3 November 2014

Poppies and a veil of tears





We left a bright and sunny Birmingham to journey south to the city where the streets are paved with poppies, so we're told. We arrived in London to grey skies and heavy rain. The purpose of the journey was to view the Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red; an art installation by Paul Cummins, marking the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War, or the Great War as it was known until all hell broke loose once again in 1939.

I'm not an art critic so I cannot comment on the artistic side of this. What I can say is that it takes your breath away on first sighting. It is as though a river of blood runs around the Tower of London. 888,246 ceramic poppies, each representing a soldier who died from the UK and Commonwealth countries during the Great War, makes a visually stunning and sobering sight. For me on a personal level it works as an act of remembrance. It is not a celebration of the so called glories of war, for me there are none, nor does it glorify state violence on a mass scale, it uses the simplicity of the globally recognised emblem of remembrance, the poppy, to provoke thought, remembrance and to reflect upon the utter futility of war and the damage caused to individuals and families that like the blood that flowed during the war, cascaded down the generations.

We found a relatively quiet spot to stand silently by the moat, each wrapped up in our own thoughts. The rain was apt, providing a veil of tears through which the river of blood flowed.

Of my four Great Grandfathers, three played their part in that war to end all wars. One was killed in action, two were injured and eventually returned home, the other was too old to serve but saw three of his sons leave the village, one of which, never returned. Today I remembered all of them and also their nearest and dearest and what they must have gone through during those four hellish years and the years that followed.

I found it all very deeply affecting but then for me this wasn't a trip to 'the must see art installation of the decade', it was part of my personal act of remembrance this year. Alas many amongst the crowds were not there for the same reason. I had heard that the crowds were respectful but saw little evidence of this whilst being jostled by someone trying to get just the right angle for just the right picture, or for smiling family group photographs set against the backdrop of a river of blood, or the shouting and loud laughter. Maybe we just went on the wrong day.

If you can make it to London before the 12th, when each poppy will be lifted, cleaned and then boxed up and sent on to all those people who have purchased one of the poppies, then do go because  it is a very special thing to see.

2 June 2014

It is done

It's now been over three years since Mom died. Until today her coats hung in the  hall with matching scarves carefully placed around the neck of the hanger. Little ribbons or flowers, depending on which charity she had given to that winter, were pinned to lapels. Her shoes lay underneath, dusted each week by me. It was though she was still resident in the house. If you held a scarf to your face you could still detect her perfume. They smelt of Mom.

Upstairs in the wardrobe hung her clothes. All neatly lined up. More coats and jackets, then dresses, trousers, skirts. In another wardrobe blouses and tops. In cupboards her other wear, ordered meticulously. All ironed, neatly folded, a place for everything and everything in its place. Sachets of pot pourri  and lavender everywhere. Little tablets of soap from gift boxes lay underneath perfumed paper. Small  brooches on  her 'best' jackets. No dust had collected. Everything smelt fresh and lovely, just like my Mom.

Everything was as it was on the day she left us. Seems like yesterday and yet it seems like a lifetime ago.

Dad had finally agreed last year that everything should be sorted and bagged and given to charity but every time I mentioned getting started, a tear would roll down his cheek and I did not have the heart to start the job. This week he's away so I suggested that it might be the right time for me to deal with this, whilst he wasn't there, so as not to upset him as much as if he watched me go through all her lovely clothes. He agreed.

So today it was done. As I took each item from the hanger and folded it neatly, then placed it in a bag, I thought of all the times I had seen Mom wearing that dress, those trousers and so on. Memories of ordinary days and memories of special times. How particular colours suited her, what she paired together, combinations. Remembering how lovely she looked in everything, recalling conversations. I felt her with me. I could smell her and in my memory I could see her, smiling, always smiling, looking beautiful.


2 March 2014

Tiptoeing through the bluebells

Me and Mom in 2002 before she got ill
I've spent the last three days in the garden. Yes, even today when it rained or drizzled for the majority of the time I was out there having great fun with the pressure washer. My greenhouse is now pristine.

Taking things very gently, careful not to overexert myself I've planted lots of seeds in trays, toilet rolls and pots in the greenhouse; from cayenne peppers to sweet peppers, from leeks to spring onions and from sweet peas to pumpkins. Preparation of two flower beds underneath the many shrubs went well and lots of summer bulbs were set and many more seeds sewn for flowers with the intention of attracting bees and butterflies. I've even made a start on the patio tubs for the summer. There's still an awful lot to do but I'm happy with my achievements over the three days.

