‘Green Gardening’: My Top Five Tips!

When I was a child in the 1960’s, gardening was, literally, a very green activity. Every summer weekend, every suburban neighbourhood would buzz with the quiet shirring sound of manual lawnmowers, and the gentle snip-snip of hand-shears as hedges were cut and shrubs pruned – the pleasant, soothing sounds of gardeners using only their own muscles,  with the days of deafening power tools still lying well in the future.

Of course, the advent of petrol-driven mowers and leaf-blowers, petrol or electric hedge-cutters, strimmers  and so forth was a great time-saving boon for folk who were busy, had big gardens to care for – or, like us, worked as professional gardeners. Despite our eco-aspirations, we often can’t afford not to use these noisy, smelly machines, otherwise we couldn’t get through our workload in the allotted time – customers don’t want to pay for the extra hours it would take to do everything by hand.

However, we’ve made progress in greening our gardening business, thanks largely to technological improvements which have brought a whole range of excellent battery-powered machines onto the market. Our first such acquisition was ‘Little Red,’ a Mountfield domestic lawnmower with a folding handle I can carry in my hatchback. All plastic, with no engine to break down or need annual servicing, it only weighs as much as a bag of shopping, making it easy to manoeuvre around fiddly garden features; it’s so quiet that I don’t need ear-defenders, gives a lovely cut, and has enough juice to mow all the lawns of a standard council-house garden if the grass is dry (cutting wet and/or very long grass uses more power).

Once you’ve enjoyed the convenience of battery, you never want to go back to noise, petrol fumes or awkward, dangerous electrical cables again. We duly bought ‘Little Hedgey,’ a Mountfield domestic hedge-cutter with an even longer-lasting battery, and most recently, ‘Big E-GO,’ (see below), a superbly-designed professional-grade mower for bigger lawns. These user-friendly lightweight machines are all future-proofing for our ageing, aching bodies, and environmentally-friendly too,  (the batteries only cost about six pence to fully re-charge, and cost us and the planet nothing since we installed solar panels).

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We’re also doing what we can in response to climate change and the worrying decline in biodiversity and insect biomass. Last year’s severe drought prompted us to install more water-butts and encourage customers to do likewise; and on our smallholding, Hubcap dug a cistern to hold over 2000 litres of rainwater – enough to keep our orchard alive through several dry months, trapped in the ground by a thick layer of turf and hay mulch round all the trees. This magic mulch also supports the micro-organisms needed for healthy soil, and, supplemented by un-mowed strips of ‘beetle bank’ in the orchard and numerous areas on site left to grow wild, provides habitat for a great range of insects including crickets, grasshoppers, and many varieties of butterfly and moth.

Contrary to popular belief, Lepidoptera need more than just flower-nectar to feed on, they need long grass to live in (making me feel like a vast home-wrecking juggernaut every time I mow a lawn). Unfortunately, even green gardening often disturbs, and sometimes destroys, this small fauna; but in view of their drastic reduction  in numbers, we try hard not to hurt them, never kill anything deliberately, and are forever rescuing stray worms and snails from our paths, involuntary swimmers from bird-baths, and cold, exhausted bees. We extend this policy to the house, too, where no insect has been sprayed or swatted (except by the cat) for the past several years – we’ve even perfected methods of ushering unwelcome flies out.

Encouraging insects and invertebrates pays tremendous dividends. By going organic, planting insect-friendly flowers, and putting up ‘bug hotels,’ we’ve turned our small garden into a fruitful, self-supporting eco-system complete with biological controls for pests . We don’t need or use slug pellets because we have at least one resident hedgehog to gobble them up; wasps and small birds eat our aphids; and our apple trees are beautifully pest-free thanks to the jam-jar full of ladybirds we collected round the house over winter, put to hibernate properly in the cold dark loft, and released onto each tree in the spring. Our tiny, gin-clear pond on the smallholding is filtered only by a fresh-water mussel, naturally oxygenated by aquatic plants, rainfall and an occasional top-up from the water-butt, and any mosquito larvae in it are devoured by amphibian tadpoles and a large fat stickleback. Meanwhile Henry Wowler deals with the rodents, although his unfortunate tendency to bring live ones in through the cat-flap causes us more mouse problems than it solves.

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As for weeds, where we can, we tolerate – even enjoy. I hate mowing out dandelions, buttercups, daisies and red or white clover – they add such colour and jollity to a lawn, as well as feeding our precious pollinators. Plenty more so-called weeds, like purple loosestrife, could be considered perfectly attractive wildflowers, and are frequently useful – for example, dandelion leaves can be eaten in salads or used to brew a diuretic tea, while young tender stinging nettles, boiled, make a tasty, iron-rich substitute for spinach. Where we can’t tolerate them, we hand-weed or hoe if possible; or in the last resort, break off flowering heads before applying weed-killer to minimise the risk of poisoning pollinators. (I still have some weed-infested patches I can’t bear to treat because they’re so full of insects).

Altogether, this gentle, holistic approach to our business makes us feel we’re doing as much as possible to protect and improve the small parts of the world we directly control, working to minimise our negative impact and maximise the positive – with some very heartening results. Our own garden and smallholding are veritable nature reserves, where we regularly find plants, insects and birds we’ve either not seen for years, or never seen before. The endangered hedgehog is thriving in the gardens of numerous neighbours and customers; the rain has brought back goodly numbers of worms, slugs and snails, and made all vegetation grow hugely – a refreshingly verdant contrast to last year, and a great boost for carbon capture!

More than ever before, in these perilous times, our fragile planet needs gardens and gardeners. Green gardening plays a crucial role in providing habitat for threatened wildlife , cool shade to help us withstand heatwave summers, vital soakaway ground to absorb extreme rainfall, compost to nourish the soil and its organisms, a bounty of fresh, organic, plastic-free produce literally on our doorsteps – and in the process, absorbs countless tons of atmospheric pollution. Cumulatively, the world’s gardens make a gigantic difference to the environment; and between Brexit and climate change, gardening is surely the best occupation or hobby to have – because in the not-too-distant future, we may all be forced to conserve every drop of water, and grow as much food as we can, to reduce pressure on resources  and avert shortages and rationing. So I’ll close with five of my favourite ‘green gardening’ tips to prepare for the challenges ahead – get out there and enjoy!

