Life Stories

Nearly all of us have family stories passed down to us through the generations but gradually some element of the story, if not all of it, becomes lost. Over the past twenty years or so our family have written down not only these tales but also a detailed account of our own lives to pass onto future generations. Whether, of course, they will be that interested who can tell but it is quite likely that someone one day will be.

When the family first began to write their life history it felt self-indulgent and embarrassing, and these emotions must be overcome if it is to be successful. Then, of course, there are decisions to be made as to what to include and what to leave out, after all, we all have moments in our lives that we’d rather forget. So, a decision needs to be made whether to go for the ‘warts and all’ approach or to be a little more restrictive in what you have to say. I think it’s important to be cautious, for no-one wants to intentionally hurt others through careless writing or cause a family rift – unless, of course, you seek revenge! If it is selective memories you decide to write about it is equally important to include the lows as well as the highs, otherwise the writing will not sound genuine. None of us, sadly, just sail through life, after all.

My first big low – the death of my girlfriend, Carolyn, aged 14

Your life hasn’t just been one of relationships with people. It has included the places where you have lived, where you studied, where you worked, where you holidayed. I was 37 when I first wrote my story, now aged 70 it’s time for an update. In that thirty-three-year gap I have moved westwards from the Chiltern Hills, where I had lived all my life, to the Cotswolds. I changed careers from the indoor world of retail fashion to my present one of designing and managing gardens. It also includes a two-year stint studying as a full-time student at horticultural college, a couple of years of being involved with the Chelsea Flower Show and working on one of the first garden makeover programmes, Garden Doctors, for Channel 4 television. You and I have lived through a Covid epidemic, witnessed the recent death and funeral of Queen Elizabeth, and part of Europe is at war – all proof that we don’t need to be in our dotage to write down our history. There is no shortage of things to write about!

College days – which one is me?!!


It was my sister who first persuaded my mother and then me
to write our life stories. Strangely, she was surprisingly reticent when it came to writing her own and took some persuading to take part! However, what we have now is a potted history not only of our lives, but also social conditions and changes that span well over one hundred years. An aunt and an older cousin have both added some of their memories too and now that some years have passed since their deaths, as well as my mother’s, these documents become more interesting and more precious with each passing year.

Extract from my mother’s memoir detailing the moment in 1945 when she regained consciousness
from a coma – for the full story of the pioneering treatment she received, click here

One of the stories that had been passed down from my paternal grandmother was the tale of the family’s friendship with a famous poet. The bulk of the story was lost, and we had always assumed that the connection must be with Shelley as the poet’s mother had lived in Marlow, where my grandparents also lived. It was only relatively recently, when researching the family history, that the connection became clear. My grandmother’s cousins had been a close friend of Alfred, Lord Tennyson, the Victorian Poet Laureate. I discovered through this research that our generations weren’t the only ones with lives documented for their friendship with Tennyson, as well as several letters between them, survived in the National Archives. Even better, a memoir had been written by the cousin, later published, which gave delightful insights into their lives: “…there was a constant coming and going between the children of each house, all being equally at home in the other…”

The start of a friendship – to read more about our family connection with Tennyson click here

Regular readers of my blog will know that I spent a lot of my time as a very young man (and now as an old one!) on Exmoor staying and working on a remote hill farm. Although so very different to my own home background and upbringing, I loved the traditional, farming life despite it being such hard work, sometimes in very bleak weather. Now, much of that lifestyle has gone which makes a written record of it all the more valuable – and it is all included as part of my life story. I hadn’t anticipated discovering yet another ancestral cousin had written about his teenage life on Exmoor a hundred years earlier. I also discovered that his sister married and emigrated to New Mexico and published a memoir of her life there in 1898. It seems that writing life histories is a long-established tradition in our family after all! I hadn’t known of the New Mexico connection when I visited there in 1994 – visiting a cousin from another branch of the family who had also emigrated there – even more to go into my updated memoir.

A memoir from an earlier generation

So now that you’re going to write your own historical record what is the best way to preserve it for posterity? A blog, such as this one is a possibility, and it is an easy way to record events along with appropriate photographs. It may not survive long-term as it depends upon the blog hosting company continuing indefinitely to exist. The same applies to any form of digital storage: in my lifetime we’ve gone from reel-to-reel tape recording to cassette tape recording. Then we became computerised, and storage moved from floppy disk to cd-rom to memory stick. Now only the latter is in common use (how many younger people even know what a floppy disk is?) and that is almost certainly to change. I shall continue to type my memoir with photos attached although hand-written would be even better for it gives a deeper insight into someone’s character as well as looking nicer on the page. Part of the pleasure of reading my mother’s story is that it is in her own handwriting, and it is easier on the eye. We have digitally copied it which means that it can be shared easily amongst the family. Publishing it in book form, as my ancestral cousins did (for it was their only option) is a good way to preserve it. These days it is much harder to find a publisher that is interested although self-publishing could be an option. Lastly, a copy lodged with your local museum or County archive should ensure its survival and many are very interested in receiving a record of everyday life and lives. Go ahead and do it!

Include photos, newspaper cuttings, invitations – anything that helps to tell the story
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“If Only… If Only…”

What is it in human nature that always makes us long for the exact opposite of what we are getting at that moment?  I wouldn’t go so far as to say that I’m constantly wishing for something different for I’m pretty easy-going – well I think so, anyway 😊   But over the last few days I’ve heard myself saying “if only…” a lot more often than is usual. 

