Helmick 14th Anniversary Adventure!

For near enough the past decade, we’ve celebrated our wedding anniversary by going off for a couple of days walking/exploring interesting places, with dinner, bed and breakfast at a posh hotel in between, and 2021 was no exception. Blessed by the weather, we got off to a fine start with a visit to Kirkham Priory, (off the A64 between York and Malton) – we’d often passed the sign for it but never visited.

Hubcap orientates himself, with eastern chapel wall to left, and west range/cloister to right in background

The hillside location overlooking the River Derwent is spectacular, as are the standing fragments of the gatehouse and priory church; the rest, thanks to Henry VIII and centuries of stone-robbing, is reduced to foundations.

Gatehouse adorned with Roos family heraldry, St George & the Dragon to left of arch, and David & Goliath on right

However, the English Heritage interpretation boards and the useful guidebook on sale in the shop give a good idea of how magnificent this wealthy Augustinian house must have been in its heyday, equalling the better-known Cistercian foundations like nearby Rievaulx Abbey. We spent a good hour and a half hoofing round the terraces looking at everything – I was particularly struck by the remains of the superb 13th century arched laver in the cloister, where the monks washed their hands before entering the refectory – and wondering how many of these ruined religious houses would’ve survived until today had it not been for the Reformation.

After that we were gasping for a drink; and since only basic refreshments are available on site, we set off to the pub signposted as 300 yards up the road – ‘up’ being the operative word! But it was worth the stiff pull to enjoy a cold glass in the beer garden of The Old Stone Trough, which was doing a brisk Sunday lunchtime trade; we’d have eaten there ourselves if we hadn’t come prepared with a picnic in case there were no suitable eateries open.

We were well ready for that by the time we’d walked back down to the Priory carpark, and ate while watching hikers pass by on the riverbanks and a couple of intrepid ladies swimming up and down a short stretch. Being in the vicinity with time to kill before we could check in to our hotel, we then went on to another English Heritage site Hubcap had never seen, and I’d not revisited since a student archaeology field trip I went on in 1981: Wharram Percy near Wetwang, one of the largest, best preserved deserted medieval villages (DMVs) in Europe and, thanks to decades of intensive archaeological investigation, probably the best-known. Once a thriving Saxon settlement, Wharram was awarded to the Percy family by William the Conqueror, and at its height in the 14th century boasted a manor house, a water mill, a green with a stone church, houses and outbuildings for some 40 peasant families, and a population of c. 200. Wharram Percy’s later fortunes fluctuated dramatically as a result of raids by the Scots, the Black Death, voluntary departure, and ultimately forced evictions and the destruction of homes in around 1500, as part of the change from arable to sheep farming driven by the rising profits to be made from the English wool trade.

Free to visit and open year-round, Wharram Percy is no site for the unfit or those expecting tea-rooms, toilets and trinkets – there are no facilities, and no structures except for the ruined church and an experimental 19th century farm building used as a headquarters for the excavation teams, neither of which are currently accessible to the public. The DMV lies some three-quarters of a mile from the carpark down a rough track and hollow-way, and is itself very rugged with some steep gradients which we puffed up and down, looking for vantage points where we could make sense of the grassed-over building platforms, ditches and trackways. If we’d done some research beforehand and thought to bring a site plan, we could easily have spent a full day there; aside from the archaeology, Wharram Percy is a perfectly preserved fragment of ancient landscape, and Hubcap was captivated by its associated rare ecology – another addition to our growing list of places to re-visit.

The downside was coming back, uphill all the way – in the rain. At least the wind was behind us, albeit driving the water dripping off my coat into the backs of my legs; luckily I had some dry trousers to change into when we got back to the car!

By then it was time for the short drive to Malton, where we’d been looking forward to staying at the wonderfully picturesque Old Lodge Hotel, former gatehouse to the Norman castle built on the site of the Roman auxiliary fort Derventio Brigantum.

After a drink on the terrace and a turn round the grounds, we put away an excellent two-course Sunday dinner; Hubcap chose ham hock terrine followed by baked salmon, while I went for the vegetarian option of baked Brie wedges and a walnut and red wine nut roast; the portions didn’t look massive but proved to be so filling we couldn’t finish all the veg, and neither of us had room for dessert.

We rounded things off with a drink in the cosy oak-panelled bar, then went up to our room – where, as usual, all our problems began. For a treat, Hubcap had upgraded us from the Sunday special offer room to a much larger one with an almost equally huge bathroom, whereas we’d probably have been better off stuck away in a little garret at the back. Instead, our luxurious billet was at the front, facing the road, near the main entrance and directly above the kitchen.

On the middle floor – bedroom on right, bathroom on left, drain and extractor fan in between!

For most people, this wouldn’t matter. For us, it was a disaster. We’re so used to our Memoryfoam mattress in a chilly, pitch-dark, silent room that we struggle to sleep in other surroundings, however palatial. Hotels are almost always far too hot for us, so our first actions were, as usual, to turn off the radiators, fling the windows wide where we could, and swap the inevitable Arctic-rated duvet for our own wafer-thin summer weight, (yes, we really are sad enough to take our own bedding to 4-star hotels). Of course, open windows mean noise – in this case, the hum of a kitchen extractor fan until late, accompanied by the all-night drip-drip of water from some condenser unit trickling into a drain directly below, and torturing Hubcap, who couldn’t wear his ear-plugs for long due to an inner-ear infection. I could wear mine, not that it made much difference – I was still too hot and uncomfortable, and at 3.30 am I gave it up as a bad job, made a cuppa and went to read in the bathroom.

This latest in a long string of disappointing, virtually sleepless hotel nights left us both feeling rubbish, completely unrested, and aching from the previous day’s exertions, (I’d also spent the night wrestling leg-cramps, which I often suffer when I’ve been on my feet for long periods). Fit for nothing more, we could only hobble round the adjacent Roman fort earthworks and briefly around Old Malton before calling it quits – a real anti-climax when we’d planned to spend more time exploring, then return to the Old Stone Trough at Kirkham for lunch, and perhaps take in another site on the way home.

So we’ve decided that this 14th Anniversary Adventure will be a watershed: the last of its kind. No more wasting money on nights in hotels where we never sleep well, if at all. Short term, we’ll do day-trips only, lunching and/or dining in lovely places and coming home to our own bed, (which will please Henry Wowler, who dislikes being left unattended). Then in a couple of years, as we ease down further into retirement, we’ll buy a nice camper van so we can go away for longer and take our own bed with us!

Carole Buckley Edwards, 29th March 1961 – 7th May 2021

For all old girls of Cleethorpes Girls Grammar School, fans of the Grimsby Guitars, music pupils, staff and students at Grimsby College, and all family and friends unable to attend Carole’s memorial service at Grimsby Central Hall on Tuesday 25th May, here’s a transcript of my eulogy:

We all have our own stories to tell of the unique and indomitable Carole Buckley Edwards; and as we remember and celebrate her life, I’d like to share mine with you. I hope you’ll enjoy hearing it as much as I enjoyed living it with her.

I first met Carole in 1972 at Clee Girls’ Grammar School, sitting on my right across an aisle on the front row of Form 1A (purely due to our surname initials, not academic qualities or naughtiness!). As I got to know her, I was a little awed by her accomplishments: already a competent guitarist, she also played violin in the school orchestra as well as the recorder we all learned. She may have told you the ghastly tale of our school concert, eagerly anticipated by 1A because we thought we had an unbeatable programme to win the first year prize: a silly play I’d written, an hilarious Keystone Cops sketch performed as a film clip in slow-mo, fast-forward and normal speed, and a mandatory song as grand finale. We chose ‘Lemon Tree’ (very pretty), accompanied by Carole on guitar – but when she struck the first chords, it had gone out of tune! Cue faltering voices and sidelong looks of horror. Time and shame have blotted out whether she stopped to re-tune or we just soldiered on. Either way, I’m sure it cost 1A the prize – and what no-one knew until I finally confessed at our school reunion in 2017 was that it was All My Fault for idly toying with one of the tuning knobs while her guitar was propped next to me. (When I realised, I desperately tried to put it back as before – sadly to no avail).

