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Friday, 25 April 2014

There's Nothing Like A Letter

On the way back from Shropshire, a couple of weeks ago, we stopped off at Moseley Old Hall. This property, now owned by the National Trust, is the Elizabethan farmhouse near Wolverhampton, where a young King Charles II hid from Cromwell's troops after the Battle of Worcester in 1651.

You can see the bed in which he slept and the priest hole where he hid for two days whilst planning his escape. You can also see a letter of thanks which he sent from France the following year, thanking those who had helped him. This letter of course is beautifully written because handwriting was taken seriously in those days.

As well as looking at those old letters in glass cases, I love to receive them. When I was away at boarding school we weren't allowed any telephone contact with our families so letters were quite literally a lifeline. You can tell so much about someone from a letter, from the pen they use, the paper they choose, how much space their words take up on the page and, of course, from the individual style of their hand-writing.. My mother wrote to me twice a week when I was away from home. Often in a rush, her letters reflected this personality trait; always just one page of heavy, white, headed notepaper, written on both sides in her large, rounded writing. My grandmother wrote less often but her letters were longer, more detailed and her writing smaller. She always wrote on blue Basildon Bond paper. My aunt's loopy, generous script totally reflected her slightly idiosyncratic and loving character.

Our handwriting says so much about who we are and how we are feeling at any given time. I remember how, as my grandmother got older, her handwriting deteriorated. She may have put on a brave face in public but her shaky penmanship was a sign that time was taking its toll. Letters too are for keeping; a bundle of love letters tied together with faded ribbon cannot fail to touch the heart. A few weeks ago I was given a letter, written by the grandfather who died before I was born. This letter was sent from Palestine to his family in England. It is dated March 22nd 1918, is written in pencil on one side of lined paper which is so thin as to be transparent when held up to the light. He begins the first of his twelve pages with 'Dear Father, Mother and Sisters' and he describes how he has just arrived back from three days of leave in Cairo, his only respite from duty in twelve months. This is what he writes about the Blue Mosque;-

'There is a large mosque, known as The Blue Mosque and from its great expanse of floor right to its lofty dome it is one glorious harmony of colour with blue predominant.'

He talks of a visit to the zoo, of a companion who had been to visit the Aswan Dam and 'of the countryside 'ablaze with red and yellow tulips'.  Then he writes of a return to duty and of a battle where 'the din was like nothing else on earth. the continuous flashes of the guns turning night into day' and  how 'the wounded came back in one continuous stream'.

This letter would not have nearly so much meaning for me had it been typed or in today's fashion, sent as an e-mail. I would not then run my fingers over the words, noticing that we both style our I's in the same way and I would not feel that depth of emotion, that connection through the years with a man whose survival enabled my existence.

As we came out of the tea room at Moseley Old Hall we were treated to this beautiful display.

The  peacock is the symbol of immortality and through this letter my grandfather lives on in a far more vibrant way than through any photograph or others artefacts which have been passed down to me. I shall treasure it and pass it down to my children and I shall also make an effort to write a few more letters myself.

Thank-you for reading. Have a lovely week.

Saturday, 19 April 2014

Time For Tea in Ludlow

If you live in the U.K. it's always time for tea. Last week we went away for a week to Shropshire and one of the many pleasures of being away from the normal routine is stopping at various places for tea and cake. One day we went to Ludlow which is a pretty little town with timbered buildings.

It is rich with history.

And inviting narrow streets to explore.

Prince Arthur, the son of Henry VII and brother to Henry VIII, and his bride Catherine of Aragon lived in the castle for a time, before Arthur's early death from an infection. Mary Tudor, the daughter of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon, also spent 3 winters at Ludlow between 1525 and 1528.

In the shadow of the castle is a tea room and whilst taking a break we learned of some of the superstitions associated with tea. Here they are:-

To stir the tea in the pot anti-clockwise will stir up trouble.

To spill a little tea whilst making it is a lucky omen.

Bubbles on tea denote kisses.

If 2 women pour from the same pot 1 of them will have a baby within the year.

To put milk in your tea before sugar is to cross the path of love, perhaps never to marry.

To make tea which is stronger than usual indicates a new friendship.

2 teaspoons accidentally placed together on a saucer points to a wedding or a pregnancy.

I hope you get time to sit down and have a nice cup of tea this weekend.

Thank-you for reading and have a lovely Easter break.

Friday, 4 April 2014


'Do you read much poetry?' a friend recently asked. This particular friend is a keen calligrapher and produces beautiful work, often inspired by poetry. The answer to this question, I am afraid, was 'No'.

I do read poetry from time to time but we have a sporadic relationship, poetry and I. There is a thick book of poems by Robert Frost next to my bed. I possess the New Oxford Book of English Verse, The Faber Book of Nonsense Verse, The Collected Poems of Wilfred Owen and Poem For The Day edited by Nicholas Albery among others. So my taste is certainly varied!

From my childhood I have The Puffin Book of Verse. It is rather tattered but brings back vivid memories of having to learn a considerable portion of The Song of  Hiawatha by Tennyson when I was only 9 years old. Almost the very first things I remember my father reading to me are poems from A.A. Milne's Now We are Six and When We Were Very Young and I still have those very books.

I feel that there should be poetry in my blood. My aunt wrote poetry, bringing her observational skills and incisive eye to the page. She wrote just for fun but my father's cousin takes his poetry more seriously. It is a large part of his life and he has had his poems published as well as given recitals. His work has the ability to touch the emotions. My grandfather and great-grandfather were apparently fond of Tennyson and Keats. So why do I not embrace this art form more? I think to be honest I am a little in awe of it. Because I feel my own poetry writing skills are so inadequate, maybe reading it reminds me a little of my own failings.

Last weekend, for Mothering Sunday my son bought me a little book of Ten Poems About Cats by Candlestick Press. I have enjoyed reading those poems and as a result of this and my friend's initial question, resolved to include more poetry in my life. Before this week and this post I didn't even know my daughter's favourite poem. But here it is, the incomparable Sonnet 18 by William Shakespeare:-

                                                Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate,
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer's lease hath all too short a date,
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimmed;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance, or nature's changing course, untrimmed;
But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow'st,
Nor shall death brag thou wand'rest in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou grow'st,
So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

Not much can beat that but in the following days, as I write, I shall try to remember these words from Charles Baudelaire:-

Always be a poet, even in prose.

Thank-you for reading, have a good week and if you have time I'd love to know your favourite poems.