arresting way. I don’t think I’m the only one who finds themselves spending time just looking at them – wonderingly. ‘How did they do that?’

In the run-up to “Le Grand Depart” of “Le Tour de France” which came to Yorkshire earlier in the year, some of the cyclists from other countries came to Holmfirth to ‘scout out’ the terrain. A press conference was held with a group from Belgium and Germany. They were asked questions about what they thought of the hills and so forth, and then one of them said “I have a question for you – about the walls. They are everywhere. Even in the highest places. How did they get there? Who put them there?”

Who indeed? A survey in 1988 recorded 5,000 miles of walls in Yorkshire. 5,000!!! That’s a huge number. They’re not the only kind of boundary of course, but they make up the most with 620 miles of hedgerow and 155 miles of fence – according to the same survey. So what do they do? They proclaim ownership. They keep animals in – and people out. Or at least they aim to. Where I live – they hold up gardens – indeed they hold back hills from sliding into roads, making it possible to inhabit these steep slopes that would otherwise render it impossible to build upon.

This one holds up a cemetery! As it’s at the end of the lane where I live, I pass it most days. I don’t always stop and look at it – of course not, I take it for granted, like most people. It’s always there – holding up the land. But when I do, I am amazed at the work it’s doing and how majestic it is. I love how the moss has gathered on the stones and how it’s all become a part of the living landscape – even though the stones themselves are dead things. No doubt all sorts of tiny creatures are making their homes in the crevices of the stones. I have to wonder if they’re watching me gazing up at the wall!



But they don’t last forever! They need attention – they require skilled people to care them and ensure they remain capable of doing the job. There are plenty of them like this – with sufficient gaps in them to enable Billy and I to get into our favourite woods to chase those pesky squirrels! (It’s Billy doing the chasing, by the way, not me!!)




When I clambered over this one recently (see next pic), I found myself singing the lines of a song a musician friend of ours composed some years ago “When walls come down..” it was called. I remembered the tune, but only a couple of lines. The sentiment though was about the importance of pulling down walls so that people could see and mix with each other. That’s the downside of walls, isn’t it? They might make us feel safe – keeping the enemy out, but they can also prevent integration. They can fix us in one place and stop us being able to grow through exploring what’s beyond the place we’re living in. So of course, windows, doors and gates – legitimate ways to move beyond the walls are essential. But with those comes the additional problem of having to monitor who passes through them.


I got to thinking about a book by Doris Lessing. Well, actually it was the second of a series of books “Canopus in Argos: Archives”. The book I’m thinking of is “The Marriages between Zones Three, Four, and Five”. It’s a brilliant piece of writing about gender conflict – described by many as feminist science fiction. It is set in the metaphysical zones that circle Shikista (which could allegorically be Earth). Each zone there is a distinct system at play – ways of relating to each other and rules about living. Zone Three is matriarchal and egalitarian; Zone Four is patriarchal and militaristic and Zone Five is tribal and barbaric. The story is told through the voice of the Zone Three chroniclers and tells how a marriage was ordained between the Queen of Zone Three and King of Zone Four and later between the King of Zone four and the Queen of Zone Five. Confused already? It is not as tricky to follow as it sounds – it’s actually really good and beautifully written.

It certainly made me think about the way we identify ourselves with place and how we are socialised into a way of behaving; how we adopt beliefs and practices, sometimes without questioning or challenging. But also how easy it is to become fearful of difference; how we might build walls to protect ourselves – but from who? Often simply from the unknown. What we do not know we cannot understand; what we cannot understand we often fail to get to know; what we cannot know we cannot get close to. Walls keep others out of our place – but keep us in ours. Is this the best place to be?

The Queen of Zone Two is changed forever by her marriage and by mothering a child of both zones and finds herself somewhat displaced and disturbed. Later in the book she is allowed to look into Zone Two…

“Into that Zone (Two) she had taken the senses of Zone Three and, of course, of Zone Four; whose citizen she now was, but had tried to take in, to assess, that high delicate place but without what was needed to assess it. Who could tell her what in fact she could have seen there, if differently tuned, if more finely set?” page 196, Knopf edition, 1980

You see how it speaks of how one changes, how one becomes different by association with people of a different place? She knows now that there is more that she could be – she could become more ‘finely tuned’ and see yet more than she already can. There are horizons that stretched beyond our present vision – there is much, much more than this.