A happier recollection is Carole entertaining 1A on guitar. Like everyone else in class, she had the obligatory pop-star poster, torn out of Jackie magazine, stuck inside her desk lid – but having more sophisticated musical tastes than the average twelve year old, Carole’s was of Marc Bolan (the rest of us being pretty evenly split between Donny and David). I’m sure all our classmates will remember her in her white polo neck, navy gym-slip and purse-belt, performing her rendition of ‘Metal Guru’ – which seems like an apt place to pause for a musical interlude, and one of the songs CB herself chose for today: another T-Rex favourite, ‘Ride a White Swan.’

*Marc Bolan Interlude*

As well as a musician, Carole was always a promising seamstress, keen enough to take dressmaking classes at night-school, and helped by mum Betty, knocked up our uniform wrap-around gym skirt in no time (it took me more than a term).  She was also the first person apart from my parents ever to give me a home-made Christmas present. You may recall early Seventies bath salts came in plastic bags and a choice of pink or green (rose or pine) scent. Carole had carefully layered the two colours into a jam-jar, and decorated the lid with a silver star– simple but effective, an early facet of the immense creativity that would go on to adorn her home with everything from Christmas garlands to Roman blinds and re-upholstered furniture, and enrich her family and friends with lovely hand-made gifts from patchwork quilts and felted baby slippers to jars of bramble jelly and bottles of pontack. And naturally, she also made lots of clothes, including Hallowe’en costumes and prom dresses for the twins, a pair of saggy-bottomed MC Hammer pants for me in the Eighties, and her own spectacular green wedding dress.

Seventies Cleethorpes was a great place to grow up, and as kids we had wide social circles, plenty to do and plenty of freedom to do it. Carole and I loved poking round the old town and spent countless hours shopping on St Peter’s Avenue, or browsing for fabrics in Boyes on Freeman Street, or spending whole Saturdays in the new precinct, trying on clothes and shoes, testing perfumes, and spending our pocket money on records and make-up; I think she even worked up town at some point as a Boots Saturday girl. We went swimming at Scartho Baths or Clee Bathing Pool, together or with groups of mates, and on cycling adventures to Louth or Hubbard’s Hills. The last time we did that was 1976. As we set off from Braemar Road, Grandma Buckley said, ‘Have you got coats in case it rains?’ We rolled our eyes at yet another blazing, cloudless sky. Yeah, yeah, we’d got our kagoules (hers blue, mine orange) – like we were going to need them. Needless to say, that was the day the drought broke. Said kagoules were plastered to us by the time we ate our picnic in the pathetic shelter of a Louth alley. Rain continued to pour as we admitted defeat and rode home. We stopped outside a big pub on the main road and debated begging shelter, but at only fifteen, felt too young and embarrassed because we looked like drowned rats, and too frightened of making a mess inside because we were literally streaming with water. Instead we pushed on through the rest of the miserable, cold, endless 16 miles, and I was glad I wasn’t going home with her to face the inevitable smug grandma ‘told you so’s’.

Meanwhile Carole was becoming a regular fixture at Oliver Street – my parents loved her – as I was at Braemar Road. I recall watching Abba for the first time on Top of the Pops with her and brother Steve, and thinking that skin-tight satin trousers aren’t a good look even for slim Swedish blondes, (though I suspect Agnetha’s shiny sausage thighs made a different impression on Steve). We did our homework, revised for exams, listened to music, drank gallons of coffee – Carole so addicted she used to buy her own private Nescafe stash and eat granules straight from the jar – did each other’s hair and make-up, had sleepovers, and gabbed endlessly in one or other of our purple and white teenage bedrooms, or nattered with our respective mums while stuffing ourselves with their fresh baking… all good clean fun until September ‘74, when we started in Form 3RK at Lindsey Upper School.

The first big change was our morning routine. I started calling for her and we’d walk round the corner to Lindsey together, wheeling my bike – that is, when she’d finally dragged herself out of her pit. I remember fidgeting in the kitchen, making small-talk with Betty while glancing repeatedly at my watch and fretting about being late. No doubt many of you will recall Carole could sleep like the dead, if you’ll pardon the expression, and didn’t take kindly to being disturbed; on one notorious occasion when crashing with friends in Germany, she was offered a bed on condition that if its owner returned during the night, she’d have to vacate it. Needless to say, when that happened, attempts to wake and extract her initially found her unresponsive, then as consciousness returned, abusive and adamantly refusing to budge – whereupon said bed’s rightful occupant ended up kipping on the floor.

The other big change at Lindsey was boys. The five who’d joined us in second year when Clee Girls went comp didn’t count – they were only our age, massively outnumbered by girls, and generally docile and easy to manage. Fifth and sixth-formers were a different matter, and mixing with them opened doors to different things, including a whole new musical world of progressive and hard rock. ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ was a monster hit, played till we knew every note  – which probably represents the start of our divergence from the mainstream. We still wore girly fashions though, and Carole developed her first major crush on a handsome lad from Matthew Humberston, Paul St Pierre. Determined to bag him as a boyfriend, she made another ultra-sexy waistcoat and pencil-skirt suit in black velvet for an upcoming school disco (her first attempt was grey with pin-tucks), to wear with a scarf and an artificial flower on the bodice. On the night, she looked fabulous, all Farrah Fawcett flicked hair, smoky eyes, full glossy lips, seamed tights and stilettos, and figure-hugging black… so she was utterly crushed to discover that velvet set Paul St Pierre’s teeth on edge and he recoiled from its mere touch, rendering any close physical contact out of the question. I don’t think they ever dated properly.

Our friendship was never jealous or exclusive, and as mid-teens we always had our separate interests. For instance, Carole joined the school yachting club and learned to sail at Covenham Reservoir, which never appealed to me despite the opportunity to hang out with older boys. I preferred horse-riding, which never appealed to Carole after a single Saturday morning mucking out with me at Old Clee stables, and sitting on the dung-heap afterwards to eat our sandwich lunch. Then slowly we became ‘besties’, disaffected with politics and pop culture, anti-nuke, anti-Nazi, anti-hunting – Carole went vegetarian around this time, if not entirely for ethical reasons (she didn’t like meat). Increasingly scornful of pop, disco and Northern Soul, by seventeen we’d come out as fully-fledged hippy rock-chicks in cheesecloth tops, Oxfam Jesus sandals, and Mary Quant lipstick, festooned with silver chains and love-beads, and reeking of patchouli. Having seen it all before with my older brother, my folks were relatively sanguine; whereas Carole once had to stash her precious denim collection in my wardrobe because her dad was so sick of seeing his formerly feminine daughter in jeans that he’d threatened to bin the lot.

At the time adults often assumed, to my intense annoyance on Carole’s behalf, that because I was physically bigger, I must be the dominant party leading her astray. On the contrary, we were always equal partners in crime, and if there was any straying to be done or a wild side to walk on, we did it side by side, eyes wide open, and quite deliberately. CB, as she was increasingly known, turned me onto reggae by playing ‘Exodus’ relentlessly at me until I succumbed. We also got heavily into heavy metal – ‘The Wizard’ from Richie Blackmore’s Rainbow Rising album was a particular favourite, which despite its grandiosity still brings me out in goose-bumps. We admired bikes, and bikers in black leather, hung out with Tech students at the Blue Note in Grimsby, and sneaked into licensed gigs at the Winter Gardens to see bands like Thin Lizzy and Manfred Mann’s Earthband – unbeknown to us all at the time, Tim was there too on that night. I can still picture her in a home-made white lacy camisole top, and faded jeans with a red and white stripy belt, singing along to their recent chart-topper ‘Blinded By The Light’ – a classic we’re going to hear now.

