Tuesday, 17 April 2018

Finding the Unexpected in Brithdir

Hello.  Thank you for dropping in, and if you've been dropping in for a while, looking to see if I have written a new post, thank you for your patience; you've been waiting for far longer than I intended.
Sometimes a blog post takes me in an unexpected direction and I end up in a different place from my intended destination.
"It says that it's on the B4416 at Brithdir," I said to the Best Beloved as we drove through the village, just outside Dogellau in the Snowdonia National Park, "There's Ty Glas Farm B&B so it's somewhere here on the left; if we get to the school, we've gone too far."  The Best Beloved spotted the noticeboard on the roadside and parked the car.  We had arrived at St Mark's Church, "one of the most remarkable Arts and Crafts churches in Britain" according to Simon Jenkins in his book Wales: Churches, Houses, Castles.  A rusting sign on the heavy gate announced that the rhododendrons in the churchyard, which had been collected by the botanist Mary Richards, were being pruned as part of a management scheme which would take several years.  I had never heard of Mary Richards - remember her name, I shall come back to her later - but I could see the rhododendron bushes, so many of them that I could barely see the church.  If I had driven past in June when the rhododendrons are in flower, they would have shown me where the church is. 
I pushed open the gate and found myself at the foot of a small flight of steps.  I love a flight of steps, they hold so much promise, enticing me up to whatever lies at the top.  This one looked as if it was not trodden very often and the abundance of moss, together with the rust on the aforementioned sign, which was only nine years old, told me that this churchyard receives more than its fair share of rain.
 Once at the top of the steps I could see the church peeping through the overgrown trees and shrubs.

Once up close, I found the stonework fascinating, the rain having persuaded the minerals to reveal their true colours in shades of red and green.  The architect apparently wanted the stone, which was quarried locally, to be left rough and undressed, as if the building had risen up out of the earth, but the builder couldn't bear to do it and made it smooth.  The north door was locked so we walked around the building to the south porch and realised that we had found the main entrance, with a carriage drive leading to it.  I turned the handle, gave the door a good shove, walked in and gasped.  This is why -
This is not what I expected to see in a remote Welsh village.  I certainly didn't expect to see an apse at the east end, because I had walked around that end of the building and there were definitely corners on the outside!  Would you like to see the view from the false apse, looking towards the west end? -


The striking colour scheme is the original one - in fact, the reason for the church's Grade 1 listing is that it is "A highly important and unaltered example of the work of Henry Wilson, a leading figure of the Arts and Crafts movement."  When Rev Charles Tooth died in 1894 his widow, Louisa, had this church at Brithdir built in his memory.  Charles was the founder of St Mark's English Church in Florence and Louisa wanted his memorial to reflect that Italian experience in its style.  She commissioned Henry Wilson, a London-based architect, designer and craftsman who was a member of the newly-established Art Workers' Guild, to build and furnish the church and work began in 1895.  Louisa took a keen interest in the work and over the three years it took to complete the church she wrote more than seventy letters to Henry.
So, would you like a little tour?  I'll begin with that altar: it was cast in copper by Henry and shows an Annunciation scene.  Mary is on the left, there's a child angel in the middle and on the right are two adults, one being Rev Charles Tooth himself and the other his guardian angel.  The reredos, that copper screen behind the altar, was also cast by Henry.  I've never seen anything like it before.
The pulpit, also designed by Henry, is made of beaten copper.
The choir stalls, made of Spanish chestnut, were designed by Henry but carved by Arthur Grove and there are beautiful animals on them.  I was very taken by the tortoise.

The font is the only lead font in Wales and was designed by Henry, modelled by Arthur and then actually cast at the Central School of Art and Design in London, where Henry was teaching from 1896.

The doors are made of oak and teak and inlaid with ebony and mother-of-pearl.
 There is no stained glass in the windows but they are intricately leaded, the one above the altar revealing a small heart.  I was taken by that, too, and I wondered about Henry's intention: was it to reflect God's love for his people, or Louisa's love for Charles, or both, or something else?