  1. First and Foremost: Do It! Gardening is wonderfully therapeutic, as healthy for you as it is for Planet Earth. Even if you have no outdoor space at all, you can still enjoy seasonal flowers and a vegetable garden: spring bulbs, miniature roses, geraniums, cress, radishes, bean-sprouts, herbs and chili peppers all do well in pots on a window ledge or other suitable location.  Window-boxes, hanging baskets, tubs by the doorstep and climbers on trellis make a lovely display on terraced houses whose fronts open directly onto the street, as do container plants on apartment balconies, and all provide welcome nectar sources for urban insects. With a little imagination and the right sort of plants for the conditions, any outdoor space, no matter how small or unpromising, can be turned into a beautiful living asset to your home. For instance, our back garden is the smallest on the estate, yet we still find room for a fig tree, a grape-vine, raspberry canes, a salad bed, assorted herbs, a greenhouse for tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers , a twisted hazel, various flowers and shrubs, a small lawn, and a patio with numerous container plants – as well as a shed, two water-butts, and a wood-store. As a result, it’s a riot of colour, alive with birds, bees and bugs, (and bats by night); full of interest all year round, and an absolute joy to sit in or enjoy through the window.
  2. Shun Artificial Grass! The antithesis of green gardening, this horrible product is as bad for wildlife and the environment as it is for people, and inferior to the real thing in every way. Living grass remains cool even in baking hot weather, an important consideration as we face increasingly extreme summers; it absorbs carbon dioxide and releases oxygen through photosynthesis, improving air quality; and, of course, it supports a huge range of organisms. The fake stuff is completely devoid of, indeed discourages, any sort of life; it photo-degrades into micro-plastics to pollute the air, soil and ground-water; and it can become dangerously hot, reaching temperatures in excess of 50 degrees Celsius under strong sun – enough to give first degree burns to your children or pets when they go out to play on it, and I won’t be surprised if it’s banned for domestic use within the next five years due to injury claims. So if you want to enjoy your lawn safely in the midst of a heatwave, either stick with real grass, or find a sympathetic, natural alternative to plastic, like bark chippings or a different ground-cover plant. Camomile lawns, for instance, don’t need mowing, produce pretty white flowers you can use to make camomile tea, and give off a heavenly scent when you walk across them. If maintenance is your big issue with real grass, forget about trying to achieve a weed-free billiard table and embrace informality: only mow every two to three weeks, and appreciate the daisies and pretty yellow miniature chrysanthemums  (as the bees surely will). Longer grass looks attractively natural, is much better for carbon capture, and much healthier for the grass itself – our lawn stayed green, and blessedly cool to walk on, throughout last year’s brutal summer simply because it had missed a cut before the drought really hit, whereas short, newly-mowed lawns fried to a crisp in no time and took months to recover. Further lessen the workload and enhance the effect by leaving uncut wildlife areas; tall waving grasses and flowering weeds look delightful, especially if you toss in a wildflower seed mix, and make a great haven for butterflies, moths and beetles. DSCN5344And for the ultimate in lawn-labour-saving, ditch your old, cumbersome mower and switch to a battery model. They’re cheaper to run than petrol or mains electric, light enough for a child to use, and make grass-cutting a positive pleasure (the fragrance! the nice stripy effect! the satisfaction of a job well done!) – not to mention good healthy fresh-air exercise. How can nasty plastic compete with that?!
  3. Have As Many Water Butts As You Reasonably Can. Rainwater might be a renewable resource but it’s an unpredictable one, as we saw last year to great cost – yet still we take this vital asset for granted and squander it in disgraceful quantity. So it’s prudent to future-proof against drought by maximising your rainwater catchment, whether in water-butts or sunken tanks – it’ll help keep your garden alive in the event of severe shortages and water rationing.
  4. Encourage Biodiversity. Mother Nature really needs a big helping hand, so plant your garden to provide year-round shelter and food – nectar, berries and seeds -for as many creatures as possible. Around ours, as well as front and side hedges, big ivies, and several  trees or large shrubs where birds can nest, we’ve put up bird-boxes and a wren-pot, plus a hedgehog box and several bug-hotels. And since Hubcap was so surprised and delighted to see swifts back on the estate this summer, for Christmas he’s asked for two swift bricks which our neighbour will install in our gable wall in return for a brick for his own house. Then with any luck, next year the swifts will spot these new nesting sites and set up a little colony – or if they don’t, we’ll buy a swift-call lure to entice them! We also provide year-round fresh water and good-quality food: for the birds, sunflower hearts, mealworms, fat blocks and fat balls (always in a proper feeder, never the individual plastic nets in which they can become entangled and die), and Spike’s semi-moist pellets for the hedgehog. Meat-based cat or dog food does just as well, but never give hedgehogs milk, (they’re lactose intolerant and it can kill them), bread, or mealworms, (which prevent them from absorbing vital nutrients). The result? We’re blessed with a miniature Garden of Eden, teeming with wildlife great and small. The downside? Blackbirds pinch our soft fruit, mice gnaw our best hessian sacks, and there’s bird-splat (spectacularly purple in elderberry season) and hog-poop everywhere – but we wouldn’t have it any other way. We feel privileged to help struggling species, and in return we get to watch all the wonderful drama  of their lives, every day, played out in front of our windows.  Yes: the more biodiverse you make your garden, the more you’ll help nature – and the more you’ll enjoy it!
  5. Don’t Freak Out Over Stingy Things. Swarm of honeybees trying to nest on your house or in your garden? Don’t panic! Above all, don’t kill them (or call in a pest exterminator to do it). Bee numbers have taken such a battering in recent years that we can’t afford to lose any more of their precious little lives – just ring your local Beekeepers Association, and someone will gladly come and take the colony away for you, free of charge, and find it a good home. What about wasps? Again, don’t panic! Shrieking and flailing about are sure-fire ways to scare or annoy a wasp into stinging you.  And please don’t kill them in the mistaken belief that it’s essential – humans and wasps can co-exist quite safely and happily. (Hubcap and I have both lived for years with a wasps’ nest in either our loft or garden without either party being aware of, or bothered by, the other’s existence; we find that, by and large, if you leave wasps alone, they leave you alone). Besides, they’re an essential part of any green garden’s eco-system, and valuable workmates for any gardener: ferocious hunters of pests like aphids, and ravenous scavengers who clear away rotting fruit and carrion, bit by tiny bit, to feed to their grubs – all tremendous fun to watch, too. So do tolerate these amazing insects if you possibly can – you may even learn to love them, as I do – and look out for my forthcoming blog in praise of the much-maligned wasp. Happy green gardening!

