Thursday 21 September 2017

On Freshers' Week

Hello, thank you for calling in, I'm delighted to see you here.  I am counting my blessings and I hope you are all safe, wherever you are.  I am certainly not going to gripe about the weather when there are hurricanes and earthquakes on the other side of the Atlantic.
Thirty-four years ago this month I packed up my suitcase and went off to college in Essex, beginning an adventure which would last for three years.  The Hall of Residence was over-subscribed but all first year students who wanted it were guaranteed accommodation, so I was allocated a place in a shared house which was earmarked for demolition to make way for a new road.  There were eight of us altogether, all girls, and my bed was in the room at the front of the house which would have originally been the lounge.  I had to share this room with another girl who, unfortunately for me, had never had to share a bedroom before and frankly, there was a good deal of tension because she had absolutely no idea of the give and take necessary to make it work.  She was selfish.  There, I have called a spade a spade.  All of the rooms in the house were full of girls except the kitchen and the bathroom - oh yes, there was only one bathroom between eight of us, no shower, and the loo was in the bathroom so if you needed a wee and someone was in the bath you just had to cross your legs and hang on.  There was a table and chairs in the kitchen and another in the large hall, but we had no sitting room.  We had no 'phone, no television, no washing machine, obviously we had no computers and none of us had a car, so how on earth did we cope??  Fabulously well.
I think that this year's crop of Freshers would be absolutely horrified.  A condemned house?  Sharing a room?  No ensuite shower room?  Trips to the laundrette?  No telecoms?  No cars?  How on earth did we survive??
There was another difference, too: Freshers' Week was the first week of term.  We had to contend with a full programme of lectures and tutorials as well as finding our way around, both the college and the town, making new friendships and a full programme of social activities.  We got up at 8am every day and went to bed at 3am every night and the excitement, the nerves and the adrenaline got us through.  The evening activities took place in the Student Union bar and I have been trying to remember what I would have been drinking - certainly not spirits, firstly because they were too expensive and secondly, because they were too middle-aged!  I don't think I was drinking beer then so if it was alcohol it was probably cider, or possibly a glass of the ghastly wine which was served in pubs then.  I don't remember any of the girls getting drunk to the point of incapacitation, although I do remember being scared by the behaviour of some of the boys who drank eight or nine pints of beer and couldn't control themselves.  The point of our evenings was, I think, to meet each other, to have fun together and to celebrate our freedom. 
Me in October 1983 in Cedar Avenue, Chelmsford, writing a letter!
In many British universities Freshers' Week now lasts for a fortnight.  The teaching doesn't begin until the second week, or possibly the third, so for at least a week, the activities are purely social and appear to revolve around alcohol - The Mathematician told me that during her Freshers' Week, three years ago, more than £1,000-worth of alcohol was laid out in her Hall every evening for a week.  I was shocked.  She pointed out to me that this was for more than one hundred students so it worked out at less than £10 per student and I pointed out to her that you can buy a bottle of gin for less than £10 in a supermarket.  I certainly wouldn't drink a whole bottle of gin every evening for a week or two.
I am trying to work out why this bothers me so much.  Well, for a start, the extra week or two at the beginning of term means that an extra week or two's rent has to be paid, and you have to pay extra for the Freshers' Week activities.  What bothers me more than that is the total reliance on alcohol, the assumption that you can't make new friends or have a good time without it.  Don't get me wrong, I enjoy a drink as much as anyone does, certainly as much as any fifty-two year old woman with a penchant for Sauvignon Blanc or a gin and tonic does, but I can meet new people without being drunk, even though I am naturally quite shy.  I suppose the point of the alcohol is to remove the initial reserve which may hold people back and prevent them mixing with each other, but I think it may be more useful in the long run for students to learn how to do that while they are sober.  After all, being a student is all about learning, isn't it?  It has also been reported this year that at some universities, students are being issued with wristbands which bear the name and address of their hall so that if they get very drunk while they are out and can't remember where they live, a friendly soul/ taxi driver / police officer can ensure they get safely home.  Really??  Shouldn't they be learning some personal safety strategies, for example, that you don't get so drunk that you can't get yourself home safely, and that when you go out, you stay with your friends so that you can look after each other?  Two years ago a young man went out clubbing in Shrewsbury and got so drunk that he rang his mother in the early hours of the morning to tell her that he didn't know where he was and ask her to help him.  She drove to Shrewsbury and spent a couple of hours driving around, looking for him, but couldn't find him.  A search was mounted and a few weeks later, his body was found in the River Severn.  Every time this happens, and it happened again a couple of weeks ago, there are calls for the river to be fenced off, but I don't hear any calls for people not to drink so much that they place themselves in danger. 
When I was a Fresher, we were all issued with a friendly little booklet, produced by the Students' Union, which gave us advice about all of this, and other personal safety tips... including what to do if you were arrested by the Police!
See you soon.
Love, Mrs Tiggywinkle x

Wednesday 13 September 2017

A Visit to The Greek Orthodox Church in Shrewsbury

Hello, thank you for dropping in, it's always lovely to see you.  The weather here has been sunny and rainy and windy and calm and warm and chilly and we have even had hailstones, but we are thankful that we don't get hurricanes and we are counting our blessings.
We have had a busy time: The Mathematician came home last week after a three-week tour of Europe.  There is great energy in our house when she is here, which is great but can sometimes be just a teensy bit tiring!  She has been putting everything in place for her return to university in a few week's time and I am increasingly aware that she won't be in this nest for very much longer as she already has a job lined up for next year, after she graduates.  I am trying to hold on to every last little scrap of her that I can.
The weekend was a busy one but as it was Heritage Open Days I was determined that the Best Beloved and I should fit in a visit somewhere.  This annual event describes itself as "England's largest festival of history and culture", when "places across the country throw open their doors to celebrate their heritage, community and history" and I am always surprised by how many of my friends are unaware of it.  Perhaps the marketing isn't good enough?  In the past we have visited some gems which are not usually open to the public, a National Trust property without having to pay and, last year, the church at Melverley where we heard a talk about its history.  This time we needed a place which was open on Saturday, not too far away and not too big as we only had a couple of hours to spare, so I went online to find out what was available.  I found the perfect place: the Greek Orthodox Church in Shrewsbury.