*Blinded By The Light*

Inevitably, pubs – the Boat, the Sheaf, the Eccy, the Barge, and others too numerous to mention – played a growing part in our social lives, as did older men. A romantic disappointment for Carole at the traditional Wheatsheaf end-of-term bash in December 1978 led to some serious drowning of sorrows. Highly emotional, she threw up in the taxi on the way back to ours. Only slightly less emotional, I told the driver (with commendable presence of mind, I thought, but I doubt he was fooled), ‘I’m sorry, my friend has gastric ‘flu.’ Settled weepily in my bedroom and plied with strong black coffee, she threw up again in my bit-bin (luckily metal, leak-proof and indestructible – I still use it) – and somehow, all this drama took place with my mum downstairs knitting and watching TV, blissfully unaware. Our biggest stunt in that respect was our summer ‘youth hostelling holiday’ in 1978. We did spend a couple of nights in the hostels at Lincoln and Streatley – vivid memories of preparing and eating our carefully-selected Vesta meals in the communal kitchens – but only en route to the Reading Rock Festival. We blew our ticket money on booze – a distinct advantage of hanging out with over-eighteens – and never made it into the arena, just sunbathed and partied on the campsite and sploshed in the Thames. As far as I’m aware, our parents never knew a thing about that either, or sundry other escapades for which we gave each other alibis.

In 1979, by happy accident rather than design, we both chose to do our degrees at Leicester Uni. Studying German and archaeology, our lectures were on the same campus so we often met up; I remember near the end of our first term we were having coffee in the Charles Wilson when news of John Lennon’s murder came on the radio, stunning us both. We made new sets of friends, and embarked on major relationships, CB’s with John Dyas and me with Garry Phillips; and all socialised together at her place or ours, or went for blow-outs at The Curry Pot on Melton Road. An unforgettable moment from our end of second year party came when CB, JD, Annie Riddock and Alistair Graham made their way past a row of big British bikes and up into our first-floor living room to find it half-full of big British bikers in Leicester Rat-Eye colours. Eyes like green saucers, she pulled me aside and whispered in great consternation, ‘Helen, do you know these people?’ She thought we’d been gate-crashed by Hell’s Angels we didn’t dare evict, bless her, rather than entertaining friends from the uni bike club. Luckily, common ground was soon established, the two groups coalesced, and a rip-roaring time was had by all (Gaz and I knew they’d like each other, given the chance).

CB spent the third year of her four-year degree course in Germany, where she became fluent to the point of calling her camera a ‘foto-apparat’ the first time we saw each other when she came home because she’d forgotten the English. In the meantime we’d kept in touch with letters, and a weekend jolly in Amsterdam; luckily our friendship could withstand separations and pick up immediately where we’d left off, with barely a break in conversation (and barely a cross word, ever, much less a real argument). We confided all our relationship traumas, her break-up with JD and getting together with Riff – facilitated by an illicit night in my parents’ bed while they were away on holiday and I was working a night-shift at Wold Farm. CB and I both worked several summer vacations there, she in the canteen and me on Quality Control. She always hated chicken day, having to ask a succession of Grimsby ex-trawlermen whether they wanted breast or leg. Naturally, all the blokes chatted her up, leading to this memorable exchange: Bloke: I’m lookin’ forward to this weekend. CB: Why, what are you doing? Bloke: I’m off to Brid wi’ me mates, drinkin’ and oarin’.  CB, (a sailor, remember): Oh, do you row? Cue mutual blank looks until it registered that he meant ‘whoring’…

After uni, CB and Tim moved into the ground floor flat at 21 Oxford Street, and she worked in the bar on Cleethorpes railway station while she thought about what to do next. Meanwhile I’d started a 3-year post-grad sandwich course, which allowed us to keep up our student pattern of seeing each other at home during holiday times. A common feature of ‘mornings after the night before’ in Cleethorpes was taking her and Tim coffee in bed, then feeding the cats and making a start on the last night’s debris while they slowly came to – whereupon we’d start all over again. I well recall one day round at Gary and Jo’s, trying to watch Blade Runner while their evil black dog, with its unsettling ability to freak out people in a vulnerable state, walked about on its hind legs, grinning at us. I thought I was hallucinating – but no.

Taking on voluntary work led to CB’s career in local authority social services in Grimsby and Hull, and a private sector stint for a horrible useless boss who literally drove her mad – it was the first and only time I ever saw her depressed. Throughout, we kept in touch by phone and odd notes; I always visited at Christmas and Easter, and for parties and special occasions, just as she or they visited me in various places I lived – gregarious and great company, CB always revelled in entertaining, or being entertained by, her many good friends. However, things were about to change drastically; her phone-call to tell me of a certain unplanned but happy event is a vivid memory – as is a weekend we spent on my boyfriend Steve’s boat when her already ginormous bump threatened to overbalance her at any second. As guests, she and Tim got the luxury of the pointy end, basically one great big triangular bed, while Steve and I slept in the main cabin. It wasn’t long after we’d retired that the rocking began, gentle at first them gradually building to a crescendo with the boat’s rubber buffers squeaking rhythmically against the mooring. A comparatively recent couple, Steve and I were first amazed then deeply envious of their staying power, especially with CB in such a condition. I wasn’t surprised to see them looking smiley and satisfied next morning, which CB attributed to a splendid night’s sleep; she, however, was surprised  when I retorted sourly, ‘I bet’, and accused her of keeping us awake and resentful (albeit impressed) for half the night. We eventually established that it wasn’t rumpy-pumpy that had rocked the boat, but the wake of an enormous barge which took a very long time to subside.

The twins duly arrived, (not to mention several generations of kittens from matriarch Custard – I was particularly fond of Spike and Merlin). I first met Sally and Amy one sunny afternoon in Doncaster when they were just a few weeks old, CB still boggling at having produced two such perfect little beings; and felt selfishly pleased and relieved when she didn’t go baby-gaga, but retained her own life and identity as a woman as well as a mother. She and Riff turned from relatively affluent dual-income-no-kids homeowners to broke, frazzled parents overnight, of course; but the girls were tremendous fun, the first children outside the family I ever loved and regarded as friends in their own right. And it obviously did them good to have such a strong female role model and a male primary carer – look how well they’ve turned out.

Marriage came a lot later, and as a complete surprise to me. CB’s relationship with Tim had always seemed perfect as it was, and despite having known her so well for so long, I didn’t know she was actually yearning to be wed. But I was honoured to be asked to deliver the bride, stunning in her emerald green dress, to Louth registry office in 2004 for a lovely personal ceremony followed by an equally lovely party at the Crow’s Nest – the nicest wedding I ever attended apart from my own three years later!

To me, the crowning glory of CB’s professional career was her exemplary work for Grimsby College, turning an inefficient, moribund department into a huge, profitable success, and I felt very proud of her. Inasmuch as I thought about her future, I assumed she’d carry on in this, her last and best job (after a self-employed interlude teaching music, invigilating exams and marking papers), for a few more years; then retire on a nice fat pension to enjoy her beautiful home, husband and family, playing her posh new guitar with the Grim Gits, doing her handicrafts, walking with her ladies’ group, going to the pub, gym and pool, travelling and taking holidays with Tim, and staying with loved ones at home and abroad; and we’d end up as a pair of daft old biddies doddering along Cleethorpes prom in Afghan hats and baggy jumpers, or cackling over a bottle of wine while Bob shot the sheriff and we put the world to rights.

Prior to September 2019, CB generally enjoyed robust health – I seldom recall her suffering anything much more serious than a cold. So it was shocking to see her that Christmas in severe pain from her hip – and devastating to learn a fortnight later that it wasn’t curable sciatica after all, but incurable cancer with (as I later discovered online) a poor prognosis for long-term survival. Throughout everything that followed, CB amazed me with her philosophical, practical, positive attitude. ‘It is what it is,’ she repeatedly said, always making the absolute best of her good times, and lightening the bad with black humour. ‘I know I shouldn’t,’ she’d say, lighting another fag, ‘but what the hell, I don’t have to worry about cancer.’ I’ll be eternally grateful that, albeit unable to hug, we saw nearly as much of each other in 2020 as in an average year. A good response to initial treatment freed her from pain, restored full mobility and gave hope for a longer remission, enabling her and Tim to squeak in a weekend visit in early March, when for once they could stay in a room we’d refurbished largely for their comfort as our only regular overnight guests, and we went to see the fantastic Damien Hirst exhibition at Yorkshire Sculpture Park; we also managed a summer picnic lunch between lock-downs before the next hammer-blow of bad news fell in the autumn and dashed our hopes – the cancer had escaped to continue its rapid, relentless invasion.

