Thursday, 31 January 2008

My quilt block choice.

On the Creative Living forum I belong to, some of us have been participating in a quilt block swop for several months now. For February the choice is mine. I have asked for an applique block - View From a Cottage Window. Here is the block I made last year, when it was going to be part of a charity quilt on another forum, but that idea folded. Once again, this is executed with enthuasiam rather than skill, but I really enjoyed making it, especially the embroidered flowers. It took about 30 hours to sew up. I am looking forward to other people's interpretation of the title and of course, not expecting embroidery unless someone particularly wishes to add some. The finished article will probably be a wall hanging rather than an actual bed quilt.

There is a slight story behind this picture. We lived in Dorset before moving here. I did a lot of travelling around Dorset, helping a friend with her show horses, and also travelled down to my beloved Dartmoor many times, passing this very hill. The hill in the background is a real one, with a few pine trees planted on the top. It's near Bridport, on the right as you are driving down to Devon. If I remember rightly, the trees were planted to act as a landmark to sailors out at sea, though I have a slight feeling it had a connection with smugglers , but I am probably confusing this with tales of Isaac Gulliver from further up the coast.

Bridport is connected with ropemaking and the main street is wonderfully wide - supposedly to help with the measuring of the ropes (as in "ropewalks"). It used to grow its own flax and in 1895 there were three flax mills there and indeed these were still there at the outbreak of World War II. King John ordered ship's cables from here, and in the days when men were hung for even modest crimes, they were said to have "been stabbed by a Bridport dagger".

Bridport is also connected with the escape of Charles Stuart's son following the Battle of Worcester. The future Charles II arrived in Dorset with a price of £1000 on his head, and for four days he holed up with friends near Sherborne, whilst working on plans to escape to France from Charmouth. He was to pretend to be the groom in a runaway marriage party; Juliana Coningsby was the bride. Whilst they reached Charmouth safely , the boatman who had sworn to take them to France for the princely sum of £60 had been stopped by his wife. Charles II's part, which included Colonel Wyndham and Lord Wilmot, made their way to Bridport, but found it full of Cromwell's men. "Charles attended to the horses in the yard of the inn, and an ostler came up to him, saying: "Surely I know you, friend?" The groom's heart went into his boots, but he kept his head and asked where the ostler had been working before. When the man said in Exeter, the "groom" replied, "Aye, that is where we must have met," and excused himself by saying that he must attend to his people. Bridport was so thick with dangers, that they left and were soon galloping down a lane towards Dorchester, and at the corner of the lane is still a notice on a stone saying that Charles the Second escaped capture throuh this lane. In a few weeks Charles landed in Normandy, having been a fugitive for 41 days." (Taken from The King's England: Dorset, by Arthur Mee.)

Wednesday, 30 January 2008

Old Country Sayings.

I bought a lovely old book recently called "Country Sayings" by a chap called Fred Archer who grew up in Worcestershire around the time of the First World War. I have read several of his country books in the past, and he wrote of a wonderful time to grow up in the country.

There were some sayings in his book which were already familiar to me, whilst others I have never come across, and perhaps are local to his area. The saying "A woman, a dog, and a Walnut tree, The more you beat them the better they be" doesn't seem to have much of a ring of truth about it. What might do the tree good, is certainly no good to the dog and would turn it into a timerous cowering animal and I'd like to hear what the wife had to say on the matter too!

This one did ring truer though: "Two women in one house, two cats and one mouse, two dogs and one bone, will never agree for long." Never a truer word was spoken! The same applies to "As uncertain as a baby's bottom." !

"Dressed up like a dog's dinner" was something my mum used to say. Spotting a neighbour looking unusually smart, she would comment, "Where's he going then, all dressed up like a dog's dinner?" It was perhaps an event unusual enough to comment on, but most country dogs got fed on scraps, so I don't know its origin.

Another saying which I am familiar with is "Don't spoil the ship for a h'aporth of tar" - in other words, spoiling much by skimping a little. However - according to Fred Archer, it didn't have anything to do with a "ship". He maintained that it was referring to sheep - the dialect word "ship" was often used in the midlands (spelt that way) for sheep, thus meaning that by skimping on the (Stockholm) tar used to treat various sheep ailments, you might well lose the sheep. This particularly so in the case of fly strike, where the blow fly maggots cause open wounds.

"A creaking gate hangs a long time" or the version I am familiar with, "A creaking gate makes the most noise." This refers to people who seem to take pleasure in being ill - or at least, telling you at length about their ailments, and yet they are often the ones who will hang on for years and years, and other, seemingly fitter people, may go suddenly in their prime.

Finally, for the singers amongst you: "God loves the Crow as well as he loves the Nightingale. He sings like a Bumble Bee in a churn." Sadly, not everyone sings as well as the choir . . . my late mother-in-law once described my singing a nursery rhyme to my daughter as "That sounds like the tune the old cow died of" - in my defence, I did have a cold at the time . . .

The photograph this time is not quite a Worcestershire view, but one from Gloucestershire, on a sunny evening looking westwards from Frocester Hill, above Kings' Stanley.

Tuesday, 29 January 2008

Some curious names . . .

