Friday 30 November 2018

Two Holy Wells, a Flat-Pack Church and Salad with Gravy

Hello, thank you for dropping in here, where today you will find a little haven away from the relentless reminders that C******** is coming.  It's November, the sun is shining and I am going to share with you a day out on an equally sunny day in September, the funniest day I have had for a long time.

You might remember that in the summer I visited St Winefride's Well in Holywell with two friends.  I wrote about our visit here and you might want to clink on the link to read St Winefride's story, but the short version is that she lived in the seventh century and when she died, she was buried in the grounds of the convent at Gwytherin where she was abbess.  Five hundred years later a monk from Shrewsbury Abbey made a pilgrimage to her holy well and, having been healed by the water, decided that her bones should be exhumed and transported to Shrewsbury Abbey so that they could be properly venerated.  (This also worked out well for the Abbey, which became an extremely popular pilgrimage site, in England second only to the shrine of St Thomas a Becket in Canterbury).  If you are familiar with Ellis Peters' stories about Brother Cadfael, the first novel, A Morbid Taste For Bones, is based on this venture.  So, in 1138 poor St Winefride was dug up from her peaceful resting place and carried to Shrewsbury.  The journey was too far to complete in one day so overnight the party rested at Woolston in Shropshire and where her bones were laid - guess what?  A spring of holy water appeared!  This well, too, became famous for its healing powers and sometimes, stones were found in it which were stained with red spots resembling bloodstains, exactly like stones found in the well at Holywell - St Winefride's blood.  (Actually, its a type of algae, but why spoil a good story?!)  So, my friends and I decided that, having been to Holywell, we should also visit St Winefride's Well in Shropshire.

This time there were four of us as one friend's husband came too.  I was in charge of directions.  "Tight and considerate parking for at the most 2 cars, in a lane just off the main through road at Woolston, then follow the path to the right for a couple of minutes, and the well housing becomes apparent" I read out to the driver.  We found the lane easily and parked tightly and considerately on a grass verge on the left in which large tyre marks were visible.  In front of us was a large metal gate, possibly a farm gate, from behind which a scowling man watched us, so the driver left plenty of space for large vehicles to get around our car if necessary.  We got out of the car (I didn't, I cowered on the back seat) and the scowling man began to berate us rather aggressively, saying that his vehicles wouldn't be able to get through, accusing us of parking on his lawn and saying that we should park near the well if we were visiting it.  We were parked near the well!  My friend's husband asked him to be civil and said that he hadn't seen tractor marks in a lawn before and the driver reparked the car on the right of the lane, tightly and considerately.  Phew!

So we walked down the path which was edged with ripe, luscious blackberries glowing in the sunshine, and speckled wood butterflies danced before us, leading the way.  After a few minutes we saw the well house, which is now owned by the Landmark Trust and can be rented out for holidays - here is the link.  It looks like a beautiful, secluded, peaceful place for two but be aware that the bathroom is in a separate building on the other side of the path!  This building was probably built in the 16th century to replace an earlier chapel and was used as a courthouse before it became a cottage.  Behind the well house, the water flows into a series of stone basins which were used by local people for public bathing - but only until 1755, when they were closed because of "riotous" behaviour!  The mind boggles. 

Now, gentle reader, I was a bit cross because the pool into which the waters flow has been completely claimed by plants and weed.  I would like the Landmark Trust to clear some of it to release the magic of the water.  I should also tell you that while I found the place to be a beautiful spot, I did not feel its supposed holiness at all.  There was no magic, no spirit of St Winefride, although I was touched when I saw that an earlier visitor had left a little posy of flowers for her.  I mentioned this aloud and it sparked off a goodnatured discussion about "thin places", places where the barrier between this world and another is fragile; my friend's husband said that there is no such thing, it is not that God is in some places and not others because God is everywhere, instead it is we who put barriers in place so that we can't sense God's presence and lower them in some places so that we can.  Hmm. 

