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The University of the Third Age

Welwyn Hatfield


Notes from the Chair - or My sort of Blog

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WEEK 16 - TALAMONE, ITALY - POSTSCRIPT TO THE CASTLE

This week's blog is by way of a postscript to the castle story and pre-dates the last chapter by some years. I can’t remember the date but I think it was in the late nineties when Kenneth was paying one of his flying visits from all over the world. He announced that he was going to take a holiday – Kenneth didn’t take holidays. He spent his life travelling the world and doing good works but holidays didn't usually feature. But, together with a young Italian couple he had met in India, he was hiring a large Italian villa in a beautiful isolated spot for a month. Resemblance to OUR castle was suggested. The plan was to invite friends who would come and go during the month for an extended house party and he extended an invitation to us. Fortunately, the dates coincided with the summer half term holiday from school so we immediately agreed to come for a week.

So, with instructions for travel and location, we set off. We flew to Pisa, where we picked up a small hire car for the drive down the coast road. We had an overnight stop at a small hotel near the airport so we had a full day at our disposal for visiting Pisa's sights and the journey south. When we reached Talamone we found a delightful fishing village. We picked up some food and wine for our contribution then headed off-road into the Maremma Natural Park. This was a totally unspoilt nature reserve consisting of acres of Mediterranean scrub and much wildlife. Wild boar are said to roam here. There was no road as such just rough tracks and I was more than a little concerned for the possibility of damage to our little Ka. So, I don’t remember how we found our way or whether there were signs but we did arrive at a building looking remarkably like a restored and extended version of the castle but with the addition of sunshine and amazing views of the sea and coastline.


The "Castle"

We met the party, none of whom we really knew except a guy known as Jeff The Earring. He was an old friend of Eric's brother Rex and the castle. The Italian couple could definitely be defined as "the beautiful people" – Domenico was an orthopaedic surgeon working in Florence and his wife, Francesca, was his slender partner. They were delightful. The others were a young Israeli couple, an Egyptian guy, a young American whose late mother was a friend of Kenneth's who had died of AIDS. There were others but that's all I can recall at this distance. It was such a large place on several floors that we each "did our own thing" most of the time and met up for dinners on the terrace, which were very convivial. The delight for me was that all these guys loved cooking so I had respite from being camp cook for this holiday. It was a very relaxing and "chilled" place. The only people we ever saw apart from ourselves were those few in passing boats. It transpired that Francesca had visited this place as a guest at some function years before and it had been her dream to spend a holiday here. I guess Kenneth helped to facilitate this “dream”. As for the others, Kenneth had a knack of "collecting" people on his travels in India. I always found it very refreshing to meet people from around the world that we would never have encountered in our daily lives.

Rik and I often headed to the sea. This meant clambering down the rocks or a steep pathway. We swam in the sea off the rocks and I kept my sandals on, knowing from experience the dangers of sea urchins. The water was gorgeous. There was also a small sandy beach nearby. This was a lazy holiday, though, and I remember spending quite a bit of time sunning myself and reading on the terraces. On one such occasion I was alone and interrupted by this incredibly handsome man in a sarong and he was offering to cook me some lunch!! It was Domencio. After a couple of suggestions I settled for zucchini omelette. He disappeared downstairs and soon I heard the strains of Italian opera wafting up from below. I thought I had truly died and gone to heaven! On a more mundane note it was on this holiday that I was seriously admonished by Doctors Domenico and Kenneth for neglecting my slightly septic big toe. I had dropped a stage block on it in my studio and, after eventually losing the nail, the new one grew but had a persistent septic patch on one side. I eventually had a minor op to remove part of the new nail but the condition persisted until a long walk up a mountain on the following New Year’s Eve. But that’s another story!!


The Italian coastline, and sunbeds on the lawn

And so we passed our days in this idyllic spot. We felt no need to venture further afield but enjoyed the peace and tranquillity of the Torre. One morning Francesca rose early and went down to the harbour to buy fresh calamari. That evening I ate the most delicious calamari I had ever tasted. For one, it was really fresh, then Francesca had seasoned and cooked it in the lightest batter and served it with lemon juice. I have never tasted better and I love seafood. We ate our meals on a small terraced area under a large parasol and with good company and wine it was a special experience.


