Sunday 29 January 2017

Whitchurch On The Wrong Day

Hello, thank you for dropping in, it's lovely to see you here.  How's your weather?  Ours is still cold and grey, but on Wednesday the sky was blue and the sun was shining.  I was SO ready for it; my spirits lifted and my soul smiled.  My 'phone pinged: it was a dear friend, asking if I would like to go out somewhere to make the most of the weather.  Of course I would!  After a bit of discussion we settled on a visit to the town of Whitchurch because although both of us have lived in Shropshire for about thirty years, we had only been there once, she to the hospital and I for a meeting. 
She picked me up at 1 o'clock - having done some research and printed out some useful "tourist information" for us.  She knew our visit would result in a blog post!  All I knew of Whitchurch was that it's a small market town in North Shropshire, close to the borders of Cheshire and Wales.  That's it.  However, as I read her thoughtfully prepared sheets of paper the sentence which jumped out at me was this one: "What Whitchurch possesses in abundance is beautiful Medieval, Georgian and Victorian architecture."  Well, if I'd known that I would have visited years ago!  It sounded like just my sort of town.
So off we set in the sunshine to mooch around Whitchurch.  We found a car park (not easily, the signage wasn't great) and walked down an alley to the main street; the view ahead was full of promise.
What we found was delightful, but we had obviously come on the wrong day.  Many of the shops were closed, as was the heritage centre.  Perhaps Wednesday is early closing day?  Some businesses had closed down permanently and there was the sad air of a place which, although once thriving, is now struggling to keep its chin up.  


We were very impressed by the large, apparently tudor NatWest Bank building until we discovered that the frontage was only built in 1930!  Sadly, this is due to close in June this year as custom has declined by almost 25% over the last five years. 
Wandering away from the High Street, we came upon these pretty cottages -

The Victorian Bank For Savings was impressive -
I was really taken with this old building.  A warehouse? -
You see that doorway to the left?  Well, the door was open and we were able to peep inside.  Can you see line of washing hanging up to dry?
Back on the High Street, we found another charming old courtyard with a sign which tickled us both -

Obviously, we had to visit the church, St Alkmund's.  Built in 1711 and Grade One listed, it replaced earlier buildings and there has actually been a church here since 912 AD.  It has beautiful windows of both stained and plain glass and this etched panel tells a story -
It says, "This window was restored from the proceeds of the sponsored walk of fifteen miles, organised by the Rotary Club of Whitchurch, on Palm Sunday 1971 in which 211 walkers took part."
The most significant monument in the church is the tomb of Sir John Talbot, the first Earl of Shrewsbury, who was born in 1386 and killed in 1453 at the Battle of Castillon, the final battle of the Hundred Years' War.   His body was brought back to England and while his embalmed heart is buried beneath the floor of the church porch, as he requested, his bones  lie beneath this effigy in the lady chapel.
We liked Whitchurch and will definitely visit again, although not on a Wednesday. We liked the CafĂ© Bon Sol, where I paid £3 for a pot of Earl Grey and a slice of delicious, home-made bakewell tart.  We especially like the fact that the sun was shining and we had made the most of it and done something different on a weekday afternoon.  The sun was setting by the time we left.
See you soon.
Love, Mrs Tiggywinkle x