Until Brexit changed our outlook somewhat, as a nation we were brought up to believe that talking politics (or religion) was taboo, it wasn’t something to discuss even amongst close friends or family. It was always said that the reason for not doing so was to avoid offending anyone.  I think that may just have been an assumption and that the real reason for not talking about these things is because we Brits are always taking about the weather.  There’s no time left to discuss anything else. One of the certainties in an uncertain world is that in the UK the weather will never be the same two days running.  Now even that certainty has been take away from us for we have been suffering from high temperatures and prolonged drought.

Parched earth
Wildfire – a little too close to home for comfort. (We’re ok!)

I have extended family scattered all over the world and as a child lived in a house where foreign accents and languages were frequently heard for not all of our visitors spoke English.  One of the phrases that was a constant, for we lived in the countryside, was how green our landscape was.  Those that came from more tropical climes couldn’t believe how cool our summers were either.  This year they would feel more at home for our fields and woods are tinder dry and our grass parched and brown.  It is for this reason that I have been saying “if only…”   As a relief from the arid conditions, I have decided to write about cooler, wetter times not because I really want it to snow in August but so that we had some images to look at to remind us that, unlike many other places, our drought and oppressive heat is unlikely to last very long in comparison.  If it helps to make me feel slightly less grumpy about our present state, then so much the better.

View from our garden in a normal year – nice and green!

“If only it was colder” – to wake up at the break of day to cloudless skies and sunshine is, to put it frankly, un-British.  There’s nothing worse than to lie in bed overheating only to find no relief when you get up.  Give me a crisp, frosty morning any day, when the sky is blue, the air cold and our little river shimmering, not in a heat-haze but a cold-haze.  Of course, in reality, our winters aren’t like that very often.  Far too often the days are grey and gloomy but I’m highly unlikely to say “if only…” about one of those.

A rare day when it’s bitterly cold but sunny – just how I like it!

“If only it would snow” – I love the white stuff even though it does make life more difficult.  Whether the drifts are across the road or not, we have to be out in it to attend to our horses for they need feeding and watering whatever the weather.  Snow in southern England is a very hit or miss affair and we have had none for the last few years.  Only once in the past twenty years of living in the secret valley have I had snow deep enough to ski on and it is a great source of pride and pleasure that I managed it even once.  There is nothing like clipping on a pair of skis and swishing through a landscape that has been silenced by snow.  The photos below were taken some years ago – just looking at them makes me feel pleasantly cool.

Wintry view from our house
The road leading out of the valley

“If only it would rain” – these words are almost never spoken in this island nation for rain is constantly being blown inland on a south-westerly from off the Atlantic Ocean.  However, at the moment, it is rain we need more than anything.  Our garden plants are shrivelling, the winter corn cannot be sown for the ground is rock hard.  And as inferred to earlier, we miss our green grass, our wildflowers and the verdancy of our woodlands.  The last couple of days the forecasters have been telling us that rain is on its way and that it will be torrential when it arrives.  So far, we have had three light showers lasting just a couple of minutes.  What we need is two weeks or more of gentle, refreshing rain.  Whether we get it we shall have to wait and see.  Our valley looks rather splendid when it is flood but I don’t really think we should wish for that. 

Our little house sits high above the river so flooding isn’t a problem
It’s sometimes hard to imagine that the little river can flood so much

There is one more “if only…” that I know I shall be saying before long and that is “if only it would go back to that lovely summer weather we were having.”  Some people are just never satisfied!

A glorious sunrise over the valley

Mother’s Hero: Arthur Rainsford Mowlem

When I published my article on ‘The Man Who Never Was’, the story of Operation Mincemeat, a year ago, I hadn’t realised that a film was to be released in May 2022.  Perhaps, if I had I would have delayed the publication by a few months!  In it, I described the rather tenuous connection with my father’s cousin, HAL Fisher.  The interest and comments I received made me explore deception used as a weapon during World War II.  It was this that led me to learn about the use of plastic surgery to change people’s appearance for the purpose of espionage. 

Arthur Rainsford Mowlem 1902-1986

Although surgery to alter appearance has been carried out to a limited extent throughout history it was during the Second World War that it began to be developed in earnest.   A popular reason given for this was the desire to treat badly injured pilots who had survived their aircraft being shot down.  However, there was a far more secret purpose being carried out too – to assist the SOE (the UK’s Special Operations Executive) in their missions behind enemy lines.  In released official documents, the procedures – known euphemistically as ‘permanent make-up’ – are listed as casually as one might write a shopping list: ‘plastic operations to forehead’, ‘surgical operations to ears’, and so on.  Once war was over some of the recipients began to talk about their treatment which, although disapproved of by the Government, were not silenced.

“An excellent agent and a dependable officer” – before and after surgery

Arthur Rainsford Mowlem, born in New Zealand in 1902, came to England in the late ‘20s to further his development as a medic.  In 1936 he joined the practice of Sir Harold Gillies, also a New Zealander and described as ‘the father of modern plastic surgery’.  Here they worked alongside pioneering new methods of treatment.  It is unknown when or how Mowlem and other surgeons were enlisted to help the SOE and Mowlem never spoke of it during his lifetime.  However, in correspondence between him and the SOE he discusses the prospect of surgery to alter the appearance of a French agent.  How Mowlem felt about operating on these healthy men is unknown but an un-named surgeon tells of how the work now required of them “was a mockery of all that they had trained for”.