Although my children speak Welsh fluently, my command of the language is limited to a few topographical names. Sometimes the translation is fascinating and very descriptive. Maes-mawr simply means "big field", but Maescletwr means "field of the rough water." I wonder what used to happen in Llwynmerched? ("Field of the maidens.") Llannerchpesgi was a "glade for fattening animals", whilst Twyn Mwyalchod was "mound of the blackbirds." Wainlapra was the "meadow of tatters" and I'm still pondering that one, though it may have a connection with the Clootie trees of our Celtic past, when strips of people's clothing, having been dipped in the nearby holy well, were tied to "magic" trees in the hope that healing would result. The descriptive Wernddwyfog means "marsh of betony", a beautiful pinky-lilac flower which blooms on waysides in this area. Here is a link to help you in the pronunciation:

You would think that English place names were straightforward. However, you might be surprised to know that Ramsbottom in Greater Manchester, does not refer to the hinder part of a male sheep, but in actual fact has a more poetical meaning: "wild garlic valley". This derives from the Old English hramsa (wild garlic, which I know as Ramsons) and bothm 'valley bottom'. Now we know how cricketer Ian Botham's name came about. There is also a Ramsey island off the Welsh coast and that too is linked with hramsa (only this time an Old Norse word for wild garlic) and ey - island. Its Welsh name is Ynys Dewi - St David's Island. Merthyr Tydfil in the Welsh valleys, famed for coal production until the latter half of the 20th C., means "Tudful's burial place." merthyr is Welsh for martyr. St Tudfil was a woman saint, reputedly one of the daughters of Brychan (who probably gave his name to Brecon). She was buried here, after being killed by pagans in the late 5th C.

Minehead in Somerset is apparently derived from "headland of a hill called Myne" and there are links with Wales (which can be seen the other side of the Bristol Channel from Minehead) where mynydd means high land, "mountain" though it is just higher rough land hereabouts.

Up in Scotland, Cambuslang in Strathclyde, means "creek of the ship" and is derived from the Gaelic camas - creek, bay, riverbend and long - ship. Campsie Fells, also in Strathclyde, is the name given to a range of hills and can be translated from the Gaelic as "crooked fairy hill". Cam - crooked and sith - fairy hill.

My thanks to Adrian Room's "Guide to British Place Names" and Dewi Davis' splendid Welsh Place-names of Breconshire and their meanings, which have been rubbing shoulders on my bookshelf along with others of that ilk.

The photograph heading the page was from the walk to Llyn-y-Fan-Fach my husband and I took last Sunday afternoon. The river is a little quieter in the summer (unless it has been very wet) and the banks are a mass of wild Foxgloves.

Monday, 28 January 2008

Open door.


I love exploring. I love taking photos. This one is a cottage doorway at Clyro, on the Radnorshire/Herefordshire border, near Hay-on-Wye. This village is very special to me because of its literary connections with the diarist Francis Kilvert. Many years ago a dear friend of mine gave me a book called "After Kilvert." I briefly flicked through it and then it remained on my bookshelves for many years - in fact, until just before we moved here. Then I became besotted, and I bought a copy of "Kilvert's Diaries" from a local bookshop. Since then I have read and re-read this book, and others about Kilvert, and feel like I knew him personally.


It was whilst Kilvert was a Curate at Clyro that he wrote a series of diaries. This was the house he lived in from 1870. Sadly he died of peritonitis within a month of his marriage in 1879. Equally sadly, he was never to wed the true love of his life, Daisy Thomas, whose family he often visited in their home at Llanthomas. She too, never married.


This is the Baskerville Arms, which is just across the road from where Kilvert lived. Because of his proximity, he was only too aware of the drunken-ness and altercations which happened after closing time, or before. It took its name from the Baskerville family who lived in nearby Clyro Court (now a hotel).



These are cottages nearby, where the villagers he knew and cared so much for, once lived. Part of Kilvert's function was to visit the sick and poor of the parish. David Lockwood, in his book "Kilvert, the Victorian" says that "he acted as the clergy did until the coming of the Welfare State, as a social worker seeing that the needy had food, blankets and clothing."


Clyro Church.

Sadly the diaries which remain available to us today are only a portion of those which he wrote during his lifetime. His widow Elizabeth may well have expunged parts of them referring to his past engagement to Katherine Heanley, but apparently his nephew's wife took it into her head to burn the remaining unpublished diaries because of their content being "too personal". What a loss to literature.

I will leave you with a short extract to give you an idea of the comforts of Victorian bathing . . .

Sunday, Christmas Day (1870):

"As I lay awake praying in the early morning, I thought I heard a sound of distant bells. It was an intense frost. I sat down in my bath upon a sheet of thick ice which broke in the middle into large pieces and jagged edges stuck all round the sides of the tub like chevaux de frise, not particularly comforting to the naked thighs and loins, for the keen ice cut like broken glass. The ice water stung and scorched like fire. I had to collect the floating pieces of ice and pile them on a chair before I could use the sponge and then I had to thaw the sponge in my hands for it was a mass of ice. The morning was most brilliant. Walked to the Sunday School with Gibbins and the road sparkled with millions of rainbows, the seven colours gleaming in every glittering point of hoar frost. The Church was very cold in spite of two roaring stove fires. Mr V. preached and went to Bettws."

Gosh - they made them of stern stuff in those days alright! I shall share some more of these delightful diaries with you in coming weeks.

Sunday, 27 January 2008

Down Memory Lane 1

I grew up in the 1950s. To my children, that seems little short of the Dark Ages. Things I took for granted sound so antiquated to them. Take for instance what we called various rooms. We didn't have a kitchen. It was never ever called a kitchen - it was the scullery - and it was very basic. We had a sink, with a plank at the back that had a cold tap sticking through it. Beneath the sink mum kept things like the packet of Daz for washing (this also served for washing up dishes too), a spare bar of Palmolive soap, scrubbing brush, bucket etc. There was a wooden draining board to the left. Above this was the Geyser, which was gas powered and gave us our hot water. Sometimes the pilot light went out and mum once, having found it out, and despite the stink of gas in the room, lit a match . . . The resultant woosh of flame left her with half an eyebrow growing in a totally different direction for the rest of her life. In the left corner was the copper. It wasn't made of copper, but was aluminium-coloured. Every Monday (for Mondays were washing days come hell or high water), mum filled the copper, brought it up to boil, and the sheets (cotton, white) went in first. Then the towels. Then gradually as the water cooled, the clothes which could tolerate less and less heat were washed, woollens last. Handkerchiefs, also cotton, white, were boiled in an aluminium pan on the gas stove.