And what of the King? Who has to endure another marriage.

“Then he lay awake in the dark, arms behind his head, thinking. Of this savage girl, with who he promised himself all kinds of pleasures, the more satisfactory because she would not be expecting them. Of Al-Ith [the Queen of 3], whose thoughts seemed to be flowing there around and near him….and there was more than a little anger in him. He knew that he was forever caught up and bound, if not to her, then her realm, her ways – so that he could never again act without thinking, or be without reflection on his own condition. And he did not regret it, not that, yet even now there was a part of him that said she had put a spell on him – and that she must be exulting, knowing that his new queen was at this moment laughing at him in her tent.

He could no longer be as he had been, the Ben Ata who had never doubted what he should do; not could her react from any higher or better centre or state. He was in between, and horribly uncertain” p 209, as before

You can’t help but feel sorry for him, can you? The queen of zone three disturbed him so much that he too is forever changed and cannot go back to how he was. A good thing? He’s now ‘horribly uncertain’, so you’d possibly say not. But is certainty always such a good thing? Isn’t it a better thing to be a little unsure and therefore cause yourself to tread more carefully – to be just that bit more cautious, and thus have a better chance of not falling down the slippery slopes? Confidence is good – but we can be confident in the wrong things and confidence without competence is downright dangerous.

He doesn’t regret his relationship, although he is conscious that his very being has changed him and he, like her, is somewhat disturbed and displaced. I love the way he sees himself as ‘forever caught up and bound’ – not just to her, but to everything from the place she came from. I feel that happening as I live in West Yorkshire now. When I go back to Marple, I know that I have different eyes – a different way of looking at things. Going across the ‘border’ of the Pennines has changed me. I’m not sure I would describe myself as ‘displaced’ but I know I cannot leave Honley behind when I’m in Marple – I’m becoming more and more wrapped up in the ways of this place. Funny how he talks of ‘more than a little anger’. There’s clearly a part of him that is resentful of the changes that have happened and of the bondage he speaks of. We’re none of us as free as we like to think we are. All of us, it seems, are bound by our obligations to people and places. I cannot do some things without a voice from my past whispering in my ear “that’s not right!” or “You go girl!”. Breaking free of those voices might be possible – but would be challenging. And do I want to be free of them?

All this from looking at walls! Not only are they beautiful, they are intrinsically linked with our very beings – in the way we define ourselves and where we fix ourselves in time, place and season. I’ve climbed over many walls; walked through gates and scrambled over stiles. I know this – there are many more walls I want to climb over and many I want to pull down. But there are many too that need to be mended and kept in place.



Who Will Bring Us In From The Cold

Imagine being out in the pouring rain, chilled to the bone and having no one to turn to. Do you ever find yourself having that sort of thought? It’s on days like today – when the rain has been almost relentless with the wind hurling all sorts of things around, paying no heed to the status of anything – that I do find myself pondering such questions. Cheerful soul, aren’t I? Well actually, homelessness can and does happen to people from all sorts of backgrounds and social strata. A manager of a shelter for homeless people told me that in recent years he has seen many more middle-aged men, who once had high-flying careers, having been made redundant and lost their homes, sleeping rough – often in their cars (all that is left of a ‘better’ life).

Sleeping rough has been increasing exponentially in recent years. In one year, records released by the Department of Communities and Local Government show a 23% increase of people sleeping rough (from 1,768 to 2,181 on any one night).

Don’t get me started on the reasons underlying this increase! For now, I’m just thinking of the hopelessness of having nowhere to go and no-one to turn to. That overwhelming feeling of not knowing what to do next; that there is no place you can put your head.


You see, when I’m out walking, especially on the very worst of days, there is something so reassuring about the knowledge that, whatever it feels like now, there will be an end to it – a place that will be warm and dry; where there are towels to dry your hair; somewhere you can shake out your coat and hang it; a hot cup of tea and maybe even a bowl of soup! These things, small as they seem, are the things that drive you on; like twinkling lights in the distance.