My mother, Rachel Oberzanek: 21st birthday portrait

My mother’s career with Odeon Cinemas had progressed rapidly throughout the war and by 1944 she was heading the Licencing Department with a team of assistants.  Odeon had, by then, evacuated their offices from London to the small, riverside town of Marlow in Buckinghamshire.  She was accommodated in a lovely and old country house in the nearby village of Well End.  Living at the Old Malt House must have seemed a different world from the London’s West End where she had been brought up and she would tell of how she would lean out of her bedroom window to pick fruit from the grapevine that grew on the house walls.  With extensive grounds, a cook and a housekeeper and the use of a chauffeured car it must have been a life of relative luxury that she would have been unused to.  It was here that she also met her future husband – my father – so a very happy and untroubled time for her.  All that changed in an instance when, on the first day of December 1945 during the black-out, her car was involved in a head-on accident. 

The Old Malt House, Well End – grapevines cover the front of the building – c1943

In those days of cars with no seat belts, my mother had taken the full force of the crash and had been catapulted through the windscreen.  Unconscious, she was taken by ambulance to Wycombe Hospital and with multiple facial and head injuries unexpected to survive the night. Fortunately, Odeon proved to be excellent and supportive employers, driving her parents down from London and accommodating them so that they were able to visit her regularly.  On Christmas Day she came out of the coma unaware of what had happened over the past month.  She would tell of how she had first heard singing and, opening her eyes, saw a blurred vision of people dressed in white that she though must be angels.  They were, of course, her nurses singing a carol!  Badly scarred and with broken nose and cheekbones she was finally released from hospital unable to work and embarrassed about being seen in public.  In her memoir, she described the first day she had to enter a crowded room and how it fell silent when she appeared, a humiliating and distressing moment. 

My mother, in the grounds of The Old Malt House, and looking so happy, just before the accident that changed her life – and her appearance

Six months after her accident, Odeon who had been caring for her as well as paying her salary all this time arranged for her to be taken to London to see a doctor at The London Clinic in Harley Street.  The doctor was surgeon Arthur Rainsford Mowlem; in mother’s words, “a charming man who promised me he would do all he could.”   There followed a series of operations over many weeks where he reconstructed the badly damaged side of her face, repaired the cheekbones, and rebuilt her badly broken nose using part of her hipbone.   Looking at her wedding photograph, taken such a short time after in the autumn of 1946, his skilful work is quite extraordinary although my mother kept the picture hidden away; all she could see was a face that didn’t quite belong to her.  Nowadays, I imagine, she would have received some sort of counselling but then it was just a case of ‘getting on with it’.

My parents on their wedding day – just weeks after her face had been reconstructed

Living well into her 90s, mother’s issues with discomfort in her neck and head waned over time only to be replaced by a later source of (bemused) irritation.  When visiting hospitals there would be a succession of doctors and nurses wanting to look at her facial surgery for none had seen such early reconstruction and to see how it had fared over seventy years.  She had been told that she was the first civilian to receive plastic surgery and for the remainder of her long life she was eternally grateful to Odeon Cinemas who had cared for her and paid for her treatment.  Most of all, she was grateful to Rainsford Mowlem, without whom she would have had a lifetime of disfigurement; to her he was, indeed a hero.

Mum on her 90th birthday – and seventy years after the facial reconstruction

To read the story of Operation Mincemeat and The Man Who Never Was click here

References:
Wikipedia   Arthur Rainsford Mowlem

Amin, Kavit   Rainsford Mowlem: An unsung father of reconstructive surgery

Bailey, Roderick.   Special Operations: a hidden chapter in the histories of facial surgery and human enhancement    (CC BY 4.0) 

EDIT: Today, 21st June, I was delighted to receive this lovely email in response to this blog post from The London Clinic where my mother received her revolutionary treatment 70 years ago. They are happy for me to share it with you – you may need to click on the image of the email to make the typeface clearer

A Walk With Dinosaurs and Romans

One of the perks of getting older is retirement or, in my case, semi-retirement.  Suddenly, I no longer need to keep checking my watch to see if I have enough time to do things without racing onto something or somewhere else.  It has given me time to re-visit some of the pleasures that I enjoyed in the past. One of these is walking.  When I was much younger I used to walk the long-distance footpaths and trails that were then just beginning to be created.  Now there are literally dozens of them to be enjoyed varying in length from a few dozen miles to several hundred.  I’m not up to the lengthy walks of my youth yet – the longest took a fortnight to complete.  At present, I’m content to be out for a few hours and, hopefully, the mileage will increase over time. 

England is criss-crossed by public footpaths and longer trails

The other day my partner and I decided to visit the Roman villa at North Leigh not far from the small, Cotswold town of Woodstock.  Unlike the Roman villa where you rarely see anyone, Woodstock is visited by thousands of international visitors every year, for it is where Blenheim Palace, a World Heritage Site, is located.  The two houses, six miles apart in distance but fifteen hundred years apart in their building, are very different.  Whereas the Palace is full of priceless treasures, all that is left of the villa are the foundations and a single mosaic floor.  At its peak in 300AD, the villa was one of the largest in Britain with suites of rooms, many mosaics and several baths.  Now it is quiet, wildflowers scramble over the walls and it is set in glorious countryside close to the River Evenlode.  With parking close-by, this was the starting point for the walk.

The Roman Villa, once busy – now a haven of peace and quiet
Wildflowers scramble over the ruins of the Roman villa

The path to the villa and those leading away from it are well maintained and marked, making the trail easy to follow.  Most of the route we took was on the network of public footpaths that criss-cross England, most of them dating from the time when all travel was either on foot or horse.  At one point, the paths joined the Oxfordshire Way, a path of 66 miles in length.  This in turn links to other long-distance paths so how long you walk for is entirely up to you!  After ten minutes or so, the Evenlode was reached and crossed.  Originally known as the Blade, its present name is relatively modern, first being recorded in use in the 1880s.  It meanders through the Cotswolds for nearly fifty miles before entering the River Thames. Crossing the river, the path turns to the west and the country changes in character with steep grassy banks rich in wildflowers rising high to our right, the river to our left.  Here we’re walking along Akeman Street, an ancient Roman road, once busy but now a quiet, grassy track.