Tuesday 24 January 2017

A Murmuration of Starlings

Hello, thank you for calling in, you are most welcome here.  The skies have been almost relentlessy grey and I have been feeling rather grey, too.  We had mizzle and drizzle, mist and fog for a week and our proposed weekend outing was cancelled due to pouring rain in favour of sitting by the fire with knitting.  The silver lining was that it hasn't been too cold - not that I mind a cold snap, but it's cheaper when you don't have to put the heating on. 
However, on Friday the sun came out.  Hooray!  The sky was blue and full of promise and the weather forecaster said that it would be the same on Saturday so the Best Beloved and I hatched a plan.  Saturday is usually a day for chores, shopping, football on the television (him) and a big newspaper (me) so to break the routine and plan a Saturday outing was A Big Thing, but I was desperate to make the most of the sunshine and he was easily persuaded.  Saturday morning dawned, the Best Beloved opened the bedroom curtains and...the sky was grey.  Again.  Sooooooo disappointing.  However, we were not deterred: we had planned an outing and we were bloomin' well going.  We cracked on with the chores and the shopping and, as it was very cold, we laid the fire ready to light as soon as we got home.  We donned our coats, scarves, gloves and boots and off we went.  In my bag I had my spectacles, my binoculars, a notebook, a pen and my bird book.  The Best Beloved had his camera.
We drove to Aqualate Mere, just over the border in Staffordshire - at 1.9km long it's the largest natural lake in the West Midlands, scraped out by a retreating glacier at the end of the Ice Age, but it's less than a metre deep!  The Best Beloved says it is really "just a very big puddle".  We parked in the little car park and set off through the nature reserve, mud gently squelching beneath our boots and not a soul in sight.  After about twenty minutes we reached our destination: the bird hide at the eastern end of the mere.
Thousands of birds overwinter here but I was slightly disappointed to find that most of them were down at the other end of the mere!  There were plenty of swans and ducks on the water but they were so far away that even with my binoculars I couldn't identify them.  However, the view from the hide was magnificent, even on a washed out winter's day.  There was not a breath of wind so the sky and the water were serenely still and I felt a great sense of calm as the niggles and anxieties which constantly claim my attention drifted away. 
Close to the hide there were half a dozen mallards, a couple of coots, a moorhen, a mute swan and a cormorant.  I had never seen a cormorant in the water before and it was fascinating: it sat very low with its body completely submerged and only its head and neck visible, like a periscope.  Periodically, it would disappear under the water to catch a fish and pop up somewhere else, causing the Best Beloved to describe it as "the submarine of the bird world". 
We sat there for about an hour, talking to each other in whispers so as not to disturb the blue tits, great tits and robin on the feeder just outside the hide.  There was quite a lot of noise coming from the reedbeds and I wish I could understand birdsong.  At 4 o'clock the Best Beloved pointed out to me that we ought to pack up and start making our way back to the car because the sun would be setting at 4.30pm and we didn't want to be stumbling around in the dark.  I reluctantly packed my bag...and then we saw the starlings over the trees at the far end of the mere. 
Can you see them?  You might want to click on the photo for a closer look.  A cloud of tiny black specks: a murmuration of starlings.  Apparently up to 250,000 starlings roost in the reeds here and every evening they perform this display.  We saw only a few thousand but they were mesmerising as they flew towards us, the amorphous cloud changing shape all the time and growing as more starlings flew in and joined the flock.  By this time we had been joined by a man with three children, who were awestruck.  "It looks like a whale!" said the small girl.  "Now it's a snake!" said one of the boys. 
We stayed to watch them until they disappeared from view and then we left the hide - to find that they were directly overhead!  We stood with upturned faces as they swooped and swirled over us, filling the sky and filling our ears with the sound of the wind beneath their wings - imagine being in the woods on a windy night and that's the sound.
I have seen murmurations before but only from a distance.  I knew that it was a spectacle, one of the wonders of nature, and nobody knows why the starlings do it (we know they do it to communicate with each other but we don't know what they are communicating).  To be so close, to actually experience this phenomenon, is something very special.  I felt full of emotion but I can't explain what the emotion was.  All I can tell you is that it was  wonderful. 
It was dark by the time we got home.  We took off our muddy boots, lit the fire and the candles, made a pot of tea and shared a bar of chocolate.  It was a perfect afternoon, even without any sunshine, football or newspaper.
See you soon.
Love, Mrs Tiggywinkle x

Tuesday 10 January 2017

Langley Chapel, a Tiny Church

Hello, thank you for calling in, and thank you for the lovely comments left on my last post.  I do love reading them and I think I have altered the settings so that anyone should be able to leave a comment now without having to be "registered" anywhere.  Several of you mentioned the book about Tiny Churches and asked me to share my visits with you so on Sunday the Best Beloved and I set off to visit the first.  Although it was raining, the drive was lovely, along narrow lanes bordered by ancient hedges.  We had to stop twice to allow an oncoming car to pass but the only other traffic was on legs, two or four. 

Langley Chapel, a simple stone rectangle with a small wooden bell-tower, stands in a corner of a field in a remote part of a rural county.  Farm buildings are on the other side of the field boundary.  As I stepped out of the car, all I could hear was a clamour of birdsong and the gentle bleating of sheep in a far field.  There was nobody else around and I could have been standing at almost any point in time.   I turned the heavy, iron key in the lock, pushed open the door and stepped a seventeenth century Puritan time capsule.  Plain, whitewashed walls, simple glazed windows and heavy, dark wooden furniture.  A plaster frieze between the south wall and the roof is the only ornamentation. 

The  first thing I saw from the doorway was a musicians' desk, placed at the back of the church.  I have never seen one anywhere else.  I was drawn to it and placed my hand flat on it, feeling the echoes of those whose hands made music here four hundred years ago.  (The Best Beloved thought I was a bit daft at this point!)

