Friday, 24 April 2015

Eyes up - eyes down

This week I have been reading The French Lieutenant’s Woman and a couple of passages caught my eye and I thought I would share them (and my thoughts) with you.

In this book there is no question but that John Fowles is the narrator even when he writing as if in one of his character’s head (albeit a narrator with special access to their thoughts and emotions). This is in sharp distinction to the way that Marcia writes: each scene is written from within one character’s head: we see what they see, hear what they hear and share their thoughts and emotions. By definition anything else is off limits. I happen to believe this is one of Marcia’s greatest strengths as a novelist even though it is an approach which is hugely tiring.

Anyway, here we are inside Charles Smithson’s head but this section (as so many others) is not designed to carry the story line forward but to enter more deeply into Charle’s psyche.

There was worse: he had an unnatural fondness for walking instead of riding; and walking was not a gentleman’s pastime except in the Swiss Alps. He had nothing very much against the horse itself, but he had the born naturalist’s hatred of not being able to observe at close and at leisure.

Here I am at one with Charles. Indeed I have to confess that going for a walk with me could easily become a tedious affair for people with the odd and totally mistaken idea that the purpose of walking is to get from A to B. Indeed, at certain times of the year when there is much happening in hedgerow and woodland, an entire morning could be lost while progressing less than a few hundred yards.

There are two aspects of nature that I find important to me: hills and the minutia. I need to be able to ‘lift mine eyes up unto the hills’ in order for me to see myself within the whole of existence. At this stage, of course, that me is tiny – totally overshadowed to the immensity of creation (of which, of course, those hills on this planet are themselves infinitesimally small when one takes into consideration the whole universe. It is not too good for men to feel the weight of such a burden without something to help them carry the burden and that is where the minutia becomes important. Creation may be huge but it is made up of uncountable small fragments and all are important for without them all there would be nothing.

Back inside Charles’ head: What little God he managed to derive from existence, he found in Nature, not in the Bible; a hundred years earlier he would have been a deist, perhaps even a pantheist.

I am not entirely sure about the reference to a ‘hundred years earlier’ (which would have been about 1750) but I must confess that what God I have managed to derive from existence I have found in nature. Within various churches, as choirboy, chorister and choirmaster, I have been enriched by the fellowship that is to be found whenever a group of people are working towards a specific aim but for me it is the intimate contact with nature that brings me closer to a sense of the eternal. What is it that I then feel? A very difficult question. Whatever it is it has little to do with any of the dogmas associated with the various religions all of which seem to me to be far too concerned with petty rules and regulations. No. it is something far bigger than that, and a something that by some unfathomable process seems to give one a sense of great security and of joy. As has been used many times: I cannot explain but I will not deny. I suspect that makes me a deist.

Oh - no, I haven't forgotten. The raised beds need a bit mor going on but I will put up a picture soon.

Friday, 17 April 2015

A Time to Sow

Years ago I decided that the time had come to lift as much of the work involved in raising vegetables for the pot up to a decent working height to save all that back-breaking effort at ground level. We don’t grow a huge variety of plants: just those things that really are so much better when they take only a minute or two from plant to pot or plant to plate.

Long ago I gave up on things that were always readily available in the shop – and especially, the farm shop – but were a pain to grow. So it is that the only brassica I have grown for many years are Brussels Sprouts: with everything else you end up with either a glut and have problems getting rid of the surplus or the lot have been devastated by a variety of voracious mouths.

None of the photos today have anything to do with the words. I have just chosen four which have brought back memories. It was after peering through this gate for a long, long moment that Marcia first made real contact with the characters in the book due out later this year. Not that they were there or, indeed, anywhere near there - thy weren't. But it was there that she 'heard' two of the most important people in the book in conversation.
Still, we like our fresh salad bowl (I tend to grown lettuces from which you can cut leaves), young carrots, broad beans, peas and tomatoes – all in the raised beds with a few flowers such as nasturtiums to add to the general colour. These beds are about six foot long and two wide with a soil depth of nine inches and raised so that they are about the same height as a kitchen working surface.

