Monday 30 July 2018

Summer List - Week One

Hello, thank you for calling in to my Shropshire patch, I'm delighted to find you here.  The big news is...IT HAS RAINED.  In any other summer this would not be news and most people would not be happy about it but this year, it is news and we are definitely happy, although I do wish that the rain had waited until my washing had dried and I had brought it indoors!  The Best Beloved said that it would start raining as soon as the school term finished but this time, he was wrong mistaken because our schools broke up for the summer a week ago.
Do you have a summer list?  I know that many people compile a list of things that they would like to do over the school summer holiday or before they die or before they reach a significant birthday.  I have never made such a list but this year I have been inspired to compile one by a friend who has made a list of forty things she would like to do in the year of her fortieth birthday; some of the things on her list are very simple treats, things that we tend to overlook or to do routinely without remembering to savour, and that set me thinking.  So, I have made a list of sixteen things which I would like to accomplish over the six week holiday. Sixteen didn't feel too ambitious, I thought it was an achievable number.  Some of the sixteen are things which I have been wanting to do for a long time, some are challenging and some will be very easy to achieve but all, I think, will be treats.  In the first week of the holiday I ticked three of them off the list.
1.  Visit Haughmond Abbey
Haughmond Abbey is a ruined Augustinian abbey just outside Shrewsbury, the oldest walls dating from the twelfth century.  I don't know why I've never visited before because I've been to the other three local ruined abbeys many times, all of them, like this one, in the care of English Heritage, but now that I've been I shall definitely go again, with a picnic.  It is free to visit, you can park your car right outside the entrance and it is really quite substantial - not the church itself, there is very little of that left, but the domestic buildings, with walls high enough to provide welcome shade on a very hot summer day. 

2.  Sit by a babbling stream
When I am feeling wound up, anxious or worn out I find the sound of running water very soothing.  My next-door neighbour has a pond which recirculates water and I like to sit and listen to it on summer evenings, feeling the tension dissipate until I feel calm and relaxed.  The campsite I stayed on with the Best Beloved last week is beside the River East Onny, more of a stream than a river and made shallow now by the lack of rain so very early on Thursday morning, before anyone else was up and about, I snuck out of my tent and sat on a bench, under a tree, beside a place where the water has to find its way around and over stones laid on the river bed by children building dams.  I sat there for half an hour, listening to the water, mesmerised by its sound. 


3.  Visit Shropshire Lavender
I have wanted to visit this lavender farm for years but never got round to it, perhaps because it's only open on Friday, Saturday and Sunday afternoons from the middle of June until the end of August.   However, when I read Rosie's post on Friday, this one, and saw her lavender photo, I decided that this weekend would be the time to go.  We visited on Saturday afternoon and sat in the charming tea garden - the Best Beloved had coffee with a lavender scone with jam and cream, I had tea with lavender and lemon cake, all was delish. We were walking into the orchard, planted with many different varieties of lavender which flower from June till the end of September, when the rain began to fall, slowly at first but then more heavily until everyone was running to their cars, including us.  We decided that we shall come back another time to visit properly, although we might not be able to fit it in this year as they are only open for another four weekends. 
So the first week of the summer holidays is over and I have thirteen things left on my list.  I haven't planned anything for this week, I don't want to tie myself in to a schedule because one of the things I enjoy about the school holiday is not having a schedule, so I'll just see how the week unfolds. 
Before I go, I cannot let today pass without mentioning Emily Bronte, who was born on this day two hundred years ago, 30th July 1818.  I read Wuthering Heights, her only novel, for the first time when I was fifteen years old as it was one of my O-Level English Literature texts and I fell in love with it.  I have claimed it to be my favourite book ever since.  I had to hand my copy back in to school so I bought another in a junk shop, a hardback whose spine has broken with repeated use (for which I ought to be ashamed, but I can't be because it shows how many times I have read the book).  Happy Birthday Emily, and thank you.

See you soon.
Love, Mrs Tiggywinkle x

Saturday 28 July 2018

A Tale of Tents

Hello.  Thank you for dropping in.  Until today we have still been "enjoying" very, very hot weather.  It did rain for about an hour on Tuesday, lightly and softly, not enough really as we were able to walk barefoot on the grass afterwards very comfortably and today we have blustery winds and proper showers, real rain for the first time in almost nine weeks!  We drove to the South Shropshire hills on Wednesday and noticed how brown and parched they are.  We spent a night under canvas, except that tents aren't made of canvas anymore, and because we were so high above the level of the sea, I felt blissfully chilly after the sun had gone down - I had to don a fleece, and even my woollen wristwarmers!  I didn't mind at all. 