When we did the Trailtrekker earlier this year (100k in 30 hours, walking with no sleep, across the Yorkshire Dales), the sight of the water-stations and checkpoints at regular intervals along the way rose up like mirages. We’d be hobbling and aching and just about all done in, then we’d see a sign “500m to next checkpoint” and suddenly our feet could move faster, our legs propelled us on with renewed vigour. From somewhere, because we’d been given hope, we found an inner cheerfulness and we could go on.


It brings to mind the story of Janet Dempster (‘Janet’s Repentance[1]’) who is married to an abusive husband,  who is also the town’s lawyer. She is a proud and beautiful woman, but has turned to drink to help her cope with her disastrous marriage. We’d say today that she was alcohol dependent, but then her neighbours talked of her being ‘unwell’ or ‘having headaches’ – this is a Victorian novel, you see, so the actual ‘issue’ is never really mentioned! The nearest we get to it is in reading that her beauty ‘is enhanced by the faint physical traces of her addiction’.

 scenes of clerical life

Matters come to a head when Dempster comes home in a drunken rage and violently turns his wife out in the night, wearing only a nightdress. She has nowhere to go and no one to turn to. At one point she finds herself sitting on the freezing cobble stones and contemplates simply staying there, letting the night take her. Then, from somewhere, comes the memory of a kind, elderly friend and she makes her way through the streets to her house and manages to wake her:



‘It is I, Mrs Pettifer; it is Janet Dempster. Take me in, for pity’s sake.’
‘Merciful God! What has happened?’
‘Robert has turned me out. I have been in the cold a long while.’
Mrs Pettifer said no more, but hurried away from the window, and was soon at the door with a light in her hand.
‘Come in, my poor dear, come in,’ said the good woman in a tremulous voice, drawing Janet within the door. ‘Come into my warm bed, and may God in heaven save and comfort you.’
The pitying eyes, the tender voice, the warm touch, caused a rush of new feeling in Janet. Her heart swelled, and she burst out suddenly, like a child, into loud passionate sobs. Mrs Pettifer could not help crying with her, but she said, ‘Come upstairs, my dear, come. Don’t linger in the cold.’
She drew the poor sobbing thing gently up-stairs, and persuaded her to get into the warm bed. But it was long before Janet could lie down. She sat leaning her head on her knees, convulsed by sobs, while the motherly woman covered her with clothes and held her arms round her to comfort her with warmth. At last the hysterical passion had exhausted itself, and she fell back on the pillow; but her throat was still agitated by piteous after-sobs, such as shake a little child even when it has found a refuge from its alarms on its mother’s lap.


A friend who needs so little explanation; who asks no questions, but instantly responds to this desperate need: isn’t that the kind of friend we would all wish for? To know there is someone who can offer a ‘warm bed’ without hesitation or concern for themselves, must surely offer the most beautiful beacon of hope. Yet, how many of us can be sure that we have someone in our lives who we could call upon when the going gets really tough, or the night is most dreadfully cold? When I first read this, only two years ago, I recall stopping and thinking about this. Did I have that person, that one person, who could be relied upon to open the door no matter what time of day or night it was? And would they offer a spot in their own warm bed for me if I really needed it?


I consider myself truly blessed, because I didn’t have to think for too long and was able to list a number of people who I could confidently turn to in such a situation. Of course, we don’t want to face this really, do we? It isn’t going to happen to us. Really?


Sadly, many people do feel completely alone and have no one to turn to. Mother Theresa said that loneliness was the worst disease that anyone can endure and I read in the Guardian today that the “number of men over the age of 50 suffering from severe loneliness in England will increase to more than 1 million in the next 15 years”.



Loneliness doesn’t only affect those who live alone; you can be lonely in a crowd, but also in the context of a relationship. I guess Janet had become increasingly isolated, partly due to the shame of what was happening in her marriage and of her (mistaken, but understandable) self-perceived blame in how she was handling things. She was a desperate woman and that’s seen so clearly in the way she responds to this overt display of affection from Mrs Petifer – she becomes ‘convulsed by sobs’. I just love how the older lady covers her and holds her until her sobbing subsides.


Sometimes that’s just all we are called to do. Offer a hug, some warmth and our nonjudgmental, but comforting silence. So, to finish, a second question – who would turn to us in their hour of need?