The Dining Terrace

Towards the end of the week Kenneth requested that we might vacate our room a day early to make way for the next guests. This was fine by us and it meant we could spend a night in a hotel in the village before leaving the region. We explored the harbour and shops and then ate in the hotel. My enduring memory of that evening is of the swallows swooping low over rooftops. And so we drove north next day to catch our flight from Pisa.

There is an interesting postscript to this story. It must have been a year or two later when Rik and I were watching the latest James Bond film “Quantum of Solace”. Suddenly up on the screen appeared the location, Talamone. Then James Bond, played by Daniel Craig, appeared by speedboat (or was it helicopter?) and arrived to visit his contacts at OUR CASTLE or Torre in Italian. We were astonished as we identified the building. Needless to say this is now a selling point for the agents renting this villa for holidays. And the costs are astronomical!


WEEK 15 - CASTLE STEWART (part 3) - THE FINAL FAREWELL

The visits became less frequent and then around 2006 my husband Eric (or Rik) and Kenneth became estranged after a disagreement. It was regrettable for I would have liked to spend more time there in retirement. News of the castle only reached us gradually and in late 2016 we heard that dear Godfrey, the clogmaker, had died and shortly afterwards Kenneth died of a heart attack in India. There was some commemoration held to mark his pivotal role in blocking the Atomic Energy Authority’s plans to dump nuclear waste on the Mullwarcher Hill near Loch Doon but we did not attend.

Then, in April 2018, Eric died after a long battle with dementia. At a family meal after the funeral, the question of his ashes arose. I had not even considered this but his daughter, Alanna, instantly suggested “The Castle”. Following Kenneth’s demise there had been much debate about what had happened to the castle but we discovered that it had been sold to a Dr. Cree, who had been anxious to purchase it for years. Fortunately, Ian, our old friend and neighbour at the castle was there and declared that he could “fix it” for he was in touch with Cree and also Chloe, the caretaker, as Cree lived in Australia. Eric’s brother, Rex, was not keen on the idea as he no longer wished to visit the site. So he arranged to scatter some of his brother’s ashes high on a Yorkshire hillside where Rik had done much of his hill climbing cycling.

We thought little of the plans but during August Ian contacted to tell us that it had all been arranged and was to coincide with a little ceremony on the Saturday to scatter Kenneth’s ashes which had finally found their way to the UK by courtesy of one of K’s travelling companions and fellow founder of schools in India. Eric’s occasion was to be on the Sunday. So, Alanna, Ian and myself were to join this ceremony along with another castle friend, David Smith, a film-maker. Ian offered us accommodation in his dilapidated pile but I felt like more comfort on this occasion so Alanna and I booked into the Creebridge House Hotel, Newton Stewart, and David accepted the offer from Ian. We three met at Euston Station and travelled by train, picking up our hire car in Dumfries. Later in the day, Ian came over for dinner and told us of the plans, which seemed a bit like a military operation. This was because this ceremony was to take place on the estate of another friend, Miles, who owned a large tract of land outside Creetown. I remembered visiting this site some years earlier when Miles was planning to plant Christmas trees. (He had worked for the forestry commission and was a close friend of Kenneth.) Eric had spent some time helping him to survey the land. Needless to say it felt like the back of beyond.

So, the next morning there was a heavy Scotch mist as we set off in waterproofs and wellies. Ian and David led the way and we followed in the hire car. Very soon we were off road on forest tracks on our way to Miles’ house, where we were to meet others. Miles’ house was a 19th century timber-framed wooden house which he had imported from Scandinavia alongside a lake. It sounds wonderful and in some ways it was BUT there was no plumbing or loos. Fortunately, we had been forewarned. From there we reduced the number of cars and set off again towards the site chosen.. When we left the cars, we could see that Miles had marked out the route with flags and it was over very rough and boggy terrain. Not too good for me with arthritic ankles but I grabbed a stick and set off. A path through a wood followed and then on the other side of a hill we could see the site marked out with Tibetan prayer flags. A few words were said, wild flowers were laid and everyone took a share in scattering the ashes. The site had been chosen for its standing rocks and the view over the countryside but, in this mist and driving rain, it was not possible to appreciate a view. We returned to Miles and Britt-Marie’s house to share our food. However, on arrival, I discovered that I could not remove my wellies and had to seek the assistance of a strong man! Very embarrassing! It was good to see some old friends, especially Sheila, wife of Godfrey, and to share reminiscences of Kenneth. I was really glad to have participated in this and I could appreciate the care that had been taken by Miles and John. Alanna and I took our leave and planned to meet up with David and Ian again later. There was one little problem when we set off on the track. We met with these beauties on the path and "Shoo" just didn't cut it.