On the opposite wall to the sink was a small enamel-topped table. To this, on Washing Days, was attached a little table mangle, for getting the water out of the clothes into a strategically-placed bucket. In the summer holidays, it was my job feed the clothes through and to turn the handle, so that the wooden rollers pressed every iota of water from the washing. The washing was wrung out first, to get rid of the worst of the water. Sheets were hell to wring out . . .

On Mondays we always had Shepherd's Pie for tea. When I came home from school I would get out the mincer and screw that to the end of the table, and then put bits of leftover lamb or beef from the Sunday roast into the mincer. This could be responsible for the mincer fetish I have as a mature adult . . . I find them SO hard to resist when I find them in charity shops or car boot sales . . .

I mentioned the wildlife here at our Welsh farmhouse. Equally in the Hampshire house where I grew up, we had lots of wildlife in the garden. I can remember being kept awake on hot summer evenings by Nightingales singing in the Damson trees on one side of our garden. We had a gravelly bank enclosing a triangular piece of land on the opposite side. Here lived slow-worms and lizards and kids from miles around used to come and try and catch them. I grew up with no fear of what other kids called creepy-crawlies, and was happy picking them up and gently stroking them. If either got worried, however, first they would pee (which was foul smelling) and if that didn't work, they would drop their tails. Only once did it ever get to that stage and I felt so cruel because the poor creature had got so worried. I loved, most of all, just to watch them sunning themselves. We had a coal bunker outside our back door, and I came out early one morning to find a snake ON the wall, sunning itself. I don't know how it managed to stay there. Perhaps my memory is playing me tricks and only part of it was up against the wall, climbing, but I know I saw it. I can't remember if it was a grass snake or an adder, but we did have grass snakes in our garden on occasion. No panicking or anything from parents - just "don't touch it."!

My love of wild flowers stems from the time I was about 6 years old and a neighbour's daughter, a couple of years older than me, had to do a project for nature study. We picked all sorts of wild flowers, and pressed them between sheets of paper under books. My dad bought me the Observer's Book of Wild Flowers so that I could identify them. We had Yarrow, and Toadflax growing along the edge of the lawn, just before the wild tangle of gorse and broom. I've still got that book . . . and I still love wild flowers. The Purple Loosestrife at the top of the page grows in my garden, but I can remember it growing on the banks of the stream where I used to play, and it seemed so exotic . . .

The birds and the bees Part II

I've often wondered what wild animals or birds think when they come across a house. I reckon they look on it as a very odd shaped tree. They certainly regard it as an opportunity for a new home. Take the sparrows for instance - plain little brown and grey birdies my mum always called "spadgers", and which I have recently seen called that in a different area to the Hampshire we both grew up in. Countrywide, sparrow numbers are apparently in steep decline. Hmmm. I think that's probably because they have emigrated to Carmarthenshire. I can assure you that there is no shortage of spadgers in OUR garden. They spend all day in the sprays of Paul's Himalayan Musk which covers the rose arbour (seen above), and along the honeysuckle and into the tree in the corner of the garden, and they make a racket all day long, a discordant comment on whose turn it is to go to the nut nets next. They live in our house. Under the eaves mainly, but one group lives above our bedroom window. They have managed to squeeze in by the lintel and nest directly on the plasterboard of the window aperture. When they have fledglings, we know all about it, and sometimes they will wake me in the night, their claws scraping on the plasterboard. There is a crack and a bow in the latter, so I hope that they don't one day fall through and onto Great Uncle George's big bow-topped Army chest . . .

Then there are the newts. I don't think newts have the gorm to look on a house as an opportunity for escapism, but they arrive here by default, probably as eggs laid up in the top holding tank. At this point, I feel I ought to add that we have our own water supply, from a spring, as do many old farmhouses in Wales which are off the beaten track. It is beautiful water to drink and we try not to dwell too long on what we might be sharing it with! We only normally have a problem with a newt when it has managed to crawl up the small pipe which feeds the flow to the downstairs toilet cisterns. I believe their family motto must be, "Where there's a will, there's a way" . . . We know we have a problem when it takes all day for the tank to refill and then my husband has to dismantle the innards and remove whatever newt died through being too inquisitive and not having a reverse gear . . .

When I was a child I remember seeing an ancient black and white film (starring Stewart Granger if I remember rightly) about natives in Africa, who built their village across an elephant route. Every now and then the elephants would rampage about through the village, tossing locals out of the way with their trunks, with Stewart Granger, looking suitably dashing in his Jungle Whites, brandishing a gun and looking manly. "Don't shoot until you see the whites of their eyes" he would yell, or words to that effect. Now, I am not claiming our house is built on an elephant trail, but instead we have the Carmarthenshire Froglet Trail coming under our front door and straight up the hallway. I dare say that over the millennia, this is the route the little chaps took to Go Up The Hill, but several hundred years back a house got bunged in the way, and they haven't managed to evolve far enough to take this fact in yet. So at a certain time of summer, we will go out into the hall to find a procession of froglets hopping West, bouncing headlong into the skirting board (ouch!) and, unless rescued, perishing in the back hall. I once put my walking boot on, only to find a very dessicated froglet in the toe. . .