[1] Eliot, George, Janet’s Repentance, in Scenes of a Clerical Life, first published 1857 (Penguin Classics)

The Terrible Truth in the Telling


“They came, the brothers, and took two chairs” (Thomas Hardy)

It’s the foulest of days! After one of the mildest Septembers ‘since records began’ (why do they insist on saying that all the time?!!), we are shocked to wake and find havoc being wreaked on our road networks by strong winds and driving rain. It doesn’t take much, does it? To shock us, I mean. The weather even made the news this morning. Have we so little interesting stuff to talk about that we have to have the weather conditions commented on by journalists? There he was, the journalist, hanging on to one of those huge fluffy covered microphones (they always make me laugh – I mean, could you really talk into one of those and not think you were whispering sweet nothings to a dead squirrel?). He was on the bridge across the M62 at Ainley Top, Huddersfield, letting us know how windy and terrifying it was for motorists. Well, I guess they hadn’t noticed that themselves, had they? They hadn’t woken this morning to find billions of wet leaves being hurled around, making it slippy- slidey and obscuring vision and the rain lashing their windscreens; they hadn’t dealt with the spray from large vehicles; they hadn’t dashed from their houses to their cars and got themselves drenched? No, they were all completely oblivious to these conditions until the BBC very kindly and sensibly went to the trouble of reporting on them for us. Bless them for that!

I shouldn’t mock, but we are as a nation, seemingly obsessed with the weather. We can’t even stand in a bus queue without longing to share our opinions on what it’s doing today. One of my favourites has to be “Can’t make its mind up, can it?”. Of course, “it” can’t make its mind up! “It’s” not a person! “It” hasn’t got a mind! “It” is simply the prevailing conditions! “We can’t grumble” – this usually said after a cold wet day following on from two consecutive sunny days. Apparently, we have no cause to complain if we have had at least one day of summer when the temperature rises above 2°C. We must not upset “It”, in case “it takes umbrage and refuses to allow the sun shine again!

Being tickled by the idea of the change in the weather making the news, I was browsing through a book that I’d used to collect together quotations and scraps of reading to return to one day. My attention was drawn to a Hardy poem – “The Announcement”[1]

They came, the brothers, and took two chairs

In their usual quiet way;

And for a time we did not think

They had much to say.


And they began and talked awhile

Of ordinary things,

Till spread that silence in the room

A pent thought brings


And then they said: “The end has come,

Yes: it has come at last.”

And we looked down, and knew that day

A spirit had passed.

It’s the way the scene is set with the ‘waiting’. Something is known to the tellers that the listeners don’t yet know, and even as they wait they hope to be wrong. But a sense of something is created in the mood of all as they wait – and it’s that, to me, that makes the poem so beautiful. The stillness of it; the wanting to hold on to the moment where that telling, and its implications, has not been told, yet knowing, really knowing that it must be told; that there is something that will happen. In all of that, there is a soft tension that can be felt by all but never spoken of.

It’s the “usual quiet way” that perhaps leads those watching to hope. So things are the same as they’ve always been, are they not? Surely nothing can be wrong? But then comes the talking “of ordinary things”. There must have something extraordinary in that ordinariness to create that tension that becomes the silence that spreads in the room that a “pent thought brings”. A thought we try to hold back from having – because once thought, once tripping delicately through our mind – we cannot take it back. Thoughts we have thought take on a life of their own and begin a chain of events that often we do not want to set in motion, but we must.

It brings to mind a memory of watching a documentary about the Hillsborough football disaster, when 96 people were killed and over 700 injured in the most horrible way. One of the mothers of two teenage girls was talking; her daughters had gone to the match with their father and she had remained at home but had watched the horror unfold on the TV screen minutes after the whistle had gone. The girls had been in the central pens but their father was in a different part of the stadium along with a friend. He tried desperately to find out what had happened to them amidst the ensuing chaos but it was hours before it was confirmed that they had been killed; their bodies taken to the school, acting as a temporary morgue. He had to return home without them and tell his wife this most dreadful of news. She tells on the documentary of how she saw him climb out this friend’s car and look towards the window where she was standing. “I ran out of the house and down the drive, but saw his face and knew what he was going to tell me. So I ran up the street as fast as I could. I thought ‘If I can just get away he can’t tell me, then it won’t be true.’”

As though she could push away the telling and hold back the horrible impact by not hearing the words. Reality cannot begin as long as she has no confirmation of the worst possible news.