I first camped as a Girl Guide, in good old Icelandics, six girls in each tent, and I took to it straight away (except for the toilet arrangements, obviously, because they were horrible).  I proudly bore my Camper and Backwoodsman badges so I know that you mustn't touch the inside of the tent if it's raining, where to stake the guy ropes  and how to storm lash them in the event of fierce weather.  I know that you shouldn't pitch your tent at the bottom of a hill and that when you strike camp, you tap the mud off the pegs and stack them to dry before you pack them away.  Oh yes, I am A Camper.
When I met the Best Beloved, he owned a small, two-man tent which he had used when he  travelled around France a few years beforehand.  We never used it together but when The Teacher was a little girl, her special birthday treat was to camp in the garden, just for one night, with her father.  Honestly, the man was practically a saint - her birthday is in August so those evenings were long.  "Daddy, I spy with my little eye something beginning with S."  "I give up."  "Stitch!"  There's really not much to see inside a very small tent.
Approaching The Teacher's ninth birthday, her grandfather rang me and said, "She's asked us to buy her a tent for her birthday.  I assume she means a play tent?"  Er, no.  She really wanted a tent in which the four of us could go off for camping adventures together and I had no idea that she had asked her grandparents to buy her that tent.  So being wonderful grandparents, they bought her a Lichfield four-person tent.  It was a cracking little ridge tent, easily put up and pegged in within half an hour.  There was one sleeping cabin, big enough to roll out four sleeping mats with a space at the end for our luggage.  The porch was big enough for a small table and chairs, a cooker and kitchen paraphernalia.  It was perfect for weekends away - our first trip was to The Golden Valley in Herefordshire and The Teacher was disappointed because it wasn't like Enid Blyton's Valley of Adventure!
For over three years that little tent served us well and we had little adventures in England and Wales.  Then we decided that we wanted to travel a bit further and stay for longer than a weekend but the vagaries of the British weather (ha ha, she said ironically) meant that we would need a tent with a larger living space, big enough to spend time in together in wet weather and with space to dry clothes out.  Off we went to a recommended camping shop which had a large range of tents erected outside; the saleswoman told us that the staff erected all the new tents at the beginning of the season but only stocked the ones they felt were good enough to sell.  We chose a tent with a large, hexagonal living space and three low bedrooms leading off alternate sides, a Wynnster Satellite 12 - in theory it could accommodate 12 people but in practice, that would only be 12 very small children!  Each bedroom slept two adults or three children comfortably, on airbeds, so our girls were able to bring their friends on our trips sometimes or, as they grew older, take the tent away without us for teenage group holidays.  On one memorable occasion, twelve of us ate a meal inside, sat around tables, and we reckoned we could have fitted in another four!  With more than twenty guy ropes and more than sixty pegs it took ages to pitch but it was rock steady in a storm - one morning, on the edge of Wales, we woke up and saw that we were the only tent on the campsite that was still intact, high winds having at least partially demolished every other one there.  That really was a great tent and it gave us fabulous holidays from North Yorkshire to West Wales to Cornwall as well as weekend trips closer to home, but perhaps our happiest memories are of the Best Beloved's fiftieth birthday when we held a family camp for thirty people.
After twelve years the tent was showing signs of wear and so were we - we were old enough to be fed up of lying on the floor to wriggle our trousers on and off and we wanted to be able to stand up in the bedroom!  Our girls were older, too, and had their own tents and we realised that our future camping holidays were most likely to involve just the two of us so we downsized to...a six-person tent!  In practice, the large bedroom, which was alleged to accommodate four adults, sleeps two of us very comfortably and the second bedroom would sleep another one if necessary but we use it as a dressing room, giving us more space in our bedroom.  The living space, in front of the bedrooms, has lovely big windows (I really LOVE to sit inside and look out when it's raining) and is large enough for our children to come and sit inside with us - it turns out that we do not yet holiday alone, the girls come and camp with us in their own tents!  It's not as robust as the last tent but on the basis that we're unlikely to be camping in a gale any more, I like this one very much indeed and it seems perfect.  I also like the colour, much preferring the brown and green to blue and grey.  Like a car, the colour of a tent is really important, right?!
This tent is only four years old (and has only been to Cornwall, Anglesey, Somerset and Shropshire) so I was shocked  when, two months ago, the Best Beloved announced that he intended to buy a new tent.  To be absolutely honest, I might have been a bit grumpy about it, I certainly wasn't enthusiastic, but he had seen what he wanted and there was no stopping him.  His stated reason was that he wanted a tent with inflatable beams so that I no longer have to crawl inside and hold up the intersection of poles over my head for as long as it takes for him to insert the ends into their holders.  I thought this was just an excuse for him to play with new technology. 
This week we went away for a night to try out the new tent.  It is very easy to erect: the Best Beloved pegged it in at the corners, I simply staked out two guy ropes and he pumped away and inflated the beams before completing pegging in and staking out.  It was quick... and it's humungous!!!!!   It is supposed to sleep six people but it's MUCH bigger than the last one and I reckon we could easily have a family sleepover for our Christmas Twenty-one.  I sat in the cavernous living space and didn't feel at all cosy.  I looked around for places to fasten fairy lights and bunting but I couldn't see any.  It's blue and grey.  I might still have been a bit grumpy.  However, as we sat outside watching the butterflies and dragonfly flit about and relaxed into our usual contented camping mode over dinner and a bottle of wine my lovely husband explained to me the real reason why he bought this tent: he is planning for the future, thinking ahead to a time when we'll be a bit too creaky to cope easily with a conventional tent and we might want camp beds rather than the airbed we currently use, hence the large size.  He is doing this because he really loves camping and wants to extend our camping years for as long as we can.  He is also thinking that in about three years time Tom Kitten can come with us, with or without his parents, so we can teach him to love camping, too, so we need a tent with enough space for him.  I really couldn't be grumpy any more.