We have dug two ponds in our garden - one for fish, and the other a wildlife pond. There is never a shortage of frog spawn in the spring and I could watch the little chaps for hours, wriggling round in delight on the shallow sun-warmed shelf of the wildlife pool, doubtless fearing to go in the Deep End as there lurks the Dragonfly Larva (queue music for Jaws), and if you have ever read the Waterbabies, you will know just what I am talking about. Dragonfly larva have the most fearsome pincers. They are also a few evolutionary steps ahead of a tadpole. The tadpole takes a wrong turning, ends up in deep water (literally!) and then from the styggian depths an evil shape appears, like a cross between the devil and a mermaid, grabs the poor unsuspecting tadpole and then it's one frog less . . . In the main pond one year, a very pregnant newt had taken up residence. I found her 3/4 dead, looking like one big bruise, having been grabbed in the pincers of a Dragonfly larva and drained of her lifesblood. It's a shame, as once hatched they are the most beautiful creatures, but they are awful thugs in childhood . . .

I haven't told you about the bats either. When we first moved here, we were in total ignorance of the bat colony in the attic. Pipistrelles. Small. Furry. We call them "Bit Bats" after Alison Uttley (who has to be my favourite writer of country books). They were usually pretty contained in the attic, as someone in the past had blocked in the staircase. We thought nothing of this "blocking" until we looked up our house in the 1881 census and found that two of the people living here had "idiot" written beside their name, and I hate to think that they may have been locked in the attic for their own safety, when the rest of the household were hard at work on the farm . . . But I digress. We had a brood colony of bit bats in the attic, and didn't think more about it, though occasionally one would manage to slip under the door or squeeze under a beam and you would meet it as you padded, bleary-eyed, at 2 a.m. in the morning on your way to the bathroom. My eldest daughter (who has long hair) has a real phobia about bats to this day, and unfortunately, it is ALWAYS her room that the bat takes refuge in. I must say, for something that has radar, they seem remarkably dozy about finding their way out through a wide open sash window . . . Now we appear to have Long Eared Bats, up under the roof slates. If you stand in the attic rooms and squeak, you will get an answer!

Saturday, 26 January 2008


During the long winter evenings, and in the run up to Christmas, I do a lot of crafting. I am best hand-sewing, I have to admit - my sewing machine and I have a love-hate relationship and it likes to play me up! I do basic straightforward patchwork, and all my offspring have hand-made quilts for their beds. Nothing exotic - hand-sewn hexagons, machine-pieced big squares - something I can throw together reasonably quickly, though I would love to make a more complicated pattern, log-cabin is about as complicated as I am likely to get for a while. Note to self - must get back to my log cabin quilt . . .

I like to embroider - or rather, embellish - things, though I am not particularly skilful. I have made several bags for my eldest daughter, who likes stuff that's a bit unusual (hmmm. Certainly gives me free rein to hide my mistakes!) I like to sew tapestry pictures, and x-stitch, though I now need a magnifying light for the latter nowadays. I knit a little too - currently knitting tiny patchwork squares for a bedspread my eldest daughter is making. I went on a 6 week spinning course in 2006 and now have my own spinning wheel. My eldest daughter has learned to spin too, and is a natural at it. I have also discovered needle-felting, which I really enjoy. I love the way ideas just "happen" as you are experimenting.

Here are a few things I've made in the past 18 months.
Top one is a suedette bag with beading and embroidery.

This is a work in progress (two sides of it). It will be a bag for my eldest daughter when it's finished - just crazy patchwork with all sorts of embellishments and simple embroidery.

The lovely print on the right is embellished with tiny beads - should show up better if you double click.

This is the 2nd thing I needle-quilted, a peony. The pink petals are slub silk I think, which also felts well.

This is a little log cabin mat for a penpal of mine.

My middle daughter's hexagon quilt, hand-pieced, and now keeping her warm up at Uni.

Friday, 25 January 2008

More of the walk and other witterings.

I am doing my most despised job today. Clearing out, tidying up, call it what you will. I have mountains of scraps of paper with family history notes, articles from the papers, things I've jotted down, recipes, all mixed up with childrens' revision notes from the Dark Ages of early Secondary School, old magazines (I still can't bring myself to part with two Dartmoor ones), user manuals for long defunct printers or scanners, even a 1999 calendar I didn't want to part with because it had wonderful photos of the British countryside. This flotsam and jetsam of my personal country living has all come to rest on the high tide mark of what I laughingly call my "office". You go into some folks' houses and they have an office with not a thing out of place. Everything neatly put away in filing cabinets, reference books on shelves. Not even any dust, for Heaven's sake. I think my office probably reflects my personality in no uncertain terms! Today I feel I am the Forlorn Hope of the Housework Brigade! Just think how good I will feel when it is all done though . . .

Just to cheer myself up and get me out of the room, here are a good few more of the photos I took yesterday.

Below is Navelwort, which I can categorically say has spread downhill in the couple of decades we have been living here. It used to be 3/4 of a mile up the road. Now it has reached the corner near our house. We had a Herbal Doctor as a neighbour years ago, and she recommended another neighbour of ours used this when he had earache. After checking it out on myself first, I successfully treated earache in my own children using several leaves of this plant, washed, and then macerated with boiled water in a pestle and mortar. The resultant green gunge was then trickled into the affected ear. It works! Mind you, if it hadn't I would never have dared to take the children to the Doctor's afterwards, can you imagine what they would have said when they checked the ear and found it was GREEN inside!

Whilst it has definitely dried up the past couple of days, there was still a steady run-off of water from the field above this bank. It pours off the sloping bank and seeps through the slate bedrock. It was a positive cascade a week or so ago.

This hedgerow has recently been cut and laid - in otherwords, the brushwood largely removed, and some small trees, and the remaining saplings cut with a chainsaw or billhook most of the way through, but with sufficient remaining to allow the tree to keep growing. As long as the saplings are laid uphill, the sap can still rise and they will put up fresh growth. Many of the hedgerows in our area are being cut and laid - so much so, I suppose there must be a grant for it . . .