There’s something of a horrible tension between wanting to know the truth but yet not wanting to hear it vocalised. When we have been feeling ill, with symptoms we cannot explain, it can be something of a relief to finally receive a diagnosis that means we can begin to manage or treat. Having a name for a condition can be helpful and at least give us something to focus our energies on. Now we can feel less helpless and get back in control.

I saw this all too often too with parents of disabled children. They would know something was not right and when someone eventually could name a condition, or identify a particular impediment, it was as though they could begin to move forward once again. For a time they had been circling, feeling as though they were going mad; feeling isolated from all those families of ‘normally developing’ children. There were differences that couldn’t be sufficiently explained. In cases of illness or disability, one has been living ‘in the dark’ quite often for so long that an announcement, although in some ways dreaded, is also welcomed, as it marks the end of what has often been a nightmare of not-knowing.

There is a difference when the announcement is about death. This is about the end of a life and there is no going forward for the person whose life it was. Where there was once a person, there is now a gaping hole. Whatever our beliefs, there is that moment, that we would rather not face, when we are told; when we come to know. For the Hillsborough mum, the ‘pent thought’ made her scream and run to attempt to stave off the terrible truth. I remember my mum’s face when she had to tell me my grandfather was dying of oesophageal cancer and had only days to live. I didn’t run or scream, but there was a mad moment where I almost covered her mouth to stop her telling me. As she was speaking I was uttering words of denial. As though only in the telling will the truth emerge.

“The end has come…at last”. Life endings are inevitable; we will all share that experience and yet none of us will be able to recount it to another and thus give the comfort that all of us, if truth were told, really desire. As each person leaves the life we know now, there is a moment that has to be marked “And we looked down, and knew that day – A spirit had passed”. Somehow it seems fitting that that is what we do. A collective sign of acknowledgement – ‘you have gone and I remain’ – and also of our helplessness. This last thing we cannot explain or control, yet must one day face ourselves.

[1] The Announcement by Thomas Hardy: p428 “The Collected Works of Thomas Hardy” 1994 Wordsworth Poetry Library Press

Season of Mists and Not So Mellow School Days

It’s a time of year to be cautious when out walking. The weather, mild as it is at the moment, can catch you unawares, as clouds cover the low sun all too quickly and the day becomes cold with little warning. It’s a hassle knowing what to wear. I set off in a fleece at 7.00 am as it feels cold but 20 minutes later it’s tied round my waist as I’m sweating profusely. And if it looks like rain I’ve already got my waterproof round my middle. The answer of course is usually to take the rucksack, but I’m generally only out for an hour on the daily walk, so it seems a bit like overkill. I already go armed with a walking pole, because the ground can be so tricky with the adverse camber (now there’s a great term!!) and roots sticking up, as well as muddy paths in the parts of the woods that never see much sun, that I feel the need of something to steady me. So you’d wonder why I ever bother going if it’s such a treacherous activity, wouldn’t you?


The thing is there is nothing quite like that feeling of freedom as the garage door lifts (we always start and finish in the garage – it’s not for cars, you know, it’s for drying off dogs, hanging damp gear and storing boots and other paraphernalia!!). I breathe in the morning air and look to the sky – whatever it’s like, we have to go – and we’re off. Following the path alongside the cemetery, dipping through the woods and down to the stream, where Billy gets his first paddle of the day. He just has to leap in and have a drink, whatever the temperature. These mornings it can sometimes be difficult to see him in the woods – him being so golden – against the brilliant red and orange colours of the fallen leaves.

The morning light, dappling on the floor of the woods is just beautiful. I suppose that’s why Keats’ “Ode to Autumn” sprang to mind today. It may sound naff to you, but I heard myself saying it out loud

                Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,    Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;    Conspiring with him how to load and bless     with fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;


What a rich and sumptuous a poem it is; ripe and plump with goodness, the words capture all the tawny shades of the season. I couldn’t recall much more of it – I’m not that brilliant at remembering poems – just bits of them. But I found myself leaving the autumn morning and flying down the years to when I was at secondary school. It was where I first heard and studied Keats. In English Lit. At Marple Hall County Grammar School for Girls. And I find myself stiffening, as though ready for another miserable day there. That school did me very few favours and very likely did me a lot of harm and I’m saddened to say I hated almost of every day I was there – certainly the first year.