The Teacher has retired her Lichfield tent after twenty years of faithful service and we are passing our lovely brown and green tent on to her.
See you soon.
Love, Mrs Tiggywinkle x

Sunday 22 July 2018

Ups and Downs

Hello, thanks for calling in.  You are very welcome here.  The weather news is that after that brief half hour of rain on 12th July, we have only had a few drops more.  The lawns and verges are yellow and dry, the flowers are dying and although the temperature has dropped by a few degrees, it's still hot, but we have become so used to sweltering that some people are actually feeling chilly!  I'm simply grateful. 
I've had a rather emotional week.  The Best Beloved and I were married on 16th July 1988, his birthday, and earlier this year I said that I wanted to have a big family party to celebrate our thirtieth wedding anniversary.  However, he absolutely didn't want to have a party, so we went away by ourselves to Anglesey for the weekend instead.  The weather was kind, the heat tempered by cooling sea breezes.  I discovered that I like Llanddwyn Beach more in the autumn and winter than I do in the summer (although it's always beautiful), that the deafening guillemots were still on the cliffs at South Stack, that The Sea Shanty in Trearddur Bay sells wonderful ice cream and that Llanfair-yn-y-Cwmwd Church is kept locked, which was a shame because its setting is lovely and you know how much I like to visit an old church. 

On Monday, the day of our anniversary, the Best Beloved went to work and I spent the day by myself, feeling a little forlorn.  A few cards plopped through the letterbox and some kind people sent us congratulatory messages.  I looked through our wedding albums and felt sad when I realised that twenty-one of the people smiling at me out of the photographs are dead now.  I went out to the delicatessen and bought some treats for a simple but special dinner.  The Best Beloved called in at the supermarket on his way home from work and bought some wine and some flowers and, after he had finished marking at 8pm, we celebrated, gently, over dinner.  I lamented the fact that we can't even find one day when both of our children are free to celebrate with us.  It was all very low-key.

In fact, I thought it was rubbish and I was disappointed.  I wish we'd had a party.  There, I've said it.  We've put up with each other for thirty years, we've cared for and supported each other, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, we love each other at least as much now as we did then and we've made a lovely family.  I think that's worth celebrating with a great big bloomin' shebang, but it's his anniversary too, and it really shouldn't be "all about me".  (But I wanted to feel like a princess!!!!!!!!!!) 
On Thursday, the Best Beloved finished work for the summer.  There is no more work and no more income on the horizon until 24th September.  That's more than nine weeks away.  We have savings so we won't starve and I don't really need to feel as anxious about it as I do, but I like income!
Friday was a wonderful day and it was all about The Mathematician: we packed her sister and Tom Kitten into the car and drove to Loughborough University for her graduation.  The sun shone, the Red Arrows flew over the campus in formation and released their red, white and blue vapours in honour of the occasion, Lord Coe (he's the Chancellor) shook my daughter's hand and congratulated her and the place was full of happy people and their proud families.  When the Deputy Vice-Chancellor asked the graduands to stand and applaud their families because we had nurtured them through their lives to this day, I fought back tears as her whole life flashed before me.  My emotions were complex: pride, happiness, relief, hope, gratitude, wistfulness and something deep that I can't quite put my finger on.  The Mathematician was SO happy and that was a beautiful and moving thing to see.

Yesterday was the first day of the school summer holidays and it usually arrives in this house with a fizz and a bang, but not this year because the Best Beloved went off to watch his second-favourite football team play a friendly match, which means that afterwards he goes to the pub with his friends for the evening before catching a train and then a bus home, by which time he has drunk a skinful and is no company at all for me.  During the football season he does this every other Saturday and I don't mind (much!) but HONESTLY, he went to his last match on 27th May, the World Cup began less than a fortnight later and lasted for four and a half weeks and now, six days later, he's starting again!  Is there no respite for the families of fans?  It doesn't feel like it.  I spent the evening feeling lonely and grumpy and I had to go and collect him from the station because he spent so long in the pub that he missed the train which would have enabled him to catch the last bus home - apparently, it wasn't his fault, but "the clock in the pub was slow".  Harrrrumph! 

So, if you have read this far, thank you for putting up with me.  I'm sorry that I'm so miserable and very poor company.  Now that I've got all of that out of my system I can start to put it behind me and move onwards and upwards, apart from the happiness of The Mathematician's graduation, that was wonderful and I want to hold it in my head for as long as possible.