Highland cattle

The next day we were to meet Ian and David at the Farm entrance next to the castle. John had also had a change of heart and decided that some of Kenneth’s ashes were to be scattered at the castle too. So he caught the bus from Miles’ house in Dumfries and I met him off the bus and took him to the castle. We all met with Chloe and had to access the castle via the farmyard as the old track was not passable. As soon as I entered the compound and saw and felt those ancient stones I was totally overcome with emotion, especially knowing how much this place had meant to Eric. It was a huge source of inspiration to him and many memories for me. I hugged the stones of the croft and wept. We wandered around for a bit inside and out to see the changes. It was quite overgrown and many of the dry-stone walls had collapsed. All the furniture and fittings had been donated to the Samye Ling Buddhist Monastery nearby. But Rosey’s wonderful ceilings were in a good state of repair and the views were as peaceful as ever. While we were wandering around we came across a brass plaque to commemorate Eric’s parents’ only visit to the castle to see the place where their sons had spent so much time and expended so much energy. This is when Alanna had her moment of epiphany with the sudden realisation that her whole family had stood in this place; grandparents, parents, uncle and brother. The castle was special to so many people.


Ancient Stones, and the Plaque

So we came to the scattering of ashes and how appropriate it was to scatter both Eric and Kenneth’s ashes reconciled in the Poetry Garden first and then in the Castle Keep and finally in the castle burn. Ian then managed to produce an old cassette recording and player and, courtesy of a rigged-up solar panel, managed to play a recording of Kenneth in full raconteur mode and Eric reciting some of his poetry as we listened outside in the Poetry Garden. This is just what he would have wanted. Ian had been so thoughtful in arranging all this for his old friends. The last words (and possibly his epitaph) would have to be from Eric's sonnet, "The Children Lost":
"My mind was filled with brutal briar in flower;
A tangled stream in bloom, a ruined Tower."

Not quite the ending for Andy Priestman from Minniwick Pottery had arrived and joined us, probably summoned by Ian, and invited us back to Minniwick for tea. There we saw how much had changed and how much remained the same. He now had an impressive studio full of pots but his potter’s wheel still stood in front of a window looking out over Glen Trool and he still used a wood-burning kiln. I tried to visualise the scene I had remembered in the kitchen on my first visit. Andy was in one corner making bread and others were sitting around smoking. Revisiting this place was all part of what they now call "closure"- a part of a life gone by - as was the spontaneous decision to pay a visit to Sheila Smith at Balmaclellan on our way home on Monday morning. Alanna had never been there. And, of course, the drive was spectacular. The goats were still there in the Galloway Forest Park and we stopped by the Clatteringshaws Dam and Reservoir to be tourists and admire the view. The school house was just the same, although the clog workshop had gone. I remembered when Sheila first met Godfrey and then had three sons. Now she lived alone but still led an active life. We talked of the men we had known. And both Alanna and I left Galloway with a profound sense of satisfaction that we had done justice to her father and found a sense of peace for ourselves.


Clatteringshaws Reservoir on the road to Balmaclellan

Ken and Eric in the Poetry Garden, circa 2000


Pamela Williams.

Click here for the 16th instalment

WEEK 14 - CASTLE STEWART (part 2)


View of the compound.