So we ambled back along the path to the car and drove for a few minutes to Maesbury, where a sign proclaimed that the Church of  St John the Baptist was open.  We couldn't resist it.

This church must be the best flat-pack thing I have ever seen.  It was purchased from Harrods in London in 1906 for the grand sum of £120 and transported up to Shropshire where two local men erected it.  The interior wooden cladding is original and the pews were made by carpenters from a local college in the 1950s and 1960s.  

We got back into the car and drove past a sign for a canalside tearoom to Oswestry in the hope of finding something to eat.  These road trips usually include a refuelling stop somewhere with cake, china plates and pots of tea.  We parked the car and walked to a likely-looking tearoom only to discover that it was closed.  By this time we were quite hungry, some of us having foregone breakfast to make room for cake, and as there was a pub a few doors down, The Oswestrian, we decided to go there.  The pub was busy, which I took to be a good sign, and everyone seemed to be eating hot food, so we decided to follow suit.  Two of us chose "jacket potatoes with tasty sausages and fried onions" and salad while our friends made more sensible choices.  When will I ever learn?!  When our plates arrived, two or three thin sausages were nestled inside the potato which was then covered in thick onion gravy.  This was not what we were expecting.  We quickly ate up our salad first before the gravy seeped across the plate to meet it, but I was too slow.  I can confirm that salad with gravy really isn't very nice and coleslaw with gravy is absolutely revolting.  Eventually, somebody who had chosen something sensible to eat said, "I don't hear anybody saying, "Mmmm, these sausages are tasty!""  He was right.  We were not saying that.  I don't think I shall be dining at The Oswestrian again, but it did make us laugh a lot and gave us a story to dine out on.

Oswestry is named after St Oswald, the Christian King of Northumbria who fought the pagan King Penda of Mercia at the Battle of Maserfield in 641 or 642 AD.  Oswald was killed in the battle and his body dismembered.  Legend has it that a large bird, possibly a raven or even an eagle, swooped down, picked up one of his arms and flew off with it.  Where the bird dropped the arm, guess what?  A spring of holy water appeared!  We couldn't resist it so after lunch we set of to find St Oswald's Well.  

Again, I was a bit disappointed.  I think Oswestry should be making more of a hoo-hah about it.  Instead, it sits quite forlornly in a residential area which was not easy to find.  There was litter both around and floating in it and it felt uncared for, as if nobody expected anyone to actually visit it deliberately, and certainly not like a place of pilgrimage.  There is a rather grand statue of an eagle above it, in the park, separated from the well by a chainlink fence.  I felt a bit sad for St Oswald, who founded the monastery at Lindisfarne, where he is much better remembered.

So that was our first day out as a foursome.  My friend's husband had been keen to join us on one of our road trips but I'm not sure this gave the best impression of what we usually do.  The "holy wells" were a bit disappointing (to say the least) and THERE WAS NO CAKE, but we laughed all day.  We even laughed when we talked about the belligerent farmer who made us move the car.  I can't really tell you why.  Now that I have written it down it doesn't seem very funny at all, so I am sorry if you are disappointed.  I suppose it shows that it doesn't really matter where you go or what you do, the thing which makes the difference is the company.

Happy St Andrews' Day.

See you soon.
Love, Mrs Tiggywinkle x

Tuesday 27 November 2018

Feeling Like An Ordinary 12th Century Person at Heath Chapel

Hello lovely readers, thank you for calling in here, I'm always pleased to know that you've been.  Before the business of the forthcoming season becomes overwhelming, and please note how I am fending it off by avoiding using the C word, I need to finish off telling you about my summer adventures (which also serves to deflect my attention from the forthcoming festivities).