See you soon, more cheerfully.
Love, Mrs Tiggywinkle x


Thursday 12 July 2018

Butterflies and Flying Ants

Hello!  Thank you for popping in.  Today I am dancing an excited little happy dance because... the temperature has dropped to a much more comfortable 22 degrees and when I looked out of the window at 6 o'clock this morning it was raining for the first time in more than six weeks.  Yippeeeeeeeeeee!  The rain didn't last for long, only half an hour or so I think, but it meant that I didn't have to water the pots this morning and the air smells and feels fresher. 

This seems to be Butterfly Week.  There are plenty of them fluttering about the garden and on Tuesday I was thrilled to see a Comma, a Small Tortoiseshell, a Peacock and a Large White all there at the same time.  I have rarely seen Commas in the garden so that was a special treat.  The buddleias and lavenders are in flower and they are welcoming lots of bees as well as the butterflies, which pleases me greatly.  Yesterday afternoon I was sitting in my summerhouse with the doors open, watching several Peacocks feeding on the buddleia, when I noticed large numbers of smaller flying insects rising up around them.  I sat there wondering what they were for a while and didn't work it out until I looked down: they were flying ants.  The patio was absolutely covered in them, it looked like a plague of biblical proportions, and they were making their way up the side of the terracotta pots before launching themselves upwards like helicopters.  I was fascinated.
I have seen flying ants before, but only airborne ones, and although I have heard of "Flying Ant Day" I didn't really know what it meant, so yesterday evening I looked it up.  The ordinary ants I had noticed crawling about the patio over the last week or so are female workers who collect food for the whole colony.  The flying ants are the males and young queens, who leave the nest en masse to mate, the queens then moving away to found their own colonies.  This so-called "nuptial flight" is what I witnessed yesterday (although I absolutely didn't see any veils or bouquets!).   Apparently there are likely to have been between 5,000 and 15,000 of them.  I didn't count but there must have been thousands.  Apparently, Flying Ant Day is thought to take place when a spell of wet weather is followed by hot, humid weather but we haven't had the wet spell and although it's been hot, it hasn't been particularly humid here so I suppose the ants just got fed up of waiting.  It did occur to me that there was a time when I might have been freaked out by the sight of them, but I wasn't, I was inside the summerhouse and they were all outside, trying to fly away.  I pictured myself watching with Tom Kitten in a few years time and explaining it to him. 
Having said that, I would rather be watching butterflies!
See you soon.
Love, Mrs Tiggywinkle x

Tuesday 10 July 2018

Rediscovering Reading

Hello.  Thank you for dropping in and thank you to those of you who commented on my post about Mary Jones.  I am thrilled to learn that her story spread so far across the world and that some of you still remember it.  I would love Disney to make a film about her, but I can't see it happening, can you?!  The weather here is still scorching and my lawn has turned into a spiky, yellow thatch but looking on the bright side, no growing means no mowing!  I am not very good in hot weather, my energy levels collapse and I hide away indoors, looking for the coolest place.  If the cellar weren't full of "stuff" I would be down there, in fact, during the very hot summer of 1989, when I had hardly any "stuff" and was very pregnant, I spent a considerable amount of time sitting down there in the cool, reading. 
I have loved reading for as long as I can remember and have always had plenty of books.  As a child I had a bookcase in my bedroom and those who know me well know that a thoughtfully chosen book is always received with delight at Christmas and on my birthday.  Being "a reader" is one of the things which defines me.  However, over the last few years my reading mojo ebbed away and I slowed right down.  In 2016 I read only four books - they were quite hefty, the original Cazalet novels by Elizabeth Jane Howard, and I enjoyed them all very much, but only four.  Last year was even worse: I read two books, not even hefty ones.  That's all.  They were both very good and I read them quickly, carving out extra time for reading because each time I put each of them down, I was desperate to pick it up again, but after I finished the second one in June I didn't pick up another book for the rest of the year.  I just didn't fancy it.  I really can't explain what happened.  Not reading felt odd - for who am I if I am not a reader? - and I was ashamed of myself, so I didn't tell anyone that I had stopped reading.  Kind people, unaware that I was no longer reading, continued to give me books for Christmas and for my birthday, my mother continued to pass on to me books which she had read, and I continued to buy myself second-hand books which caught my eye (I didn't buy new ones because I had stopped reading book reviews as well) and I was very happy to welcome all of these books into my home because I wanted to read them, but I just wasn't ready yet.  My To Be Read pile became a To Be Read shelf and eventually, a To Be Read bookcase. 
Towards the end of last year I accidentally joined a huge group of book lovers on Facebook.  I'm not quite sure how it happened so it must have been a slip of my finger and I initially intended to leave it because the books they were sharing didn't seem to be the sort of books I like to read - see how I still considered myself to be a reader, in the present tense, even though I wasn't reading? - but I slowly realised that I enjoyed the fact that I was around people who loved to read.  As well as posting pictures of the books they were reading and giving recommendations, they posted photos of their reading corners, book nooks, libraries and bookcases, their enthusiasm for everything about books made my world seem a better place.  So at the beginning of this year I picked up one of the books my thoughtful sister bought me for Christmas and opened the cover.  I felt ready. 