Sorry if you’ve been waiting with bated breath. As lockdown begins to release, I have been able to see my grandchildren and that has meant quite a bit of childcare again. But the story is waiting to be told. So, in the years after our first visit, we visited the castle several times and at different times of year. In the beginning we went with the same couple of friends and later took others in our circle. The first of these expeditions was at New Year 1984. What better than a Castle Hogmanay, we thought? Well, it wasn’t too cold as Galloway benefits from the Gulf Stream and has a very mild climate. However, it was a bit chilly to use the outside kitchen, housed in a wooden hut, for eating. So we moved the table into one end of the croft room, where we had an open fire. We then had to carry pots of stew and warming food from the kitchen. I should add here that my role was almost always that of cook for our various groups. So the croft was cosy with fires at both ends of the large room and we slept upstairs in the loft which was warmed from below. We took Eric’s daughter, Alanna, with us the following Easter and then in June Liz and Andrew and a little friend for Zoe. That was the occasion when, between us adults, we managed to "lose" the children on a forest walk. Probably one of the worst hours of my life, but, after an hour, they blithely strolled into the castle compound escorted by a neighbour, whose cottage they had called at when they realised they had taken a wrong turn. Not a good experience and one that filled my mind with fairytale archetypes, but one that gave rise to probably one of Eric’s best poems, the sonnet "Children Lost".

On one occasion we hired a car and it gave rise to much mirth to consider that four English teachers were travelling in a Stanza! Made by Nissan, I believe. On that occasion we managed to get a speeding ticket in our attempt to return the car on time. We travelled by several different means; - usually by car but we also took the train from Euston to Dumfries and, later, I flew from Stansted to Prestwick, changed trains at Ayr and then a delightful coastal journey to Barrhill, where there was a tiny station, which was only three or four miles from the castle. This route afforded a great view of Ailsa Craig as we followed the coast route along the Firth of Clyde. Whatever means of transport we deployed – and there were some old ones in the early days – they were always deemed to be part of the fleet of Celtic Airways. I believe we even had a badge made for the car once.


Rosie Priestman, Minniwick pottery.

The Castle was a great escape from busy teaching and domestic lives. It had a great sense of spiritual calm so was no wonder we went to recharge our batteries so often. It was easy to remain there and not explore the surrounding area but it was a beautiful location for exploring the Galloway Hills and towns such as Whithorn, Wigtown and Garlieston. These places were always deserted when we visited. But the most interesting visits for me were when we went to visit friends of the castle. One such memorable place was the Minniwick Pottery, where Andy and Rosey Priestman made pots and lived a totally bohemian existence with their three children. Andy ran a wood-burning kiln, which meant that, when doing a firing, he had to stay up all night to maintain the temperature. You can still see a recent video of him doing this on YouTube. We bought several mugs – long gone – but later I bought several of Rosey's paintings which still have pride of place in my home. She was responsible for painting the dramatic ceilings in the wooden buildings at the castle and for a beautiful illuminated version of Yeats' "The Lake Isle of Innisfree". If there was one artefact from the castle I would have liked as a keepsake it would be this. Their cottage was quite derelict at this time and, on one visit, we had to troop through the bathroom to access the garden. A young man was just emerging from the bath, so I modestly averted my gaze, but my friend, Linda, who was with us on this occasion and shortly to become one of the first women to be ordained, remarked, "That was a very cold man!!" A few years ago I bumped into him at the Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith, and couldn’t help remembering. I am including a photo of a younger Rosey in the studio, which I think is beautiful. She is still creatively and politically active on Orkney.


Godfrey Smith

Another very special place was The Galloway Clog and Shoe Workshop in Balmaclellan, our near-neighbours at 20 miles away. This is where Godfrey and Sheila lived in a converted primary school, high on a hill. They too eventually had two children. We duly bought our handmade clogs. But Godfrey did much more in later life. He worked tirelessly for charities, raising money to educate girls in Afghanistan and travelled there often. In local costume, he looked very much like a local. The drive to visit was wonderful through the Galloway Forest Park and the wild goats and then Clatteringshaws Dam and Reservoir. Godfrey was the keyholder for the castle and caretaker when Kenneth was away.

Ian Aldous was our nearest neighbour and he had another part-derelict house along a circuitous track from the castle. His wife Kate was also an artist and illustrator. I think this was his project and escape from his busy life in Kew and working at UCH. He still spends much time there.