So there you are, one man's vision, from building to furnishings to colour scheme.  Henry actually wrote that "the chief merit of Brithdir is that it is personal... what is done at Brithdir must live, because it has come out of my own life."  St Mark's is now redundant and was adopted by the Friends of Friendless Churches in 2005, only 107 years after it was consecrated.  The church is open all the time for those who want to visit but the visitors' book confirmed that those steps were telling the truth, they were not trodden often. 

That evening, the Best Beloved and I were chatting with a local couple in a restaurant in Dolgellau (pronounced Doll-geth-lie).  They told us that the church belonged to Caerynwch and that they went to a carol service there a couple of Christmases ago.  I doubted this but they were quite sure, saying that "Andrew and Hilary" had recently sold the big house but may have retained the land, so when we got home, I started delving into the internet.  I should say that my first triumph was finding out how to spell Caerynwch, which they had pronounced "Carnook"!  I discovered that Louisa was a widow when she married Charles Tooth, her first husband having been Richard Meredydd Richards, owner of...the Caerynwch estate!  Louisa inherited both land and money from her father when he died and from her first husband, so she was a wealthy woman when she commissioned Henry Wilson to build St Mark's and gave the land to the Church.  Andrew Richards, the current owner of the Caerynwch estate, is Louisa's great-grandson, and he did indeed sell the house, although not the surrounding estate, three years ago - I found this link if you'd like to have a look (it's quite grand).  And do you remember Mary Richards, the botanist?  She was Louisa's daughter-in-law, Andrew's grandmother, awarded the MBE for services to botany in 1969.  She brought those rhododendrons back from China in the early years of the twentieth century.
I began with a visit to an Arts and Crafts church and ended up researching the history of the local estate.  I enjoyed the visit, and the journey.
See you soon.
Love, Mrs Tiggywinkle x

Wednesday, 31 January 2018

January Celebrations

Hello.  Thank you for dropping in, it's lovely to see you here.  It's the last day of January and the sun is shining here, although it's cold enough for me to be wearing a scarf indoors.  January can be difficult, can't it, after the fun and sparkle of Christmas and New Year?  A time to get back into the old routines, made more dreary by cold, wet, grey days.  Everyone seems to be desperately searching for signs of spring - there are snowdrops aplenty on social media, labelled as spring flowers, but really they are winter flowers, aren't they?  The truth is that, astronomically speaking, we are not quite halfway through winter.  For me, it's a question of mindset, I have treated January as the winter month she is and, with no expectations of spring sunshine and warmth, it's been fine.  I have sat by the fire in the evenings, a blanket over my legs and a mug of hot chocolate in my hand, hunkering down in my nest, reading books, crocheting blankets and watching television.
However, this hibernation has been punctuated by celebrations which have definitely satisfied any longings we had for fun and sparkle .  First, there was The Mathematician's birthday: we filled up the car with family, cards, gifts, flowers, cake and love and drove over to Loughborough to spend the afternoon with her.  
I must tell you about this cake:  fifteen months ago we visited Portchester Castle with the Best Beloved's family.  The church which lies inside the castle walls operates a café and as the weather was kind for the time of year, we sat outside to drink our tea and coffee and eat cake in the sunshine.  Some of us had the ginger cake which was so extraordinarily good that others of us, who had eaten other cake, then bought ginger cake on our recommendation!  I mean, this cake made us gasp, it was sooooo good.  My niece went inside and asked for the recipe and was told that it was very strange and included fresh ginger, black pepper, water and oil.  Armed with that information, I hunted around the internet and eventually found the recipe here.  I'm not sure that I got the oven timings right - I made the usual adjustments for a fan oven but they weren't right and I think the instructions were actually written for a fan oven - and I know that my decorating skills are, ahem, "rustic" but, gentle readers, the cake was a triumph (she says, blushing modestly)!  Zingy ginger with a warm background of cinnamon, cloves and, of course, that black pepper, perfect on a wintry day.  It feeds ten people easily and I shall definitely be making it again. 
Our second celebration was a few days later, when we went to the University of Warwick to see The Teacher receive a Master of Arts degree.  I have been to several graduation ceremonies before but this one was special.  Please allow me this outburst of parental pride.
The third celebration was on the 24th January when I celebrated the life and works of Robert Burns in a Welsh household with some other English friends!  It's forty years since I went to a Burns Lunch and I've never been to a Burns Supper, and I don't really know why we were doing it on the wrong day, but I took with me some suitable Scottish postcards from my 1970s scrapbook and introduced my friends to the Selkirk Grace and the traditional Gaelic toast of "Slainte Mhath" (Good Health).  We ate haggis, neeps, tatties and carrots -
followed by cranachan -
and finished with cheese and biscuits.  This is Caboc, which was first made in Scotland in the fifteenth century and which I don't think I have eaten since I left there in 1979, but now that I have discovered that I can order it online and it will be delivered to my house the next day, I shan't be leaving it for another thirty-nine years before I eat it again!  It was just as delicious as I remembered it to be.
So that was January.  I almost wrote "I got through it" because I know that many people regard it as a month to be got through, but that seems a bit unfair on all the people who have birthdays this month (there are four of them in our family) and actually, I have done more than that, I have celebrated it. 
See you soon.
Love, Mrs Tiggywinkle x