We began talking funerals. I offered to send a draft eulogy so she could read all the nice things I was going to say about her – an offer she didn’t take up, so I hope she’s listening in spirit today. She passed a series of milestones: Evelyn’s birthday, Peach’s birth, Christmas, New Year ‘21 and the anniversary of her diagnosis, Tim and the twins’ birthdays in January, and her own sixtieth on March 29th. We saw her for the last time at home at Easter shortly afterwards, looking frail but in typical good spirits and eating like a horse, trying to regain weight and strength for Sally’s wedding. My heart leapt to see those beautiful photos of the day with CB on her feet, stunning in a pale blue trouser-suit, looking so well that if I hadn’t known better, I’d have thought she was perfectly healthy, if thin; and I was glad to hear that after treatment to restore her in the wake of this supreme effort, she’d be leaving St Andrew’s hospice to spend her final weeks – maybe stretching to months – in her own home.

Then things changed with bewildering speed: no longer home but hospice, no longer weeks but days – make that hours. CB wanted to see me, and unlike too many relations and friends living further afield, I could get there in time. I walked in prepared to find her asleep or unresponsive; but she’d saved a huge amount of her last mortal energy to stay conscious and hold a conversation for three-quarters of an hour. It was intensely emotional with moments of joyous connection, completely unlike any harrowing or heart-rending death-bed scene I’d ever experienced or imagined. The physical shell was too ravaged to stay in, but the quintessential Carole, her spiritual presence, was still there in such full force and beauty she made my eyes boggle; not the remotest sense of her passively fading into non-existence, more actively gathering herself to float free and move on. We agreed to try and give each other a call once she got to wherever; I hope I armed her to go with all my love and blessings, as she armed me to stay and bear her departure twenty-six hours later without the utter, howling devastation I’d been expecting and dreading ever since her diagnosis. On the contrary, CB is, and ever will be to me, simply elsewhere now, differently alive. So I had a little party for her next day, drinking toasts, playing our old favourite albums, and dancing round the house wearing the ring she gave me at Easter. In the middle of ‘Satisfy My Soul’ I erupted in flurries of goose-flesh; I hope that meant she’d torn herself away from jamming with Bob, Bolan and Bowie, and come to dance with me in joy and relief that her earthly ordeal was over at last – a suitable point to break off for the second of her musical choices:

*Love Interlude*

According to the Greek philosopher Socrates, death is either the best night of dreamless sleep you’ll ever enjoy, or a reunion in spirit with your late loved ones – and either way, not so bad. A great sleeper like CB would surely agree – just as, if she could give you a last message apart from her love and farewell, it would surely be, as she cautioned me, ‘Do your poo tests.’ However, having had the extraordinary privilege of witnessing her in a process of transformation rather than cessation, I can only believe in the latter, and trust that she’s embarked upon an eternity of fun with all her beloved souls.

And that’s the end of my tale. But as I said at the start, you all have your own Carole stories to tell – so tell them. Cook up a feast, crank up the sounds, crack a bottle or three, and laugh about all the crazy, wonderful things you did together over the years. I can’t think of a better way to honour the incomparable woman who enriched us all so much, enjoyed life so fully, and engaged in it so wholeheartedly, to her very last day. Party hearty in Heaven, CB.

New Year, New Website: introducing herstorywriting.com!

Sometimes life obliges us to do something we hadn’t planned or particularly wanted to do; then it works out so well we’re really glad we did it – in fact we wish we’d done it ages ago!

Such was the case for me with my brand-new WordPress website, herstorywriting.com. I didn’t want a new website. I was happy enough with the simple, info-rich, advert-free old sites helencox-herstorywriting.co.uk and lay-of-angor.co.uk, even though, (as work-hungry web designers never tired of spamming to tell me), they looked stale and outdated. They’d been wonderfully easy for a complete novice to set up on what would become ‘Classic’ WebEden, and easy to maintain despite a few annoying glitches with the software which I learnt to work round. But they needed the recently-obsolete Flash Player to run; so in autumn 2020, like it or not, I had to review my options and get a new site built before Flash expired at the end of December.

One might think that a quick, simple option would be to import the content to the new WebEden platform. However, for reasons I don’t understand, this facility wasn’t made available to users. I couldn’t even add a New site to the account I’d held there for 10 years, but had to create another separate account (something which generated a flurry of complaint on the company’s Facebook page from other Classic users in my position). Well, OK… I wasn’t happy, but decided to give it a go for the sake of continuity/to save the time and bother of searching for a new provider.

The first issue I ran into was one I subsequently found to be a common one with build-your-own website providers: a bewilderingly huge catalogue of themes to choose from, but all very ‘samey’ and none especially appealing. On Classic WebEden, it had been easy to flick between them and compare. Not so on New. I eventually selected a design I thought I could work with, couldn’t make head or tail of the software, (totally different to/less intuitive than Classic); then when I decided I didn’t like the look of it after all, I couldn’t escape from the damn thing. I searched vainly for a command to go back, collapse, close, replace, exit etc etc, growing crosser and crosser until in the end I hit ctrl-alt-del. Talk about user-unfriendly! I thought it was an extremely poor advert for the company, and atop all the other frustrations and technical problems I’d experienced, made me unwilling to persevere with the impenetrable software.

The next most obvious solution was to build the new site here, where I have my blog and reasonable proficiency with the software. WordPress sensibly maintains a much smaller stable of themes with a bit more individuality and imagination to them, and I easily spotted a couple I liked; but what if there was something even better out there? After an hour or so searching on-line, I concluded there wasn’t; at least, nothing eye-smackingly wonderful enough to compensate for missing the convenience of having my main internet presence all under one roof, so to speak.

So back I came to WordPress, tinkered about on one template, decided it didn’t work, and lo! was able to import what I’d done into a design I liked better. Easy-peasy. Keeping my domains? That was harder. WordPress doesn’t support .co.uk domains, so I couldn’t transfer them as I’d hoped; I’d have retain WebEden as supplier, and map the site instead. But I could no longer log in to do so through Classic, because Flash Player no longer works – and then found I couldn’t log in through New, either! I tried every permutation of likely passwords, searched my diary in vain for the new log-in details, eventually admitted defeat and hit ‘forgotten password’ – and the re-set link failed to come through. (Twelve hours later, I’m still waiting).

That really was the final straw. The desire to keep my domains because all my publications sold or in stock carry the old .co.uk website addresses was outweighed by a sudden, overwhelming desire to ditch WebEden and all the hassle that goes with it. So I promptly launched the basic framework of the new site on WordPress as herstorywriting.com, trusting that everyone who wants to will find me when I’ve updated all the search engines and references. I must admit, I’m chuffed to bits with the fresh new look, revamped text and new images, and looking forward to building it up with all sorts of features, including slide-shows of my Sandal Castle, Battle of Wakefield and Battle of Towton tours. (One of these days I’ll get round to building a new lay-of-angor.com site on here as well). So do take a peek – I hope you’ll enjoy it and keep coming back to see my new blog posts and other developments!

Right Royal Bedroom Makeover!

Hubcap and I often joke that we’re the king and queen of Helmickton-sur-Bois, a tiny kingdom we inhabit along with our cat-son, Prince Henry Wowler, and countless other citizens of the furry, feathery, buzzy or creepy-crawly type, (but no servants, alas, which makes us perforce extremely active monarchs). Accordingly, since our bedroom with its cracked ceiling and split wallpaper (courtesy of the 2008 earthquake) and sick-stained carpet (courtesy of Prince Henry) was sadly overdue for re-decoration, I wanted a new, opulent look to reflect our regal status. And I’m so delighted with the result that I’d like to share it with you, primarily to praise various companies we used for the excellence of their work and/or quality of goods supplied, and also to acknowledge the many friends whose generous gifts helped me to create my dream bedroom.

The whole design pivots around a reproduction of Graham Turner’s famous painting of the Battle of Towton, with the main colour scheme azure-and-murrey, (blue and deep red), the Yorkist colours.