A story of the castle would not be complete without mentioning Dr Kenneth Delbray, for he WAS the castle. It was his project and dream. Kenneth deliberately cultivated an aura of mystery and there were certainly some myths surrounding him. What I know for certain is that he had been married to a cousin of the queen and he was a close friend of the Duke of Gloucester. He knew the Dalai Lama and spent much of the year in India, doing charitable work in schools and hospitals. I believed his ancestry was part-Scottish aristocracy, part Moroccan royalty. I now know that this is not the case. What I do know is that he was marvellous company and had a huge store of tales to tell from his travels around the world. For a spell, he made our lives richer and Eric was a faithful friend. My daughter described him as "a bit of a guru" and he would often do a stopover at our house on his way to or from the castle, requesting gravy and bringing the latest world music. He seemed like a gorgeous butterfly out of place in our suburban house.


View from the Poetry Garden.

As years went by, the demands of family, career and animals meant that we had less time to visit. Another reason was that we had more money to take foreign holidays and visit other places. However, Eric would often go alone when Kenneth was in residence and some project was in hand. In the nineties Kenneth had extensive building work done at the castle, doubling the wooden construction size, putting a kitchen and bathroom into the croft and lining the walls with plasterboard. An outside bathhouse was constructed which housed the original burgundy bath fittings, a generator shed – for which Eric built a turf roof. In the lower garden a pool and stage or performance area was built. My favourite innovation was the Poetry Garden alongside the croft with turf seats, fire bowls, a view of the beech tree across the burn and, over the gate to this garden, the inscription, "By Yon ruined tower" – perfect! This became the site for some pretty spectacular parties with people from all around the world and different ages as the next generation came along. And there I will have to leave the story albeit just an outline. Next week it’s the last episode or the story of my last visit in 2018. So have the tissues ready.

Pamela Williams

Click here for the 15th instalment.

WEEK 13 - CASTLE STEWART (part 1)

I am moving from one crumbling edifice to another this week to tell the story of my involvement with a ruined castle on the edge of the Galloway Forest Park and how it came to play quite a significant part in my life over about twenty years. I might say I could write a book about it but my husband already did that with poetry and images; it’s called “The Pioneers” and mostly tells the story of his early connection with “The Castle”. My involvement is inextricably linked with how we began – and ended – our life together. So this story might spread over a couple of weeks.

It began in 1983 – I was a young widow with a small child and had just completed an English degree at Hatfield Poly and had secured a temporary teaching contract to return to in September. That summer I was keen to return to the Edinburgh Festival with a group of friends. I had already been up to the Festival to appear in a play with the Hatfield Poly Drama Soc. and one more time with my friend, Liz. Arrangements were still a little vague when Eric suggested that, instead of the festival, we should come with him to stay at his castle. I was to go up with him initially before the others joined us. Well, it was a bit like an offer I couldn’t refuse. At the time I had an old VW Beetle and for some reason I had to collect my daughter from her grandmother’s in Dorset. So we began our road journey from Dorset to Dumfries, where we were to have a pit-stop and collect keys. Well, old cars being what they are, it broke down fairly near the beginning of our journey. We managed to find a garage that effected a temporary repair to the clutch that miraculously succeeded in holding till our return. I was warned that the accommodation was quite primitive but that we would find most things needful for our stay. The property consisted of an ancient ruined tower, a croft (or cottage) built by Eric and his companions in the early seventies and a separate two-storey wooden structure, which housed the kitchen and an upstairs bedroom. I was also warned that no-one had stayed there for several years since its heyday in the seventies. I didn’t know what to expect but felt quite intrepid as we set off with sleeping bags, candles and a few basic supplies. I was also informed that we would need to arrive in daylight as there was no electricity or heating unless we started the fires.

I have no recollection of that overnight stay in Dumfries except that we were expected, furnished with keys and set off next morning for the journey west along the coast road in the direction of Newton Stewart and Stranraer.

