Sunday 27 May 2018

Serenity at Pennant Melangell

Hello, thank you for calling in.  It's a bank holiday weekend here in England so it's raining.  In fact, it's not just raining, I am actually slap bang in the middle of a thunderstorm and the cats are definitely not impressed.  Did you know that until 1830 the Bank of England used to close on about forty saints' days and anniversaries?  Forty!  Now I think we have eight.  Today, however, is significant for another reason: 27th May is St Melangell's Day...unless you are in Wales, where she is remembered on 31st January!

This is a post I have been waiting to write for months, and yet holding back too, unwilling to set it free and share it with the world.  On a very wet and soggy day in March last year I visited a very special place in Wales with a group of friends who crossed three generations, a place I have visited twice since and thought about often, a place which almost seems to have claimed a piece of my heart.  (That reads like a terrible cliché, I know, but honestly, that's how it feels.)  It is Pennant Melangell in Powys in Wales.

St Melangell (pronounced Mel-AN-geth) was an Irish princess, the daughter of King Jochwel, and about 1,430 years ago her father tried to marry her off in a political arrangement to secure his land and power, as kings did in the sixth century.  Melangell didn't like the sound of that so she ran away across the sea to Wales where she ended up in the Upper Tanat Valley, a remote and beautiful green place under the Berwyn Mountains.  For fifteen years she lived there as a hermit, living off the land and quietly devoting herself to solitary prayer.  There is a large rock on the hillside known as "Melangell's Bed" which is where she is said to have slept.  One day in 604 AD, Prince Brochwel of Powys, who owned the land, was out hunting with his servants and dogs in the valley.  The hounds shot off after a hare which dived into a bramble thicket and when Brochwel followed them he found Melangell there, quietly absorbed in prayer and oblivious to the noisy kerfuffle going on around her; the hare was hiding under the hem of her robe.  She refused to give up the hare and Brochwel was so impressed by her courage and serenity (in the face of a baying pack of hounds and armed horsemen) that he gave her the valley and built for her a sanctuary so that any person or animal who sought refuge there should find it.  It was to be a place of asylum forever.  Melangell founded a nunnery there, became its Abbess and died there thirty-seven years later in 641 AD.  
Inside the church there are several hare sculptures by Meical Watts.
So goes the legend of St Melangell.  It was told for more than eight hundred years, passed down the generations, before it was first written down in the late fifteenth century in the Historia Divae Monacellae - the Latin name for Melangell is Monacella.  The traveller and writer Thomas Pennant visited the area in the late eighteenth century and found that people were still telling her story rather than reading it - which is hardly surprising, given that most of the people who lived in that remote place wouldn't have been able to read at all, let alone understand Latin.  He wrote the story down and added a dramatic flourish: when the Prince's huntsman raised his horn to his lips to blow it in order to urge on the hounds once they had discovered the hare under Melangell's hem, no sound came out and the horn stuck to his lips.


The Shrine Church of St Melangell dates from the twelfth century, although the current building probably replaced an earlier wooden one.  Pilgrims still make the journey along the single track road, about two miles from the village of Llangynog - the second time I visited, on a beautifully sunny day in July, I took the Best Beloved with me and when he said, "Are you sure this is the right road?"  I replied, "Yes, I'm sure - look, there's a monk walking just ahead of us!"  There was indeed a monk, I knew it by his habit, and that's not a sight often seen where I live.  However, the churchyard is circular, which suggests that this was used as a sacred place during the Bronze Age, and ancient cremated remains found here have been dated between 1,000 BCE and 1,500 BCE, more than 1,500 years before St Melangell was here.  The yew trees which stand beside the enclosing wall have been certified to be two thousand years old and although this may be debatable, they are certainly more than one thousand years old.  There is something about this place, something I can't put into words.  When the Best Beloved and I went to Snowdonia last month he suggested that we make a small detour so that we could visit again.  We ate our packed lunch in the churchyard before going inside and even though the clouds were low and the air felt wet, we felt warm and dry sitting there on a damp wooden bench.  As I said, it's a very special place.
The church itself is fascinating, having been renovated several times over the last nine hundred or so years, most recently almost thirty years ago.  St Melangell's shrine, built to hold her relics in the twelfth century, now stands in the chancel and is unique in Britain; in fact, it's held to be the oldest and most important surviving Romanesque shrine in Northern Europe (can you hear me shouting that?!).  It was dismantled during the Reformation in the fifteenth century and its pieces scattered, some of them being built into the lych gate and the walls of the church.  They sat there unidentified and anonymous, the soft sandstone gently weathering, until 1894 when somebody realised what they were, but it was another sixty-four years before they were rescued and pieced back together in 1958, and rebuilt again in 1989.  New pieces were cast in concrete to replace the missing bits, making it easy to see which are the ancient stones, and silk cloth drapes were made, and although nobody knows what the original shrine actually looked like, this seems a fair interpretation.