Note - blue sky. Reminds me of March weather, that picture. Roll on spring.

Thursday, 24 January 2008

A morning walk . . .

I just had to share this view with you. The light was just amazing. I will try and add some more later.

The birds and the bees . . . mostly.

I went to bed with Bill Bryson last night. Not in the biblical sense, you understand, but between the pages of a book. Somehow I've managed to avoid him (though for no good reason), though his books are everywhere, but this one jumped off the shelf of the travelling library, and I'm glad it did. I shall now buy everything of his I see at a Car Boot Sale or charity shop and devour it. He makes me laugh out loud. Last night he made me guffaw (what an under-used word that is) and I think my husband thought I was losing the plot! So last night I spent a pleasant hour revisiting the Dorset I know and love (lived there for several years before we emigrated here). Why is it that you are just enjoying a good book, when the wildlife of the countryside decides to intrude? Last night it was a bluebottle. I swear he had trained in Bomber Command before he came to my bedroom. First of all he hurtled around the inside of the lampshade like it was the Wall of Death, and then suddenly, at the peak of his hurtle, he would suddenly get too low and shoot out from under the shade and start growling around my head. Swatting him was pointless - it just sent him on a new trajectory. Ah well, I suppose it might have been the falsetto whine of a mosquito, and then I'd have woken up itching.

We have a fair bit of wildlife here, living in such a rural spot. In fact, when we bought the house, a lot of the wildlife was literally inside it - not the rooms, but the walls. It had been unlived in for a good few years, apart from Tim the Cowman from the farm next door, who lived, with an aged collie dog and a pair of muddy boots which left a permanent green trackway along his favourite paths - up the hall, into the kitchen, from the kettle to the sink, from the sink to the sitting room, where - almost mercifully - the track was lost amongst the slurry green, mud brown and once-orange swirls of the most hideous nylon carpet I have ever set eyes on. We heaved that out straight away (the smell had to be experienced to be believed), but for years we had to put up with a strip of this same carpet, which went up the stairs and onto the first floor landing as we were too skint to replace it.

The first night we were here, we spent in what is now our eldest daughter’s wonderfully eclectic bedroom. Back then it was a damp magnolia colour, and had a shelf hammered into the ancient horsehaired plaster with 6 inch nails. Our bed was stuck in the middle of the bare wooden floorboards, surrounded by unpacked boxes. We collapsed thankfully into our bed and were soon asleep. Then it began . . . a furtive scritchet-scratchet in a corner, then a foghorn of tawny owls having a very loud conversation in the ash trees behind the house. A cow mooed forlornly in the yard, separated from her calf, and left to wander aimlessly on the barren concrete. We nodded off again. The scritchet-scratched became louder. It became focused on an aged plastic carrier bag on the shelf which hitherto we had paid no attention to. We realized it was a mouse – or a mouse and friends – and it sounded like they were having a Jane Fonda workout in that bag. Only a shoe, flung by my husband who is a far better shot than me (I’d have missed the wall!), shut the little blighters up.

The next day we began to notice signs that the house was a homestead for more unwelcome critters. Perhaps it was the baked bean tin lids which were hammered at regular intervals along the skirting board that gave the game away. That night, in the sage green bath, looking at the sage green walls (what had possessed them?), I became aware of a mouse looking at me from the middle of the bathroom floor. He was curiously unafraid, and began a wash and brush up which came straight out of Beatrix Potter. I splashed and he gave me a world-weary look which obviously meant, ‘oh you’re going to be difficult are you?’ and scampered out of sight in the gap between the bottom of the wall and the warped floorboards. One of the first things we did was to get a cat – two cats in fact, Blackberry and Tatty, but they are another story.

When we were renovating the house, the builders came upon a Rat’s Larder in the wall in the basement. It consisted of snail shells, hazelnuts and the remains of a rattus rattus who’d kicked the bucket – perhaps he died of overeating? It was curious, but we thought no more of it. We have had them racketing around inside the walls before. With walls three feet thick, it’s hardly surprising that there are rat highways inside them. It is annoying when they start junketing in the wall behind your bed though. We heard one making progress for weeks, then one night we heard it obviously fall (a heart-rending moment . . .) No noise for days, and then he set up his racket again, but on the far side of the room. Another chose to die, very inconveniently, in the wall behind my daughter’s bed. It was warm there, as the central heating pipes were nearby. The smell was truly horrendous. We obviously couldn’t use the room and we had to shut the door and leave the window wide open and even so it ponged for weeks. I say inconveniently, as that was just when we had the house on the market, and you just try explaining a smell like that away to prospective buyers. I expect our house is still trotted out at dinner parties up and down West Wales - . . . “and then there was this old house with beams everywhere and the most AWFUL pong in one of the bedrooms. They said it was a dead rat, but I wonder . . . perhaps they’d walled up the mother-in-law . . .”

These same builders then set to work on a first floor doorway. We discovered that behind the plaster, someone had once extended the wall over the doorway upwards to the sum of about 4 tons of local river stone, with just a couple of broad 4” deep planks – fortunately of oak – which had subsequently bowed under the weight. They are still there, still bowing, and what the surveyors will make of that when we come to sell up, Heaven only knows. But I digress. As the builders excavated this area, a mummified rattus rattus fell upon their heads. He was quite a splendid chap, complete with whiskers, and though I hesitate to tell you this, we have him still, on the shelf above the kitchen sink, propped up amongst the Portmeiron china, keeping company with a child’s tackety boot, well rat-nibbled, which was found over another doorway , and the cat’s skull which was above a third. There was obviously a very real fear of witches in this household, as these were all devices to keep witches at bay. qv: which deals with some Dorset ones. It mentions a mummified cat. Now, if you ever go to Shaftesbury in Dorset – a wonderful place – at the top of Gold Hill, familiar to some because of its use in the Hovis advert all those years ago: “’twas like climbin’ t’top o’world . . .”, there is a mummified cat in the little Museum there (well worth a visit). Apparently dead cats were put into the thatch when a cottage was being roofed, supposedly to keep rats and mice at bay. There's another example in a case in a little pub beside the river on the A31 Blandford to Wimborne road, not far from the lane up to Corfe Mullen.