One of only three girls from my primary school to pass the 11 plus and go to grammar school, I was so thrilled and my mum and dad were really proud. However, after only a couple of days, I was disheartened, disillusioned, disappointed and on my way to being disinterested and disaffected. The sheer hugeness of the building was of course an issue, but all children have to overcome that at transition I suppose. It was more that I was separated from the two girls I had gone with – and was with 27 I had absolutely nothing in common with at all. Now, I didn’t think I was shy – but suddenly I found myself almost socially inept. At my little church primary, I’d been quite important. I knew everyone. I was a monitor; well thought of by the headmaster and teachers. I loved that school. I loved the little playground; the iron steps that went up to the staffroom that was above the stage in the hall; the outside stinky toilets; the cloakrooms with wooden benches and pegs; the field that was surrounded by gardens of houses where people I knew lived and which had fences we climbed through to take short cuts. I loved the milk that came in crates; school dinners with pudding and lumpy custard; recorder lessons; singing in the choir; taking harvest festival parcels to the old people’s home; reading “Treasure Island” aloud in class.

Most of all I loved Miss Briggs, my last teacher there. She was about 92 – stick thin, with wispy grey hair on her head and her chin. She terrified most children and many a boy was whacked with the plimsoll she kept in her desk (a high one, because she never sat down – ever!!) But she was also deeply respected and loved and she adored me. I worked hard, was bright and loved reading – her ideal pupil! And she encouraged me greatly. As did Mr Thorpe, our headmaster: a bit stern, but a darling of a man. He assigned the older pupils tasks of great importance – like copying out lists while sitting in his warm study (he always had one of those little five-bar electric fires in there). I was someone there – a person who mattered. I believed I could have done anything, been whatever I wanted – wonderful things like write great novels or be an actress or a teacher. Well, Miss Briggs made it seem as though they weren’t wild dreams – she believed that with hard work and a respectful attitude you could achieve your ambitions.

Grammar school crushed me. It made me small. I was there weeks before I had a real conversation with any other girl. (The 14 boys who had been with me were in another school and I never really spoke to them again). I had to catch a bus and every minute of that journey was a trial. It was noisy and horrid and took me away from the lovely place where I lived to that nasty, great building with loads and loads of stairs. Every lesson was in a different room on a different floor and everywhere seemed to smell of disinfectant. All the girls in my new ‘form’ (we weren’t in classes any more, they had to be ‘forms’, which I had always thought were wooden things you sat on!) seemed to know one another. They talked differently to me and about different things and I very soon picked up that most of these girls slept in bedrooms by themselves and had mothers who were at home when they got in from school and fathers who went to work in suits, with briefcases.

What I was seeing was my first glimpse of social class difference. At St Mark’s we were all much the same, in terms of class. Most of my friends lived on the council estate like me; those who didn’t lived in terraced houses on a main road (which I thought were tiny) and a couple in semi-detached ones. To me though, I felt the luckiest of all – living opposite a dairy farm, surrounded by wonderful fields, hedged by blackberry bushes and close to woods, a river and a fabulous canal (a great place of adventure, where once we found a dead dog, complete with maggot filled mouth, floating!!). Suddenly I was thrown into a place where differences in class were not only apparent, but where some girls were afforded a higher status because of what their fathers did for a living or where they lived.

It wasn’t so much the girls themselves – it was something about the attitude and behaviour of the teachers. They were mostly a frightful bunch. Few of them could teach well – they shouted a lot, wrote on the blackboard and dictated much, but gave out little encouragement. I don’t recall any teacher asking me any questions about myself or my life outside of school. I was very unhappy in my first year and it was only really English and French lessons that I enjoyed at all. The scariest lesson of all was Geography. We had a witch of a teacher – she was truly frightening. And she hated me. Well, it was mutual. I started to avoid her lessons – making out I was having clarinet lessons! (Honestly, I would have been ready for the Halle the amount of lessons I said I was having!!) She eventually found me out – and that I hadn’t done a single homework assignment for the whole of the first term. (I hadn’t done much other homework either actually! I hated it all so much as soon as I got home I hid my school bag and tried to forget all about it). Did the witch make any attempt at all to find out what was wrong? Did she heck! My punishment was to have to spend every single lunch period in her form room, watched by a couple of senior girls, copying out everything I had missed over that first term. The witch and I remained committed enemies for the two years she taught us and even now the very thought of her sends shiver down my spine. (My mother admitted recently that when she met this demon at a parents’ evening, she too felt quite terrified!!)