The paths cross meadows until the river is reached

“The tender Evenlode that makes her meadows hush to hear the sound of water…”

Before long, the character of the path changes once more.  The Evenlode changes in character too for there is a wide ford – perfect for wild swimming.  Various paths meet here but we walked the steep path towards the village of Stonesfield, known locally for its history of making the stone rooftiles that are a feature of old Cotswold properties.  In pre-history, the Cotswold Hills were submerged by a warm sea and now fossils can be found quite easily; they can even be seen occasionally in the stones that have been used to build the houses.  It was in the Stonesfield loose and flaky rock that the very first dinosaur fossil to be found anywhere in the world was discovered.  Close to where it was found, a steel bench inscribed with the words of the French poet Hilaire Belloc has recently been placed – welcome indeed, after clambering up the steep path that leads from the ford to the village.

The view of the river from the ford
The rocks around the village of Stonesfield yielded the world’s first dinosaur fossil
The steel bench engraved with the words of Hilaire Belloc

After a short walk along the edge of the village, our path left the Oxfordshire Way to descend steeply through meadows before reaching a strip of woodland, Stockey Plantation.  Although there are firs planted there, there are also many native beech trees which are, arguably, at there most glorious at this time of year.  The newly unfurled leaves are of the most intense green which, along with the deep blue of bluebells and the yellows of other spring flowers are almost too bright for the eyes to bear.

The descent to the woods becomes more gentle as it crosses the meadow
The path through the beechwood
The intense colours of the beech leaves and bluebells almost hurt the eyes

Leaving the woodland we reach the Evenlode ford once more but this time cross it – there is a footbridge, so no need to get wet – before striking off across the fields again to return by an alternative route to the Roman villa and the car beyond.  The walk probably took no more than a couple of hours and is relatively easy.  The weather, this April has been very dry.  At other times, the paths can be muddy and so sensible, walking shoes or boots are recommended.  The route we chose does have some steep hills to climb but these can be avoided for there are many paths that keep to the level ground.  An Ordnance Survey map of the area is handy to work out routes – I used the app on my phone but paper maps covering all parts of the UK are readily available. 

The sun seemed to shine brighter in the water than overhead
In the damper woodlands Ramsons, the wild garlic, carpeted the floor

To see more photos of the Roman villa and read of its history take a look at one of my earlier posts by clicking on the link here.

To read the full text of Hilaire Beloc’s poem of the Evenlode river click here

Not So Mad After All

“ As mad as a March hare” so the old saying goes and at this time of year they certainly seem to be a little bonkers with their racing around, boxing and generally erratic behaviour.  However, it isn’t spring madness but sex that is on their minds – rather than being ‘a little bonkers’ it is their desire for a little bonking that drives them to the verge of insanity.

Here in the secret valley, as elsewhere, the hare population in some years is greater than others.  It looks as if 2022 is going to be a good year for them for there were eight in the field by our house a couple of days ago.  This gave great opportunities to watch them from relative comfort as they hurled themselves at one another and galloped around the field at great speed.  Of course, as soon as I reached for the camera they disappeared almost as if they thought that filming hare porn was rather distasteful and embarrassing.  After a while I realised there was one keeping well-hidden watching me. 

The hare forgot to hide its ears…

This ability to disappear has over the years given rise to many superstitions and old wives’ tales.  They were thought to have mystical properties too and I did on one occasion experience this myself.  I was visiting the ancient, subterranean earthwork, New Grange in Ireland.  If ever you were going to have a mystical experience it would be here for you enter the tomb by a long, low and very narrow passageway before entering a large stone chamber.  With almost no natural light it takes a while for your eyes to grow accustomed to the semi-darkness.  The friend that I was with said that she thought she’d fleetingly seen two hares which, of course, was impossible for we were blocking the only exit.  Back outside, we came to the spot where the two hares should be and there, at our feet they rested, two baby leverets, completely unafraid of our presence.

The entrance to the prehistoric burial chamber at New Grange
The two baby hares were nestling in the grass…

The hare has been revered and feared in equal measure throughout the world.  It was considered an ill-omen to meet one upon the road; there are myths concerning the cycles of the moon and the hare both connected to lunacy.  It has been much connected with ancient art and can be found in prehistoric rock paintings; in England in the Cotswold town of Cirencester (originally a Roman town known as Corinium) we have the magnificent Roman Hare mosaic now on display in the local museum (link here).  Discovered fifty years ago, it dates from 400AD and shows the animal feeding.

Hares are considered to be very nervous and flighty animals that also have the capacity to do huge amounts of damage if they should enter gardens or orchards.  Some years ago, one took up residence in a garden I cared for and I found, at least in this instance, that this was quite untrue.  Admittedly, if anyone entered the garden it would quickly hide but It accepted me as part of the garden and would hop around my feet quite happily.  It must have been feeding within the garden but I never found this to be a problem.  It is always a huge privilege when a wild creature trusts you and to be able to observe one at such close quarters especially so.  I always hoped it would raise a family there but I was more than satisfied with having just the one.