There's my tatty kitchen, now being retiled and re-worktopped. You "may" just be able to see our friend the rat on the left hand side of that shelf above the sink, but I think he's tucked behind the red candle. Snowy's in the window though . . .

Wednesday, 23 January 2008

I need a day out . . .

I can't have a day out though - too much to do here at the moment, no money to spend and the weather is foul. It had better be a virtual day out instead. I'll make it summer, nice and hot. Lovely though the views are, I don't fancy an inland walk.

Even the foxgloves can't tempt me today.

Perhaps a little drive to the coast. . . .

Near Bosherston Lily Ponds in Pembrokeshire, is St. Govan's Head, and the tiny little chapel there, barely 18 feet by 12 feet, and although much of it dates from the 13th century, the alter and a rock-hewn seat are much earlier. It has its roots in the 6th century, when St Govan took refuge here from pirates - the very rocks apparently opened up and gave him sanctuary from his pursuers. The saint built the first chapel here in grateful thanks, and made this his hermitage. There is a little stone covering over a fresh-water spring on the beach, though I believe that has now dried up.

Here is Dale, also in Pembrokeshire. Go much further West and you will have to swim for it . . . Dale's name possibly comes from Scandinavian inhabitants, 'dalr' meaning valley in Old Norse. In 1485 Henry Tudor landed near Dale, prior to the battle of Bosworth (after which he was Henry VII). It is now very popular with schools, who take groups there to learn about the geology of the area, and also with groups enjoying pursuits on and in the water.

Just in time for a nice cup of tea and a bun before heading for home again . . .

Tuesday, 22 January 2008

Taking pleasure in small things.

This is one of the small things which brings me pleasure - a lovely view. This was from a day out at Carreg Cennen Castle. The view is looking towards the Carmarthen Fans (f = v in Welsh). At the base of that mountain ridge is Llyn-y-Fan-Fach (more of which another day), a glacial lake, and with its own myth and magic. The meadows are just being cut for silage or hay in the picture. If you click on the picture, it really enlarges - you can almost walk into the view!

I love Nasturtiums. I've always grown them, wherever I had a garden, and mum always grew them too, up a trellis. I like the more unusual colours, but last year's seemed mainly bog standard, all grown from my own seeds, but I did have ACRES of them. Such a small thing, yet they bring me great pleasure.

I am easily pleased. A new book will do it for me every time - it doesn't even have to BE new, just new to me, and a subject that interests me. I love trying out a new recipe; tidying up the garden; planting seeds; a wonderful painting or a piece of antique furniture; looking round an old house or castle or a Museum; going for a walk; the company of friends; home made cake; a pair of earrings one of my daughters has made me. I can't understand people whose only pleasure is in retail therapy - buying yet another pair of shoes, or another handbag. Who on earth needs more than ONE handbag? Mind you, perhaps some people say that about books . . .

Monday, 21 January 2008

Meet the Greater Willow Herb aka "Codlins & Cream"

I have just found a photo I took of the Greater Willow Herb which grows wild in my garden. The country name for this plant is "Codlins and Cream", which is far prettier and easier to say than GWH! When I have worked out the "how" I shall make this my backing for the blog title. Richard Maybe has little to say about it (though there are two pages on its cousin, the Rosebay Willow Herb, which some people may know as "Fireweed"): "This is abundant in all kinds of damp places - riversides, ditches, marshes, woodland clearings, even at the foot of damp walls. The popular name "codlins-and-cream" was probably suggested by the petals, rosy on top (like codlins or cooking apples) with a trace of creamy whiteness beneath." Far from growing in a particularly damp place in my garden, it is beside the large fish pond in full sun, but I daresay this may count as a "damp place"!

The travelling library called this morning, and I was fortunate to find a copy of Brother Cadfael's Herb Garden. I have long been a fan of Ellis Peter's novels, though I have not read one recently. The book states the Willowherb's medicinal uses (according to Culpeper) as follows:

Medicinal: All the species of willowherbs have the same virtues, the 'most powerful' being the yellow willowherb (Epilobium lysimachia). The plants were prescribed for haemorrhages, migraine, dropsy, stomach and urinary disorders, asthma and whooping cough. As an ointment, they were used to treat skin inflammations and infections.

Culinary: Rosebay willowherb shoots were boiled and eaten like asparagus, and the leaves used as a tea substitute.

If you have a space for it, in a damp spot (at the back of a border, as it grows to 2m according to Marjory Blamey), it is worth sourcing it from a wild flower seed specialist.

Sunday, 20 January 2008

Hafod . . .

The holloway to the village.

This is Hafod. Or rather, this is what remains of Hafod. I'm not sure when it was abandoned, but I would think probably at least 30 years ago and more likely 50. Once the roof has gone, the rain and frost soon get in the walls and tumble them. Hafod is Welsh for summer dwelling, although many of these houses were lived in all year round. There was a family here in the 1881 census which was taken around early April. As you can see, some of the land is very damp and rough grazing land, rather than for cultivation. According to the University of Wales’ “A Dictionary of the Welsh Language”, the definition of Hafod is:
“ summer residence, upland farmstead formerly occupied in transhumanance during the summer months only; upland farm on which grazing is practiced to a greater extent than cultivation; farm which is managed by a resident bailiff on behalf of the tenant or owner. “

This was the end wall of what appeared to be a barn. This is an upland area, and I think that sheep would have been the main livestock, although in this part of Wales, many farms have both sheep and cattle.