When we went off in search of St Milburga in August we took a little detour to find another place which I have wanted to visit for years: it is Heath Chapel, built in about 1140 as a dependent chapelry of the parish church at Stoke St Milborough, and only just over two miles away.  So it really shouldn't have taken us almost an hour to find it!  I consulted the atlas and we headed off in the right direction.  "It stands by itself in a field," I said, "So we'll see it."  We drove around failing to see it for quite a while before eventually getting out the satnav and plugging in the postcode, which took us along roads which were too small to even be on the map - if you'd like to go, it's SY7 9DS.  There was an incident with half a dozen excited sheep who really shouldn't have been on the road and galloped along in front of us before they found an open gateway and veered off.  At last we saw a sign for Heath and, having driven past a very few large houses, I shouted, "Stop!" and we did, abruptly.  I had caught sight of the chapel through a gate between two tall hedges.  The noticeboard just inside the gate directed us to turn into the lane we had just passed and park the car beside another gate; it also informed us that although the church door was locked, the key was hanging on the back of said noticeboard -  again, I am giving you all of this in case you'd like to visit yourself because you don't want to waste the best part of an hour driving around the lanes like we did, even though the countryside is rather lovely, in a hilly, farmy sort of way. 

And so we walked across the small "field" which isn't really a field at all to the chapel which served a village which isn't really there at all any more either. 
The chapel is very small and very simple.  In typical Norman style, it is just a squarish chancel with a longer, slightly wider nave - no porch, no transept, no tower, no gallery, no stained glass.  Nikolaus Pevsner described it as the "perfect example" of a small Norman church, but that's not quite right because one of the windows in the north wall was altered in the seventeenth century, presumably to give more light to the pulpit.  

In 2013 when the National Churches Trust asked sixty well-known people to choose their favourite church in the UK, the historian Dr Kate Williams chose Heath Chapel, saying that "going inside is the closest you will ever feel to an ordinary 12th century Shropshire person going to worship. These traces of ordinary life are very rare from so far back – which is why it must be treasured."  The classicist Dame Mary Beard, who grew up nearby, also chose it, describing it as a "wonderful reminder of just how moving the plainest architecture can be."  So, would you like to see what the fuss is all about?

The most decorative feature of this chapel is the doorway, typically arched with a plain tympanum and chevron mouldings. I imagined the skilled hands of the mason carving the stone almost nine hundred years ago.  The ironwork may be original, too.

The key did not work easily and I had to wiggle it about a bit, but not for long before I was able to push open the door and step inside.  This is what I saw. -
Do you see the scraps of Medieval painting above that typical Norman arch?  They were whitewashed over after the Reformation and only uncovered just over one hundred years ago.  Apparently, this is The Last Judgement, but I couldn't tell! This one, on the south wall, is St George.  Obviously!
The change in Anglican worshipping styles in the seventeenth century meant that the chapel acquired new interior fittings: the pulpit, the altar rail and the seating all date from that time, including the GINORMOUS box pew in the chancel, which I could only just get far enough away from to photograph!  It's like an enormous sleigh, with a bench on the back for the driver.
The font is also huge, as was the Norman style.  I think the baptism of babies at that time involved dunking them right in the water, rather than the more restrained sprinkling which tends to be favoured nowadays.

Do you see those plastic boxes placed rather incongruously on the side and ruining my photo?  Those boxes led me to believe that this church is still in use.  It is certainly cared for and cared about - there were glass jars of greenery on the altar, sitting on top of a plastic cover which has presumably been placed there to protect it from the whatnots which might fall off the ceiling in such an ancient building.  After I got home a bit of internet hunting revealed that a family service is held in the chapel every month.  That made me feel happy, that the building is still needed to do its proper job.

Also, I don't know if you spotted this in the exterior photographs but the chapel has obviously had a spanking new roof, I think within the last five years, replacing the last new roof of 1912.
We had the place to ourselves while we were there.  A look through the visitors' book revealed that Heath Chapel is obviously very dear to a good number of people, some of whom visit repeatedly and I can entirely understand why because the atmosphere is very, very special.  I could have stayed for much longer.  I have written before about thin places, places where the boundary between this world and another feels very thin, and Heath Chapel is such a place.  The atmosphere there was amazing. Perhaps I was feeling the presence of all those ordinary twelfth century Shropshire people who Dr Kate Williams was referring to.  Yes, the paint is peeling, the place is very dusty, the (nineteenth century) flagstones could do with a mopping and the woodwork is crying out to be fed BUT I agree with Dame Mary Beard, it is a very moving place.  "Wow!"  I kept saying over and over again, "Just Wow!"  The Best Beloved thought I was a bit bonkers, but he's thought that for a long time and I keep telling him that that's why he loves me!