Richard III: Bound by Loyalty?

What do you do if someone you love marries someone you think is, at best, deeply unsuitable, or at worst, deeply despicable?

The only answer, if you want to remain close to your loved one, is to put your feelings aside for their sake, and try to develop civilised relations with your unwelcome in-laws – especially if said loved one is an absolute monarch, and their unsuitable spouse your new queen.

Such was the situation in which the 12-year-old Richard, Duke of Gloucester, found himself in 1464, when news broke that his eldest brother, King Edward IV, had secretly married a Lancastrian widow, Elizabeth Grey (née Woodville). While other, older members of his family (with good reason) openly opposed the match, Richard was apparently wise, tactful, or perhaps simply devoted enough to Edward to keep his own counsel – history records no evidence of hostility between Gloucester and his Woodville in-laws prior to 1483, whereas his kinsman and erstwhile tutor Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick, was killed in rebellion against the king in 1471, and his elder brother George, Duke of Clarence, was executed for treason (possibly at the queen’s instigation) in 1478.

Richard’s unswerving support throughout Edward’s life is entirely consistent with the famous motto he adopted as an adult, Loyaulté me lie. Most commonly translated as ‘Loyalty binds me,’ this has an alternative and less well-known translation: ‘Justice rejoices me.’ (See Sutton & Visser-Fuchs, p. 271 – 74, for a fascinating discussion of Richard’s mottoes). Both meanings fit well with Richard’s documented interest in the law, and his attempts to emulate his revered late father Richard, Duke of York, in meriting high honour through the exercise of good lordship, fulfilment of obligations to superiors and inferiors, maintenance of the king’s peace, and dispensation of impartial justice.

Richard may well have known and used Loyaulte me lie earlier than 1483 in sources either lost or yet to be discovered, but its known survivals all date to the period from Edward IV’s death through to Richard’s own reign  – including its appearance, bracketed with his signature, on a scrap of paper also bearing the signatures of his nephew Edward V, and his then ally Henry Stafford, Duke of Buckingham.

To me, this casts another, far more sinister light on an innocuous phrase, akin to the undertones of ‘A Lannister always pays his debts’ in Game of Thrones. Loyalty might have bound Richard to Edward – but it had also bound his hands, rendering him incapable of acting against the Woodvilles unless and until his brother died. Richard’s actions after this unexpectedly occurred on 9th April 1483 suggest that he had always hated and distrusted the queen and her large, acquisitive family, and longed to take revenge for their presumption, the attendant loss of prestige to the House of York, and the execution of his brother Clarence; he may also have blamed his brother-in-law Anthony Woodville, Earl Rivers, in particular, for hastening Edward’s death by encouraging him in debauchery. Certainly, within a few months of the latter’s demise, Richard had arrested and subsequently executed both Rivers and Richard Grey, a nephew from the queen’s first marriage; attempted to capture another brother-in-law, Edward Woodville (Lord Scales); deposed one nephew, and possibly disposed of him too, along with his younger brother, Richard, Duke of York.

So I find it hard to believe that Richard, a subtle and highly intelligent man, was not aware of, (and secretly amused by), the dark sub-text of his chosen motto – because clearly, the loyalty that bound him from April 1483 to the end of his life on 22nd August 1485 was not to his misbegotten nephew, the uncrowned Edward V. It was to the House of York and his own blood family, while the justice that rejoiced him was giving his rapacious in-laws their just desserts, and saving his country from the rule of an illegitimate Woodville king.

References: Anne Sutton & Livia Visser-Fuchs, Richard III’s Books, 1997, Sutton Publishing Ltd

Cat-sick

Today, 4 am: ‘Waaoow!’ The gentle patter of rain is rent by mournful cries as Henry Wowler yells his ‘wet-wah’ up at our open bedroom window. ‘Waaoow?’
Hubcap sighs. ‘Shall I give him his breakfast?’
‘If you like,’ I reply.
Hubcap returns in due course. ‘Soaked, starving and hysterical,’ he says. ‘There was half a mouse and a big pile of mouse-vom in the middle of the rug – It’s a wonder I didn’t step in it.’
It makes such a nice change for Hubcap to rise first and deal with one of the early-morning horrors our cat-son regularly presents me with that I laugh in the dark. ‘Welcome to my world.’

4.25 am: ‘Waaow! Waaaooow!’ Oh God, not again… it’s going to be one of THOSE nights. Before he wakes the entire neighbourhood, I stumble out of bed and say, ‘I’ll go downstairs and sleep with him.’
To my surprise, I find Henry isn’t particularly wet – but he claims, loudly and repeatedly, to be insufficiently fed. Guessing that Daddy-cat forgot to give him dessert, I administer his daily ration of dental biscuits and a little extra cat-food, then tuck myself up on the couch. Normally, Henry would leap aboard in great delight and sleep in my armpit for as long as I’d let him – but not today. No, today he prises the living room door open, scratches noisily on the hall carpet and thunders upstairs.
In a vain attempt to stop him disturbing Daddy-cat again, I follow, return to bed and invite him to lie on my chest. Henry tramples it briefly then retreats to lie on my feet in the most uncomfortable position possible. I move to make space for him at the foot of the bed. For five minutes it seems he’s gone to sleep. Then thu-dub! He lands on the floor and starts shouting again.
‘*%!?@*!!!!’ Daddy-cat shouts back. Henry flees. I follow him down to the kitchen, (good grief, he thinks he’s going to get more food), shut the door on him, go back to bed and callously shut the window against further outcry.

6 am: The alarm goes off. Feeling jaded and irritable, I head downstairs to make our breakfast and discover that Henry Wowler, in great chagrin, has scratted up the duct-tape repair on the old lino ripped by previous scratting (roll on retirement/installation of new kitchen with tiled or laminate floor) so that I struggle to open the door between living room and kitchen. Threading dangerously between my feet, he pleads loudly for yet more food. On the basis that he had, after all, sicked up last night’s supper, I relent and give him a little – for which Daddy-cat rebukes me. It transpires that actually, as well as a generous breakfast, he HAD given Henry his dental biscuits – so as well as both of us being disturbed and sleep-deprived, I’ve been conned out of extra extra food. So when the cat-pig finally settles down in his accustomed place on our bed and goes smugly to sleep, I take revenge and apply spot-on wormer to the back of his head – and laugh when it makes him get up and go off in a huff.