Saturday, 13 January 2018

A Box of Delights

Happy New Year!  I was pleased to see the back of 2017 and am hoping for better things in 2018.  As ever, I am delighted that anyone is reading my witterings so Thank You for dropping in.
The Mathematician has gone back to university but before she left us, she went to Paris for a few days.  So grown up!  She brought back a gift for her father and me: this very beautiful cardboard box.

Isn't it gorgeous?  This colour is, apparently, Napoleon Blue (although some might call it Tiffany Blue) and the silver decoration "pays tribute to Napoleon Bonaparte style".  The box is small, not quite 15cm by 5cm, and all the decoration is silver.  It looks elegant, delicate and expensive, just like the other me, the me I could have been, and may once have aspired to be, but am not.  It currently sits by my bed so that I can look at it and daydream about the possibilities it conjures, and I can't help looking at it often.  Who would have thought that something as simple as a cardboard box could cast such a spell?  Have you heard of Laduree, fondee en 1862?  I hadn't but if you have, you probably know what was in the box.

Six perfect macarons were nestled within, encased in waxed paper.  These refined and delicious morsels were utterly worthy of such a box.  We cut them in half and shared them between us, swooning over each luxurious bite.  We felt properly spoilt.  Obviously, they deserved to be served on my best china, Royal Doulton's Sherbrooke, and here are three of them on a standard tea plate so that you can see just how small they were.

This little gift cost 18 euros, or £16, which seems an awful lot of money for six small macarons but of course, what it really bought was an experience, the opportunity to imagine that I inhabit a different sort of life and a beautiful box full of promise.
I know, I am ridiculous!
See you soon.
Love, Mrs Tiggywinkle x

Saturday, 30 December 2017

On the Sixth Day of Christmas

Happy Christmas!  Are you still celebrating, or is it all over for you?  We begin our decorating and celebrating later than most people and I like to keep going for the whole twelve days.
Tradition is important to us at Christmas, the same rituals being performed year after year, reminding us of Christmases past and the shared memories cementing us together but as time moves on some things change and some rituals are discarded because they simply don't fit any more.  So, on the First Day of Christmas The Mathematician bounded into our bedroom to sit on our bed and open the small gifts which Father Christmas had left for her while she was sleeping, even though she is twenty-one years old.  There was the familiar clementine, the chocolate money, the small box of her favourite chocolates and the new treats which befit her age.  Later, she drove us to her sister's house where, in a break from tradition, we opened our gifts and shared the feast, set on a table laid with my great grandmother's tablecloth.  Everyone had a hand in preparing this feast but my only contribution was making stock with a chicken carcass the previous day which the Best Beloved then used to make the gravy which we took with us.  I got off pretty lightly and I am hugely grateful for a day in which I neither cooked nor washed up. 