Working in the garden always brings me closer to my Mom. It will be three years since she left us later this month. Like this last one, the winter that preceded her death was exceptionally mild and the day she died was a glorious sun filled warm spring day, the sort that heralds the arrival of the warmer seasons with a huge orchestra playing the 1812 Overture, the sort of day she loved. The daffodils in her garden were at their best, strong, tall, golden, shimmering in the sun. It looks as though this year the sunshine yellow daffodils will once again be in full bloom on the first day of spring, the third anniversary of her departure.They had been well tended over the years, originally by herself and then later by a gardener whom she watched and instructed so that her garden was just so.

Me and Mom are different types of gardener. She liked order and neatness whereas I love riots and wildness. She would do a little every day, I tend to have periods of benign neglect to be followed with a frenzy of activity because I've left the weeds in the vegetable plots too long and they're strangling my veg. Mom took care of her lawn, dandelions and daisies that had the audacity to take root on the hallowed turf were ruthlessly slashed, rooted out and burnt. I now have very little grass left after the latest improvements and I rather like the moss, daises and forget-me-nots that have rooted because they cover up the bare bits that have developed because of my neglect.

When I consider our differences as a gardener I always want to apologise to Mom for not respecting and upholding her order and neatness. I'm not sure that she ever understood why I leave things to seed and don't pull out self-sewn flowers but I love the uncertainty of where something may pop again in years to come, like shadows of former years reaching out to touch once again. I want to think that she understood that my rebellious nature meant that I was never going to garden in the same way as she did. One thing I do know she understood was how my love for nature, for gardening and for cultivating has grown over the years. She planted the seeds of love within me when as a small child she would name all the flowers, cultivated or wild (read weeds rather than wild if you're like my Mom) and trees and sometimes tell me short stories of where she had first seen that particular plant. She waited a long time for the seeds she had sewn to develop and mature but I am so glad that she gave me that gift; the gift of seeing the beauty of small and simple things like a petal or a leaf. Thank you Mom.

As I've worked these last three days I've had a lot of conversations inside my head with Mom as I always do when working in the garden. I told her of things that should never have been left unsaid whilst she was alive and reflected upon times when we visited places together that blossomed with the loveliness of Mother Nature. I remember that one of the last proper conversations that I had with her was about how the bluebells in Cuckoos Nook were well advanced and that I thought they would bloom in April, so I wanted her to get well so that we could go dancing amongst them. It was a joke of course, Mom's dancing days were well gone by then but it amused her all the same and she smiled and said I could do the dancing for the both of us. A few days later she was gone but when the bluebells bloomed I did go dancing alone in the ancient woodland and felt her presence.

21 February 2014

What!

Me to Walsall Manor Outpatients: "Hello, I was told by Nuclear Imaging two weeks ago today that I would have an outpatients appointment within two weeks. Do you have an appointment booked for me please?"

Outpatients: "No there's no appointment for you but you are on the waiting list for your cardiac procedure."

Me: "What cardiac procedure?"

Outpatients: "Oh, haven't you been told?"

Me: "No, I thought that was the point of the outpatient appointment I was waiting for; to give me the results of my recent tests and to outline what would happen next."

Silly me for thinking that a consultant would actually communicate my test results to me face to face and then we would have an opportunity to discuss what those results meant. It's only my life after all!

1 February 2014

Turning over old leaves

As far as the eye can see
 Like Kate  I too was glued to the facebook pages of LoveTywyn   during the storms at the beginning of the year. Simultaneously I was  amazed and fearful. Amazed by the videos posted that showed the dramatic power of the sea and waves and fearful for a place that is dear to my heart, hopeful that no harm would come to the people who live there.

Tywyn was a second home to me when I was a child. We visited several times a year with various members of the family and friends too. Family connections go back further than the 1960s with my maternal Grandfather having seen some service there at the end of the second world war. It is therefore a familiar and loved place that accompanies a treasure trove of beloved memories and one that I am pleased to say has not changed in any great way in at least fifty years. I caught my first shrimps, crabs and tiny fish there in rock pools up towards the River Dysinni and I learned to swim (in a fashion) there by launching myself off sandbanks into slightly deeper water with a an attentive and encouraging Grandfather supervising and  encouraging. It was also the place where as a teenager, I wrestled with the conundrum of having two boyfriends at the same time in the same place!