So, on a rainy Saturday lunchtime we parked the car in a lane and found ourselves walking through an estate of very new houses with very shiny cars parked on their driveways.  We followed the path and at the end of the road, rather incongruously, we found what appeared to be a small, medieval parish church, which indeed it was until it was virtually abandoned in the nineteenth century - the parish registers are empty after 1870 - but by the time it was purchased for £50 by the Community of The Holy Fathers of Nicea the First Ecumenical Council in 1994 it was being used as an agricultural storage building.  There was no glass in the windows, the door was not original and didn't fit properly, there were holes in the roof and in the internal plaster, the floor was rotten, the west wall was dangerously bowed, the internal walls were black with dirt and stained by water leaking through the roof and the building was full of unwanted agricultural clutter and squirrel droppings.  However, sad and neglected though the building was, it's history was lengthy and showed that this had been a spiritual place for thousands of years.
Standing outside the south wall, Father Stephen showed us the line of stones at its base which were laid in Saxon times; above this line were the stones laid in the twelfth century and above the windows, the stones laid when the church was restored in the sixteenth century, in 1545, when Henry VIII was King of England.  The bricks which formed the west wall were laid in the early eighteenth century, in the first year of the reign of Queen Anne, elegant, red, smaller than modern bricks.  Believing the church to date from the Saxon period, between the fifth century and the eleventh century, the Community felt that they were returning the church to its original, Orthodox purpose.
(For those of you who know as little about Orthodoxy as I did last week, I think I should explain here a little about the Orthodox Church:  in 1054 the Christian Church divided into two factions, an event which is known as the East-West Schism as the traditional Eastern Orthodox Church separated from the Western, Latin Church, which eventually became the Roman Catholic Church.  Father Stephen explained to us that therefore, all churches built before 1054, as this one was, were Orthodox churches.)   

However, an archaeological dig carried out earlier this year revealed that the land the church stands on has been used for ritual purposes for more than four thousand years!  A wooden post was dug up and sent away for carbon dating and as Father Stephen has written, "We were expecting this to be about 700 AD.  The results have now come back and to our total astonishment it turns out to be dated to 2033 BC - a time when the ancient Egyptians were still building Pyramids about 4,000 years ago.  This makes it late Neolithic / early Bronze Age."  Wow!  The discovery was linked with excavations carried out in the 1960s and 1970s which revealed prehistoric burial mounds and cremations, slots for standing stones and a processional way.  I felt a bit peculiar when Father Stephen explained all this to us as I realised that my feet were standing on land which had been trodden by those worshipping their deities for thousands of years before me, and the cup of tea I was then brought by one of his church members was most welcome, I can tell you!

The church was restored in 1996 and a bell tower and gallery were added, as well as a carved icon screen, which incorporates some of the wood from the old oak floor joists and pews, and a new holy table.  The restoration work revealed fourteenth century wall paintings which had not been apparent beneath the grime and the stains, and these were conserved in 2005.  The Community has added its own painting to the walls and icons have been painted by Aidan Hart, a well-known iconographer who is a member of the church.  I had never been inside an Orthodox Church before and what I found there was very beautiful, a building which honours its past whilst serving its present.  I also found warm, welcoming people who served us refreshments and honestly and openly answered my na├»ve questions about their church. 
The wall painting you can see on the left of this photo depicts the murder of St Thomas a Becket and is the oldest figurative painting in Shrewsbury, painted sometime between 1375 and 1385.
I was happy to find there icons of our local female saints, St Winifride and St Milburga, and, best of all, St Melangell, with whom I am a teeny bit obsessed at the moment - I have visited her shrine church twice this year but haven't yet found the right words to share those visits with you.  Perhaps this image will inspire me? 
See you soon.  Keep as safe and dry and warm as you can.
Love, Mrs Tiggywinkle x

Saturday 2 September 2017

Would You Like An Antler?

Hello, thank you for calling in, it's lovely to see you.  The sun is shining today and I am watching a butterfly flutter by outside the window. 

I was chatting with a friend in a rose garden over a pot of tea and a Shrewsbury cake, a good friend whom I have known for more than twenty-five years, a friend who shares my love of the countryside, the seaside and nature's treasures.  We were laughing about my shell collection (larger than it should be) and my fossil collection (much smaller than I would like it to be) when she said, "Would you like an antler?  I've got three but I've really only got room for two."  That's not something you hear every day and I burst out laughing.
My friend explained that while she was running a Wildlife Watch group several years ago, she took the group to visit a deer park and they were given a guided tour by a ranger.  They found some antlers lying on the ground and my friend brought them home.  Gentle reader, I can reassure you that no animal was harmed in the acquisition of these antlers: they are shed by the deer every year and new ones grow in their place.


So, here is an antler from a fallow deer.  It's rather beautiful, I think, and very tactile, and much as I would like to keep it, I really don't have anywhere sensible to put it, so it's going to a very good home - The Teacher is taking it to school and giving it to "the man who looks after the fossils and skulls" so that it can be used by any teacher in the school to help the children learn about deer, antlers,  life cycles, conservation, beauty, awe and wonder, those sorts of things.
See you soon.
Love, Mrs Tiggywinkle x