The upsides are that you can remove all the soil every other year or so, ensure it is as weed and pest free as possible, add some fertiliser (and, perhaps, a little potting compost) and replace it knowing there will be all the nourishment needed for the next crop. The down side is that the beds need to be watered during dry weather but there is a butt fed from the greenhouse roof nearby to take the hard work out of that.

This is taken in the Valley of the Rocks just outside Lynton on the north coast. I understand that this valley once carried a river but that the flow was redirected by some geological activity in the past. It was near here that our usually faithful camper van decided to pack up and that resulted in a good deal of interesting activity. Stage one: leave Marcia and Max in the van while I hitched a lift into Lynton. Stage two: arranged for a breakdown lorry to meet me at the van. Stage three: get a taxi to take me back to the van and then take Marcia and Max to our cottage on Exmoor (about fifteen miles away). Stage four: rider in the breakdown lorry back to the garage near our home just north of Dartmoor and leave the van there (about forty five miles) and then to drop me home (just four miles down the road) to collect the car so that I could drive back and join the others on Exmoor (another fifty miles). All of which was not according to plan.
Still in the ground are two other crops: runner beans and rhubarb. Neither of these would work in a raised bed. The first is, of course, just there: fed and mulched in the autumn and cropped in the summer. The second is sowed into pots in the greenhouse for planting out later: as are the numerous sweet peas with which Marcia likes to fill the house during the summer months.

So it was that I have been sowing for this years crops. It’s a very odd feeling working in the greenhouse and on our two raised beds without even knowing whether or not I shall be around to see any of this work bear fruit.

Having said that it was also incredibly satisfying. To be honest I’m not quite sure why that should be the case but I suppose a part of it is that it makes me feel that regardless of everything there is a point in keeping going at a time when giving up would seem the obvious thing to do.
Still on Exmoor but quite a long time ago. Marcia was writing  The Summer House at the time which was set near Allerford on Exmoor. It was one of those hot and rather dreamy summer afternoons when I came across these two in the little churchyard there. Just couldn't resist them
For some reason many men (and I am one) feel that there is a need to leave something permanent behind them. With many this desire is poured into their children but with others there is a need for something more tangible: something physical that can act as a memorial. For most of us this is just not going to happen. As I watered in the second sowing of carrots yesterday I suddenly realised that this is not what it is all about. What matters is far smaller, on a tiny scale and infinitely more important.
On one of our trips we were parked up on Porlock Toll Road looking across towards Wales watching this drilling rig being towed down the Bristol Channel to wards the sea. Looking through the photo files this one embodies so many memories. It was here that scenes from three of Marcia's Exmoor books (The Birdcage, Memories of the Storm and The Summer House) suggested themselves to Marcia and we talked through them (at great length, I should add, but at least these conversations were not inflicted on anyone else).
Our memorials are the host of actions and reactions with the people with whom we come into contact day by day. Sometimes these actions will be good and we shall have spread a little bit of comfort or joy or love. Sometimes they will be bad and shall have caused grief and sorrow. For the vast majority of us it is our actions that stand as our memorials and it is up to us whether those memorials are, on balance, positive or negative. Speaking only for myself, there have been moments in my life when my actions have left much to be desired – moments when life demanded more from me than I had to give, moments when the needs of others seemed less important than my own and moments when I used others as whipping-boys for matters for which they were blameless. All I can hope is that on the other side of the balance sheet there were other moments that will, in some measure, compensate.

Whatever the reason, I commend sowing a few seeds to bring peace of mind to a spirit that is, at times, somewhat troubled.

Finally, many thanks for all your comments. Sorry I have not been able to reply to them individually this week but I do want you to know how much your ongoing support means to me.

Friday, 10 April 2015

The station with no railway: Dartmouth

Last week, in a comment, Maria from Spain mentioned the only railway station in the country without a railway – Dartmouth – and she asks whether or not that is true. Well, yes, it was but, as we shall see, is no longer.