‘My’ hare would rest beneath a flowering jasmine but come out to join me in the garden
The hare would hop around my feet…

My’ recent hares finally couldn’t resist returning to their antics. Outrunning one another with their great speed and ultra-quick turns they, at last, didn’t notice me reaching for the camera. Although tricky to capture on film I finally succeeded.  As I did so, I thought of the thirteenth-century poem that I was supposed to recite to avoid bad luck.  The Names of the Hare, written in Middle English, lists seventy-eight names – With no memory for lengthy poems, I had to rely upon my previous friendship with the hare and the hope that would hold me in a special, protected place.  It seems to have done so but just as the myths claim, today when I went to bid them ‘good-day’, not a hare was in sight.

Success!
Time to go!

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A Hurricane in a Teacup

With much of Britain recovering from the effects of three storms – Dudley, Eunice and Franklin – within ten days and Storm Gladys about to arrive, it seems appropriate to have some up-to-date thoughts on the time when we England experienced a hurricane. Or did we experience one? After the ridicule that poor Michael Fish, the weatherman, had to endure after he proclaimed in 1987 that “Britain doesn’t have hurricanes” only for the nation to wake up to find itself flattened, the forecasters have avoided using the ‘H’ word. Instead we have storms that are now named in the same way as hurricanes. Even more recently still, we are told we have ‘red alert’ storms. So, were these latest storms hurricanes or in reality were they, as my late father would have said, “just a bit of a blow?”

I wrote the thoughts below many years ago when pondering on the English Hurricane and the later 1990 storm. That wasn’t officially a hurricane either but did far more damage – hurricane-like damage, in fact. The only thing that this and these latest storms prove is that the debate hasn’t moved on very much over the intervening years…

The dangerous work of reconnecting electricity continues through the night

English people constantly talk about weather. It’s in our makeup, our genes – we can’t possibly walk past someone, even a total stranger, without saying something about it. We can’t help it, no matter how much we realise that the person isn’t that interested (or, for that matter, even if they don’t speak English, when we madly gesticulate skywards). We rattle on about too much rain, too little rain, too much sun, no sun, cold for the time of year, how warm it is. So, in the spirit of being a true Englishman, despite my part-Polish ancestry, I’m just going to mention that we had a fantastic sunset in the secret valley a couple of days ago.

I think the reason we may behave like this is because English weather is nearly always gentle. The landscape that makes up England is beautiful and can be dramatic but not in the way of so many other countries. Take the USA, for example. Where’s our Grand Canyon, our towering redwoods, our Rocky Mountains, our Great Plains and our Niagara Falls? We have them in miniature and, perhaps, that is just as well as we are such a small country. And likewise, our weather: we have heatwaves, we have floods, we have blizzards. But they are rarely anything truly spectacular (except to those poor people affected by them, of course). And so when we were told by the weather men in 1987 that reports of a hurricane were completely exaggerated, we believed them totally. And despite the fact that much of the country was hit hard by it when it arrived, my part of the Chiltern Hills where I lived at the time was not much affected, even though it is one of the most wooded parts of the country.

The night in January 1990 was different. This time we had winds, whilst not as severe as three years earlier, which created total havoc with the already weakened root systems of the trees. Great swathes of the magnificent beech woods that are the very heart and soul of the Chilterns were flattened in a couple of hours. I lived at that time in the middle of one of these woodlands and am frequently reminded that, as the rest of the world cowered in their beds and the trees came crashing down all around our house, I woke up to say “a bit windy out there” before falling asleep again. As dawn broke the true damage to the landscape (but fortunately not our home) could be seen.

It is now over thirty years since that storm and the woodands have been transformed. Those of us that remember the 200 year old beech know that the majority are gone and, in their place, are new trees of mixed species. It will be many years before the magnificence of the woods return but they are healing. This photo below is taken from the same spot as the one above. Some of the biggest old stumps have been left, too difficult to move – time has hardly changed their appearance apart from their ‘roof’ of mosses.

One of the unforeseen benefits of the hurricane is the increased amount of light reaching the woodland floor, for beech trees cast a dense shade where little can grow, other than where the canopy is lightest. Apart from the view to the valley below, which was unseen before, many wild flowers are better now than ever. Roll on April when we can see the blue carpet of tens of thousands of bluebells disappearing into the distance.

Oh! And I nearly forgot to say, the weather today is a mix of sunshine, cold winds, rain and sleet. Don’t forget to tell the next person you meet!

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2021: A Year in Review – part 2

Three weeks into the new year and Christmas and 2021 already seems the distant past. A new year brings new hopes and plans, not least of all a Covid-free one where holidays and meeting up with friends and family can be carried out without the fear of cancellation. The past couple of years have been challenging and difficult for many people and blogging topics sometimes reflected this as well as the importance of family. Few people can be as tough and courageous as one of my ancestral cousins nor as unfortunate for another to be remembered because of his underwear. There were trials and tribulations for the people of Chipping Norton too, the nearest town to my secret valley and, elsewhere in the Cotswolds, the building of a great country estate to provide training in endangered skills for local people. These stories are a reminder that however large the challenge or the struggle, the end result is more often, very worthwhile.

1876: HMS Alert – with my cousin aboard – icebound as well as homeward bound

In July I wrote about the extraordinary story of Welsh vagrant Glyndwr Michael who famously became known as ‘The Man Who Never Was’. His body was used in an elaborate hoax to fool the Germans during WW2. The ruse worked, saving many lives, partly thanks to the use of my cousin’s underwear. Sounds intriguing? Well, if you want to discover why and also how my Polish grandmother fits into the plot you will need to click on the link here to read all about it.