I LOVED this book!  I read it very quickly (for me, I know some people are super speedy readers but I'm not) and only put it down when I had to.  I particularly enjoyed Jessie Burton's descriptive language so here's a sample:
"The long windows were ajar, and a breeze made the curtains dance.  The dawn wind had lifted an impressive cloudscape from the mountains beyond Arazuelo, a duck-egg sky striated gold and pink.  The letter still in her hand, Olive tiptoed towards the balcony and saw blank fields spanning towards rugged foothills in the distance, patched with scrub and wild daisies, where kites circled and grasshoppers sawed in the empty melon fields, oxen dragging ploughs across the earth in preparation for later seeding."
I can picture that scene in my head so vividly, I can even hear those grasshoppers.  Reading this book switched something on inside me and I knew that I wanted to read again.  I also wanted to make inroads into that TBR bookshelf and start reclaiming space!  So I set myself a gentle target: this year, I intend to read twelve books.  Now, I know that is a small target, only one book each month, but it's a lot more than two books.  As I said, I'm not a fast reader, and when I finish a book I like to think about it and process it for a couple of days before I start the next one.  So, by the end of June I should have read six books.  Gentle reader, I not only met the target...I beat it!  By 30th June I had read these nine books:

Nine!  The one with the plain black spine is this -

It's about Dr Thomas Neill Cream, the Lambeth poisoner who may or may not have been Jack the Ripper.  The author spent ten years researching the book and it was the Jack the Ripper Book of the Year in 2016.  (I met the author and promised to mention the book here.)

As you can see, my nine books are an eclectic selection, written between 1817 and 2017, which took me from the Regency English seaside to a dystopian future where books are banned via 1870s Canada, 1880s Burma and London, 1940s Guernsey, 1970s England and the UK and USA in contemporary times.  Please don't ask me to pick a favourite because I can't, I enjoyed every one of them, all for different reasons.  Five of them will be leaving my house and four of them will be staying.  The Teacher has read two of them and one is waiting for The Mathematician on her desk.  We have been talking about books together, and I'm not sure we've ever really done that before.  I feel like a reader again, and I feel that I have reclaimed a part of myself.
I'm off now to 1917 Edinburgh.  See you soon.
Love, Mrs Tiggywinkle x

Tuesday 3 July 2018

Discovering Mary Jones

Hello, thank you for popping in.  Thank you for your kind comments on my last post.  We are still sweltering here but I would like to share with you a different kind of day, a very wet day at the end of May.

Who do you think is the most famous Welsh woman in the world?  Catherine Zeta Jones, perhaps?  Charlotte Church?  Shirley Bassey?  If I had asked you that question one hundred and twenty years ago there would only have been one answer: Mary Jones, the girl who walked twenty-six miles through the mountains in bare feet in the year 1800 to buy a Welsh language bible.  Have you heard of her?  I don't know whether her story is still told to Welsh children but she certainly doesn't seem to be well known in England now, even where I live, in a county which shares a border with Wales. 
The story goes that Mary, the Welsh-speaking daughter of a poor weaver and his wife, committed herself to the Christian faith when she was eight years old and desperately longed to own a bible.  She began doing jobs for people to earn pennies - she swept floors and yards, she collected eggs and as she grew older, she kept her own chickens and bees to sell the eggs and honey, she looked after cattle and she took in sewing.  For years she saved and then, when she was fifteen years old, in 1800, she walked barefoot the twenty-six miles to Bala to buy a Welsh language bible from Rev Thomas Charles.  Unfortunately, Thomas didn't have one he could sell her as the only bibles he did have were reserved for other buyers.  There are differing versions of what happened next: in one version, Thomas was so impressed with her effort that he gave her his own bible, in another he gave her a bible which was reserved for somebody else and in the third version he invited her to stay with his servant for a couple of days until fresh stock arrived.  Whichever version you read, Mary walked the twenty-six miles home with at least one bible.  The important result of her venture was that she left such a great impression on Thomas that in 1802 he used her story to persuade the Council of the Religious Tract Society to establish the British and Foreign Bible Society, now often known as Bible Society, which has distributed millions of bibles across the world since 1804.
It's a lovely children's story with a good moral: the impoverished, determined little girl who became a single-minded teenager and trekked through the mountains, enduring pain and discomfort, to achieve her goal.  However, there were four things about the story which made me sceptical:
  • At a time when the overwhelming  majority of the population was illiterate, how could the child of a poor weaver have learned to read?
  • How would Mary have known the way through the mountains to Bala and would she really have been able to walk there by herself?
  • If her first language was Welsh, why is she known as the anglicized Mary rather than the Welsh Mari?
  • Why wouldn't she have been wearing boots or clogs on such a trek?
Five weeks ago, two friends and I set off in pouring rain on a road trip to Wales to find out more.  Our destination was Byd Mary Jones World at Llanycil on the shore of Lake Bala, the redundant parish church which has been bought by Bible Society and converted into a visitor centre.  It's been well-designed to appeal to people of all ages, whether Christian or not, with plenty of seating for those who can't stand for long and we spent a very happy couple of hours there.  (We adults particularly enjoyed the children's dressing up box with mob caps, aprons, shawls and preaching tabs, but I really can't show you those photos!)  There are picnic tables, nice toilets and a children's playground as well as access to the shore of the lake and although we had to pay for parking, the cost was entirely refunded when we bought our tickets to the centre.  There is a also a cafĂ©, which we didn't use (because we had taken a picnic).  I recommend a visit.