Beating the Heatwave: my Top Tips for Garden Survival

This summer has been hard on us gardeners, sweating out in the merciless sun every day; but it’s been even harder on our poor scorched gardens. Instead of our usual grass-cutting work, which has literally dried up, we’re mainly clearing the dead leaves drifting down in this super-hot, pseudo-autumn – and doing our level best to help plants and wildlife survive it. So I thought I’d share with you a few top tips to help your garden beat the heatwave:

Plant Survival Tips:
Lawns: if it’s got any green left, don’t mow it! Our completely un-watered pocket-handkerchief lawn is still remarkably lush because, luckily, we didn’t give it ‘just one last cut’ before the extreme heat really started to bite. Shaggy green patches with daisies and clover look pretty enough, they’re providing food for insects and birds, and above all, they’re keeping your lawn alive – if you mow them down it’ll all simply frazzle to uniform brown and take longer to recover when the drought finally breaks. Meanwhile, don’t bother trying to keep it all green with sprinklers – it’ll use a colossal amount of precious water which would be better deployed on your herbaceous borders.

Hedges and Shrubs: help reduce their need for water and energy by snipping back spindly ‘water shoots,’ dead-heading, and removing yellow/shrivelled/diseased leaves. Don’t cut anything back hard – the cut leaves will dry out and look unsightly because the plants don’t have enough water for re-growth.

Borders: despite the long dry spell, our gardens are currently infested with self-set tree seedlings and various weeds, all competing for scarce water – so pull ‘em out! But you might make exceptions for hard standing; some flowering weeds are pretty little plants which can brighten up dull bits of paving, and their seeds – including grasses – are food for the birds.

All these measures will help your garden and its population of creatures weather the extreme weather; but in the continuing absence of rain, plants also need to be watered. This is far from wasteful or frivolous – entire ecosystems depend on your garden’s survival. Equally, during a drought it behoves us all to conserve water as much as possible – so here are some tips for making the most of this much taken-for-granted essential:

Watering Tips:
Water in the evening when the soil is cooling – this maximises the time for overnight absorption before the sun rises again and water evaporates off the surface – or failing that, in the early morning. On sloping ground, apply uphill of the plants so that the water runs down onto/through them.

Water selectively. Prioritise food plants (it’s a great year for soft fruit!), flowering plants and shrubs whose nectar feeds the insects which feed the birds, bats and hedgehogs, plants in containers (especially small pots, which dry out fast and need watering daily), and the most wilted or tired-looking things in imminent danger of death.

Water in rotation if there’s too much to do all at once – it’s better for a plant to be watered once a week than not at all, and even trees or deep-rooted shrubs will appreciate a drink in this weather.
Water hard, baked ground in small repeated doses, allowing time for water to soak in before the next application (or it’ll run off and pool where you don’t want it). When the soil has softened enough, break it up with a fork or hoe to facilitate penetration, then water again. As well as stimulating earthworm activity, for which the blackbirds will thank you, this prepares the soil to receive future watering, and the rain, when it comes, will soak in rather than bouncing off a compact surface.

Apply mulch! Water the ground, not the foliage, around the main stems or in the centre of a clump, then immediately cover the wet earth with a mulch of grass clippings, leaves, bark chippings, turf – you can even use newspaper or cardboard to trap the moisture in. We find a mulch of grass clippings covered by dead turves (soil-side up) works a treat in our orchard; originally applied to stop the resident pheasants from taking dust-baths round the saplings and exposing their roots, it’s enabling the trees to survive and fruit nicely on a half-gallon of water a week – we just lift up a section and pour it onto earth that’s often still perceptibly moist from the last application.

Avoid guilt about watering the garden by saving water in the house! We try never to waste our clean water or take it for granted, and have stepped up our efforts to save it since the Big Hot started. Taking brief showers, never baths – and if I’m not particularly dirty I just scrub myself down with a basin of water and a flannel. Not flushing the loo for a few tiny tinkles, (luckily no-one in Helmickton is grossed-out by this!). And we’re both obsessive about saving the water from rinsing hands, glasses, vegetables, running the tap to get hot or cold and so on – it collects in a washing-up bowl to be poured in turn on the raspberry canes, blackcurrant bush, apple trees or whatever looks most in need. (We don’t use washing up water containing detergent; some sources say it does no harm, but Hubcap fears it may kill essential soil bacteria.

Finally, remember the birds, bees and beasts struggling to find food and drink in these arid conditions. Fill your bird-baths daily, keep the feeders topped up, put some appropriate food and a shallow dish of water (never milk!) out for hedgehogs, pray for some meaningful rain… and with care, everything in your garden will survive until it comes!

Why I’m Not Watching That Wedding

Today I will definitely not be one of the zillions of people worldwide sitting glued to a screen to watch the royal wedding.

It’s not that I have anything against Prince Harry. On the contrary. I’ve always thought he and Prince William seemed like decent young blokes – refreshingly normal, free from the stiffness and strangulated vowels that make some of their relatives painful to hear and behold, and so confident, relaxed and media-savvy that they’re the only royals I’ve ever really enjoyed watching on TV (their double act is particularly amusing).

I don’t have anything against Meghan Markle, either. On the contrary. She seems like a decent young woman, she’s used to being in the public eye, and she’ll doubtless make the most of her position to do good for the humanitarian causes she and her new husband care about. Plus I’m glad that their marriage is a nice smack in the eye for the ‘ain’t no black in the Union Jack’ brigade – and that now there IS some black in the Royal Standard. Ha ha hurrah.

Nor do I have anything against the Queen or royal family as a whole – though I do find the institution of monarchy a bizarre anachronism, a medieval throwback as outdated as the Doctrine of Signatures and completely superfluous to the running of a country. It might be part of our history and heritage – but so were public executions, bear-baiting, ducking scolds and committing unmarried mothers to Bedlam. The idea of being ‘subject’ to the Crown is repugnant to me; like Hawkeye in ‘Last of the Mohicans,’ I don’t consider myself subject to much at all (apart from the law). Our monarchy has caused enormous personal unhappiness to many of its members including Princess Margaret, (prevented from marrying the divorcé she loved), Diana, Princess of Wales, (driven into despair, eating disorders and suicidal impulses), and Prince Harry, (an able, well-liked and respected officer, forced to give up a promising career in active service because his royalty made him too great a target for terrorists and thereby too great a risk to his men) – and Prince William obviously doesn’t relish the prospect of becoming king one day, although no doubt duty will constrain him to it. So no, I don’t like the monarchy. I’m sure Britain would rub along just fine without it, and that tourists would still come to gaze upon our palaces and castles and spend their precious dollars and yen on tacky souvenirs and picture postcards. Still, we do need a Head of State, and the perils of electing one are horribly plain in today’s world; so since (alas) we can’t have Justin Trudeau, I guess I prefer a member of the House of Windsor than risk having Britain’s whimsical, unpredictable electorate inflict a self-seeking muppet like Nigel Farage, some moronic reality-TV ‘celebrity’ or a barely-articulate sports ‘personality’ on the nation.