So how did Eric become involved with this project? It’s quite a story but I will be brief. It began with an enigmatic character called Kenneth, who purchased the tower that he had seen advertised in “The Times” and advertised for young men to help in a rural restoration project. Eric’s brother was one of two newly qualified architects who responded, as did a handful of others at a crossroads in their lives. They all went to live on site in very basic conditions in tents and caravans for a couple of years and others joined the band of brothers. Eric never lived there full time as he was a teacher with a young family but he would go up there for extended periods in school holidays. The aim was originally to restore the tower which ultimately proved neither possible nor practical, so it was shored up with scaffolding. Meanwhile they set about building the Croft, to be used as a craft centre for the area. It was not their intention that it should be residential, partly owing to building and tax restrictions. I still have the plans for this building drawn up by Eric. Later Godfrey Smith was to use the building for his clog-making workshop.. He was an ex-teacher and one of an extraordinary cast of very charismatic characters closely associated with the castle. They built dry stone walls all around the compound and several other restoration projects in the area. But, basically, over the years the castle became a focus for charitable and other activities connected with the arts community in Galloway and, because of Kenneth’s international travels and connections, people from around the world.

Back to my first glimpse of Castle Stewart. We passed through the nearest town of Newton Stewart and out on the Girvan Road. You can catch sight of the tower on a mound lying back from the road on the left hand side. To reach the castle it is necessary to cross a farmer’s field and go through two farm gates as you pass along the track. Then you approach two huge gates to enter the compound. The grass was all overgrown and doors stiff but the keys worked and I explored what we found. The buildings had shutters, which we removed but the interior of the croft was very dark. There was one long room with fireplaces at either end, one being a stove with back-boiler to heat the water. There was a sofa, lots of candlesticks and mirrors and, on the right as you entered through the door, were a couple of Victorian firescreens, behind which was a working shower, basin and loo --- all in a deep crimson colour! In the middle of the room was a wooden staircase on a pulley system. When lowered, it offered access to the loft, which had a plain hardboard base and mattresses at either end. In the centre was a dormer window which looked out onto the castle and the forest track beyond. It was all very dirty and dusty and I was reminded of Miss Havisham’s room. So we had to set to and clean the place to make it habitable for ourselves and our friends. Our first need was hot water but when we tried to light fires, they smoked terribly. This required Eric to climb up on the roof to inspect chimneys. There were no ladders! I have a photo of him spread-eagled across the chimney to inspect them. Magpies’ nests were the culprits and Eric duly removed them and the fires worked perfectly. There was plenty of fuel in the wood store. The weather was very warm and dry so we were able to take out rugs and sofas to beat them hard in the sun. Somehow it was terrific fun. The kitchen had its challenges but eventually everything functioned. Calor gas fuelled the stove, which worked well and there was a kitchen sink. In the centre of this room was a huge rough wooden table with trestles which could seat about a dozen and it often did. One of the adventures was in finding just what equipment was there and what was missing. We soon discovered there was virtually no china so we had to take a trip into town to purchase some basics from the hardware store. The shops in town filled all our needs. There was an excellent butcher and baker, a wholefood store for our muesli and an off-licence. One hilarious moment was when we picked up a pepper mill to use on supper only to find that it produced ground moth! Forgot to check that first! That first evening, sitting round the fire after nightfall was when I first heard the eerie sound that the barn owls made. They were living in the tower and made a supernatural screeching that I will always associate with the castle.

In a couple of days, the place was really habitable and welcoming for our friends and in the intervening time the relationship between Eric and myself had transformed from friendship into much more. This did present some difficulty in that my friend, Liz, had been very attracted to Eric, although he was some years older than her and still married when she first knew him. One hot sunny day, when we were lazing on the grass outside, we were almost surprised by our friend, Andrew arriving on his motorbike. This was a fact he reminded us of when he made his best man's speech at our wedding! Liz arrived later and somehow all was resolved with the enjoyment of the place. Exploring the forest tracks was exciting and there was one forest walk that led to a lake and the cottages of the nearby foresters. The beginning of August heralded the arrival of Kenneth, who was delighted to have the place lived in for a spell and thus other visitors came to see him in residence. It was all very convivial with parties and music. There was time to visit some of our neighbours too but that’s for another time. I haven’t mentioned my five-year old daughter but this is because she was perfectly happy to play and explore in such an environment and she got plenty of attention. One memory I will end with is the evening when the men went off visiting someone and my daughter, Zoe, and I were alone at twilight. She was getting ready for bed and we were looking out of the croft's dormer window. Suddenly a large white owl appeared with three or four of her young and hovered in front of us near the window. It was a magical experience and one we will never forget.