False papers of Major William Martin, RM [Source: Wikipedia]

August and September was also a tale of an ancestral cousin who in the May of 1875 set sail for the Arctic. As bizarre as it seems now, the expedition was searching for a ‘lost Eden’. for there was a popular belief that beyond the ice, at the North Pole, they would find a sub-tropical paradise. The expedition created worldwide interest and excitement and was widely reported in the newspapers. When the Royal Family began to take an interest, huge crowds descended on Portsmouth eager to see not just the Queen but ordinary members of the crew. My cousin, John Langston Saggers, a young man aged just 23, could have experienced nothing like it before as they were wined and dined and with no expense spared. To read about the preparation for the voyage and to discover the personal gift from a Royalty concerned that the men may suffer from cold ears click on the link here.

The dinner for the Officers given by the Mayor of Portsmouth the week before departure [Source: BNA]
Sitting out the Arctic winter

When the ships became icebound, they had to sit out the Arctic winter in total darkness. That, however, did not stop the men from making the most of what they had. Aboard ship they had a full-size theatre where they produced plays and outside on the ice, despite the freezing temperatures and inadequate clothing they created a skating rink and played hockey. Their heroism – and despite (unsurprisingly) not finding a warm paradise – the men returned home to a hero’s welcome. However, the star of the expedition wasn’t human at all. To find out about Nellie and how she very nearly became a coat for an Eskimo chief’s wife click on the link here.

Mid-day, Thursday, 9th November 1876: HMS Alert & HMS Discovery enter Portsmouth Harbour
Nellie, who almost became a coat

Next month will be the 150th anniversary of the Great Fire at Chipping Norton, one of the gateway towns of the Cotswolds. Although not as popular with tourists as some of the ‘chocolate box’ villages and towns in the region, it boasts one of the Cotswolds most iconic images – that of Bliss Tweed Mill. The mill, that has become so well-known now, rose like a phoenix out of the ashes of the earlier mill which was razed to the ground early one February morning. The story of the fire and how the mill was rebuilt to exacting standards in less than two years is told in October’s blog post. Built to resemble a great house with the most modern technology of the day, it was the pride of the town. The jubilation wasn’t to last and a strike was called which took eighteen months to break. You can read all about the mill and see through numerous photographs how it has been transformed into luxurious apartments; a haven of peace and tranquillity within the town centre by clicking on the link here.

For November, we remained in the Cotswolds to explore the creation of another outstanding property and its gardens. In 1906, Claud Biddulph commissioned the building of a house with “the feel of a cottage in the country”. In so doing, he created one of the finest Arts & Crafts house in Britain, albeit one with seventy-four rooms, so hardly a cottage! Every item used in its creation and furnishing had to be of the best quality and hand-made; one of the reasons why the house took so many years to complete and why it is so exceptional today. Part of the house was dedicated to teaching local people the dying skills required and, more than an hundred years later, craft workshops and exhibitions are still held there. Open regularly to the public so why not take a tour of the house and garden? If you can’t visit physically, you can do so digitally by clicking on this link here.

Rodmarton Manor seen from one of the ‘garden rooms’

And so we come to December, the year end and the start of this review – you can read what happened during the months of January to June by clicking the link here. I hope that your 2021 hasn’t been too troublesome – now the year is past we can look forward to this one with renewed hopes and aspirations. No doubt there will be challenges ahead but as we know from our own experiences, as well as hearing of those of our ancestors, life continues apace regardless. Sending all my readers, wherever you are in the world (and, my goodness, you’re a scattered bunch!) best wishes for 2022 and with the hope that it will be a happy and healthy one.

2021: A Year in Review – part 1

With restrictions on movement and socialising for much of the year, 2021 was definitely the year to remember times past, be it visits to favourite haunts or thinking about friends and family. As it was in the real world so it was in the blogging world.

In January my memories took me across the sea to Ireland and a visit to Clonegal, in Co. Carlow. Ireland is a beautiful country with an ancient history. The visit to Huntington Castle, very much still a family home, was very worthwhile as the building itself was interesting, and the gardens, perhaps because they weren’t ornate, relaxing to walk around. A visit to the cellars is a must for it is now a Temple dedicated to Isis. The Fellowship of Isis, started by members of the family, was recognised as a world faith in 1993. I found the ornate decoration rather too theatrical for my taste, reminding me of a scene from an Agatha Christie novel. Take a look at the post by clicking on the link here and tell me what you think.

Huntington Castle in the south of |reland

By February the earliest signs of the forthcoming spring are beginning to show. In the garden snowdrops and aconites are in full flower; in favoured spots early daffodils are starting to bloom. In the hedgerows hazel catkins hang in clusters shedding clouds of their golden pollen in the slightest breeze. Hazel, a native shrub, is also a useful one to grow in the garden. It’s pliable stems can be used in a myriad of ways – cut as pea-sticks, or growing into intriguing living tunnels. February’s blog post concentrated on these uses and looked at the ancient art of coppicing – a method of extending the life of the plant and providing plentiful cover for wild birds, animals and flowers. Described as an art, it is however, a very simple technique. Click on the link here to find out more.

Catkins or Lamb’s Tails – harbingers of Spring

International Women’s Day occurs in March and I focused on the life of Lettice Fisher, the founder of the National Council for the Unmarried Mother & Child in 1918. Later, the charity changed its name to Gingerbread. A suffragette and economist, Lettice was also a cousin of my father and so family history came to the fore in this post (link here). Later in the year, the focus turned to her husband, H A L Fisher and his story but for March Lettice was the rightful star of the show.