But what I really, REALLY hate is the obnoxious cult of royal-worship whipped up by our cynical, sycophantic mass-media. I’ve always loathed having things rammed down my throat (that’s why I’ve never to this day been able to watch the movie ‘E.T.’) – there’s nothing more likely to infuriate and turn me off than endless advertising and saturation coverage. I don’t feel like celebrating something which is costing so much money at a time of so much more pressing national need. I’m not interested in the nuptials of people I don’t know and never will, much less in watching hours of incredibly boring preamble, the footage of gathering crowds and tedious vox pop interviews. I don’t give a flying eff about sad gits who travel hundreds of miles to camp for days on the pavements whence Windsor’s homeless were recently evicted in the hope of glimpsing, for a few seconds, someone famous as they drive past. And I can only pity poor Thomas Markle, a quiet, private individual now linked by his daughter’s marriage to one of the most famous and most scrutinised families in the world, and sucked into the ghastly media circus which will surround her, prying, praising and decrying, for the rest of her life.

Bleah. It makes me puke. I don’t know which I despise more, the media or the pathetic nosy obsessives who like to think of themselves as royalists, but whose appetites for the ever-more candid (ie intrusive) exposé fuel the paparazzi – the people collectively responsible for killing the woman who should have become Meghan’s mother-in-law today, and for plunging Britain into its morbid, breast-beating guilt-trip back in 1997. I refuse to be a part of it – so while the ‘fans’ lap up every last drop of the media drool, I’m off to do something more constructive with my day.

A Happy Gardener

After my abrupt, unplanned career change in September 2017, (from freelance writer, Wars of the Roses interpreter/walk guide, funeral celebrant and general rent-a-gob  to full-time professional gardener), a friend and regular client told me, ‘You’re such a good public speaker, you’re wasted on gardening.’

I was extremely touched by his kind compliment – but explained that, although I’ll always enjoy doing speaking engagements, for many reasons I felt happy to let that part of my career come (largely) to a natural end. And here’s one of them…

I dare say my dear late friend Kate would’ve laughed like a drain (in a sympathetic way) to hear of the travails that preceded her funeral service this morning. As celebrant, I set off early enough to make the 50-odd minute journey to Doncaster’s Rose Hill Crematorium with a good half-hour in hand to compose myself, confirm final arrangements, meet Kate’s guitarist friend, Roy, who’d be playing her in with a heartfelt blues instrumental, and prepare myself in a suitably relaxed, respectful way.

On previous occasions when I – and Roy – have done services at Rose Hill, that’s pretty much what happened. But not today. Today, to my horror, I found the A638 out of Wakefield gridlocked, my lane blocked by a broken-down truck. Instant mega-stress. Map-less, sat-nav-less, (well, I thought I knew where I was going), I was too distracted and panicky to work out the obvious alternative: simply hang a left and take the M62 and A1 South. No, I queued for 20 agonising minutes, wringing my hands and muttering uselessly, ‘Please please please move,’ before I got round the obstruction and back on my road where, police or no police behind me, I floored it. At least, (barring further incident), I knew I’d be there to start the service on time; but as for arriving in a suitably composed and dignified fashion – it was way too late for that.

Unlike on previous occasions, I didn’t take a wrong turn or go to the wrong car-park. Arriving with a quarter-hour to spare, (phew!) it turned out I did have time to greet a few people, go to the loo, get a cup of water, and lay out my orders of service. And, luckily, to check the music running-order, because there’d been a slight mistake which we soon rectified. What I didn’t have, as the minutes ticked on, was a musician… Luckily the unflappable crematorium assistant stopped me having hysterics by substituting a terrific blues track; I was too flustered to mention it at the requisite point in the service, but if you were there and wondered about it, the song was ‘Sad Sad Day’ by Muddy Waters. I hope Kate would have approved.

Meanwhile her cortege had arrived, but still no Roy. So we went with his understudy Muddy, and kept Kate waiting at the gate while we fannied about with the sound system. From that point on, things settled down and resumed their expected order and pace. Then, part-way into the service, someone came in: tall, cowboy hat, dressed all in black. Even without seeing his Facebook photo I’d have recognised Roy – looking like that, he just had to be a musician. I later discovered he’d also been having the morning from hell, including breaking a guitar string shortly before he was due to set off – hence his failure to turn up as planned. He stood considerately at the back while I managed to get through the important bits without my voice breaking. It was a different matter the second I got out of the chapel – I clung onto and blubbed freely over friend, acquaintance and stranger alike if they said a kind word. But the tabby cat who wandered in as we were leaving cheered me up – cat-mad Kate would have liked that. (I hope she would’ve liked the service, too).

Maybe if I hadn’t had such a stressful start to the day I’d have enjoyed going on to Kate’s wake to give her an appropriate send-off (she loved a bevvy, did our Kate). But I was so drained I just Wanted To Go Home in the worst way, so I gave it a miss and headed straight back to Wakefield. And at first the drive was just fine, until I ran up against a new road closure on the A638 at Wragby and had to make a diversion…

I won’t bore you with further details; suffice to say, by the time I reached The Three Houses on Barnsley Road a couple of miles from home, I was screaming with frustration. So the first thing I did when I came in was to raise a very stiff drink to Kate in lieu of going to her wake, and neck it down PDQ; and several hours later, calmed down and half-cut on Hubcap’s Jagermeister, I can laugh – as Kate no doubt would – over these funeral farces. But it wasn’t very funny at the time… my pet hates are being late, stuck in unexpected traffic, and keeping people waiting, especially for something as important as a funeral.

So that’s partly the reason, dear reader, why I’m now such a happy gardener: it doesn’t much matter if I turn up a bit late, and the only thing I have to worry about is the weather.