I did eventually settle down and make some lovely friends though. I had a wonderful youth hostelling holiday with three of them –an adventure that awakened my love of walking and the outdoors. One of my saviours was a fabulous English teacher, Miss Snell, who established I was good at Drama, loved reading and really encouraged me. However, I didn’t leave school with any honours and just about managed to scrape together 6 ‘O’ levels, before I left to go to college and eventually into nursing. I don’t think any teacher held any great expectations of me. I recall a careers interview I had with a charmless, chinless lady with bouffant hair, too much perfume and foul pink lipstick and wearing a revolting blue knitted suit.

“Have you thought about what you will do when you leave school, Beverley?”

“Yes, I’d like to be a teacher, Miss”

“Oh, no, no, no. I really don’t think so, young lady. You’re simply not academically capable of such a career”.

Really? And of course, I had a personality, didn’t I, so that would certainly have precluded me, wouldn’t it? Old bat!!

Somehow, despite being ‘academically incapable’, I made it through nursing, hold a good first degree, a teaching qualification and a Masters. I’ve held clinical specialist posts, management positions (was Head of children’s nursing in fact), teaching posts, project  management and government advisory roles. I used to dream of meeting this ‘careers expert’ and shoving my qualifications and curriculum vitae where they would never see the sun again! But you know what? I’m over it. I’ve let it go. I refused to let those few years of awful experiences define me for the rest of my life. I also let go of the feelings of wanting to ‘get back’ at those teachers a long time ago. I know who I am now and I am confident, not so much in myself or my own abilities, but in the One in who gave me life and in whom I placed my trust more than 20 years ago.

It won’t be the same for all kids though. So if you’re a teacher and you’re reading this, do think on the amount of influence you have on a developing individual. You’re in a privileged position and young people, despite an often tough exterior, are fragile beings and easily knocked. Don’t step on their dreams! I give thanks for the many friends I have who are teachers – all of them dedicated and passionate about education and getting the best out of their students. It’s a joy to know you are out there working with children, helping them to be the very best they can be. I salute you!

Why Bother Blogging?

Hello to the very few who will be reading this very first of my blogs! I’m really excited – not entirely sure why. But maybe it’s about just having my very own platform, to share my own thoughts with no one being able to butt in and interrupt me! Oh I know folk will be able to comment and contradict etc, but not while I’m actually talking! I can finally have my say on something I care about without being able to see anyone pulling their face, or going “Well, that’s all very well, but…..” or “You can’t honestly believe….” – you know the sort of thing – all the stuff that can put you off your stride and make you trip up on your words or mess up your thoughts and stop you being that eloquent, erudite speaker that you know you truly are. At least deep down in your dreams anyway.

Well, you may already be asking – so why do you want to blog at all? What’s the point? I guess it’s because I know I’m opinionated (gosh, what a confession to make! My friends – quickly deny this indictment!!!). But really, it’s because I enjoy expressing myself through writing. I always have. I love to scribble or type away. I write all sorts. Creative stuff – sketches, stories; I’m even working on a novel. (Although it’s probably going to be published posthumously the time it’s taking me!). I’m a lay reader with the Anglican Church and I preach regularly – I write all my sermons. I write letters to fictional characters. I write essays about all sorts of things. (I actually loved the essay writing when doing my MA recently – though didn’t always write the sorts of essays they actually wanted!). I keep a journal and write at length in it about my feelings, my thoughts and I berate God through it too! Although of course, I also praise him, thank him, ask him for things and question him. I also write about how I think/believe he is talking to me through his word.