Lettice Fisher, an ancestral cousin

In April, I was able to visit friends for a long weekend, a real treat after all the restrictions. I took the opportunity to go for a long walk in beautiful countryside. Rutland is England’s smallest county and was also the home of the poverty-stricken ‘peasant poet’ John Clare born in 1793. The walk took me past the old lime kiln where he worked and the village where he was raised – his poem The Ruins of Pickworth can be read in the blog post (link here) and there are lots of photos of the ruins as well as views along the paths and byways I walked. Several hours later, when I returned to my friend’s home, I was especially thrilled to have seen a group of wild fallow deer which included amongst them, a rare white hart,

The ruins at Pickworth were familiar to John Clare, the Peasant Poet

By May, spring is well and truly established and plants in the garden are flourishing. Everything is growing so fast that it can become overwhelming and with so many tasks to carry out, early supporting with canes and twigs can easily be forgotten until it is too late. Although this can’t be done to every tall plant in the garden, the Chelsea Chop is a drastic but very successful method of treating herbaceous plants so that they don’t need staking at all. The biggest hurdle to overcome with this technique is finding the courage to actually do it! By clicking on the link here you will find a step-by-step guide. Even if you don’t do it to many plants, I would highly recommend that you do it to the Ice Plant, Sedum spectabile which always collapses just as it comes into flower – once you have, you’ll wonder why you’ve never done it before.

Sedum, the Ice Plant – the perfect candidate for the Chelsea Chop

For June, it was back out into the countryside to check the state of a venerable old ash tree. Ash Dieback is a serious, recently imported disease that threatens to eradicate one of the most important trees in the British landscape. Younger trees in our parts of the Cotswolds are already showing signs of it, some much more severely than others. The farm where we keep our horses has one ancient tree that has stood sentinel over the adjoining fields for centuries (lots of pictures on the link here). It’s trunk is hollow and owls and bats roost within it; it must have seen generations of them leave its shelter at night. Likewise, it must have sheltered in the day many a farm labourer seeking shade during hot, summer harvests. It will be a sad day when it dies and we just have to hope that it may show some resistance to this new disease. I, all too well, remember as a child when a similar fate overtook elm trees and changed the English landscape forever. Let’s pray that it doesn’t come to that.

We ride past an ancient ash tree most days

If it sounds as if this review is ending on a sad note, don’t despair – July to December will be following shortly and there’s plenty of posts on an upbeat note there. My family’s fascinating exploits feature in some of them. Covid restrictions have given me plenty of time to root out the old stories of them – to be honest, I never knew what an interesting and, sometimes, brave bunch they are!!

The Arts & Crafts Splendour of Rodmarton Manor

In 1906 Claud, the youngest son of politician Sir Michael Biddulph, commissioned a house to be built on land gifted by his father.  The commission was given to Ernest Barnsley who specialised in design and building in the Arts & Crafts style.   In the spirit of the movement, all materials had to be sourced locally and hand-crafted with no machinery used.  Claud stated that the house should have the feel of “a cottage in the country”, somewhat of an understatement by the time the building was completed in 1929.

Rodmarton Manor seen from one of the ‘garden rooms’

The house, which has a total of seventy-four rooms, was built as three angled sections with a sweeping driveway and circular lawn to the front courtyard.  The family lived in one wing, servants in another (now converted into flats) and the central section was to be used as a community space where local villagers could meet and learn skills and craftsmanship.  In this way, the Biddulphs were instrumental in maintaining age-old traditions that were in danger of dying out. 

Rodmarton Manor

The mansion, still family owned and open to the public, retains much of its original furniture and furnishings.  Listed as a Grade 1 building by Historic England it has been described as “the single best example of the Arts & Crafts movement”.  On the day of my visit the house was closed but I was able to explore the gardens which are also listed and have been created in the same style.

Old stone urns and troughs frame the entrance

Close to the house, the gardens consist of a series of room-like areas enclosed by stone walls and hedges.  Lichen encrusted pots, urns and troughs, along with precisely clipped topiary give a timeless feel to the garden and also ensures that there is plenty of interest during the winter months. The aptly named Long Garden comes as a surprise after visiting other areas, for although very much of the style, it is relatively narrow in width.  A flagstone path emphasises its 75-metre length and leads to a delightful pavilion, a small pool and a seating area.  Divided by clipped yew hedges and bordered by densely planted herbaceous borders it was, for me, the highlight of the garden. 

The Long Garden at Rodmarton Manor in June
The Pavilion at the far end of the Long Garden

It was disappointing not being able to see the craftsmanship of the interior of the house.  However, the exterior of the building revealed many surprises.  What I liked most of all was the exquisite detail of the rainwater downpipes proving once and for all that even when something is utilitarian it can still also be beautiful.

Even the practical is made to look beautiful exquisite detail of the rainwater downpipes
Every downpipe detail differs

Rodmarton Hall is situated midway between the Cotswold towns of Cirencester and Tetbury and is open to the public throughout the summer months on selected days.  There are additional garden open days in February to view the snowdrops of which there are over 150 varieties.  To find out more click on the link here

Chipping Norton Bliss

Chipping Norton, my local town, is something of an anomaly in the Cotswolds.  It’s very much a working town whereas many of the Cotswold centres of commerce rely heavily upon tourism for their trade.  Politically, it is a Labour enclave surrounded by the most conservative and Conservative Tory constituencies.  Environmentally it differs too – Its common land – wide, green, open public spaces held for posterity – reach deep into the town centre: it is not unusual to see cattle grazing within a few hundred yards of the main shopping streets.  The Common also frames Chipping Norton’s most iconic and photographed view, the Bliss Tweed Mill.  Seen in its peaceful setting today it is difficult to remember that its history has been quite turbulent.