Henry Hates Firework Nights

Now that Slack-jawed Selfish Morons’ Firework Season (run-up to Hallowe’en, Hallowe’en, run-up to Bonfire Night, Bonfire Night, numerous extra Bonfire Nights for people unable to celebrate on November 5th, run-up to Christmas, Christmas, post-Christmas, run-up to New Year’s Eve, New Year’s Eve, post-New Year’s Eve, plus random explosions in between times) is in full swing, Henry Wowler has to spend most evenings cowering in his safety box under our bed – and given the propensity of said selfish morons to continue letting off bangers till midnight, we don’t have the heart to evict the poor little chap.

On such occasions, when he eventually feels it’s safe to emerge and wants Mummy-cat to take him downstairs and administer bedtime biscuits, he usually sits at the foot of the bed whispering, ‘Mrrp? Mrrp?’ in a very small voice until I awake. But last night, he mrrped to no avail – both worn-out cat-parents were too fast asleep to hear him; so the first I knew of his wakefulness and desire for attention was when he jumped on the bed, landed on my feet and snuggled down in the space between our legs. I stroked him. He purred. I thought, ‘Aw. This is OK – I can cope if he settles there,’ and went back to sleep (after throwing back the bedspread and sticking one leg out from under the duvet to compensate for the extra heat generated by his large furry presence).

But he didn’t settle there, of course. Night is his time to do cat stuff; so shortly he got up, went out in the pouring rain for a while, then came back upstairs shouting, ‘Wet!’ I ignored him, and- aha! Instead of pestering on to be mopped dry, he dealt with the situation himself, allowing me to doze off again to the slight, soothing sound of a washing cat. But of course the peace didn’t last – soon Henry was wowling again, obliging me to arise before he woke Daddy-cat too, escort him downstairs, give him some fuss, then lure him into the kitchen with the usual biscuit bribe and shut the door firmly behind me.

All this took place between 10.30 pm and 1.40 am; and this, dear reader, is the reason why on normal nights, if Mr Wowler tries to evade the normal nightly routine of being confined to the kitchen by hiding under our bed, he gets prodded out with a longbow…

Feline Friends!

Henry Wowler doesn’t take kindly to strangers on his patch. If visitors are human, his normal response is to hide in his safety box under our bed and sulk until they go home. If they’re feline, he’ll caterwaul terrible songs of hate and retribution at them; and if that doesn’t work, he takes more positive action. Given that he’s twice the size of most of our neighbourhood moggies, seeing the feline equivalent of a Rottweiler (sixteen pounds of spectacularly fuzzed-out Wowler) charging towards them at high speed generally suffices to see them off the premises pretty damn quick – and if that fails, he won’t baulk at resorting to violence.

So it was with some trepidation that I noticed the new kid on the block – a sparky ginger tom-kitten – had taken to exploring our garden. Last week he got stuck on the roof of our wood-box, and was so over-excited, fighty and bitey when I tried to rescue him that I had to don heavy leather gardening gloves in order to pick him up. Yesterday afternoon GK (Ginger Kitten) was back again; and when I went upstairs I was surprised to find Henry sitting on the bedroom window-sill watching him potter about down below. Not fluffed up, or growling, or even lashing his tail – just watching with mild interest, which was extremely unusual.

At tea-time, with Wowler in his customary early-evening position on my lap, the young intruder returned. This time his reaction was what we’ve come to expect: he sat bolt upright, glaring; then dismounted and sat by the patio window, yowling.

“I’m not letting you out, Henry,” said Daddy-cat. “If you want to see him off you’ll have to use your cat-flap.” While Henry thought about this, the undaunted GK came up and inspected him through the glass, then began frolicking around the patio clearly wanting to play. Henry stopped yowling and watched. Intrigued, I took a jingly ball outside and entertained GK with it, wondering if Wowler would follow; but no, he just continued to watch.

I petted GK as he twined round my ankles, then went back indoors. “This is what he smells like,” I said to Henry. He sniffed my hand. Finally, as the kitten went on cavorting, he could stand it no longer. Hubcap and I looked at each other as the cat-flap clicked, expecting the usual mayhem and braced to rescue GK if the Wowler tried to savage him. But to our utter astonishment, he simply strolled up and held out his nose. So did GK. A mutual bottom inspection followed. “They’re greeting!” I gasped. Then came a slight laying back of ears and batting with forepaws; then Henry bounced away with his tail in the air, hotly pursued by the kitten; then the kitten came back into view, hotly pursued by Henry.

Hubcap and I watched entranced. The only other cat Wowler normally tolerates is the ginger tom from three doors down, who we’ve always jokingly referred to as Henry’s dad (as he may well be); but they don’t cosy up or play together, they just hang out in a companionable, blokey sort of way. So this was the first time in six years that we’ve ever seen Henry larking about with another feline, apparently enjoying its company, (admittedly, he did fetch GK one good clip round the ear that elicited a cry of protest, but it was no more than an uppity kitten deserved).

Delighted, I went out to fuss them both, and my amazement was complete when Henry flopped down on his back, giving the full social roll. Playful chasing then continued until Henry, in wild excitement, leapt into Hubcap’s wheelbarrow so forcefully that it overturned and scared him back into the house.

The episode was no fluke or one-off. This morning GK came back, peering in through the patio door obviously looking for his playmate. I let him in, entertained him with a piece of string, then led him to our bedroom where the Wow was asleep on the bed; and when he eventually woke and condescended to notice, another amicable meeting and greeting took place, followed by more outdoor play. It can’t just be down to GK’s youth and smallness – Henry has hated our opposite neighbour’s lovely lavender-grey pair, Boris and Doris, and chased them off with extreme prejudice ever since they were the same age as this little lad. So I can’t help but wonder whether they belong to some secret League of Red-headed Cats – whether Henry recognises GK as a fellow ginge and, like Tormund in Game of Thrones, finds him ‘kissed by fire’ and beautiful.

Whatever, at long last it seems our anti-social Wowler has a real cat-pal – and I’m chuffed to bits!

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Change of Life

What a difference a day makes…

On September 12th, my main job was working from home as a freelance writer and speaker. On September 13th, my main job became working outdoors as a full-time assistant gardener, a drastic change that happened literally from one moment to the next, and for the saddest of reasons: early that morning, my husband’s sole employee and workmate Mark was taken ill, (we assumed with a heart attack), and rushed to hospital. Knowing Hubcap would never manage the day’s schedule alone, I abandoned my plans and hurried out with him to help. Then at around ten-thirty we received awful, shocking news: Mark had died in the ambulance – almost certainly the one Mick saw racing past on the main road, sirens blaring, while he was at his first job – before even leaving our street.