Click here for the 14th instalment.

WEEK 12 - THE SHED AT THE BOTTOM OF MY GARDEN

I thought I might be getting too literary over the last two weeks, so this week I thought I would get right back down to earth and tell the story of the shed. But, of course, it was not just any shed but it has a blue plaque (from the internet!) and three stained glass windows and it has quite a history. It was my late husband’s writer’s workshop and his refuge from domestic life. He even called it the Poetry Factory for some purposes. He was in good company in having a shed to write in as several famous writers did their work in sheds, such as: George Bernard Shaw, Dylan Thomas, Philip Pullman, Roald Dahl and Virginia Woolf.

Originally it was built on his allotment in Hitchin. It was not a kit as he used 4”x2”rough-sawn timbers and he claimed it was the only time in his adult life that he had used quadratic equations. He used an old wardrobe to construct the double doors and the windows from his mother’s house in Skipton. I guess more accurately they are leaded lights but they do have some coloured glass. I should add here that my husband was always most happy when he had some construction project in hand. I suppose it was a marked contrast to his more cerebral writing occupation. When I first knew Eric he invited me to his shed and I believe we may have had something to eat cooked on a primus stove, lit by candlelight. I don’t believe I was very impressed! However, we spent more time together and eventually he popped the question ……….!! “Could he move his shed to my garden??” Well, how could I respond? We shared many interests and friends and so we decided to share our lives.

However, the shed remained his domain and I seldom ventured in there despite the hours he spent in there. This may have been my response to the smell of the paraffin heater he used in there which left a pungent odour. But, essentially, he needed a place which was uniquely his own. He kept many of his own books, pictures and keepsakes in there and, as time went on, much of his tech equipment required for writing and printing his poems. Eric was really into technology and went through several incarnations of computers and printers to practise his passion for the printed word. I remember a Sinclair Z88, which I loved because of the feel of the keyboard. He also had one of the first digital cameras which was a huge thing. I kept him busy taking photos of my students’ drama work and printing brilliant photos. He also produced photos to accompany some of his poems for publication.

All this tech required power and so lighting and power was installed. When Eric’s mother died, he purchased an electric keyboard so he could attempt to recapture the skills learned in early piano lessons. Then around 1995 Eric took early retirement from teaching, taking advantage of the offer of a redundancy package. He was delighted and, after some attempts at flying lessons, he decided to give up and bought himself a professional model flight simulator. But that wasn’t all! In order to accommodate his plans, he built an extension to the shed, building on a structure that was half as big again as the original. At one end he installed a huge whiteboard for a screen, then he needed a pilot’s seat and a joystick. Oh! The hours of fun he had in there! It was quite extraordinary. From outside in the garden it sounded like the Tardis taking off. Then, almost as quickly as he had become engaged with this, he gave it up and binned the flight simulator, aware that it had become an obsession and he was spending far too much time on it. A little later, I requested that a further extension be built to house the garden furniture, so that was phase 3.

Eric continued to use the shed until he became quite ill with dementia. Then about three years ago I decided it needed a clear out. I felt like I needed a hazard suit as it was very dirty inside. But I set to, first removing much of the old rubbish. Then I gave the outside a couple of coats of much lighter paint. But the inside was more of a challenge. The original end had never been painted, so it took about three coats of white paint to cover walls and ceiling. Then a contrasting pale blue on shelves, door and furniture completed the look. It was now being turned into a summer house for the grandchildren to play, while still storing some of our "treasures". Eric approved of these changes, but didn’t use the shed again. And the blue plaque was a gift from his grown-up children for his 70th birthday.

I had never quite finished painting all of the outside, so with lockdown in place, I ordered some more paint and finished the extensions. But the inside is in a parlous state, it has needed another clear out, which I have begun but there is a serious problem with the roof and a slight leak. Then there's the floor – old carpet which needs binning when we can get to the council tip. So, if anyone knows a good carpenter willing to undertake a salvage operation on the collapsing roof, I would be very grateful to hear. I am going to conclude with a rather humorous poem that my husband wrote in tribute to his shed.