The Station Restaurant - once Dartmouth Station
The story starts back in the middle of the 19th century. A line had been built from London all the way down to Cornwall. It crossed the river Dart at Totnes, just above stream of the old road bridge but that is a good way from Dartmouth (on the west bank of the Dart) itself which suffered in those days from very poor inland transport links. So it was that a branch line was proposed which would link Dartmouth to the main line, joining it at Paignton (which is to the east of the Dart).

Agreement as to where the line should run was reached fairly quickly but it proved impossible to agree on where a bridge should be built. In fairness it must be remembered that at that time the Dart was a busy port and that the ships that came into the harbour and on up to Totnes with their tall masts were important to the local economy and a bridge would have put an end to that trade. So it was decided that the line should be run down into Kingswear (the town – then village – on the opposite side of the river to Dartmouth) and that the last part of the journey should be by ferry. Nevertheless there was a station built on the Dartmouth embankment complete with ticket office and waiting room – and its own Station Master. From there you walked down a covered gangway to a floating pontoon, also covered, and so onto the ferry which took you across the river where a similar arrangement took you up to the platforms.

This line opened in 1864 and continued to operate until the branch line was closed on 30 December 1972. The ferry was then passed to the local authority and the railway line to the Dart Valley Railway Company which was already operating the heritage line linking Totnes to Buckfastleigh. Nowadays both the line and the ferry are operated by the Dartmouth Steam Railway and Riverboat Company who offer a circular tour to visitors. This takes you from Dartmouth to Totnes by riverboat, thence by ‘bus to Paignton, by rail to Kingswear and back to Dartmouth on the ferry.

The station itself was rebuilt in 1986 when the embankment was raised and other flood protection works carried out and is now a restaurant.

As you know, we live a field away from the Dart some distance upstream of Totnes and the other day I went for my first walk around the gardens at Dartington Hall since the beginning of November when I first fell ill. All the photos here (apart from the one of the station) were taken on that walk. I hope you enjoy them.

Friday, 3 April 2015

Three hotels

Let’s get the results of the PET scan out of the way and then we can get on. Basically nothing changes: the scan confirms an primary at the entrance to the stomach and secondaries in the liver. There is not a lot that can be attempted with any real chance of success – and that measured in terms of adding a few months rather than years to my life expectancy. Marcia and I prefer to look at enjoying what time we have together rather than spending a good deal of it in and out of hospital for treatment. Meanwhile one part of life that will go on for as long as possible is the Friday blog. I have a feeling that they will become more and more associated with memories from the past rather than new thoughts and discoveries but only time will tell.

The Royal Castle at Dartmouth
Last week we pottered down to Dartmouth to deliver some copies of Marcia Willett’s Dartmouth to the Royal Castle Hotel. We have known the owner, Nigel Way, for many years – at least thirty and probably more – and he thought it would be nice to have a copy in each bedroom but first we wanted to clear the idea with the Dartmouth Community Bookshop. As some of you may know, the old Harbour Bookshop in Dartmouth was once owned by Christopher Robin Milne, the son of Alan Alexander Milne (better known as A A Milne). Anyway, it so happened that we lived just up the road from C R Milne at that time and were on what is best described as nodding terms with him. He was a delightful character and I was saddened when his death was announced in 1996. Meanwhile, he sold the shop to Bruce Coward who was also a literary agent – mine for a while. It was Bruce who advised me in the strongest possible terms after he had read the only novel I wrote to stick to non-fiction. It was not what I wanted to hear but he was quite right.

Then Bruce sold to Roland and Marcia became a writer. This changed our relationship with bookshops – bound to – and so it was on the basis of being a novelist that she had a relationship with Roland somewhat reinforced by the fact that he also owned a book shop in St Ives in Cornwall. But Dartmouth could no longer support a commercial bookshop and, in 2011, it closed (as has, sad;y, his other shop in St Ives).