On the Second Day of Christmas The Teacher, Tom Kitten and Flashman went to his parents' house and the Best Beloved, The Mathematician and I went to Blists Hill Victorian Town for a grown-up brunch in the Forest Glen Refreshment Pavilion.  We were greeted with fizz and canapés before eating a hot breakfast, then we indulged in croissants and bagels before finishing with chocolate tiffin and hot chocolate.  There were Christmas crackers, white linen tablecloths and a happy atmosphere and afterwards, beneath pale sunshine, we wandered around the museum for a while.  It was a new way for us to spend Boxing Day and we all enjoyed it.

The picture in the middle of this photo shows the Forest Glen in its original setting at the foot of The Wrekin.  The building was moved to Blists Hill in the early 1990s. 

I love these "paper" chains - they are made of felt and stitched together.


On the Third Day of Christmas we went to Cardiff to join the rest of my family, as we have done on this day for the last few years - my parents, my sisters, their partners and my niece and nephews.  There were twenty-one of us.  We always go to the theatre together in the afternoon on this day but this year, there was something important for us to do together first: we said our goodbyes to my grandparents.  It is several years since they died but we have been waiting for the right time and the right occasion, and this was it.  My father had bought two large planters for the garden and into each he tipped some compost, and then we added my grandparents' ashes.  One by one we came forward, first my parents, then me, my sisters and our children, and each of us shared a memory while using a trowel to add some of the ashes to the planters.  Some of the memories were funny, all were fond; when the youngest boy, born two years after my grandmother died, said, "But I didn't know Nanny," my father gently replied, "Then just come and say goodbye," and he did.  When all were done, we charged our glasses and raised a toast.  We would have like to sing but our hearts wouldn't let our voices rise.  It was beautiful, very moving and just right and although it may seem strange to have left it for years, those years meant that we were no longer overwhelmed by grief and could remember Nanny and Gramps as they were, rather than focus on our own loss. 
The theatre?  Miss Saigon and it was good, the helicopter was amazing, but I wish the singers' diction had been better so that I could have made out all the words. 

On the Fourth Day of Christmas we left Cardiff and my family and slowly drove home through heavy traffic.  We just made it to Birmingham Airport in time for The Mathematician to catch her flight to Paris, where she is spending the New Year.  She's so grown up!
On the Fifth Day of Christmas the Best Beloved and I gave ourselves a special gift: a day for just ourselves.  I really do love being with my family, especially at this time of year, and I loved spending lots of time with my friends during the week before Christmas, but I was ready for a quiet day.  I drank buckets of tea, ate some chocolate, did quite a lot of crochet, watched a film and didn't leave the house.  I enjoyed the lights on the Christmas tree and the candles on the mantelpiece.  I didn't speak to anyone except the Best Beloved and I thought about my grandparents a lot.  It was a refreshing, restorative day. 
I know that Christmas is a difficult time for some people and if you are one of those people, you are probably feeling relieved that it's over.  I've been there and I really do understand that.  However, for me this year, it's not over yet and I am cherishing these days of small treats when the pressures and distractions of day-to-day life are put aside.  Tonight we'll open a bottle of wine, light up the mantelpiece and the Christmas tree and count our blessings.
See you soon.
Love, Mrs Tiggywinkle x

Thursday, 21 December 2017

Scenes from the Perfect Christmas Film

Hello, thank you for popping in, especially as I expect you are very busy with just a few days to go before Christmas.  It's lovely to see you here.

Imagine, if you will, that it's a week before Christmas and one dark, cold, cloudless evening a group of close friends set off to drive out into the countryside, laughing and chatting all the way.  As they drive further away from the towns and villages, leaving the lights behind, the sky becomes darker and when they reach their destination, they step out of the cars into the crisp night and see all the stars in the sky shining gloriously above them, let by bold Orion.  They point it out to each other in awe.  Behind the trees, they make out the ruins of an ancient castle and next to it, a church, its stained glass windows lit up like boiled sweets by the lights within.