In the 1960s and 70s, we always stayed in a very old caravan at Bryn-y-Mor. No running water and no electricity made for interesting holidays. I thought the calor gas lighting to be a thing of beauty because you could watch the tiny flames change colour and dance about, more fascinating than a light bulb and so much better for making shadow animals on the walls. Each morning I would fill the water container from a tap just behind the next caravan down and after breakfast we would take left-over bread and crusts to feed chickens that were kept on site. There were days of blazing hot sunshine when the beach was all we needed and wanted and days of torrential rain when we sat inside playing card and board games and probably drove the adults insane with sibling bickering and arguing.

A trunk smoothed by the sea
In all the years that I enjoyed the simple delights of Tywyn I never knew of the treasure trove beneath the sands. As a child, had I known, I would have been digging for the treasure. Lying covered with sand, protecting the precious spoils within are the remnants of an ancient forest and of peat beds, dugs by the locals some hundreds of years ago and formed centuries before that. These treasures were uncovered by the recent storms and now hundreds if not thousands are flocking to the this latest tourist attraction in this tiny seaside resort.

Two weeks ago we took a few nights away and stayed on the other side of the Dovey Estuary near Ynys Hir. Whilst there I was not going to let the opportunity slip of seeing the ancient treasure before once again, it is reclaimed by the sand. That said it would seem that this weekend there are more storms and high tides there and so even more may be uncovered. Since the first storm some of the treasure has been reclaimed  but more has been exposed, meaning that the ancient remains can be seen along a four mile stretch of beach from the Neptune end of Tywyn towards the Dovey Estuary.

I recalled mention of an ancient forest along the Cambrian Coast of Wales from a TV programme I had watched a long time since but when attempting to discover more about the forest at Tywyn there was little available information apart from various archaeological assessments and reports prepared for the many proposed coastal protection scheme plans throughout the years and to these and in particular the report number 555 prepared by the Gwynedd Archaeological Trust in 2005, I am indebted for the knowledge now gained.

Wood preserved but now breaking away from the peat
Until a month ago the best place to see remnants of the ancient forest was a few miles south of Tywyn and on the other side of the Dovey Estuary at Ynyslas and Borth. These remnants have been scientifically dated to the early monolithic period. There is an underlying salt marsh dated to around 6000 years BCE and the forest bed is dated to between about 5400- 3900 BCE. So the sea was close and then receded to about 5 miles out from the coastline we see today before returning to reclaim the land once again, where it has stayed ever since and if sea levels do rise further, to perhaps go even further inland than now.

An ancient felled tree
The presence of the hidden submerged forest and peat beds, lying beneath the sands at Tywyn have been known about for a very long time. Mostly, they have remained hidden by the sands that protected their precious treasure but every now and then a strong tide combined with even stronger winds has exposed small sections allowing some research to be undertaken. The presence of charcoal has been noted indicating ancient human activity nearby. What a different view those people must have had to that now; a forest stretching all along what is now the coastline and out to the sea for what is thought to be a distance of five miles. I pondered on that during our visit as I stood beside the remnants. I tried to imagine the thousands of oaks, hazels, pines, birch and willows standing tall and largely undisturbed and all the animals both large and small that would have taken advantage of that wonderful habitat. I also thought about the local people who in the 18th century dug out the peat beds for the fuel they needed for their hearths. In some of the peat beds spade marks can be observed as can the drainage channels dug in order to take the moisture from this most valuable of resources formed over thousands of years.
Spade marks in the peat beds

The reports talk of the remnants extending for about a kilometre along the beach. In 2014 we now know that they extend for much further than that but tides are regular and the opportunity for in depth research is limited. What is there one day can have been covered on the next by the constantly shifting sands moved by the ebb and flow of the tides. What is also now clear is that the remnants disappear underneath the large expanses of sand, shingle and stones at the top of the beach that protect the land behind from flooding on a regular basis. It is possible that small remnants also stretch to and beneath the salt marshes that are beyond the beach and  that lie in effect, below sea level.