The rain had stopped and in the churchyard, outside the east end of the church, we found the grave of Rev Thomas Charles, who was known as "Charles of Bala", behind some railings which enclosed it with the graves of his wife and other members of their family.

I discovered that thanks to Rev Thomas Charles, Bala was really the centre of the Calvinist Methodist movement in North Wales.  He had moved to Bala in 1784 and set up the Welsh Circulating Schools, training men to go into a district for six months and teach reading and Christian principles.  Those men were funded by collections taken in the Calvinist Methodist Societies and after they moved on to a new district, local people would carry on their work in the district they had left.  Controversially, they even taught on Sundays (Sunday Schools) so that adults who were working during the week could learn to read.  In 1786 there were seven schoolmasters and by 1794 there were twenty.  It was due to these schools that there were proportionally so many more literate people in Wales in the eighteenth century than there were in the rest of the United Kingdom and so it was perfectly feasible that little Mary Jones would have been able to read.

William Hugh was the first preacher to live in Mary's parish and the Methodist Society met regularly in his house to listen to his bible readings and to pray together.  Although children didn't usually attend those meetings, an exception was made for Mary after her father died, so that her mother could attend, and it was what she experienced at these meetings which led Mary to declare herself a Christian when she was eight years old.  William Hugh would sometimes lead a group of neighbours on an overnight walk to Bala  after they finished work on Saturday evening; reaching the town on Sunday morning, they would join the crowds gathered on The Green to listen to rousing sermons before walking home again on Sunday evening.  So, there was an established walking route from the village to Bala which both Mary and her mother would have known about. My doubts were fading.

While we ate our picnic, we discussed what we had learned and decided that we wanted to venture further, to visit the place where Mary Jones was born and from where she set out on her journey.  In preparing for our day out, we had read this excellent blog post which included clear directions to the places of Mary's birth and death and so we set off, in the rain again, and drove southwest to the stunningly beautiful Dysynni Valley.  We drove to Abergynolwyn and carried on down hair-raisingly steep and narrow lanes until we arrived at Llanfihangel-y-Pennant, at the foot of Cadair Idris.  The rain had stopped, although the sky was still grey.  We drove past the church, along the lane, over the bridge and around the corner and there we were at the ruins of Ty'n-y-Ddol, the House in the Meadow, the little cottage which was Mary's home.  The drive from Lake Bala had taken almost one hour.  We got out of the car and looked around, wondering which of the several tracks Mary had taken when she set out for Bala and I imagined her mother standing on the doorstep, waving her off, telling her to be careful. 

A monument stands in the ruins of the cottage, erected by the Sunday Schools of Merioneth in 1907.  This is the inscription -


The ruined cottage stands by a stream, which would have been its only source of water and provides a picturesque setting for a home which must have actually been very basic. 

Our next port of call was the simple parish church, dedicated to St Michael.  The building was probably built in the twelfth century and has been altered several times since, most recently in 1871, long after Mary was baptised there, although the medieval font is the same one.  There is a display about Mary and her life in the vestry which includes copied images from the parish registers: the marriage of Mary's parents, her own baptism and her father's burial.  These registers, in a Welsh speaking valley, were written in English, the official language of the church!  This must be why our girl is always written as Mary Jones. I was troubled to see that her father was described as "a Peasant" rather than a weaver until perusal of other entries in the register revealed that all but a few of the men were described in the same way, those few being described as "a Gentleman".  There is also a photograph of the "unveiling ceremony" for the monument we had just seen, taken in 1907, with a crowd of people dressed in their Sunday best.  I like these kind of small local displays, I really don't mind their homespun nature but I did mind that this one doesn't seem to be looked after: it was very dusty and sort of thrown together, and there is a lovely commemorative quilt which has been hung wherever it could fit, rather than to its best advantage.  It felt as if nobody really cared.
Back outside the church we tramped through long grass to find the grave of Mary's parents and then after every one of the nasty, flying insects of the valley had tried to bite us in the car park we scuttled back inside the car and set off southwest again to Brycrug, a journey of seven or eight miles, to find the house in which Mary lived for the last years of her life and her grave at the Bethlehem Chapel.
We found the house, 6 Tyn y Winllan, an ordinary domestic house beside the main road.  It is, apparently, a Grade II listed building because of its association with Mary, but there is nothing to mark its importance, no sign or plaque so if you don't know about it, you would drive straight past, which is presumably what the family who own it want you to do.  It is their name which hangs on a sign over the front door, not that of Mary Jones.  We were disappointed.  Our second stop in the village was at the Bethlehem Chapel where a smart, slate sign on the wall pointed the way to Mary Jones' Grave.  Following the arrow, we walked around three sides of the building to find the enclosed graveyard.  This was not an easy walk because the grass and weeds were almost waist-high, the ground was uneven and on a slope and the graves were close together, so we could easily have tripped and fallen over hidden stones.  My eleven year-old friend almost disappeared completely!  We had to hunt around before we found Mary.  The sun had come out and the churchyard looked romantically overgrown, the bees and butterflies were loving it, but would it be so difficult for the owners to mow a pathway from the gate to the grave?  There is another monument here, also erected by the Sunday Schools of Merioneth in 1907.  I think people cared about the story of Mary Jones in 1907 far more than they do today.
My young friend picked some wildflowers, tied them together into a posy and placed them carefully on Mary's grave.  My heart melted a little bit when she did that.