It was impossible to take in. We’d envisaged him having an operation, convalescing, making a good recovery and, eventually, returning to work on light duties. We’d planned to find out about sick pay, something Hubcap had never dealt with before because Mark had the constitution of an ox, and seldom missed a day’s work though illness. I’d expected to give only short-term emergency cover, and perhaps to carry on part-time if he wanted to reduce his hours. Now all that was suddenly wiped out. Hubcap’s assistant for twenty-five years, a guest at our wedding, a near neighbour I’d seen or spoken to almost daily since 2005, and worked with on many occasions – he was suddenly gone, completely and forever. It felt surreal, dislocating, unbelievable; I had exchanged greetings and a brief chat with Mark only eighteen hours ago – it seemed impossible that he could be dead.

But he was; and being stuck out in mid-job, we had to stop floundering and deal with the new reality we’d been so shockingly catapulted into. Our immediate problem was to get round all the customers waiting for their gardens to be done as usual, not just today but for the rest of the week and the foreseeable future. My immediate solution was offering to step in as a trainee replacement. Gardening is, after all, our bread-and-butter; my freelance ventures, with their wildly unpredictable and often minimal returns, have only ever been the jam. So instantly changing profession made sense, even though I knew it would be very arduous work, requiring total commitment and leaving me little time or energy for anything else.

This may sound an extreme, perhaps ill-advised course; however, if you follow my website or blogs about Beckside, our nascent smallholding, you may not be too surprised by the decision. Gardening has long been a favourite hobby; I’ve done casual work in the business for over a decade – especially in the past two years since my hip replacement restored me to full vigour – and thanks to re-enacting and land work, I’m well used to (and can enjoy) long days of physical graft. So I’m not risking my health by leaping straight from a desk job into full-time hard labour; it’s more like expanding some leisure pursuits into my main paid occupation – and thankfully, so far, so good.

There is a price to pay: I had to close my funeral celebrancy business straight away, (although I’ll still perform the odd service for friends and sell Safehands Funeral Plans). I also cut back on Herstory services including lectures and guided walks, as you’ll see on the pruned-down and updated website; it really goes against the grain to turn down further talk requests, but on weekdays I’ll be too unavailable, and most evenings I’ll be too shattered to go out again and try to entertain an audience. I’m even selling my male re-enactment kit because I can’t imagine ever doing battle or cross-dressing for a schools presentation again, (but I’ll never give up archery or sell my beloved longbow!). And while I doubt I’ll manage to publish any new books before we retire in 2020, I’ll keep selling all my current catalogue and writing for fun in the meantime.

What a difference a day makes, indeed. And while I’m enjoying the challenges of this new lifestyle, I sincerely wish that it hadn’t come about under such tragic circumstances… yes, RIP, Mark.

Old School Days – and what a night!

If you went to a grammar school between the late 1950’s and early 70’s, the following speech may ring some bells: I had the privilege of delivering it at an amazing event on September 9th, and reproduce it here in the hope of entertaining members of the Final Forms 1A, 1B and 1C at Clee Girls’ Grammar who were unable to make it – as well as anyone else lucky enough to have fond memories of this sort of good old-fashioned education.

Well hello, Clementinas! Who’d have thought it, eh? 45 years later, almost to the day, and here we all are again – a whole classroom full, a third of the entire first year intake of 1972!

This is a very special occasion because we were a very special year – not just because we’re all so awesome, but because we were the last ever First Forms in the 46-year history of Cleethorpes Girls’ Grammar School.  So I’d like to start by thanking all of you for coming to this Big Reunion, and particularly those of you who made it happen. That’s primarily Carolyn Allison, Linda Dye and Kay Edwards – no offence to spouses, but to save confusion (not least my own) I’m going to stick to maiden names tonight. Those three did a sterling job in tracking so many of us down, although I know most people were able to add at least one contact to our burgeoning virtual First Form – so thanks to you, too. Thanks are also due to Carolyn and Kay for sorting out the venue and payments, to Carole Buckley for organising the music, and everyone who suggested songs for the playlist. I’d also like to say a particularly big personal thank-you to Carolyn for giving me the opportunity to make this speech. As some of you know, I work as a freelance speaker – basically, a gob-for-hire – and few things give me greater pleasure than the sound of my own voice and a captive audience to listen to it! So please charge your glasses for our first toast: Thanks, Everybody!

If I ever hear someone say, ‘Schooldays are the happiest days of your life,’ it’s always my year at the Girls’ Grammar I think of – it was certainly the best and happiest year I ever spent at school. For a swotty kid devoted to Enid Blyton’s Twins at St Clare’s stories, Clee Grammar was hog heaven and I was absolutely thrilled to go there… even though I was scared shitless too, because it all sounded so strict and formal, and I thought everyone except me would be terribly posh. I vividly remember that great long uniform list arriving, and Mum taking me to Lawson & Stockdale in Grimsby to buy everything… then being petrified that the metal eyelets on my plain black lace-up shoes made them too fancy and I’d get sent home! I don’t know whose bright idea it was to dress 400 adolescent girls entirely in petroleum by-products, but I’ll say one thing for that uniform – it was bloody hard-wearing (I still wore that hooded tracksuit top to go jogging when I was well into my twenties).

I also vividly remember my first day in 1A, surnames A to H: there we all were, 26 eleven and twelve year-olds in our white polo-necks and ankle-length navy gymslips turned up with about eighteen inches of hem – plenty of growing room so they’d last us right through to 5th form – with enormous sturdy blue knickers underneath. Dear Miss Hutton of the tweedy suits was our form mistress, and I remember the shock when she wrote that 6-day timetable on the board for us to copy – I thought, ‘God, does that mean we come to school on Saturdays?’ And I remember the first words I ever whispered across the aisle to Carole Buckley in my best attempt at a posh voice: ‘Excuse me, can you tell me what computation is?’ As you may recall, it turned out to be doing sums on those strange contraptions like bus conductors’ ticket machines, something I’d never encountered before – or, indeed, since – and I can’t say I’m sorry that the advent of the pocket calculator very soon rendered them obsolete!