The new community bookshop in Dartmouth
A group decided that something had to be done and they formed a not-for-profit society, called Dartmouth Community Bookshop, and opened a new facility in Higher Street opposite the famous Cherub Inn (reputed to be the oldest surviving building in the town). Managed by Andrea Saunders, who worked for many years in the Harbour Bookshop and knows the business and the local market very well indeed, and otherwise staffed by unpaid volunteers, it has proved to be a great success.

So Marcia had a word with Andrea who was very happy with the idea – especially as we put a sticker on each book explaining where copies could be bought. Thus, should you decide to stay in the Royal Castle you should find a copy in your room which may add a small measure of pleasure to your visit.

The Royal Castle features in The Courtyard, is important in Hattie’s Mill and reappears in The Chawick Trilogy. The book to be published in August, Summer on the River, is set in the town and, sure enough, some of the characters find themselves drinking and lunching there as, indeed did we last week. In passing, the Mary mention in The Courtyard is still very much with us and continues to rule the bar with a firm hand. She and I have a particular fellow feeling: she has a granddaughter who was born deaf but, thanks to cochlear implants, can now hear to everyone’s relief.

The Royal Seven Stars in Totnes
Nigel decided that he needed another hotel and so acquired The Royal Seven Stars in Totnes. This is, of course, where Jake stayed when he was in Totnes seeking out Kit as explained in Indian Summer. When Marcia was very small, her father was a director of a firm called Staverton Construction with headquarters in that village which is about four miles from Totnes. He ran their operation from the Bristol office but had to come down fairly regularly for meetings at the head office. So it was that the family often stayed at Seven Stars where, because there were seven of them, they would be seated at the big round table in the middle of the dining room on the first floor. We sometimes have lunch in there but we prefer to eat in the bar downstairs.

The Luttrell in Dunster
Not content with just two hotels, a year or so ago Nigel decided to buy the Luttrell Arms in Dunster up on Exmoor. I am sure that I do not need to point out that this, too, features in Marcia’s books. It plays a most important role in The Birdcage – Lizzie stayed in a room in which Marcia and I have slept – and reappears in The Summer House.

I have no idea which of the other hotels that crop up in Marcia’s books will be next on the list for Nigel to add to his collection: perhaps three is quite enough.

Meanwhile, Transworld have decided to rethink the style of cover for Marcia’s books. Here are the first two. I do think they are rather splendid – don’t you?

What is very odd is that this painting of Dartmouth is so similar to one that I took many years ago from our old family home in Mount Boone. Here it is.

Friday, 27 March 2015

Sister Cara Mary

The journey through life we all take brings us into contact with many people and, if we are honest, the vast majority we come across mean little or nothing to us. However, every now and then we meet someone who in some way becomes an important to us – either because of who they are or of what they teach us: sometimes both.

This blog is a celebration of one such: the late Sister Cara Mary of Tymawr Convent near Monmouth.

When Marcia and I lived in Avonwick some twenty years ago, another remarkable woman, Greta Scott, lived not far from us. To be more accurate her home was there but she spent most of her time at Tymawr where she had acted as unpaid bursar ever since she had retired. Thus it was that Marcia came to know about Tymawr and to decide that she would visit the convent with a view to a week of silent retreat. I drove her up and we were met by a small nun with spectacles and a rather curious hearing system. She announced that she was Sister Cara Mary and was to care for Marcia during her stay. On that occasion I was with Cara for less than two minutes but that was enough to make a real impact on me – and I must admit that I was far happier leaving Marcia in her care than I had thought I would be.

Over the years, when Marcia was spending a week at the convent every six months, she and Cara became very close and one summer, to my delight, it was arranged that Cara would spend one week of her summer holiday with us in Avonwick. How many of us realised that some groups of nuns actually take a summer holiday?

The weather was wonderful and we had a wonderful time. We drove up to fetch Cara and the first thing she did on arrival was to disappear and change out of her habit into some casual clothes. ‘I have put that nun away in the wardrobe,’ was the way she put it.