The Cell-y-Bedd was built onto the eastern end of the church in 1751, a squarish room which was used as a vestry and, later, a schoolroom, and entry was through a door from the churchyard, there was no direct access from within the church.  In the 1950s the room was repaired and strengthened and a new floor was laid and excavations revealed the foundations of an apse, a rounded chamber which predated 1751.  More exciting than that, however, was the discovery of a significant grave, believed to be that of St Melangell herself.  Her shrine was reconstructed there at that time.  Three decades later, the Cell-y-Bedd was declared unsafe so it was taken down and replaced by a new apse, built with the eighteenth century stones on the original twelfth century foundations.  The original doorway through the east end of the church into the old apse was discovered, reclaimed and named St Melangell's Door and the shrine was rebuilt in the chancel.  The architect of this work was Robert Heaton, who had overseen the restoration work carried out in 1958 and so knew and understood the building well.

The physical manifestation of all this history and legend was almost lost: after years of neglect, by 1987 the church was in such a bad state that it was too far gone to be repaired so the options were either a full restoration or to let it go completely.  The church council wanted to take the roof off and let nature take its course, considering that to be the easier option, but Rev'd Paul Davies and his wife, Evelyn, loved the place and with tremendous drive and determination, secured funding to completely restore the church, which was done between 1988 and 1992.  Paul wrote this:

"St Melangell's Church attracts a constant procession of visitors throughout the year. The absence of any facilities and its situation ensure that almost every one of them is more a pilgrim than a casual visitor.  There are no passers-by and many come again and again.  They seek and find peace, tranquillity, "tangnefedd", to quote their own words.  This is more than silence and isolation, and is recognised by many who do not attend church regularly. "

I have looked up the translation of "tangnefedd" and it is "serenity".  Since the restoration, people have continued to visit.  There are scallop shells to remind us that this is a place of pilgrimage, prayer requests sit in the base of the shrine, tealights are lit in prayer.  On my second visit I chatted with a woman who has leukemia and told me that she visits whenever she can to sit in the church, write and pray.  I am obviously not the only person who finds this place special.  

You can find out more about Pennant Melangell here.  There is a lot to see for such a small building and if you visit, there is a fascinating exhibition up in the tower which tells the history of the church and the village and there is a little shop area in the base where you can buy postcards and cards.  It doesn't feel at all inappropriate. 

The gates are bear the initials EM and SO and are dated 1763. 
"Given by E Madocks Esq 1737" is carved on the lock. 

Edward Madocks and David Thomas were the churchwardens when the porch was built in 1737.

You might want to sign the visitors' book, because you can read and write; a few hundred years ago some visiting pilgrims left their mark by carving round their boots in the top of a grave slab outside the south wall of the church, at the east end.  
St Melangell is the patron saint of hares, rabbits, small animals and the natural environment. That seems a bit small to me - not "the natural environment", obviously, but the hares and rabbits and small animals.  I think she should be the patron saint of courage, or of serenity.
Happy St Melangell's Day!
See you soon.
Love, Mrs Tiggywinkle x


Saturday 19 May 2018

Eurovision 2018

Hello, thank you for dropping in.  I'm always pleased to see you here and if you are kind enough to leave a comment, I'll reply.  May is turning out to be a bit lovely: we have had sunshine and warmth during the daytime and I am making the most of my summerhouse, but the nights have been cold, we even had a frost this week so I'm glad I haven't planted out any tender annuals yet. 