So why does does this little gem stand alone, seemingly in the middle of nowhere?  The manor of Langley was first recorded almost a thousand years ago and was one of the most substantial in Shropshire, substantial enough to warrant two water mills in the manor, and the Burnell family built a large hall here and surrounded it with a moat.  The population of estate workers and tenants was sizeable and as the manor was a couple of miles away from the parish church, in 1313 the Burnells were granted permission to build a parochial chapel on the estate so that everyone would be able to attend services.  The chapel was rebuilt in 1546, by which time the estate had passed to the Lee family, and its roof was replaced in 1601.  These last two dates are important because we are now in the Tudor period, King Edward VI has established the Protestant Church of England and a new English prayer-book, issued in 1547, introduced a new style of congregational worship.
The Reformation changed the style of Christian worship in England and so changed the layout of churches in order to facilitate that worship.  The focus of the service was no longer a mass, spoken in Latin by a priest who turned his back to the congregation and faced a stone altar placed against the east wall.  Instead, the focus was the word of God, reading from the bible and  preaching to the congregation, with communion shared with them from a wooden altar table which the priest stood behind as he faced them.  So, when Langley Chapel was refurbished at the beginning of the seventeenth century, it was done so in the modern way; the Puritan way. 
 This altar table is a replica, the original having been stolen!
The altar table is surrounded on three sides by benches, complete with kneeling rail so that those who wish to can kneel and those who don't can sit.  (Puritans regarded kneeling as "popish" so they always sat.)

The reader's desk, from which the bible was read to the congregation, is huge, emphasising the importance of this part of the service.

The seating here is all about social class: at the back there are benches for labourers and servants, in front of them there are box pews for farmers, millers and tradespeople, to give some protection from the draughts, and right in front of the pulpit there is a large box pew for the Lee family.  Well, if you were going to have to listen to a long sermon, you needed somewhere comfortable to sit, didn't you? 
During the second half of the seventeenth century Langley Hall and its estate was passed to the Smythe family and they moved out less than fifty years later. By 1717, the hall was being used as a farmhouse and it was demolished in about 1870, replaced by a new farmhouse.  With no servants or estate workers, the population dwindled and so did attendance at the chapel's services until the last regular service was held there in 1871.  So the Victorian trend for reordering churches in a medieval, gothic style bypassed Langley Chapel and it was left alone and abandoned, its heavy tudor doors locked, its interior preserved as a time capsule.  It was repaired in 1900 and again in the 1960s and during one of those repairs the concrete floor must have been laid and the haphazard arrangement of medieval encaustic tiles set in the chancel. 

 All that remains of Langley Hall is buried beneath the earth; only the chapel is left.  It is of such significance that it was taken into the care of the state, in 1914.  I have never seen a church like it. 

  See you soon.
Love, Mrs Tiggywinkle x

Saturday 7 January 2017

Five Christmas Gifts

Hello and Happy New Year. I really hope that 2017 will be a better year than 2016, which was particularly difficult for me.  I haven't made any resolutions but, prompted by a friend, I have set myself a few goals which I hope to achieve before the end of this year so I am busy making plans and lists; I do love a list.  I also love a list of Five and so today I am joining Amy's Five On Friday at Love Made My Home to share with you five of my Christmas presents.

1.  Mrs Tiggywinkle

The 150th anniversary of the birth of Beatrix Potter brought an outpouring of commemorative items onto the market and I was hopeful that something would make its way into my Christmas stocking.  I was not disappointed: my thoughtful sister bought me this special 50p piece from the Royal Mint.  Obviously, I shan't be spending it!

2.  A Glass Soldier

The Teacher gave me this to hang on my Christmas tree.  It was made by the sixth form students at the special school where she works and I think it's beautiful, as she knew I would.  (I tried to photograph it in situ, hanging on the tree, but my photos were rubbish!)
3.  Tiny Churches

If you've been visiting me here for a while you might have worked out that I like visiting churches.  I'm not sure why but I think it's because no matter how old or how big the church is, there will always be an altar which will (almost) always be placed under the east window, there will always be a font, a pulpit, pews or chairs, and yet these fixtures are always different.  There are stories to be told and I like decoding the clues.  This book was a gift from another thoughtful sister and it turns out that I have already visited a few of the churches in this book, although I have never written about them here, so I think it must be time to revisit them!
4.  A Rather Battered Little Book of Poems

My mother gave me this book and it is real treasure.  Obviously, it's not new and the inscription shows that my grandmother gave it to my grandfather on his 39th birthday which means that unlike many of their possessions, it survived Hitler's blitz on London during the Second World War.  There is more treasure within its leaves: a newspaper cutting, a fragment of a poem written by my great, great uncle, James McKeon of Cloonfad.  I wonder when that was tucked inside?

 Click on the photo to enlarge it and read the inscription.
5.  A Trip To The Theatre

Every year at Christmas my parents take their children and grandchildren to the theatre, at enormous expense as there are now twenty of us.  This tradition began in 1980, I think, when they brought together grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins in London to see Hiawatha at the National Theatre and although we had a few years' break, it's now an annual event.  Cameron Mackintosh's production of Mary Poppins was this year's treat and it was a brave choice because some of us love the film and this musical is not the same as the film - obviously.  I mean, you can't really animate the penguins on stage, can you?  However, it really was a treat for all ages and I heartily recommend it.
So there you are.  No diamonds, porsches or expensive perfume, just some simple, thoughtfully chosen things which bring me happiness.  I'm off now to have a look at everyone else's Five On Friday (or Saturday).
See you soon.
Love, Mrs Tiggywinkle x