So, if you do get the chance to visit Heath Chapel, I highly recommend you make the most of it.   It is a very special place.  

See you soon.
Love, Mrs Tiggywinkle x

Tuesday 20 November 2018

Art, Golden Sunshine and Family Togetherness

Hello, thank you for calling in.  Are you warm enough?  The temperature here is six degrees Celsius today and I had forgotten what feeling cold is like.  Having seen the weather forecast, we turned on the heating yesterday in readiness, not in the daytime, that seems profligate, which is why I am wrapped up in layers of cardigan and blanket this afternoon, but for a couple of hours in the mornings and another few in the evenings.  I am quite hardy and I know that I'll adjust to the cooler temperatures as time goes on but until then...Goodness Me! 

I realise that I'm a bit out of kilter but I'd just like to catch hold of October and set it down here before it drifts entirely out of reach.  It began with celebrations as Tom Kitten reached his first birthday.  I suppose we shall always begin October with celebrations now.  On the day itself he went out for lunch with his mother, his great-grandparents and myself, four generations of us all together.  What a lucky boy he is.  My gifts to him included a jacket and hat which I knitted for him in Drops Cotton Merino, a yarn which is soft and smooth to use and has a lovely drape.  I recommend it. (My other gifts included a pair of teeny tiny shoes which were so expensive that I feel sure they must be made of gold!)

The following day I drove to Ironbridge Gorge to visit an art exhibition.  It poured with rain all day but as I arrived at 4pm, the sun was trying to come out and the light was dramatic, showing up the greens of the Gorge.  I stood and hastily snapped a photograph on my 'phone.

Inside the exhibition room I found my friend Andy Smith and his paintings of waterfalls.  Can you hear the water?

I spent about an hour there and when I came back outside, the sky was unpunctuated blue and the golden light just about took my breath away.  I decided not to go straight home and instead drove a little way along the Gorge to Ironbridge where I went for a little wander by myself.  

I don't live far away from the little market town of Wellington which holds a free arts festival in October and that evening I attended my first event, a talk about Patrick Bronte, father of Charlotte, Emily, Anne and Branwell, who was an assistant curate at the church in Wellington early in his career.  The speaker was a museum assistant from Howarth Parsonage Museum, Kathie Mack, and I enjoyed it very much.  (Meanwhile, the Best Beloved was in the pub!)  Over the course of the next week I attended four more events, three plays and an illustrated talk, some by myself and some with friends, most in churches and one in a little theatre.  The festival is funded by a grant from the town council and I think it's an excellent use of money as it makes drama, poetry, literature, art, music and dance accessible to those with even the smallest incomes.

During the third week of October I met a friend for a walk in the park in Ironbridge.  The sun was shining and the air was warm, as the weather had been for most of the month, so it took me by surprise when I realised that it was autumn.  It was the smell which gave it away, the damp, earthy smell which I noticed before I saw the amber leaves on the trees.

The end of the month brought the half term holiday and we packed up our cars and five of us went to Guernsey to see The Mathematician.  It was ten weeks since she had left us and the longest period we had ever been apart.  I had missed her SO much.  Our first day there brought all the weather - wind, rain and hail - but for the next six days the sun shone and we walked on the beach every day.  We ate wonderful food, I read and crocheted and came home restored and refreshed.  I also achieved something I have wanted to do for several years: I sat quietly with the Best Beloved and watched the sun set over the sea.  I found it a spellbinding experience.

Travelling back to Poole on the ferry, Tom Kitten charmed several other passengers as he toddled around.  One of those passengers, a friendly, white-haired chap with a beard, was Father Christmas, who spends every December in Marks & Spencer in Jersey, at least that's what he told us!