Some people might think hanging an image of conflict and death over one’s marital bed is inviting bad karma, but for us the picture has far happier associations. For a start, it was a wedding present from our good friend Martin, reflecting our personal history: Hubcap and I met, and subsequently had our marriage blessed, at Saxton on the southern edge of the Towton battlefield; for many years we both sat on the committee of Towton Battlefield Society, and founded/ran its affiliated Wars of the Roses re-enactment group, the Frei Compagnie; and we’ve both ‘met’ some of the casualties as skeletons from the mass graves excavated in and around Towton Hall by another friend/Society member, battlefield archaeologist Tim Sutherland. So the men in the picture feel like friends (indeed, one archer in the foreground bears an uncanny resemblance to Hubcap in build and stance!); we’ve literally walked in their footsteps, remembered and mourned for them, and commemorated their lives as re-enactors; and that’s why it hangs in this place of high honour, reminding us not only of the dead but of our wonderful medieval wedding weekend at The Crooked Billet in 2007, and all the happy times we’ve enjoyed on Society re-enactments, especially the Palm Sunday events in the grounds of Towton Hall.

To set it off, I painted the wall in Indigo Flame silk emulsion from my favourite Valspar v500 range supplied by B&Q, mixed to order in store – superior paints giving excellent coverage and good value for money. One big advantage is that all the available shades are painted on cardboard swatches you can view under three light sources – simulated daylight, fluorescent and energy-saving – to see exactly how it’ll look/easily match it against samples of your wallpaper, carpet or whatever. Brilliant idea. Another is the interesting way the palest shades behave on a wall, changing with the light, looking practically white in full sun and deepening to gorgeous, subtle colours in the shadows. We already have the faintly pink Lip Gloss and greenish-gold So Close in the bathroom and office, and the one I chose for the other three bedroom walls was Wisp of Cocoa, a delicious weak latte brown, to tone with our wooden furniture and patterns of the carpet. Otherwise, bog standard brilliant white silk vinyl and gloss took care of the ceiling and woodwork, and contrasted nicely with the walls and major new installation, the fitted wardrobes.

Splashing out on this was part of my plan to future-proof the room by maximising storage space and getting rid of the horrible, hard to clean dust-traps around our old free-standing wardrobes. Looking on-line for a local company, I found Hammonds in Leeds and requested their e-brochure, which arrived immediately; and even as I was browsing it, a sales-lady called me on my mobile. We arranged for a survey on the spot, and Phill the surveyor couldn’t have been more helpful or proficient in translating my ideas into a design, giving me loads of useful information and tips without any superfluous sales-talk, then advising me on how to save money and willingly re-doing the whole thing when the style I first chose proved to be outside my budget. (Ironically, I prefer the cheaper version he suggested to my original choice!). Everything then went exactly as arranged: a second, more detailed survey to check measurements/confirm details; the fitting itself, with a lovely fitter who worked his socks off to finish it in a single day; and an aftercare call to check that I was happy (I was, very). Absolutely impeccable service from beginning to end, and the beautiful wardrobes, with their soft-close doors, pull-out trouser rail and oodles of space meet our needs perfectly.

Hammonds is one of the best companies I’ve ever had the pleasure to work with, and I can’t recommend them highly enough – we’re certainly planning to use them again when we re-do our hobby-room next year.

Much the same can be said about the carpet. Again, I decided to splurge on a quality, traditional wool like the indestructible Axminsters and Wiltons my parents used to have, a carpet which would easily outlive me; and patterned rather than plain, to disguise the fact that the Helmickton royals are three messy, dirty beings. After a lengthy on-line search I was beginning to despair of finding what I had in mind, until I discovered the New Barrington Axminster range made by Hugh Mackay Carpets. The design ‘Kashmir’ literally made my jaw drop, and I knew straight away I had to have it. It has a vaguely Arts & Crafts feel, with dark red flowers to match my velvet curtains, and shades of tawny brown to go with the furniture (and the cat, who will no doubt shed copiously on it).

I duly contacted The Carpet Man, who’d made a grand job of supplying and fitting our new office carpet last year – and who was honest enough to say that it was too specialised a job for him, and refer me to Wakefield Carpet Specialists. I found WCS to be another faultless firm: the friendly, helpful staff did everything from ordering the carpet, storing it until the room was ready to receive it, then fitting it perfectly; they would even have shaved a millimetre off the bedroom door and re-hung it if I’d wanted to stop it brushing the pile. Just like Hammonds, WCS provides an old-fashioned personal service, with staff who clearly take pride in their work and seemed to genuinely enjoy supplying (quote) ‘a beautiful piece of carpet’ – definitely the go-to guys for specialised carpeting jobs in our area.

To complete the look, I treated us to a few luxury items in some of my favourite styles and themes from history, including the reproduction Tiffany stained-glass light fittings ordered on-line from Iconic Lighting.

Top marks again for quality, service and value for money: this ceiling lampshade and side-lamp arrived promptly, extremely well packed and intact, and look utterly delightful, especially when lit and the dragonflies’ eyes glow!

I’m also happy to commend the Belgian company Yapatkwa Tapestries for the fabulous throw and cushion cover which enabled me, at last, to dress my throne, (a magnificent folding period chair thoughtfully presented to me in my arthritic days by the Frei Compagnie, to spare my aching back on events), in suitably regal fashion.

The design on the heavy Jacquard throw is taken from my favourite Medieval tapestry, ‘La Dame et la L’Icorne‘, a copy of which I bought from the Musee du Moyen Age while on a culture-vulture tour of Paris in 1988, and now have framed on the wall alongside; the cushion cover is a Tree of Life by William Morris; both are sumptuously coloured, superb quality, a joy to behold and worth every penny.

Altogether it’s created a cosy Medieval-style reading corner, overlooked by another wedding present from Frei Compagnie friends Stu and Dawn: a portrait of King Richard III, whose fascinating story led me to Towton in the first place and who, in effect, introduced me to my husband!

The only slight disappointment was my ‘Strawberry Thief’ bed cover from the William Morris Company, supplied by Debenhams. There’s nothing wrong with the quality: it’s a stunning fabric, reversible, extremely well-made, and lightly quilted so that it’ll serve equally well as a heavy bedspread for the depths of winter, or by itself as an ultra-light duvet for summer heatwaves. No, the problem is the size: ‘Double/Kingsize’, which may be a tad small for the latter, but is WAY too stiflingly big for the former.

There’s no other size to exchange it for except Single, which will be too small; nor do I really want my money back, because in other respects I love it. So loath though I am to mutilate the most expensive piece of bedding I’ve ever bought, my only option is to cut it down to a sensible size for our standard double bed, re-hem it, and roll up/stitch the remnant to make a matching bolster cushion. Ah well – at least it’ll give me a project for those long winter nights!

Finally, a word on the other artworks, none of which are new and all of which have special meaning. The beautiful bronze-and-wood icon was a gift from my sister-in-law Anita, and sculpted by her late father, Willi Soukop, the prancing Balinese temple horses formerly hung in my parents’ hallway and were bought by Anita and my late brother John on their Far Eastern travels in the 1970’s; and the Ingres-style pencil portrait of a twenty-something me was drawn by my accomplished American friend Jim Fay in 1987, while I was living and working as an antiquities conservator in Baltimore, Maryland.

It’s lovely to sleep in such a rich-looking, comfortable and well-appointed room, surrounded by precious and beautiful things we’ve amassed over the years or had given by our loved ones; an eclectic mix of favourite periods and themes akin to the ‘pick and mix’ approach I took in creating the fantasy world in The Lay of Angor. I find it particularly satisfying that it allowed us to support a number of deserving businesses, at home and abroad, pumping some welcome cash into the economy in this uniquely difficult year. I can’t say how grateful I am to all the tradesmen and surveyors who continued to work during the second lockdown, enabling us to complete Project New Bedroom on time and according to plan, and I hope you’ve enjoyed reading about it as much as I enjoyed making it happen. And while you may not care for my choices, if you check out the company websites, you’ll see they supply a wide range of quality products in many different colours and styles to suit all tastes. Well worth a look if you’re planning your own right royal make-over!