A wee fireplace and a wonderfully higgledy-piggledy wall. There is plenty of stone to be had in this region. It seems so sad to see it open to the elements.

Another mossy wall - if I remember rightly, this was another small outbuilding - perhaps a pigsty.

Hard to imagine now, that this was all once someone's home, their livelihood . . .

A Hardy poem for you.

Those who know me, will know how interested I am in Thomas Hardy and his work. I was faffing around with poetry yesterday. I would now like to share my favourite Hardy poem with you. I couldn't get a swallows picture, but I do have one of the River Towy and its meanders. This view is looking back towards Carmarthen.


The swallows flew in the curves of an eight
Above the river-gleam
In the wet June's last beam:
Like little crossbows animate
The swallows flew in the curves of an eight
Above the river-gleam.

Planing up shavings of crystal spray
A moor-hen darted out
From the bank thereabout,
And through the stream-shine ripped his way;
Planing up shavings of crystal spray
A moor-hen darted out.

Closed were the kingcups; and the mead
Dripped in monotonous green,
Through the day's morning sheen
Had shown it golden and honeybee'd;
Closed were the kingcups; and the mead
Dripped in monotonous green.

And never I turned my head, alack,
While these things met my gaze
Through the pane's drop-drenched glaze,
To see the more behind my back . . .
O never I turned, but let, alack,
These less things hold my gaze.

Hardy lived in Sturminster Newton when he and Emma were first married, in a semi-detached villa called "Riverside", which suggests that the poem above was capturing his view from the room he worked in.

When we lived in Dorset, we went to auction there each week, bought our cheese from the market, and our bread flour from Sturminster Mill, which is a wonderful place. I have a x-stitch picture of it which I stitched when we first moved here, and I was still missing Dorset so much. Happy memories.

Saturday, 19 January 2008

Half a brick . . .

I felt in the mood for writing today. Poetry. It just came to me when my brain was in neutral. I wish I had a photo of the place which is in my mind's eye. I wish I could remember the NAME of the place which is in my mind's eye. If I can find the scrap of paper it is written down on, I will update you. My daughter and I found this when we were scrambling up a steep hillside to pick gorse blossoms for wine (Nancy and all Stateside, gorse is incredibly prickly, but has beautiful lemon yellow blossoms which smell of coconut, and seem to flower almost all the year round. There is an old saying, something like when the gorse doesn't bloom, love's out of fashion. Meaning, never! It used to be used as feed during the winter months, and at St Fagans, the Museum of Welsh Life, near Cardiff, they have saved and rebuilt a gorse mill, which used to crush and chop the gorse and make it edible for livestock). All that was left of the house was as described in the poem - just a shadow of a memory of times past. Later we looked it up in the 1881 census and found the family that had lived there then. This poem is for them:


Half a brick. That’s all that was left of what had been a home

When Victoria still reigned.

Half a brick. A house platform cut into the slate bedrock:

The flat face of a back wall, frost-cracks blackened by rainwater.

A spring nearby: not far to haul a bucket.

A pallor of Snowdrops in the woodland above,

Once gathered by childish fingers.

A trackway to it: blocked by fallen trees that were saplings

When he laboured in the fields below.

The same wind which blew the children’s hair,

Made tangles for the taming brush,

Now sweeps the hearth clear,

Makes the bracken nod where three girls played and a mother smiled.

Homes that were once neighbours still remain,

Sunk into the hillside like dumplings in stew.

But here - names in a census, and half a brick,

Tell no tale.

For the Lewis family of Ffosgrech.

The Spoon in the Antique Shop

An oil lamp gleams on a kitchen table, as a fat ginger cat lurks beneath,

Snickering through his coat with teeth like dirty ivory.

The suck and pop of a pot of porridge vies with the stuttering tick of an old clock,

And there is the jarring scrape of spoon on metal.

Hands dry as sandpaper from bricking the front step tighten apron strings.

The cat’s basilisk stare fixes on a wailing toddler.

“Hush now my babby, we’ll soon have you fed.”

The scrape of spoon on metal becomes a childhood anthem,

As it stirs soup and stew; apples and custard; chutney and jam.

It is an extension of the mother: her identity.

It is the last thing packed on moving house, the first unwrapped.

It survives funerals and weddings and christenings;

Gaining a personality of its own.

On the shelf in the antique shop it has wooden spoons for company;

The embrace of a Keiller’s Marmalade jar, and

A rolling pin rubs shoulders with it.

I pick it up, noticing the wear patterns, the chipped edges; the price tag of £4.

£4 for a woman’s soul . . .

Friday, 18 January 2008

The turning of the year . . .

This is one of my favourite local photographs. I only have a cheapish digital camera, but sometimes it surprises me with the way it captures the light. This picture reminds me of a lovely day spent walking, one Saturday around early February last year.

The first snowdrops are starting to flower again now. Not as profusely as this bank, at Nant Gwilw, but give them another two or three weeks and it will really start to feel like spring is emerging and giving us all hope in the depths of winter.

Nant Gwilw, now sadly a ruinous farmhouse and tumbled outbuildings on the lane to Brechfa, was once famed for a particular wild flower, a lavender coloured iris which was taken to America, and named after the place it was found. Sadly, last year the entire area around the farmhouse and outbuildings was cleared so if the iris still survived, it would only now be along the banks of the little stream. Here is a link which tells you more about this story:

I know of no battle in this area either, but I shall certainly look for the iris and hope it has survived.