This time last week I was up to my elbows in egg custard.  Why?  The Eurovision Song Contest, of course!  If you've been visiting here for a while, you might remember that every year I celebrate this event with a bit of a party, with a buffet featuring recipes from the host nation, score cards and general merriment.  I explained how this has come about in this post three years ago but basically, I've been doing it for more than twenty years.  When Portugal won the contest last year my friend and I were delighted because we've never done Portuguese food before.  "Custard tarts!" I said.  "Salt cod!" she replied, and so the beginning of the menu was born.
We spent the previous week doing online research - neither of us has actually ever been to Portugal, so Thank Goodness for the internet.  We discovered that as well as custard tarts and salt cod, sardines and rice would be essential and the national vegetable seems to be kale.  On Friday I wrote out my recipes, which led to my shopping list, and sallied forth to buy provisions, which enabled me to spend all day Saturday in the kitchen, accompanied by  a profusion of Eurovision songs from past and present on the radio, including an Abba party. Oh, I couldn't have been happier!  I cooked up some sardine pate, corn bread, a warm salad of black-eyed beans and kale and ten custard tarts.  Meanwhile, at her house, my friend was preparing a tomato salad and cooking tomato rice, meatballs, chicken skewers, salt cod fritters and orange cakes.  In a very jolly mood, I packed up my car with food, a bottle of port and my husband and tootled round to her house.
We had a terrific evening in very good company - my friend's sister and her husband had travelled from Sussex on the train especially!   The food was delicious and I intend to make all of my recipes again - in fact, I have already made the bean and kale salad again.  Tom Kitten loved it.  I awarded each act marks for the song, the performance, choreography and costume.  My favourite was Denmark, a stirring Viking anthem backed by drums which was sung by men with long hair wearing long coats and boots and at the snowed!  Honestly, what's not to love about any of that?!  They came eighth.  Netta won for Israel with a quirky performance of a song about female empowerment.  "Avocados!"  I said.  "Hummus!" replied my friend. 
Of course, as a song competition, it doesn't really matter at all, which is just as well because it seems that the UK is unlikely to win it ever again, no matter how good the song or the performance and to be honest, I can't blame Europe for failing to vote for us when our country has voted to leave the European Union.  It's like saying, "We don't want to be friends with you but we want to play your game so please vote for us in your competition."  I don't think so!  I heard a BBC reporter say that it's not really a song contest but a festival of diversity and friendship.  I like that.  For one night a year I can celebrate being in communion with people from a whole host of other nations whilst unashamedly indulging my love of good food, pop music, glamorous costumes, cheesy choreography and... artificial snow.

 May I just return to those custard tarts for a minute?  They tasted divine, subtly flavoured with cinnamon and lemon and because I bought a box of puff pastry from the supermarket, they were not difficult to make.  I used this recipe and I heartily recommend it.  So does Tom Kitten.
See you soon.
Love, Mrs Tiggywinkle x

Tuesday 15 May 2018

A Family Heirloom

Hello, thank you for calling in.  Is all well?  We are still enjoying warm weather and sunshine.  Isn't it lovely how everything feels better when the sun is shining?
A number of nice things happened during my unintended blogging break, things which I would like to share with you, and today I'm going to tell you about the nicest one of all.
When Alice's first grandchild was born in 1955, she commissioned her friend and neighbour, Betty, to knit a Christening gown for the baby, a girl, to wear.  Alice could knit herself, but Betty was a more skillful knitter and the gown she made of soft, white, 2 ply wool was beautiful, the lacework incredibly fine and even.  The gown was long, as is traditional, and lined with white satin and through the eyeholes was threaded a fine, white, organza ribbon.  Here is a photo of the gown, the baby and her mother in 1956.

In 1965 Alice's third grandchild was born, another girl - me.  Betty was fond of my mother so she knitted a shawl to match the gown she had knitted a decade earlier, a gift for the new baby.  I was Christened, wearing the gown and wrapped in the shawl, in the spring of that year.  

 In 1971 the gown was worn again by Alice's sixth grandchild, another girl.  Here she is, on the lap of her other grandmother.

And here is Alice with that baby on her knee, surrounded by one of her daughters and four more of her granddaughters.  That's me kneeling at the front on the right, wearing the pink dress!

On Mothering Sunday 1973 Alice's ninth grandchild, another girl, wore the gown for her Christening.   

After this, the gown was washed, carefully wrapped and stowed away for a generation until Mothering Sunday 1996, when The Mathematician wore it for her Thanksgiving.  "Let's have a look at the family heirloom," said my aunt.  So here I am, carefully holding my lovely girl in a way which shows off said heirloom while one of my sisters ensures it is properly draped.  (You've met my sisters earlier in this post!)