Hedgehog Lives Matter

Now is the time of year you’re liable to see small hedgehogs bumbling about in the daytime (and all too often getting squashed on the road). These unfortunate youngsters, born late in the season, haven’t had enough time to fatten up sufficiently for winter, forcing them to forage in daylight, and making them vulnerable, in their weakness, to disease and pest infestation. So the hard truth is that most won’t survive hibernation – especially sad given that this iconic British animal is now an endangered species due to habitat loss, deliberate human cruelty and misplaced human kindness (never, but NEVER, give hedgehogs bread and milk! They’re lactose intolerant and it kills them. Don’t give dried mealworms, either, only meat-based cat-food – not fish – and biscuits, or special hedgehog food).

So yesterday afternoon at Beckside, Hubcap wasn’t entirely surprised to see a young hedgehog wandering about in the open, being plagued by a swarm of green-bottles (‘fly-strike’, a horribly apt term). Needless to say he retrieved it, shooed off the flies, and brought it home in a bucket of hay.

Neither of us had great hopes for its survival. Although we couldn’t see any obvious wounds, it was covered in fly eggs (plus a couple of ticks), lethargic, and small; we hoped it was just cold, hungry, thirsty and disoriented rather than sick. We knew from experience, (having found a young hog of similar size but in even poorer condition a couple of years ago), that our local vet couldn’t do anything for it. Luckily, as we have resident hedgehogs in the garden which we house and feed year-round, we were reasonably well-equipped to try some DIY; so rather than risk Hoggie dying before we could get it to a sanctuary, I Googled ‘remove fly eggs from’ and ‘emergency first aid for’ hedgehogs and acted on some refreshingly simple information I found on britishhedgehogs.org.uk.

First I prepared a bed in an old washing up bowl, lined with a warm hot-water bottle wrapped in a tea-towel, topped it with a pad of hay, and laid the patient on it to start slowly raising its body temperature. Then I assembled my instruments: a small artist’s paintbrush, cotton wool swabs, and tweezers and forceps from my old museum conservation toolkit; set up the illuminated magnifying glass Hubcap uses for tying fishing flies; and with some trepidation, set to work. Bar the odd flinch, poor little Hoggie was too exhausted and torpid to protest, which made it relatively easy to spread its bristles and find the disgusting yellowish-white masses of fly eggs laid close to its skin; luckily these stick together and can be extracted in big clumps, (as satisfying as squeezing pimples!), rather than picked out individually, which would have taken all night. As it was, I spent the best part of an hour tweezing out all but a couple of stubborn single eggs adhering to the bristles – by which time I (and probably the hedgehog) had had enough, and I hadn’t yet found, let alone removed, any ticks; but hadn’t seen any fleas either, which was good news.

While I’d been thus occupied, Hubcap had sorted out a recovery ward in a large plastic storage tub lined with newspaper, with a pile of hay and bits of old sheet for bedding, a dish of water, and a dish of Henry Wowler’s chicken-flavour cat-food. In went the hog, on went the lid, and we left it in peace and warmth in front of the stove.

A couple of hours later it started scrabbling around and polished off the cat-food – an encouraging sign. I gave it some more, plus some dry hedgehog kibble. It liked that a lot, proved by the soon-emptied dish. I gave it some more. Meanwhile I’d found lots of excellent advice from Hedgehog Bottom, Berkshire’s Hedgehog Clinic, a voluntary group whose delightfully witty website https://www.hedgehog-rescue.org.uk/ is worth reading purely for information and enjoyment, and resolved to put it into practice ASAP. 

And contrary to our initial gloomy predictions, Hoggie did last the night, alternately stuffing its face then sleeping it off tangled like a teenager in a horrible mess of bedding; and by next morning, curled adorably on its side like a tiny bristly cat, looked bright-eyed and remarkably perky. We duly went straight out to buy pet-safe disinfectant, proper food bowls, a bag of hay, (Hubcap cursing because we’d just had a field full at Beckside, but not foreseeing a need, hadn’t processed any for storage!!) – and lots more hog-food. Then, as recommended by Hedgehog Bottom, while Hubcap did the mucking out I popped Hoggie onto my digital kitchen scales: only353 g, at least 250 g below the minimum for successful hibernation. That answered our first question: yes, we need to keep it indoors and let it pog until it’s practically doubled in weight, when we can move it out to a luxury wooden Hedgehog Hotel, complete with bed compartment and dining area, under our new lean-to in the garden. I also tried to find odd fly eggs (or, God forbid, maggots) and the ticks Hubcap mentioned – but by now the full and feisty Hoggie had enough strength to ball up tightly, contracting its skin and pulling the bristles together wherever I probed. I’ll have to keep trying this every day until, hopefully, it becomes sufficiently accustomed to handling to relax and let me examine and treat it properly. Meanwhile my best hope is that the loosened eggs fell out and were thrown away with the soiled bedding!

Finally, we installed hog-home in the hobby room and put it in as recommended, with chopped-up old fleece and shredded newspaper for nesting. Looking in an hour later, I saw it snugged into a hollow in the hay, sound asleep, breathing deeply – completely transformed from yesterday’s limp scrap into a warm, fed, watered and healthy-looking (if no doubt highly bewildered) little creature. It was a joy to see, especially knowing that Hoggie would surely have died in this big, cold, wet storm if Hubcap hadn’t found it; and even if it doesn’t survive till next spring, we’ll have the consolation of knowing that its days ended in comfort and safety.

But so far, so good – a cycle of eating, sleeping and evacuation has been established, with an immediate and very noticeable improvement in Hoggie’s energy and appearance, (needless to say, if we’d seen any sign of disease, like crying or wheezing, we’d have taken it to the nearest hedgehog specialist). Hopefully this regime of warmth, restricted movement and plentiful food will allow it to gain up to 10 g per day (indicative of good health) – in which case it could be outside in the Hotel by November, with a chance to hibernate naturally, find food nearby if it wakes, and be restored to Beckside next spring to help raise a new generation of these delightful creatures.

In short: if you find an ailing hedgehog, don’t panic! Look up and apply the emergency first-aid procedures, they’re quite simple. Then if you can’t provide the requisite ongoing care, contact the RSPCA or your local hog sanctuary – because every one matters, now more than ever, and we need to save their precious little lives wherever possible.

Plastic Pollution: how one household can make a difference

Once upon a time, the weekly supermarket shop often sent me into meltdown. The weird woman sobbing in her car on Asda car-park, or on her front drive the second she got her ton of bags-for-life home? Yup, that was me. I never quite fathomed why it upset me so badly…  that is, until Hubcap and I ‘woke’ to the issues of plastic pollution, palm oil, and the havoc that gross over-consumption is wreaking on the planet (not to mention human health).

So, determined to reduce the amount of non-recyclable packaging we used and the amount of palm oil we ate, we did a shopping review.  As committed long-term micro-consumers and recyclers, we’d always felt pretty smug about our frugal housekeeping and wholesome, largely home-cooked diet; but that soon changed to horrified shame when we realised what bad habits we’d fallen into, the staggering amounts of palm oil we were inadvertently ingesting, and the equally staggering amounts of avoidable waste we were generating, week in and week out. For instance, we’d developed a routine of Tuesday Kit-kats and Friday night treats consisting of a bag of crisps or nachos and a confectionery bar  each; and since discovering Hubcap’s gluten sensitivity, had both become addicted to ready-made gluten-free cakes and biscuits, (essential high-calorie additions to the snap-tin of a labouring bloke) – much of it laden with palm oil and wasteful packaging.  For our lunch sandwiches, I bought tubs of hummus and packs of sliced deli meats, plus disposable bags to put them in, supplemented by individually-wrapped and boxed fruit/nut/cereal bars, multi-mini-packs of raisins, ‘shot’ tubes of nuts and seeds, and individual bags of pulse- or corn-based savouries.  Around the house, we routinely used plastic bottles of hand-wash/cream and body-wash; and I’d  taken to buying those seductively convenient disposable wipes for the kitchen and bathroom, (even flushed some of the supposedly flushable ones down the loo). And so it went on…

Gulp. At least now, having recognised the extent of the problem, we could do something about it – PDQ. The first, and simplest decision, was to kick out all the palm oil. That knocked a huge range of items off my shopping list in one fell swoop: almost all the big-name confectionery products, breads, gluten-free baked goods, cereals, margarine, solid vegetable fats and gravy granules, to name but a few. It was well worth making lifestyle changes to eliminate this noxious, environmentally-damaging substance from our diet; I duly switched back to good old butter and lard wrapped in paper or foil, and made time in my schedule for baking. Ever since, instead of plastic-packed, mass-produced stuff containing a list of additives as long as your arm, we eat flapjacks, biscuits, scones and buns freshly-made from a handful of traditional, wholesome ingredients – much cheaper, better tasting, better for us, and makes the house smell like heaven!