We had one more place to visit: Bala, the home of Rev Thomas Charles.  Using the satnav to find our way meant that we had no idea where we really were which made it all the more exciting when the view opened up before us and we saw the sea.  There we were on the edge of Wales with nothing between us and Ireland.  We stopped the car, got out and just drank in the view as the light danced over the water.
It was after 6pm and pouring with rain when we arrived in Bala but that didn't deter us.  First we found the man himself, or rather his marble statue, standing outside the Jerusalem Chapel in Chapel Square, off Chapel Street(!).  He looked as if he needed a good wash.  Then we found his house, which for many years was a bank but now stands empty with a For Sale sign attached to its frontage.  It looks clean and bright and there are two plaques which announce its significance, one in Welsh and the other in English.  There is also an information board outside the building.

And so we drove home, chatting all the way about the things we had seen and learned.  My young friend read aloud to us from her book about Mary Jones and we interjected each time we discovered a factual inaccuracy; we interjected a lot!  The journey was long because the weather was appalling so we had to drive slowly.  The roads were so high and the clouds were so low that we were in them, so we really couldn't see very far ahead at all.  High up in the mountains, water coursed down both sides of the road, filling and overflowing the drainage channels and flooding the roads - at one point, the water was actually bubbling up through the road surface.  As the road came down and we drove through villages the roads were flooded in many places and we passed many cars which had broken down, as well as a couple of fire engines.  On a corner of the road at Llangedwyn, the road was completely flooded and a few people were standing in the water to show the traffic how deep the water was and direct us through the shallow end.  Such kindness.  We arrived home after 9pm, having been out for almost twelve hours, happy, brimful of admiration for Mary Jones and all of us keen to tell the world about her.  So if you're sitting comfortably, I'll begin.

Jacob Jones and Mary Jones were married at the church in Llanfihangel-y-Pennant on 25th May 1783.  Both uneducated weavers, they were unable to read or write and so left their marks on the parish register instead of signatures. 

Their only child, Mary, was born just over eighteen months later on 16th December 1784 and baptised in the same church when she was three days old.


Although baptised Mary Jones, everyone called the child Mari Jacob, after her father, to avoid confusion with other girls called Mary Jones - Mary's mother was known as Mari Sion, after her own father, and later, young Mary would marry a man called Thomas Jones who was known as Thomas Lewis after his father, Lewis Jones!  The family scraped by, earning money from weaving and agricultural labouring, growing their own vegetables and keeping a few animals.  Comforts were scarce in Mary's life and they became even scarcer when her father died in March 1789, when she was four years old.

A year later, William Hugh came to the parish and Methodist Society meetings were held in his home, up on the hillside above the parish church; William's task was to read the bible to the people, to pray for and with them and to "disciple" them, while still encouraging them to attend Sunday services at their parish church in order to receive holy communion.  Although children did not usually attend these meetings, an exception was made for Mary because she attended other religious events with her mother in the evenings, carrying the lantern to light the path for their feet as they picked their way up the mountainside from T'yn-y-Ddol, and  three years later, when she was eight years old, Mary became a member of the Methodist Society herself.

When Mary was nine or ten years old Rev Thomas Charles sent one of his teachers, John Ellis, to the area to open a school and a Sunday School.  As often as she could, Mary walked the two mile path over the hill to Abergynolwyn where first John Ellis and then Lewis Williams taught her to read and write.  She was bright and keen to learn and apparently, she had a very good memory.  Once she could read, Mary became desperate to own a bible, a Welsh bible, so that she could read it whenever she wanted to.  However, bibles were expensive and Mary's mother certainly had no spare money to buy her one, so Mary set out to earn money however she could - collecting eggs, sweeping yards, earning farthings and halfpennies and sometimes a whole penny.  As the years passed and she grew bigger she looked after cattle, took in sewing, kept her own chickens and bees and sold the honey and eggs.  She saved everything she could so that one day she would be able to buy herself a bible.