Well wrapped up in coats and scarves and still chatting excitedly, the friends walk carefully up the dark path, swinging torches before them with gloved hands to light the way for their booted feet.  When they arrive at the church door, they are greeted warmly with cups of hot mulled wine and invited to find seats.  The stones of the building, almost a thousand years old, are bedecked with Christmas glitter and greenery and as they fill two pews, a smiling woman in a red coat comes to them bearing a tray of hot mince pies.  The church fills up as more and more people arrive and then the brass band, who are seated in the chancel, strike up "Oh Come, All Ye Faithful".  The friends sing lustily, along with everyone else in the packed church, whether faithful or not, and a carol service unfolds with familiar bible readings, unfamiliar poems, children wearing golden crowns to match the instruments in the band, candy canes for everyone and a sermon which places the story of a humble young couple seeking safety and shelter firmly in the reality of the present.
I haven't imagined this, although it was all so perfect that, afterwards, I wondered if I had done.  This was the carol service I went to earlier this week at St Bartholomew's Church in Moreton Corbet and I was one of those close friends.  I went to the same service last year with The Mathematician and raved about it so much that my friends wanted to come with me this time (and The Mathematician is not yet home from university).  We have had a rough year and this service was exactly what we needed to do together - honestly, if you wanted a blueprint for the perfect carol service, I think this would be it, although you would also have to arrange the weather and the stars, and perhaps a ruined castle.

Many people love a carol service, whether or not they believe in the Nativity story at its centre.  Those carols which we have heard every year since we were children, finding the words come to our lips easily, can conjure up happy memories of Christmases past, the feelings of excitement we had when we were children, looking forward to all the gifts Father Christmas would bring us, looking forward to time off school and, later, work, looking forward to seeing the family members we only saw at holiday time, looking forward to parties, pantomimes and gluttonous amounts of guilt-free chocolate.  Happy memories of Christmases past surface and we sing our hearts out in an effort to sing that happiness into the present.  

Thank you, St Bartholomew's, for giving my friends and me the perfect carol service.

See you soon.
Love, Mrs Tiggywinkle x

Wednesday, 13 December 2017

Snowy Shropshire

Hello, thank you for calling in.  I am feeling a bit sheepish.  I have been hugely distracted by the weather and I have neglected you for longer than I intended.  Sorry.

We knew that the snow was coming in on Friday but we didn't know how much of it there would be: it began to fall early in the morning and by the end of the day there was 15cm.  We didn't have a single flake last winter and it's several years since we saw this much snow, so on Saturday the Best Beloved and I decided to cast our plans aside and make the most of it.  When we opened the bedroom curtains we were greeted by this glorious sight, my beloved hawthorn dressed all in white in front of a blue sky - 

The Best Beloved donned his boots and ventured out into the back garden to assess the situation.

Then we set off for Wenlock Edge in the car.  However, we got as far as the River Severn before discovering that the rest of the road was closed, so we turned the car eastwards and drove along beside the river through a winter wonderland.  The road is lined with trees and their leafless branches looked SO beautiful dressed in white.  We parked the car so that the Best Beloved could get out and take some photographs of the power station, no longer operative and due for demolition next year.  The cooling towers have been part of the landscape of the Gorge for fifty years, extra money having been spent to stain the concrete when they were built in an effort to make them fit more harmoniously, and many people hoped that they would be retained when the rest of the complex is demolished, but it's not to be, the whole lot will be demolished and replaced by new housing.

When we reached Ironbridge, we parked the car and went for a little walk.  

Everywhere I looked, I gasped with delight.  There were a few people around, but not many, and I felt a bit sorry for the shopkeepers who must have been expecting lots of trade on this December Saturday, but I also felt very happy to be in this other-wordly atmosphere, away from the usual hustle and bustle.  It was strange really, the snow made everything feel very Christmassy but the quiet fought against that.  Perhaps it was a proper Advent hush?