Then, bidding a sad farewell to our beloved Nakd and Palaeo bars, we kicked out all the individual packaging. I bought plastic containers for lunch-box portions decanted from single large packs of salted nuts/pulses, dried fruits and unsalted nuts, jumbo tubs of yoghurt and so on; made my own hummus using fresh lemon and garlic, and chickpeas and oil from recyclable containers; and substituted childhood favourites like Spam, potted beef and Sandwich Spread in tins and glass jars for the plastic-encased sliced meats (I find a single tin of thinly-sliced Spam does us for a whole week’s butties). To eke out my home-baking, I made delicious, economical and relatively healthy rice puddings, jellies with home-grown berries or tinned fruit, and chocolate blancmange from semi-skimmed milk, cornflour, sugar and Fairtrade cocoa powder. To our mutual surprise and delight, I discovered that baking gluten-free bread is a piece of cake, (so to speak), with results infinitely superior to – and far cheaper than – the dry, cloying, badly-mixed mass-produced brands. I religiously saved all film and polythene bags for re-use as sandwich wrap, bit-bin liners or when I went shopping for loose fruit and veg, (the latter supplemented by as much organic produce as we can grow or glean). Instead of taking away, we took to dining in the restaurant (more fun and less washing up); and for our regular Saturday ‘convenience’ stir-fry, I substituted hand-chopped loose veg for packs of ready-shredded, dried rice noodles (two servings apiece in a small packet) for fresh noodles (one serving apiece in a large pack), and sauces in glass jars (or home-made) for plastic sachets – and by doing so, found I could make two nights’ dinner for the price of one. Even Henry Wowler did his bit, happily switching from plastic pouches, expensive (and useless) ‘lite’ biscuits in a plastic sack, and plastic-bottled spring water, to tinned cat food, bog-standard biscuits in paper sacks, and rainwater from the water-butt (when he’s not drinking soiled muck out of the bird-bath, that is). The garden birds were also happy to help by changing from commercial to home-made fat blocks (lard, flour, crushed peanuts/sunflower hearts/mealworms and nyger seed, melted together and poured into plastic moulds saved from the mass-produced versions)!

Around the house, we’ve gone back to paper-wrapped soap and old-fashioned washable flannels and dish-cloths, with coir or loofah scrubbing pads to replace synthetic sponges; and are phasing out toiletries in plastic bottles or aerosol cans in favour of solid shampoo bars, eco-friendly deodorant sticks in cardboard tubes, tooth-powder in glass jars, hand-cream in tins, bamboo toothbrushes, and traditional razors with disposable/recyclable metal blades. For the laundry, I abandoned plastic bottles of eco-liquid and invested in an Eco-Egg containing mineral pellets, supplemented by a small amount of washing powder in an economy-size cardboard box (lasts at least a year) for large or heavily-soiled loads; I also wash some small loads by hand using old-fashioned soap flakes. As for the washing up: we don’t (and never will) have any dishwasher except our own hands, which now use concentrated eco-liquids we dilute in re-usable bottles, or solid dish-washing soap.

And lo! Within a week, our household waste output fell by two-thirds, thanks solely to a little more thought and planning and some minor housekeeping adjustments. I saved so much money by making more vegetarian and vegan dishes from scratch, and cutting out plastic/palm-oil infested snacks and unnecessary disposables like the ubiquitous wet-wipes, that we could afford to buy pricier eco-products, occasional treats like quality Fairtrade chocolate wrapped in paper/tinfoil and local free-range meat, and get milk and juice delivered by a milkman – thereby supporting local farmers and reducing our waste even more. (It’s wonderfully encouraging to hear that milkmen are making a huge comeback everywhere, with a correspondingly huge drop in our national consumption of plastic bottles and tetra-packs).

The other instant result: no more crying in the car-park.  The weekly supermarket trawl immediately turned into an interesting (if often frustrating) challenge, rather than a depressing burden, a satisfying lifestyle hobby of seeking ever more ways to reduce our carbon footprint, and shop more ethically and sustainably. Although we’re still far from zero-waste, I’m thrilled and amazed by how much we’ve achieved over the past three years for very little effort and no real sacrifice; I don’t even miss former favourite chocolates, Nutella and biscuits – in fact now I’m ‘woke’ to their flavour of orang-utan blood, rain-forest smoke, the sweat of child slave-labour and the tears of indigenous peoples, I find them more repellent than tempting.

Best of all, it’s not rocket science. Although the compromises involved in making the most ethical shopping choices are often highly complex, you can make a massive difference to your consumption/waste output simply by reverting to traditional ingredients in minimal/recyclable packaging, and doing things in traditional ways (like carrying a re-usable container of squash instead of buying a can or bottle of soft drink every time you go out!).


And to illustrate just how massive that difference can be, I’ve quantified these examples of plastic packaging our small household now saves per annum:

Cat: 365 pouches, 12 sacks, 12 bottles = 389 items

Birds: c. 300 fat-block trays

Chocolate/confectionery: c. 100 Kit-kat/200 other wrappers = 300 items

Savoury snacks: c. 400 crisp, nacho and ‘shot’ packets

Sweet snack bars: c. 1000 packets

Ready-made hummus; c. 100 tubs

Margarine: c. 12 tubs

Deli: c. 150 meat packs/50 pate tubs = 200 items

Individual yoghurt/dessert pots: c. 500

Gluten-free biscuit/cake trays: c. 100

Gluten-free bread bags: c. 75

Takeaway containers: c. 50

Stir-frys: c. 50 sachets/100 bags = 150 items

Shampoo bottles; c. 10

Toothpaste tubes: c. 12

Hand/body wash or lotion bottles: c. 30

Wet-wipes: c. 24 packets/1000 wipes = 1024 items

Synthetic sponges: c. 50

Laundry liquid bottles: c. 10

Washing up liquid bottles: c. 10

Milk bottles: c. 120

Grand total: c. 4842 items

Whew!  That’s a lot of wheelie-bin-loads. So if you loathe wasteful consumerism as much as we do, take heart: you could make many of these improvements too, with or without the support of your nearest and dearest. And next time someone says, ‘Oh, there’s no point making an effort, one person can’t make any difference’, you can respectfully contradict them by sharing this blog!


Brexit Blues #1: Referendum Depression

Dear readers: you may have been surprised by my lack of rants about Britain’s recent referendum and decision to quit the EU – because God knows, the whole sorry farce gave plenty to rant about, as it will for years to come.

The reason for this dearth, thanks to the double-whammy of the result and a nasty virus doing the rounds, was that I temporarily lost the will to live, let alone blog. Seriously – the farrago of Farage, the lies piled on lies, the jingoistic ravings of the far-right, the self-seeking hypocrisy and gross political ineptitude on all sides, plunged me deep into the sort of depression I thought I’d long recovered from. I don’t mean a bummed-out mood that can be jollied away by a glass of wine and a funny film. I mean a leaden lethargy that turns getting up and dressed to face another day into an effort akin to climbing Everest; a hopeless negativity that makes it impossible to see beyond the world’s cruelty and horror to the love and beauty that exist alongside; a lasting despair that makes the idea of escaping through death seem appealing.

Anyone who’s experienced full-blown clinical depression will be nodding sagely at this point, while anyone who hasn’t may be thinking, ‘Suicidal over politics? How very self-indulgent/melodramatic/stupid,’ or something along those lines. So before I finally vent my thoughts on the fiasco of ‘Brexit,’ (the very word, that obnoxious little contraction, makes me want to run amok with an axe), I’d like to say a few words about the black dog that’s pursued me since childhood and still, on occasion, drags me down.