Cara was certainly as deaf as I am and it could well be that this was an important factor in our relationship. Not just deaf but determined to continue to communicate with other people using whatever technology we could and putting as much effort into understanding as was needed. Not surprisingly we spent a good deal of time talking about the problems the deaf face and the various ways of trying to deal with what is, actually, a quite serious disability which can, depending on the causes of the deafness, be rather painful.

Cara had an interesting background. She had studied fine arts at The Courtlaud (alongside Anita Brookner and Anthony Blunt: ‘Such a poor muddled man’ amongst others) and had spent much of the war working at Bletchly Park before entering the Order and teaching.

Why was she so important to me? I think it was because in her eyes the church was totally inclusive. She would say things such as, ‘She’s a Christian although, of course, she doesn’t know it’. Having said that she was strict both with herself and others. If you agreed to do something – she would expect you to do it. Thus, having taken her vows she never gave a moments thought to turning her back on them even when life in the convent was for her was very hard.

Sadly, on her third holiday with us (this time at The Hermitage) she suffered a severe stroke and it was not long before she died. We can, however, look back at the five or six days she spent there with the certain knowledge that she was very happy.

PS Had a PET scan yesterday and expect further news next week.

Friday, 20 March 2015

Entering port

This is going to be one of the hardest blogs to write as it contains some pretty grim news. However, over the years I have become very attached to you all – and especially those who send encouraging emails or leave comments. So . . .

As you know I was suffering from anaemia at the back end of last year. As a result I have been taking medication to increase my blood count and that has been working (I feel better now than I did then) but it left unanswered the basic question: why was it happening? We now know. I have a malignant tumour growing in my oesophagus and that is at the root of all the problems.

It has been decided – I have decided – that an operation is not an option. All the advice is that I would be extremely lucky to survive what would be major surgery. So, more and more tests as we look at other treatments. I will keep you informed but I have no intention of dwelling on this in future blogs.

My apologies for ignoring last week’s comments (and messages via email, Facebook and so on). I am sure you will now understand why.
Achieve with David Griffiths at the helm.
Only one photograph this week: Achieve. She is that blue boat moored on the river Dart. Now in semi-retirement, all she does is help with the ferry between the town and the castle at the river mouth during the height of the season. She was, however, the River Dart Pilot Boat until the river trade came to an end with the closure of the Baltic Wharf in Totnes. The name gives the purpose away: it was through this river that much of the timber from the Baltic ports that was destined for use in the west country was imported.

Achieve belongs to my friend David Griffiths: one time and last River Dart Pilot. One day, about thirty years ago, I suppose, I accompanied him out of the river on board Achieve (crewed for the occasion be Messrs Distin and Bell) and we – David and I – boarded one of those ships from the Baltic (climbing a rather scary Jacob’s ladder). From the bridge I watched as David threaded this ship up the river – and I use the word ‘threaded’ very advisedly because there are places where the channel is both very narrow and very tortuous.

Achieve was already in Totnes when we arrived, her crew ashore to take the bow warps as David turned the ship around in the turning bay before sliding her gently alongside the Baltic Wharf to await unloading.

Then it was back down the river to Dartmouth. It had been a wonderful day – and profitable. At the time I was writing a regular column for Yachts and Yachting and the experience gave me ample material for one of my pieces.

Down the centuries pilots have taken over as ships near the end of their voyages and I am now looking towards that final trip from the open sea to a secluded berth. Luckily I have the best of pilots. You know her as a novelist.

Friday, 13 March 2015

The oak, the ash and the thorn

Welcome to my Friday the Thirteenth blog. Some are, of course, unhappy with the day/date combination believing it to bring bad luck. Not so my late father-in-law who was born on a Friday the thirteenth and, throughout a long and generally very happy life, maintained nothing could be luckier. Odd thing, superstition.