The snow began to fall again in the early hours of Sunday morning and continued all day, not stopping until after we had gone to bed.  Many churches and businesses were closed because their staff simply couldn't get to them.   I sat beside the window watching six or seven blackbirds sheltering within the snow-laden holly bush outside, systematically stripping its branches of berries and regularly squabbling noisily.  Knowing that we had plenty of food and fuel and no need to go out anywhere, it felt rather special.  I sent the Best Beloved out into the garden again on Monday morning and he reported back that we had a further 10cm of snow, so 25cm altogether (that's 10" in old money).  Having been brought up on the south coast of England, he said that it's the biggest snowfall he's ever seen.  He was VERY excited.  We are not used to dealing with deep snow in this country and we don't cope with it very well: only the main roads are cleared or gritted so many people find themselves unable to get their cars out of their streets.  Consequently, a rather celebratory atmosphere descends and the air is full of laughter as schools are closed and parents take their children out to build snowmen, throw snowballs and generally make the most of the white stuff. We did this, too: we drove to The Teacher's house (very slowly) so that the Best Beloved could take her out to play on the sledge his father bought for him and his siblings when he was a child, but not before she ensured that Tom Kitten was the fourth generation of his family to enjoy a ride.

There's something else I'd like to share with you: three hospitals in this county put out a general call for owners of 4x4 vehicles to help with transporting staff to and from the hospitals so that services could be maintained and it seems that people rose to the call magnificently, asking that their passengers made donations to the hospitals or to the local air ambulance in return.  One driver reported that he had four hours sleep in two days, he was so busy.  Staff, too, stayed beyond the ends of their shifts to ensure that wards and clinics wouldn't have to close.  Now that amount of goodwill is, it seems to me, very Christmassy.

See you very soon.

Love, Mrs Tiggywinkle x

Wednesday, 6 December 2017

Experiencing Christmas

Hello, thank you for dropping in.  It turns out that I am rubbish at blogging every day.  I was overambitious.  Sorry.  Perhaps I should simply attempt to blog every other day and then if I did manage every day, the extras would be a bonus?  Hmm.

This week I have been helping schoolchildren to learn about the reason Christmas is called Christmas rather than, say, Dickensmas in an event called Experience Christmas which takes them through the story from The Annunciation to Epiphany.  It does feel rather early in the month, but the schools here break up for the holidays at the end of next week, a full ten days before Christmas.  I don't know which local authority official made that decision and I suspect he or she will have to keep a low profile because I don't actually know any parents who want to have their hyped-up, overexcited children at home for all that length of time, but I suppose it gives teachers time to prepare for their own celebrations...unless they have hyped-up, overexcited children of their own at home, of course.  So far, one hundred and eighty children have sat on the mats in front of me, listened, reacted and reflected.  I am enjoying it very much and I think the children are, too.

Here is Mary's kitchen, where she was busy with domestic chores when the Angel Gabriel appeared out of nowhere to tell her that she was going to have a very special baby - 

Snapped rather hastily on my 'phone just before the children arrived.

As I asked the children, how would you feel if you were in your kitchen and you turned round to find a great, big, shining, warrior of light standing there, calling your name??  Exactly! 

Bookending the story, at least for the time being, is Epiphany and here is my gold, frankincense and myrrh - alternatively, as one child put it, my gold, Frankenstein and myrrh!  There's always one.

I can take no credit for these lovely scenes, other people have prepared them and I simply turn up in the mornings and deliver, along with some friends.  I have been well looked after with Earl Grey tea and mince pies and all the children, whatever their ethnicity or belief, have gone home with a little more knowledge about the origins of Christmas, some thoughts about how it's relevant to them and a chocolate coin.  Teachers, I hope, have gone away with a positive view of the church and its place in its community (we have received feedback that we are well-organised and very welcoming).

Today is 6th December, St Nicholas' Day, a day to celebrate the patron saint of children and at this time when I don't have any little people at home I am glad to have been given this opportunity to be around other people's little people and share some Christmas with them.

See you tomorrow, or maybe the day after.

Love, Mrs Tiggywinkle x