Endogenous depression, the type that comes from within, isn’t pretty. It isn’t languishing on a couch while silent tears roll with fetching pathos down one’s pallid cheek – it’s more like open-mouthed bawling, uncontrollable and inconsolable, with red eyes, red face and copious snot. It’s deeply complex; symptoms vary greatly between individuals, but may include a sense of being overwhelmed; a nerve-peeled hyper-sensitivity, a tendency to over-personalise, over-analyse and brood on the motivations of others, make negative assumptions about them – often wildly inaccurate – and act accordingly; bouts of hysterical frenzy alternating with long, silent withdrawals; and contempt for folk who can’t grasp just how bloody awful everything is, mingled with jealousy and resentment of their bovine, contented oblivion. The damaged self can be horribly selfish, narcissistic, paranoid, self-obsessed, unreasonable and blind to the feelings of others; the memory of some of my behaviour while ‘acting out’ my internal miseries and dramas still makes me cringe decades later. (Any non-depressives who want to get a handle on how this mind-set feels, try reading Sylvia Plath’s poems and journals; or the memoirs by Dido Merwin and Lucas Myers in Anne Stevenson’s Plath biography, Bitter Fame, to see how its manifestations impact on helpless bystanders). Depression is- well, depressingly common, affecting an estimated 350 million people worldwide, and I lose count of the number of past or present sufferers I’ve personally known. It goes hand-in-hand with low self-esteem and guilt for being so pathetically unable to cope with everyday stuff that everyone else apparently takes in their stride; it is at the very least life-blighting, and at the very worst, life-ending – I’ve lost one dear friend and several acquaintances to suicide when they couldn’t take the pain any longer, and on occasion come perilously close to checking out myself.

So depression isn’t being feeble, something a person can simply ‘snap out of’ at will; it’s a serious, potentially fatal illness often (as in my case) resulting from unbalanced brain chemistry combined with unresolved early trauma. Luckily, an effective course of treatment in the 1990’s saved my life; and apart from episodes brought on by external circumstances or the hormonal mood-swings of advancing middle-age, since then I’ve been a pretty happy bunny – that is, until the referendum catapulted me back onto familiar dark mental pathways and made me want to opt out, not out of Europe but out of existence itself.

How am I coping? Avoiding the news, for a start – current affairs are too threatening to my mental health and the precarious equilibrium I’ve begun to claw back. Practising mindfulness, staying in the here and now, trying not to mourn over what’s passed or panic about what’s to come, concentrating on our unchanged immediate surroundings and shutting my eyes to the wider world until I’m strong enough to look at it again. Trying not to get too angry, hungry or tired, because then I’m more vulnerable to falling into the abyss. Hanging onto life primarily for the sake of the two beings who want and need me most, my husband and cat; hoping and trusting that I’ll regain the desire to live for myself and everyone else who cares about me; resolving that if it doesn’t happen soon, if a stable, usually happy state doesn’t return, I’ll seek medical treatment. And now publishing this to say to any fellow sufferers from ‘Brexit Blues’ or other forms of depression: you’re not alone. You’re not weak or pathetic. You do deserve help; I hope that you’ll seek and find it, and from my heart, I wish you every sort of well.

2015 in review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2015 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

A New York City subway train holds 1,200 people. This blog was viewed about 4,600 times in 2015. If it were a NYC subway train, it would take about 4 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

The Wars of the Roses Refought over Richard III’s Re-burial

As anyone watching the news, reading the press or visiting social forums will know, the discovery of Richard III’s remains under a car-park in Leicester last year has sparked a war of words as bitterly waged as any medieval battle. Practically from the moment his skeleton was unearthed, the tides of invective began to flow. An early target was Philippa Langley, a long-standing member of the Richard III Society whose years of research, lobbying and fund-raising had enabled the excavation project to go ahead in the first place. ‘Only in it to big herself up and get on TV,’ sniffed some folk of Ms Langley’s painstaking historical detective work. Hmm… is that the rank whiff of sour grapes I smell? Me, I think she deserves a medal for her efforts and the contribution she’s made to Ricardian history.

Worse was to come when the vexed question of where to re-inter the king’s remains arose. The poor Dean of York and President of the Richard III Society received abusive communications from the pro-York camp simply for trying to take a neutral, objective stance on the issue. The Chief Executive of the American Richard III Foundation was derided for her passionate advocacy of York because ‘what’s it got to do with Yanks, anyway?’ The Richard III Society was accused of Machiavellian plotting, cover-ups and withholding information from members. The motives of many individuals concerned with the project, including the Mayor of Leicester, were publicly impugned in such terms that it’s a wonder nobody ended up in court for slander or libel. Venom has dripped from the pages of Facebook and sundry news sites. Altogether, it hasn’t been pretty – and frankly, I’m amazed I’ve escaped the vitriol after some of the stuff I’ve blogged on here.

But now, at last, someone has effectively presented the case for a York re-burial. Yes – in the latest Ricardian Bulletin, (journal of the Richard III Society), David Johnson lays out the reasoning in a well-researched, eloquent letter mercifully free from the inaccuracies and hysterical over-statements that have bedevilled the arguments of some other York supporters.

I might challenge his statement that there is an ‘overwhelming public view that Richard should be laid to rest in [York] Minster’. It depends on the public you’re asking. The Plantagenet Alliance’s on-line petition for a Parliamentary debate on the matter closed with 31,260 names – almost 70,000 short of the 100,000 it needed; another petition for a York re-burial closed with 31,340 names – I’d call that distinctly under-whelming. Meanwhile a rival petition for Richard III to remain in Leicester has 33,247 signatories with three days left yet to run… so I think it’s fairer to say that public opinion is divided.

Otherwise, David Johnson’s letter is highly persuasive. It draws on the Privy Seal Register and Fabric Rolls of York Minster to argue that Richard III’s intention to found a college for 100 chantry priests, with six altars erected within the Minster for their use, parallels his brother Edward IV’s creation of St George’s Chapel at Windsor, and for the same reason – to make a new royal mausoleum. That the sources contain no mention of a tomb, or plans for a chapel to house a tomb, can be explained by the fact that the project was still in its infancy at the time of King Richard’s death.

It’s the best justification I’ve yet seen, and Johnson may well be right that if Richard III had lived out his full span, he would have expected to lie in York Minster. However, one problem is that it still doesn’t prove this was the case; we’re still second-guessing the intentions of someone who died over 500 years ago. And what might those intentions have been on the eve of Bosworth? Richard had the advantage, the ordnance and the larger army of home-grown soldiers to pit against Henry Tudor’s Welshmen and foreigners. I assume he expected to win, kill his rival and hang on to his crown; but it would seem strange if a soldier so experienced in the uncertain fortunes of war hadn’t at least considered the alternatives: that the battle might be indecisive, leaving them both alive to re-group and continue the campaign; or that he would himself die, if not on the field then later, as a defeated captive.

What then of his posthumous fate? Could he trust a new regime to honour his last wishes, if he made them explicit – or to take spiteful pleasure in thwarting them? To what degree, under those circumstances, did Richard III actually care what became of his body, beyond a conventional hope that it would lie in consecrated ground rather than in a mass pit on the battlefield? If he made a will, or issued any form of instruction, it either has not survived or has not yet been found. If he did not, what does that say about his state of mind – that he was sublimely over-confident of victory? That he didn’t want to ‘tempt fate’? Or that if he could not live as King of England, he was not greatly concerned about anything else?

David Johnson ends his letter by saying, ‘one assertion we can make with absolute certainty is that Richard III never chose to be buried in Leicester’. Or can we? It may not have been a positive choice, but one by default; he may have assumed that, in the event of his death, he would end up in a nearby village churchyard (like Lord Dacre of Gilsland, killed at Towton and buried in Saxton) – or in the nearest major settlement to Bosworth…

Of course, I don’t know – but the point is, nobody knows, conjecture as we will. The only things I am certain of is that the battle for Richard III will go on, ironically fought by larger armies than he or any other king could have commanded at the time; and that whether the decision goes with Leicester Cathedral or York Minster, I’ll be shedding no tears (except a few for Richard himself) – I’m just too pleased that he’s going to get a proper tomb somewhere, at last.