So that was October, a month full of art, golden sunshine and family togetherness which passed so busily that I almost missed my favourite season.  When we returned at the beginning of November I found that the trees were wearing their best autumn finery, vivid shades of red, yellow and orange which exploded like fireworks. Autumn had burst open while I was away and I had almost missed it. 

See you soon.
Love, Mrs Tiggywinkle x

Tuesday 13 November 2018

A Weekend of Remembrance

Hello lovely reader, thank you for sticking with me.  October seemed to fly by and I'll tell you all about that soon, but right now I need to talk about Remembrance while we are still in the mood.  When I was young, Remembrance Sunday meant church parade in my Brownie/Guide/Ranger uniform, with a shiny ten pence piece in my pocket to place on the collection plate when it passed by me.  In recent years, the Best Beloved and I have attended the Act of Remembrance at our local war memorial; our community does this well with a parade including a band, civic dignitaries and members of uniformed organisations as well as the local branch of the Royal British Legion.  The parade marches around the streets to the war memorial where a crowd gathers and the local clergy lead the Act of Remembrance including The Last Post, the laying of wreaths, the two minute silence, prayers and the singing of Oh God, Our Help In Ages Past.  After that, there is a service in the Methodist Chapel and then the parade reforms and marches past whoever is taking the salute.  It is properly done and We Remember Them.  

This year, as you may know, I have done several things to commemorate the centenary of the end of The Great War: I have read Pat Barker's Regeneration trilogy, I have visited the ceramic poppies installations Weeping Window and Wave, I have been to an illustrated talk and, most importantly, I have told the stories of the men of my family who served in the British Army.  I think I have told you before that the Best Beloved says we are a Thankful Family as our men came home.  In fact, we are a Doubly Thankful Family as our men came home from the Second World War, too.  So, I wanted to do something special on Armistice Day itself.

Last month I discovered that a group of people at St Eleth's Church in Amlwch on Anglesey had created a cascade of knitted and crocheted poppies, with more decorating the interior of their church, the shop windows and the port and harbour.  This was a community project which brought people together over nine months to create more than 24,000 poppies in red, purple and white (to remember the fallen people and animals and to hope for peace).  I was keen to go and see it but my diary was almost full and the only weekend I could visit was Remembrance Weekend itself.  I tentatively consulted the Best Beloved and the lovely man suggested we book somewhere to stay and go for the whole weekend - so that's what we did.  We booked a glamping pod so that we didn't have to pay to eat out and on Friday we drove for three hours through high winds and rain before arriving here.  

On Saturday we drove to Amlwch and found the church busy.  Displays inside told local and national stories, somebody played old tunes on the piano, hot drinks and cake were available.  I met some of the amazing women whose fingers have been so busy this year, the Poppettes, and found them warm and welcoming.  When I told them that I had seen Weeping Window at Middleport Pottery and at Hereford Cathedral they asked me how their cascade compares and I told them that theirs is better because it has brought a community together, and I meant it.  Amlwch has done Remembrance very well.  If you'd like to see more, search for Amlwch Poppy Project on Facebook.  If you'd like to visit, the church is open on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays until 24th November.  Here are some pictures - 

On Sunday morning we learned from the television that the peace treaty was signed at 5.10am on 11th November 1918 and we felt angry that the guns kept firing and killing men until 11am, the agreed time for the cessation of hostilities.  
We attended the Act of Remembrance at the war memorial in Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch (I always think of my Auntie Susan when I read that because she was the only person I knew who could recite it!) or, as the locals call it, Llanfair P.G.  There were about one hundred of us there, spilling out messily across the road so that the traffic had to stop as a robed clergyman spoke in Welsh and English and we said The Lord's Prayer in whichever language we chose.  Two boys played The Last Post on their cornets, one significantly better than the other (I wish they wouldn't do that, significant occasions are not really the time to let someone "have a go") and then we kept the silence for two minutes.  When the buglers started again, the sun came out from behind a cloud and I looked at the clock on the memorial and saw that it was 11am; we had kept our silence ahead of the rest of the country!  Wreaths were then laid (while the rest of the country kept silent) and afterwards, photographs were taken, and each of the military personnel posed individually in front of the memorial with his or her family.  It was all a bit casual and a bit ordinary and a bit eccentric and I didn't mind that one bit.  The war memorial itself contains marvellous detail about all those who are remembered there, I've never seen one like it.