So, I read some of this back recently. And you know what? It’s not bad. I mean, some of it is terrible; some very average, even boring; but some is deeply moving; some very funny; some quite clever, though I do say so myself; some decidedly and expressively passionate. But much of it, I decided (and this may sound immodest), much of it is worth reading. That’s another of my passions – reading. I’ll read most things but I love fiction particularly. Most genres – although science-fiction doesn’t really set me on fire. Historical (such as Hilary Mantel), or contemporary , I enjoy both. I don’t have a favourite author of this age – although at any one time I will be delighting in a particular author. (Andrea Levy and Sarita Mandanna and Jenny Diski and Jeanette Winterson and Sebastian Faulks are just a few who immediately spring to mind among my memorable greats – but there are so many more who have moved me, enriched my life and stretched my mind). Trying to imagine not being able to read, or being prevented from reading, fills me with terror. I couldn’t bear not to have books around me; not to know what I’ll be reading next. When I’m reading something I have to know there is another book waiting for me; it helps alleviate the feeling of bereavement that comes over me as one book comes to an end. When I’m reading, if it’s a good book that is, I feel sometimes as if I am living with those characters. So much so that I have found myself wondering what they are doing when I’m not actually reading the book! Last year, I successfully completed a Masters in Reading in Practice. Two years of immersing myself in some of our greatest literature! Mostly, apart from the pressure of wanting to pass, it was just one of the most joyful experiences of my life. Middlemarch, A Christmas Carol, Stuart: A Life Lived Backwards; Wives and Daughters; Villette; The Assistant – when I saw the titles on the reading sheet for the first term I almost swooned! Forced to read a book and week and write something on it was a challenge, but an excellent discipline. Reading takes us to places we may never visit; it helps us find places within ourselves that have been hidden even from us and where the most fabulous thoughts are birthed – thoughts we have never even knew we could think. Reading helps us find a voice for our fears, our longings, our fantasies, our inarticulations (and I know that isn’t even a word!). Reading can brighten the most miserable of days. It gives us a place to run to when the world feels frightening, boring, irritating or disturbing. Without reading, the world, for me, would be a more dismal, dark and joyless place. Yet, so many people have not discovered the joys reading for themselves or, through the busy-ness of life and work, have lost the knack of reading.

In the past year I’ve set up two reading groups. These are entirely different to book clubs. In reading groups, the reading is done at the gathering of the group – and those who wish to, take turns to read aloud. We spend around 15 minutes reading a passage from a novel and sometimes a poem or two. Then we share together what thoughts that reading has led us to have. It’s not criticism or anything grand at all. Everyone is able to say whatever they want. The only banned utterance is “I don’t like that”. That’s just lazy! All reading stimulates some thought – even if it hasn’t particularly moved you, it will have led you to think something. There will be at least a word or an expression that perhaps made you slow your reading, or made you wrinkle your nose, or raise your eyebrow. We’ve found that to be the case with everything we’ve read. And there have been some great surprises. Members of the group look forward to meeting and friendships have formed. More so, people tell me they have found solace, comfort, joy and reassurance through reading in the group and, although I cannot measure this, believe it to be a great way of lifting their spirits. It has to be good for emotional health. Well, The Reader Organisation – and you could read all about this fabulous organisation at – certainly believe this to be the case. Through their innovative shared reading models and in partnership with Mental Health Trusts, they have seen lives transformed. Do visit their pages to read about how people have increased in confidence and improved self-reflection and self-awareness. A quote on their website currently reads “I have learned more of what it is to be a human being”. I’ll go with that. We connect with our humanity through great literature and in reading together we connect with a wider community of a piece of that humanity.

So you see what I might be blogging about? Things that I am reading, or have read, and the thought paths it has taken me on. The thoughts evoked through that reading.  Maybe we can establish something of a virtual shared reading group? But it’s not just reading – as my domain will have suggested to you. My second love is for walking. I guess it’s because I know I might get enormously fat if I just read all the time! I can’t go a day without walking somewhere. I live now in West Yorkshire – in the beautiful Holme Valley and I have walks right from my front door. But there are loads of places I love to walk and plenty where I haven’t walked yet, but would like to at some point. I have a delightful companion in my daft cocker Spaniel – Billy Bobs – and he too can walk for miles. We have some great adventures, I can tell you! During my walks I can often put the world to rights in my head – I can plan meals – plan sermons – plan what I’m going to say to someone. I can turn over things that I’ve read and make sense of them or allow myself to dream of where I might go one day. All this whilst taking in the views, stopping my dog from leaping over strangers and fighting off clouds of midges on a hot day!!

I have already rambled on too long! For now, I will say no more. but prizes will be given for identifying the photograph on this blog! Let’s meet minds again soon:))