About two miles away from Mary's cottage was a farmhouse called Penybryniau Mawr and in this farmhouse a bible was kept on the table in the parlour.  The farmer's wife knew how much Mary loved to read the bible so she invited her to come to the house to read it - as long as she took her clogs off before she entered the parlour!  For years Mary visited the house once a week, whatever the weather, so that she could read her beloved bible and learn passages from it off by heart.  One morning in early 1800, when Mary was fifteen years old, she was making her way to Penybryniau Mawr when she met a stranger.  Here is Mary's own account of that meeting:

"One stormy Monday morning I was walking to a farmhouse about two miles from my home, a gentleman riding on a white horse and wearing a cloth cape came to meet me and asked me where I was going through such wind and rain. I said I was going to a farmhouse where there was a Bible, that there wasn’t one nearer my home, and that the mistress of the farm said that I could see the Bible, which she kept on a table in the parlour so long as I took my clogs off. I told him that I was saving up every halfpenny this long time to get a Bible but that I did not know where to get one. The gentleman was ‘Charles of Bala’, he told me to come to Bala at a certain time, that he was expecting some from London and that I should have one from him."

Mary Jones was not the only Welsh speaker who wanted a bible of her own and so the Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge (SPCK) had published a new edition of the Welsh language bible in 1799, a run of ten thousand copies.  Rev Thomas Charles was able to secure seven hundred of them, to be delivered to him during the spring of 1800 and to be offered for sale at a price of three shillings and sixpence each. 

Mary must have been so excited.  I think she must have waited for the summer, when the daylight hours are as long as possible and the nights are mild, to make her journey to Bala.

When the time came my mother put the money and a little bread and cheese in one end of the ‘wallet’ and my clogs in the other, and I set off for Bala on a fine morning, resting where there was a stream of clear water, to eat the bread and cheese. I came to Bala trembling and knocked at the door of Mr Charles’ house. I asked for Mr Charles and was told that he was in his study at the back of the house. I was allowed to go to him and he told me that the Bibles had not arrived. I started to cry because I did not know where to stay. He sent me to stay with an old servant of his who had a house at the bottom of his garden, until the Bibles came. When they came Mr Charles gave me three for the price of one. I set off home with my precious burden, I ran a great part of the way, I was so glad of my Bible”.
There is no handsome prince in this story, no rescue, no rags-to-riches.  The pot of gold at the end of Mary's rainbow was her bible.  This is a real story about a real girl.  In 1813, when she was twenty-eight years old, Mary married Thomas Jones, another weaver, in the church at Talyllyn.  Both Thomas and Mary signed their names in the parish register.  They had six children, five of whom died when they were young. 
Later, the family moved to Bryncrug where they worshipped at the Bethlehem Chapel, Thomas becoming an elder there.  He and Mary continued to work as weavers until they were unable to do so any more - there was no retirement, they needed the income.  Mary was well-known for her faith and for her love of the bible.  She still kept bees and divided the income from the beeswax between the Calvinistic Methodist Missionary Society and Bible Society and in 1854 she donated half a sovereign to Bible Society's appeal to send one million New Testaments to China in celebration of its fiftieth anniversary.  Mary knew how important it was to have a bible of one's own to read.
By this time Mary was a widow.  In 1862 a young woman named Lizzie Rowlands came to work nearby as a governess and upon being told that Lizzie was from Bala, Mary asked if she would come and see her so that they could talk about the place Mary knew.  Lizzie obliged, and visited Mary every day for almost two years.  Thirty years later, when a book about Mary was published and her story became known, Lizzie recalled these visits and the things Mary had told her about her life.    Here is Lizzie's first impression of Mary:
"She was thin, living in a small cottage with an earth floor, a small table with a rush candle on it and two or three three-legged stools.  She wore the old Welsh dress, a petticoat and bed gown, blue and white gingham apron made of linsey and a long cloak and hood, a plain cap and kerchief on her head."
By this time Mary had been blind for several years and she was quite frail, although she was still able to walk to chapel.  On 29th December 1864, two weeks after her eightieth birthday, she died; one of the bibles she had bought from Rev Thomas Charles lay on the table beside her bed.  A facsimile of that bible is displayed at Byd Mary Jones World.
When I think of Mary Jones, I don't think of the frail old lady in the gingham apron; I think of the fifteen year-old girl walking through the mountains in her bare feet, carrying her clogs in her wallet and hope in her heart.  I would like the world to remember her story again, this story of the poor girl who set her heart on a goal and worked hard to achieve it, even though it seemed out of reach.  Please tell the story to anyone who will listen, but especially the young people you know, and if you are able, visit some of the places I visited that epic day in Wales.  When Tom Kitten is older I intend to take him to Byd Mary Jones World (although I shan't expect him to dress up in a mob cap and an apron!).
So why did Mary carry her clogs to Bala?  The answer is that her mother wouldn't let her wear them to walk there because they had to look presentable when she put them on to meet Rev Thomas Charles!  That seems entirely plausible to me.
See you soon.
Love, Mrs Tiggywinkle x