Bliss Tweed Mill today viewed from across the Common

In the early hours of Wednesday 7th February 1872 fire was discovered on the fourth floor of the mill.  By the time the blaze was brought under control the whole building had been destroyed along with the livelihoods of the workforce.  The calamity for the town was so great that it was reported in the national press, the Manchester Evening News claiming that the flames were so fierce that “the fire was visible in the [city of] Oxford, a distance of twenty miles from the scene of the catastrophe.”  By Friday the press reported that three lives had been lost and three hundred made unemployed.  The Bicester Herald gave even more detail: “the fire was discovered by a farm servant around five o’clock in the morning…while a number of men were endeavouring to rescue some books and papers a wall fell, and three of them were killed and several others severely injured.”  The article describes how the relatively new, six storey building collapsed and the losses estimated to be £70-100,000, a vast sum in those days. It also reported with restrained understatement that the fire “created the greatest excitement.” 

The inquest into the deaths of the three men took place in the town at the Fox and Hounds Inn two days later, on Friday 9th.  They were named as Thomas Cook, aged 35 and married, Thomas Peachey, aged 25 and married, and Richard Boscott, a twenty-year-old single man.  Although the cause of their death was known the jurors had to ascertain whether they had been instructed to enter the building.  It confirmed that they and others had entered an office situated away from the fire to rescue papers when the mill wall collapsed onto the roof of the office and crushing the men who were unaware of the danger.  Several witnesses told of their own miraculous escape from the collapse, the noise of which was heard five miles away.  One, James Compton, told how his hat was knocked off his head by flying debris but he remained unhurt.  It was found that there had been no instruction to enter and as no one person could be held culpable for the fire, the verdict was “accidental death.”   The newspapers continued to report daily noting that the first Wednesday market day after the fire, the town was far busier than normal due to the large numbers of visitors, reaching several thousand, walking to the mill to view its smouldering ruins.

Three men were killed when the mill wall collapsed

Fifteen months later in July 1873, William Bliss, the owner of the tweed mill was able to address his workers and thank them for all their hard work and co-operation over what had been a very challenging time for everyone.  The new mill, the present building, was built although wouldn’t be in full production for several more weeks.  However, he was able to announce cessation of night work; permission for twenty-four-hour cloth production had been sought and granted by the Factory Inspectorate.  He was able to claim that “we may boast of having one of the handsomest and most complete mills in the Kingdom” and, indeed, it was.  Out of the ashes had grown a mill building more akin to a country house in appearance.

No wonder they were proud! Looking more like a stately home than a working tweed mill

Designed by the architect George Woodhouse, the main building – the spinning house – was five stories high and faced with local limestone.  With its roof surrounded by stone balustrades and the corners of the building topped with stone urns it looked every part the grand residence.  Of special pride was the tall chimney built above the circular steam powerhouse.  Now a local landmark, it rises as a Tuscan column out of a domed cupola to a height of 165feet (50m).  Now a listed (protected) building by HistoricEngland (who aren’t known for their hyperbole), they describe it both as “an exceptional design” and “a remarkable opulent design in a park-like setting.”

No detail was too costly to add to the building
Soaring to a height of 165feet the chimney has become a local landmark

The buildings interior was, and still is, equally impressive with its high ceilings and architectural features.  Cast iron columns support the vaulted brick ceilings, held with remarkable grace.  Even the spiral staircases built into the corners of the building have a balance of style and functionality that is beautiful in its simplicity.

Despite its grandeur and the enthusiasm of the workforce for their new building more trouble arose over the years. By 1889 complaints were being made about the pollution of the millpond both by the growing towns sewage being discharged into the river and the effluent from the mills dye tanks.  It was claimed that when the millpond had been emptied the stench was overpowering.  Ten years later water issues arose again; this time there being a shortage of water supplying the town’s growing population.  As a result, piped water was only available for three hours a day and the mill only able to work two days out of six. 

130 years ago complaints were made about the pollution of the millpond. Now it’s crystal-clear.

The most disruptive problem for the mill arose when just before Christmas 1913 part of the workforce came out on strike.  A local branch of the Workers’ Union had been formed a few weeks earlier and when several men joined, they were promptly fired.  The strikers marched through the town where they were addressed by their leader.  He advised them on how to conduct themselves: no fighting or bad language, no alcohol, just light-hearted singing and a little banter was all that was needed.  As with all strikes, the good humour didn’t last long and there were prosecutions for intimidation of non-striking workers.  During the spring of 1914, concerts were being given in the Town Hall and donations requested in aid of the Strike Hardship Fund.  Eighteen months after the strike had begun, it ended, broken by the steadfastness of the mill’s management.  The 160 now impoverished workers who had remained on strike became officially unemployed and had to seek work elsewhere.

The newspapers followed every detail of the strike

With the advent of World War One later that year, the nation had new concerns.  The war, as it happens, also helped the mill recover from the effects of the strike as large orders from the army for khaki cloth were received.  Finally, in 1980, the mill closed permanently and a few years later converted into luxury apartments.  Although the looms have now been silent for over forty years, Bliss Tweed is remembered as being at the forefront of British woven cloths.

The weaving sheds
Bliss Tweed Mill samples [Source: Pinterest – Oxfordshire in 50 Objects]

References

British Newspaper Archive: Manchester Evening News, Bicester Herald, Gloucestershire Chronicle, Oxford Weekly News, Oxford Times

Wikipedia

Pinterest: Oxfordshire in 50 Objects