We have . . . eight. We didn't set out to have eight - but they seem to think there is a written invitation at the front gate and they just turn up. This is Honey, who came by invitation. She is a Maine Coone, which means she is incredibly bright and a real bossy-boots into the bargain. When she came to us she hadn't been socialised with other cats (certainly not oodles of them all at once anyway) and had never Been Outside (except if she'd escaped). We had a difficult initial period as she immediately came into roaring season and had to be confined to barracks, spraying mightily on every upright surface. She was then spayed, and gradually introduced to the others, but then she was allowed to Go Out. You would think we had given her the doors to Heaven itself. As you can see, she was longing to get outside and Kill Things. She has turned into the Honey Monster - at least to all rodents. But as you can see, she also likes her creature comforts . . .

Thursday, 17 January 2008


I never get as much chance as I would wish to just curl up with a book. During the day it seems an indulgence, like going to bed in the daytime (even though you are ill); at night, it is a challenge to stay awake further than a chapter. I live for books. I cannot imagine a world without them. I HAVE to read. When sufficiently desperate, I will even read bus time tables or the labels on sauce bottles. I am sure this will be familiar to some of you. At the moment, with the thought of downsizing from this rambling old house very much in our thoughts, I am trying to be sensible and do a cull of the books I "can" live without, as I know I can't take them all with me. My husband had his - smaller - collection too. I am hoping he will prune his a little so the sacrifice isn't all mine! Having said this though, this being sensible about downsizing business, has this stopped me buying books? Erm . . . actually, no . . . But I am thinking twice! My hand does hover a little, but I am still to be found crouched down in front of boxes of books at the Car Boot Sale, rifling through their contents as you never know quite what will turn up. It might be a book I have waited half a lifetime for. I have a list in my pocket, of what forum friends are looking out for as well, so really I'm searching as much on their behalf as mine . . . aren't I?

I do collect, however, I must be honest about that. Old horse books (I have collected antiquarian horse books since I started work at 16); literary biographies and critiques: especially Thomas Hardy, the Brontes and Dickens; Victorian social history; books on the countryside; cookery books - anything with the word 'Farmhouse' or 'Country' in the title is difficult to resist. I love all sorts of needlecrafts, so my hand often hovers over embroidery or quilting books. I can corner the market in books on history and archaeology, but there's always the one that "got away" . . .

If I HAD to choose books for a desert island, I would be hard-pressed I must admit. They allow so FEW on Desert Island Discs . . . Hmmm. For the sake or argument, we will allow . . . four. Golly gosh. ONLY 4 books. As I'm the arbitrator I think I shall indulge myself with "complete works of" . . . OK. Here goes:

1. Complete diaries (even the ones his widow burned after his untimely death just a few weeks after their wedding - peritonitis, poor man) of the Rev. Francis Kilvert. We are fortunate enough to live within day out driving distance of Clyro, the village a mile from Hay-on-Wye, on the Welsh side of the Wye, where he was curate for some years. I have read and re-read his diaries, as they are published, and books about him and his writing. If I had those, I could evoke some wonderful memories and imagine, in my mind's eye, the places that he knew so well, some of which are familiar to me.

2. Complete works of Thomas Hardy. In hard back please, and since I can indulge myself, let's make that first editions too. I would read Jude the Obscure first, to get it over with, so I would never need to touch it again. It was the first of his novels that I read, and it took me 6 years to pluck up the courage to read something else of his, but now they are my good companions. I assume that his complete poems would also be thrown in for good measure.

3. Complete works of Somerville and Ross, Irish writers who painted such funny stories of Irish country life, and the chasing of the fox, in those halcyon times before it was considered politically incorrect to do so. Their talent for the creation of characters who ride right off the page because they are so alive would have me crying with laughter.

4. This is very, very difficult. Would I chose one of the children's pony stories that I still have, mostly in Armada paperback editions which are falling apart from being read and reread and now the glue which held them together is as dry as desert dust. Or Elizabeth Sutherland's The Five Euphemias, which I have started reading several times, and then gotten waylaid by something less stuffy, but I still really want to read it. Or the Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady, which would evoke such wonderful thoughts of the English countryside with its amazing illstrations and sayings. Or Flora Thompson's books, brought to the front of my memory again now that 'LarkRise to Candleford' is being dramatised on tv. Or the complete works of Diana Gabaldon, so that I could fall in love with Jamie all over again, on my desert island . . . Or? I don't know. Like Scarlett O'Hara, I will think about that tomorrow - and let you know! What would you choose?

Wednesday, 16 January 2008

Flooding continued

Some more photos:

This is the other side of the bridge from the "floating pub" yesterday. As you can see, the river is over the road and nosey-parkering across the adjacent fields. Water levels are considerably lower today, but apparently there is more heavy rain forecast for the next three days, so we aren't out of the woods yet. Spare a thought for Tewkesbury, flooded again and nearly as badly as it was last summer.

This is the other side of the little boundary stream from the view I posted yesterday. It was VERY busy getting somewhere in a hurry.

Yesterday's rain

Last night the photos I posted last night were swallowed up by the ether . . . Today I've hit the jackpot! This is a little river near me - normally a stream really - but turned into a rageing torrent yesterday. Love the light in this. This stream used to be the border of the very last of the lands belonging to Tally Abbey (which is a fair way from here). There was a monastic cell here, and I believe bits of it ended up incorporated in the lower part of our house - beautifully dressed stone. By the 1850s it had become merely a stable . . .

The top photo is downstream - it could be worse yet though last night's rain wasn't so heavy and it is now cold and starry out.

I have loading problems with the photos so will probably have to have a series of individual photos when the broadband connection is good enough. Do you think the folks in the pub were filling sandbags?