As the sun was still shining, we drove to the woods in the hope of seeing some red squirrels.  They were hiding but we did see chaffinches, great tits, a robin and a pair of jays. We sat on a bench, listening to the birds, as the sun lit up the yellow leaves and I realised that this was the first time I had been in the woods this autumn.  I just drank in the colours and sounds.  Then we went to the Riverside Arts & Crafts CafĂ© in Malltraeth where I drank in a mug of hot chocolate and ate a piece of delicious coffee cake which was served, to my delight, with a proper cake fork.

Suitably fortified, we went to the beach so that I could sit on a bench in my big coat, scarf and gloves and drink in the sight and sound of the sea while the wind tried to batter me to pieces.  In the past, beaches on the west coast of Anglesey have presented us with the sights of a dead porpoise, a dead adult seal and a dead leatherback turtle and on Sunday the tally grew as we found a dead seal pup.  I was a bit upset by this but then we saw a young herring gull pecking at it, looking for a meal, and the Best Beloved said, "It's the circle of life," and I felt more rational.  My photos do not include the seal pup.

We had not yet finished Remembering.  I really wanted to go to a Battle's Over event, a thousand beacons were to be lit across the country at 7pm and I was very disappointed to discover that there wasn't one in my Shropshire patch so, as we had to travel anyway, we decided to attend one on Anglesey.  There was a choice of two and I found it hard to pick one, only making up my mind a couple of hours beforehand.  We went to Beaumaris where, again, the crowd was small.  In the centre of Castle Square, three soldiers stood to attention while a man played The Last Post very beautifully and movingly on a cornet as the Royal British Legion standard was lowered.  Then, we looked to the castle ramparts expectantly where three men took what seemed like a very long time to light the beacon.  It was tiny and after a few seconds, it fizzled out.  They tried again and as the flames burned, we applauded, but again, they died after a few seconds.  It was pathetic, really, and left us all waiting awkwardly for several minutes until the bells started ringing at the church and the school, ringing gloriously across the town.  "It's over," I said to the Best Beloved, "The boys are coming home!"  At this point, I felt that everyone should all go to the pub together, or have a party, or sing together.  I later discovered that at some of the other beacons, people had sung It's a Long Way to Tipperary and Pack Up Your Troubles; I should have liked that.  Instead, everyone just scurried away.  If you click on this photograph and look very carefully, possibly with a magnifying glass, you might be able to see a pinprick of light above the castle ramparts, in the centre.  That is the so-called beacon.

So we drove back to our warm and toasty glamping pod, opened a bottle of wine and drank a toast to the men and women who did their duty during The Great War.  We turned on the television and watched Peter Jackson's film They Shall Not Grow Old in which he has colourised documentary footage of men in the trenches and matched it with audio recordings of men who were there.  The film is utterly brilliant and I think it should be shown in secondary schools - if you would like to see it, it's on the BBC iPlayer for a few more days.

All day long I thought about Wilfred Owen's mother, Susan, who received the news of her son's death while the church bells were ringing out to celebrate the Armistice on 11th November 1918.  Wilfred had been killed on 4th November.  I thought, too, about my great grandmothers, who must have been overwhelmed with relief as the bells rang out and they knew their menfolk would be coming home.  All day long I wore this pin, which belonged to my grandmother and bears the insignia of the Royal Army Medical Corps, in which her husband served before, during and after The Great War.  

See you soon.

Love, Mrs Tiggywinkle x