The oak
Here, in England, some of the oldest superstitions and myths involve three trees: the oak, the ash and the thorn (the latter being, almost certainly, the Hawthorn). Those who were brought up in Puck of Pooks Hill by Rudyard Kipling will, I am sure, remember that the children were magicked into forgetting their encounters with Puck and his friends thanks to this simple act:

He (Puck) gave them each three leaves – one of Oak, one of Ash, and one of Thorn. ‘Bite these,’ said he. ‘Otherwise you might be talking at home of what you’ve seen and heard, and – if I know human beings – they’d send for the doctor. Bite!’

Then there is a rhyme which runs:

Oak before ash,
In for a splash.
Ash before oak,
In for a soak.

This goes back a long way and older versions are more elaborate:

When the oak comes out before the ash,
You’ll have a summer of wet and splash;When the ash comes out before the oak,You’ll have a summer of dust and smoke.

Most years, of course, the oak and ash ‘come out’ at the same time in that in both cases the leaves begin to burst out of the buds at the same time. When that happens, Marcia and I call it a ‘sploak’. Marcia and I have paid close attention as to which comes first for many years and made a couple of interesting (if unscientific) discoveries. The first is that for there to be any accuracy, there has to be somewhere where trees from both species are standing close together. Only then will all other factors be removed: height above sea level (which equals differences in both air and ground temperature), exposure to winds and so on. Thus it is that when we find such a pair, we call them a ‘sploakometer’.

The ash. 
The second discovery is that the old rhyme does seem to be right. On the rare occasions when one or other comes out significantly earlier than the other what follows is as predicted. How can that be? How can a couple of trees ‘know’ what is going to happen to weather in future months? The only explanation can be that they don’t but that minute variations (far too small for us to recognise) in conditions over the months preceding each spring create some sort of pattern which determines both when the oak and ash leaves come and the weather conditions to follow.

Sadly the fate of sploakometers in the UK is at risk as a fungus that is gradually killing the vast majority of our ash trees spreads across the country. We have a one mighty ash in the front garden and a few youngsters growing alongside the boundary to the rear. We would both be very saddened were anything to happen to them. I have no doubt that there will evolve a strain of ash that is immune to this fungus in the same way as we are now seeing elm trees which are immune to Dutch Elm Disease establishing themselves. Even so, it means that there will be areas of the country where the landscape will be altered for ever.

The hawthorn or may
Although the oak was undoubtedly the most venerated of our trees (it was, of course, sacred to the Druids who took their name from the Greek word for the oak, drus) the ash was often involved in some bizarre forms of medical intervention. Incidentally, when we say ‘touch wood’ we are following a custom far older than the birth and death of Christ and the wood in question was, of course, the oak.

Do you have a child suffering from rickets? Nowadays you might be tempted to believe the youngster to be short of Vitamin D but a few centuries ago you would reject such an implausible idea and realise that the only sensible cure would be to invoke the spirit of the ash. Accordingly you would find an ash with a trunk of less than a hand span in diameter and you would split it with a sharp axe, heavy knife or bill hook. The split had to be long enough so that on the following morning, just as the sun was about to rise, you could take the child and, after stripping it naked, open up the split and pass the child through it. That done, the trunk would be bound back together and the wounds sealed with clay. Behold, as the tree healed so did the child – or so it was believed.

Hawthorn (or the May Tree) had an absolutely vital role for without it there would be no passion, no love and, obviously, no children. In those days the maypole would be made from hawthorn and it would be used to make the garland with which that summer’s ‘Green Man’ was crowned and the girls would adorn their hair with the May blossom. Obviously it was important to ensure that cows remained fertile and provided sufficient milk: a prudent cowman would hang a bunch of hawthorn outside his byre. Note the outside, bringing hawthorn indoors would be to invite bad luck – which brings us back to Friday the Thirteenth.

No matter how you look at Friday the Thirteenth, it was a lucky day for Sugar when she was rescued by Keith and Jeanne Giles: it's called falling on your feet. It took a lot of organisation to bring her over five hundred miles to the Giles' home and I am hoping that Jeanne will tell us how that was achieved in her comment this week.