They were such innocent days in a much simpler time, which seems so quaint and antiquated compared with 21st century schools – no such things as computers and smart-screens, classroom assistants, mobile phones or cyber-bullying. No, ours were the days of blackboard and chalk, Quink and fountain pens and blotting paper, slide rules and leather satchels…  Days of discipline and respect, when we expected to leap to our feet whenever a teacher came into the room, to do several hours of homework a night, and deliver it on time – for which we were rewarded by being treated as responsible secondary pupils and trusted to stay in at break times – a wonderful relief after all those junior years of being evicted to the playground! They were the days when we all read the same things: comics like Bunty and Judy, and of course Jackie magazine, poring over the Cathy & Clare problem page to see if it held any answers for us, and trading the free gifts of plastic jewellery and little pots of make-up. Days when we all watched Top of the Pops and the Partridge Family, Blue Peter and Magpie, listened to Ed Stewart and Kid Jensen, and cut out the pictures of favourites like Donny and David, and stuck them inside our desk lids.

Yes, it was an unforgettable year in so many ways. I never admitted to this at the time, but I was thrilled to discover that our science teacher would be one Mr Hunter, who wore a pale blue tweed jacket the same colour as his eyes – I’d had a secret crush on him ever since I saw him conducting a choir at an inter-schools choral performance when I was at Reynolds Street Juniors. So I later felt terribly guilty when I heard that our high-spirited antics – including POCTWA, the Prevention of Cruelty to Worms Association, founded by Debra Gray and Michelle Dobson – drove the poor man into a nervous breakdown. I remember going to our First Form ‘Cowboys & Indians’ themed fancy-dress Christmas party wearing a big black fuzzy fake moustache and dancing to Crocodile Rock – Kim Akrill was there sporting a real gun-belt, and lovely Mrs McCleary the English teacher in a black Stetson hat complete with a Western drawl and a cheroot stuck in the corner of her mouth. Then there was our school concert, when 1A’s song was ‘Lemon Tree,’ accompanied by Carole Buckley on guitar… I still remember the looks of consternation we exchanged as she struck up the first chords and her guitar was out of tune… and, ladies, I have a confession to make: that was My Bad. I’d been standing idly fiddling with her tuning knobs as we waited for our turn to perform. When the implications sank in, I tried desperately to put them back to their original position, but it didn’t quite work… so if we didn’t win I’m afraid it was All My Fault.

I remember hockey in winter, and tennis in summer; the horror of gym in that ghastly towelling jumpsuit, and making the wrap-around skirt to go over it in Needlework – an experience which seems to have left lasting scars on many of us. I remember cookery, which I adored: making scrambled egg in our first lesson, and later various different types of sponge cake, including a rather rubbery Swiss roll. I remember learning the recorder, with all of us sitting there in music class tootling the Skye Boat Song, Greensleeves and Turkey in the Straw – and that lovely occasion in the winter term when we were taken into Grimsby to sing carols with the Salvation Army under the big Christmas tree in St James’ Square. And of course, who could forget the redoubtable Dorothy Vallins, ‘the Dev,’ in her pink and purple check suit trilling to us in assembly that we were ‘la crème de la crème, girls – la crème de la crème!’ Although oddly enough, despite all these vivid memories, I’ve completely forgotten the tune and every word of our school song – so you may be relieved to hear I won’t be leading you in that tonight.

But I do remember many people who can’t be with us tonight, in some cases because they live too far away – and what an irony that Claire Draycott and Wendy Skerratt, who were good friends at school, both moved to the other side of the world and now live within striking distance of one another in Australia! In other cases, the reason is very sad. I suppose the law of averages makes it inevitable that some members of any given population will die prematurely through accident or illness, and unfortunately this is true of some of our form-mates including Kim Weed, maths whizz-kid Sharon Pearson, who I remember had a rather atypical crush on Eric Morecambe, and lovely Lynn Sutherland, with whom I used to twag off cross-country and go round to her house to drink coffee… and it’s on behalf of all these fellow pupils, living and passed on, that I’d now like to propose another toast: to absent friends.

I think it’s fair to say that none of us were so keen on what came after that year… although when our beloved Girls’ Grammar morphed into the Lower School of Lindsey Comprehensive, we still had some good times and went on to see each other through all the trials of puberty and adolescence. Spots. First dates. The utter self-conscious misery when spots and dates happened at the same time. The perennial question: ‘Have you started yet?’ Doing a certain exercise and chanting, ‘I must, I must, I must increase my bust.’ Trading nail varnish to mend ladders in the tights we were forever snagging on the old wooden benches and desks… not to mention the sort of embarrassing personal crisis that never seems to happen in adult life, like the sudden snapping of your bra strap or knicker elastic. Playing silly schoolgirl japes with fake ink-blots and the disappearing ink Nicky Fraser once squirted on Mr Smith’s shirt in maths – he wasn’t amused – or our 3rd year piece de resistance, hiding our chairs in the suspended ceiling during one lunch break. So perhaps this is a good time to raise a glass to our long-suffering teachers…

The Upper School brought us the serious growing up stuff, the swotting for exams, the decisions on which options to take and what to do next – and I like to think our old teachers would be proud of the women we’ve become, the things we’ve achieved, and the many and varied paths our lives have taken. Alas, I’d developed such a loathing of Lindsey by the time I finally wiped its dust off my shoes that I made no effort to keep in touch with school chums – unless I bumped into you in the pubs around Grimsby and Cleethorpes – and the idea of coming to any sort of school reunion made me shudder. That is, until Carolyn Allison emailed me out of the blue about 18 months ago… and then came the wonderful excitement of last spring when our virtual First Year started to re-form on Facebook. I still remember the buzz, the thrill of making contact again, of logging on obsessively to find out who else had joined, the fun of sharing our memories and photos – the sheer warmth and sense of fellowship that immediately sprang up between us again, and the plain simple delight I felt at rediscovering old friends and finding out what you’d all been up to. It was one of the best things ever to happen to me on social media, and it reminded me of something I’d lost sight of – to paraphrase Lou Reed: with such perfect days, I’m glad I spent them with you… and I’m very glad you’re all back in my life again now.

So three cheers for Cleethorpes Girls’ Grammar School – and now, 45 years after our first meeting there, I’d like to close with another toast to all Clementina Clees past and present, to our Big Golden Reunion in five years’ time, and many smaller meetings in between – and  to staying in touch!