The gown was carefully wrapped and stowed away again for another generation. Last year, the gown was passed to me.  Oh, the responsibility!  When The Teacher asked me if Tom Kitten could wear it for his Thanksgiving in March, my heart skipped a little beat.  We unwrapped it together and were dismayed to see that it was yellowed and stained!  However, I did not stay daunted for long. After all, I earned my Laundress badge in the Girl Guides and that may have been in 1978 but wool is wool and the rules hold true - tepid water, no wringing or spinning, just gentle squeezing before wrapping in a thick towel.  I searched online for advice about stain removal and discovered that my usual products would eat the wool.  Yikes!  So, I approached the task very gently, with a specialist wool washing liquid and a couple of quick squirts of Vanish.  Hmm.  The result was an improvement, but not perfect.  I searched online again and sent the Best Beloved out to buy some distilled vinegar.  I soaked the gown in a solution of vinegar and water before rinsing it thoroughly and allowing it to dry.  This time, the result was much better - still not perfect, but much better.  We took out the stained organza ribbon and replaced it with new green ribbon, which hid the most obvious stain.  The Teacher was thrilled.

I was worried about Tom Kitten's head and his feet as early March can be very cold, so I used my mother's 1960s knitting patterns and knitted him a bonnet and some bootees in 3 ply wool.  I threaded them with more of the green ribbon and send the parcel over to The Teacher.

While the Best Beloved and I were driving to the church, The Teacher dressed Tom Kitten and sent me this photo.

And here we are, the six of us who have worn the family heirloom over the last sixty-two years, four granddaughters, one great-granddaughter and one great, great-grandson of Alice. 

See you soon.
Love, Mrs Tiggywinkle x

Wednesday 9 May 2018

Weeping Window

Hello, thank you for being here.  I am glad to see you.  The sun has been shining and we seem to have leapt from winter straight to summer, bypassing spring completely!  Such are the vagaries of the British climate and I'm not complaining about it, I'm really not, I'm well aware that we wouldn't have such a green and pleasant land without it.  Also, we wouldn't have so much to talk about.
Do you remember that in 2014 a work of art entitled Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red caught the public imagination when it was installed at the Tower of London to commemorate the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War?  The work, by artist Paul Cummins and designer Tom Piper, comprised 888,246 ceramic red poppies, one for each British or Colonial serviceman killed during the war, and was made up of three segments: Weeping Window, a cascade which seemed to pour down from a window in the tower, Wave, an arch around the Tower entrance, and the sea of poppies which filled the moat.  More than five million people went to see the installation and so it was agreed that Weeping Window and Wave should be bought for the nation while the rest of the poppies were sold off to raise money for six service charities. 
Weeping Window and Wave have been touring the country since 2015 and in March Weeping Window, comprising 5,500 poppies, was installed at Hereford Cathedral.  I planned to go and see it during the Easter holiday, but the weather was so poor that I kept putting it off, waiting for a brighter day which never came, and in the end the Best Beloved and I didn't get there until 29th April, its final day in Hereford.  The day was dry, which was a relief as some of my friends had seen it two days before in the pouring rain, but overcast and bitterly cold.  We walked through the gates and were greeted by this sight.
I found it almost overwhelming.  There was quite a crowd of people there, some perhaps passing through the Cathedral grounds on their way to somewhere else, some obviously walking their dogs, there were children running and laughing as they played beneath the trees, oblivious to the significance of the huge cascade in front of them.  It felt almost like an ordinary Sunday morning, except that it wasn't ordinary at all because we were there remembering the horrors of the First World War, obviously.  I had woken up that morning convinced that I needed to read some poetry while I was there, and so I did, aloud.  Please don't misunderstand me, this was a personal commemoration, not a public one so I didn't "declaim", I simply stood and read aloud in my ordinary conversational voice, and then I played The Last Post on my smartphone - that was an impulse, but I think it was a good one.  I read Dulce et Decorum Est by Wilfred Owen, The Death of Harry Patch by Sir Andrew Motion and Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red, the poem by an unknown soldier which Paul Cummins found while doing his preparatory research.  I am sure that the people who were close to me and heard me thought that I was bonkers but I can live with that; I paid my respects.

If you would like to see the poppies, Weeping Window will be at Carlisle Castle later this month and then Middleport Pottery in Stoke-on-Trent before arriving at its permanent home in the Imperial War Museum, London in October.  Wave is currently at the Royal Armouries in Fort Nelson in Portsmouth and later this year will move to the Imperial War Museum, North in Manchester, which will be its permanent home.  You can find out the details here.  The installations are free to view and I think you have already guessed that I recommend them. 
Just as we were about to leave, the sun came out for a few moments and I instructed asked the Best Beloved to whip out his camera and take some more photos.  He did.

Many people were taking selfies featuring the poppies behind them and I asked the Best Beloved if we should ask someone to take our photo with the installation as we are absolutely hopeless at selfies.  He was adamant that we should not; he thought it was disrespectful.  I love him for that.
See you soon.
Love, Mrs Tiggywinkle x