There were many people enjoying this natural and ancient tourist attraction but one thing gave me a sense that maybe not all was well, a sense of misgiving. The peat is incredibly soft. Lumps of it have been broken off by the power of the sea and deposited at the top of the beach, in fact I brought one such clod home with me. It is so soft that the prints of walking boots and trainers will be seen in centuries to come in the same manner that at Ynyslas there are 3000 year old footprints observable in the peat. With so many enjoying the remains I worry about the fragility of them and just how much 21st century footwear and use they can withstand. Although it is on the one hand sad that the sand will once again cover the remains, it is also a good thing if the remains are to stay preserved.

One paragraph from the report stuck in my mind:
Drainage channels between the peat beds
"This area of submerged ancient land surface is the largest in extent and the best preserved of the 31 known or reported exposures in North West Wales. It therefore has good potential for research and deserves monitoring."

I know from news reports that the archaeologists have been out there since the remains became uncovered and are now saying that this is probably the largest and best preserved ancient forest in the UK. I sincerely hope that they have been able to gain an awful lot of information just in case we happen to be responsible for its disintegration.

I consider myself privileged to have seen this ancient landscape, hidden from me as a child but buried treasure even for this cynical 51 year old.











8 January 2014

In the Bleak Mid Winter of Cuts and Decline

Main pathway into Park Lime Pits from car park
 As there are some long shifts ahead for the rest of this week and weekend, we decided to put aside a couple of hours today for a walk. We stayed local and dropped by on Park Lime Pits. Regular readers will know how much I adore this local nature reserve and the taste of countryside that it offers to the people of Walsall.

This winter although stormy, wet and windy has been incredibly mild and today would have been a pleasant day for a walk had the conditions been conducive. Attempting to walk on incredibly wet ground where the clay mud attempts to suck your sturdy walking boots off your feet is hard going and there is no let up. Even on walkways and hard pathways there are puddles and slippy, slimy mud waiting to trap you with each footstep.

Water levels are incredibly high- the steep embankments look positively benign!
I was saddened to note that there are many signs that anti-social behaviour continues at the Lime Pits. Well trodden paths lead to areas where only those with certain unsavoury activities in mind, go. There are now parts of this lovely nature reserve that are no-go places for ordinary, law abiding, non-exhibitionist people and for children too. It seems that all the hours of work identifying and assessing the situation, liaising with the local police and Network Rail were all for naught. Cuts in budgets and in staffing levels at Walsall Council mean that only rudimentary work is being carried out and much of the clearance work to discourage certain behaviour, previously undertaken by the Friends of Park Lime Pits was for nothing because for it to have been effective, it needed to be kept up to date. It hasn't been.

The brook that runs through the reserve was as fast and full as I have ever seen and it is making massive inroads into the banking. No willow weaving to keep the banks sturdy and strong.

The pools also are as full as I can remember and this can be seen from the level of the water line shown in some of the photographs I took today. No steep embankments at the lower end of the large pool and no decking platform on which to pond dip on the smaller pool because it is several inches below the water level. Despite the clearance of an old and damaged beech tree, the shrubbery on the edge of the small pool by the pathway between the two pools is in dire need of some attention. The view to the smaller pool and the hope of seeing the resident kingfisher is constrained by the abundance of willows that have set strong, even in the bleak mid winter. Come spring there will be no view at all.

Towards the small pool, getting difficult to see
Turning to the canal the walking didn't get any easier as can be seen and I worry as to the safety of Riddians Bridge. The sandbagging of the edge of the canal in an attempt to hold up the embankment and keep the water where it should be, is holding well as a two year old temporary measure but alas there is now a huge stretch of canal that requires attention before all of the water in the canal pours into adjacent fields.

Although I enjoyed the walk today particularly as the small birds were in abundance, their song a joy to hear and we even had the pleasure of spotting a yellowhammer, I couldn't help but feel the gradual decline of these places I love, through neglect, wanton or otherwise. What I feared is coming to fruition, only much sooner that I feared.


The farmer's compost heap gets larger, a home for all sorts of insects








Rushall Church through the trees

I'm always amazed that this very old beech tree manages not just to survive but to thrive despite the damage to its heart


Cycling could prove difficult along here

Riddians Bridge - looking like it needs some TLC



4 January 2014

Beware - Plant Crossing

Back in the mid to late 1960s my parents made the most of having good babysitters readily and willingly available by allowing my maternal grandparents the honour of looking after me and my siblings every Saturday night whilst they enjoyed the offerings of The Muckley Corner Hotel. If you live in Aldridge you will know that there are several routes to what is now a huge roundabout on the A5, the quick direct way and the more paced, measured and interesting way. I believe it was the latter route that my parents took although this cannot be confirmed by my father as his lips remain sealed however, based upon the evidence of what could be found in the kitchen on a Sunday morning, I am 100% certain they didn't follow the direct route.

My Mom's Sunday dinners were beautiful and bounteous affairs. The main meal would be a good joint usually of beef but sometimes pork or lamb, cooked to perfection accompanied by potatoes of roasted and boiled persuasions and various vegetables, always of a seasonal nature and extremely fresh. I have never been able to replicate Mom's gravy, made with the juices in the roasting pan with additions. I wish that I could for I could never have enough of that nectar like liquid upon my plate and every single drop would be consumed.

I added emphasis to the seasonal nature and freshness of the vegetables for a reason. I return to Sunday mornings of my childhood. Without exception there on the old wooden draining board, next to the butlers type white porcelain sink would be a large and sumptuous example of vegetation. Green cabbage or cauliflower, bunches of carrots, parsnips, turnips, their green leaves a little wilted and dark soil attached to their fine, long roots. Now and then a mound of soil encased potatoes or peas still attached to their winding, leafy vines. I recall asking my Mom where these bounties came from but never got an answer but as I grew into a teenager that would now and then, make a few pennies from picking spuds and the like over Stonnall and Shenstone way, the source became clearer to me.

It seems that there is a family tradition in such matters as a trawl through the archives of newspapers now available online has revealed. Thomas Plant was my Great Great Grandfather. He was born in Walsall and for many years he traded as a poulterer and green grocer on the Wolverhampton Road. He also tried his hand as a publican of the now fire damaged shell of what was The Orange Tree Pub shortly before moving to Aldridge to farm. His farming was of no great acreage being limited to the fields around the Walsall Road heading up to where the White House pub is now but it was enough to help maintain the hoards of grandchildren that had now arrived courtesy of his numerous children. It seems he was quite a character....

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The Lichfield Mercury Friday 11 January 1895:

AN EXPENSIVE CHRISTMAS BUNCH 

Thomas Plant, farmer, Aldridge, Walsall, pleaded guilty to having damaged a holly tree, at Mile Oak, Drayton, the property of the Trustees of Sir Robert Peel's settled estates to the amount of 2s 6d, on the 10th Ult. - Harry Jones, gamekeeper, said about 3 pm., he saw the defendant and another man in a cart. Defendant, who was driving, turned the cart under the tree, from which he cut two boughs (produced).- Defendant said he was very sorry. He was a 64 years of age, and had been punished enough without having to come there. - The Mayor said defendant was old enough to know better. (Laughter).- The Chairman questioned whether the holly was worth 2s 6d, whereupon the Magistrates Clerk (Mr E Argyle) pointed out that that amount was for the damage done to the tree. - The witness Jones said bills cautioning people against damaging the trees were exhibited on the road, and a reward of £2 offered to persons giving information which would lead to a conviction. - The Bench fined defendant 4s with 1s for the damage, and 10s costs.

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His daughter in law, Rose, my Great Grandmother was renowned (according to my father) for her thrift and ensuring what pennies she did have, multiplied and went as far as anyone could stretch them, was no stranger in attempting to use the bounties available for free if only you knew where to take advantage. The one photograph that I have seen of her reveals a sturdy but small woman, with light coloured curly hair pulled tight into a no nonsense bun at the nape of her neck and a very set and determined expression upon her face, no smile, just grim determination.

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The Lichfield Mercury Friday 2 October 1903:

RAKING THE CANAL

Rose Plant, married woman, Speedwell Lane, Aldridge, was charged with stealing coal from the Birmingham Canal on Sept 16. - PC Collins saw the defendant raking coal out of the canal, and said she offered to give him a nice fowl if he would not report the affair. - Defendant pleaded guilty, and was fined 10s and 18s costs.

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I have to say I expressed astonishment that a person could be prosecuted for what they found in the canal especially through industrious activity! You have to admire Rose's attempt to bribe the police officer with a 'fowl'.

Me? I think we call it foraging these days.......