Poem Written in the Shed – 10.08.2006 – Rik Wilkinson

This place, my poetry factory, is in a mess. A certain
tin-pot globe of stuff, shaken with every slam of the
common-sense door, teetered on the edge of the shelf
until one last slam brought it down – CRASH – shedding
splinters, corrosion, dust, and the junk of ages all across
my printed work. Look: crazed glass, bent brackets,

screwed out and screwed-up screws, unhinged hinges,
cracked blades, ripped-out rivets, long-lost bearings, complete
nuts with blown fuses, keys to nowhere. Here are bent nails
and many small dead bodies; some crushed, some in bits. Look
here is a crumpled wing; and the slender legs of a star-dancer,
still twitching in the waste and rust of technological decay.

God knows how it can all be sorted out. Oh, pah! Suchlike
clichés can do nothing for this mess, nor any other mess
which human beings make. Just now I’m angry – sick of
the recent news – distracted once again by our unstable
tin-pot world. Tomorrow I'll clear up the shed and write
another poem. Oh, crikey, I'm feeling better already.

As a postscript to this, I have heard a new programme on Radio 4 recently, entitled, "The Poet Laureate has gone to his shed", in which Simon Armitage has conversations with various people in his writer’s shed. I was due to meet him in April before the virus struck.

Pamela Williams

Click here for 13th instalment.

WEEK 11 – MY PASSION – THE THEATRE

Well, last week I shared a poem, so this week I thought I would share my love of the theatre. I felt most fortunate to spend much of my career working in Drama and theatre in schools. I used to run a great many theatre visits for students, so it came naturally to take over as group leader for the U3A Theatre Visits group, along with much help from Linda Kent-Taylor. So you can imagine my dismay when the theatres were locked down. I felt bereft and, the day after, I felt moved to write this post on Facebook. It was something of a mission statement, so I thought I would share it here.


London theatres have closed down. Statement of fact. It's the first time since WWII but not the first time. The Puritans closed the theatres in 1642 till 1660. The Plague caused theatres to be shut down in 1593-1594 and again in 1606. The economic implications for our theatres and those who work in them are enormous. I have four theatre visits booked that I can no longer enjoy.
I want to state here how important I believe theatre is to our cultural life - theatre is the lifeblood of our city and our country. I don't regard theatre as a peripheral entertainment but essential to my life. The act of watching live theatre is an act of complicity with the performers. It is an activity in which I feel most completely human; an activity which helps us to understand what it means to be human. And it is an activity which we share with others in a public place. In Ancient Greece it was a citizen’s duty to attend the theatre; to participate in the issues of the day.
I feel privileged to have shared my passion with many students over the years and it was a central tenet of my philosophy that experiences of live quality theatre were at the heart of my practice. I feel fortunate that I have a repository of amazing memories of theatre experiences shared with students and a few close friends. In retirement, it has been my mission to arrange theatre visits for the U3A community in my area.
Acting has ever been a precarious profession but my heart goes out to those working in the profession, together with dancers, musicians, technicians, administrators who are facing the most difficult of times. So in these dark times we are facing dark theatres. Let's hope our theatre can survive this crisis. We all have challenges to face but this may be an existential one for some theatres.


And then just recently I came across this quotation from Oscar Wilde:

"I regard the theatre as the greatest of all art forms, the most immediate way in which a human being can share with another the sense of what it is to be a human being."

One of the things about this isolation is the temptation to indulge in a little nostalgia, so I sought out this list of the top ten plays that have had an impact on my life. It was a challenge set by an ex-student, now working in theatre.

  1. It has to be Peter Brook's Midsummer Night's Dream in the sixties because it was so innovative and then some magical evenings introducing my daughter to it in Regent’s Park. Finally directing it at Bishop's Hatfield School one lovely summer in the courtyard with fantastic colleagues and students.
  2. Blood Brothers would be next for all those pupils who had their first experience of live theatre watching this and loving it. So many visits!
  3. Oedipus Rex – because the Greeks began it all. The experience of watching the trilogy was truly epic.
  4. Angels in America by Tony Kushner, much admired by Arthur Miller and just awesome. I enjoyed introducing it to a couple of theatre buddies.
  5. Threepenny Opera by Bertolt Brecht at the Donmar Warehouse. Brecht has got to be there and there are many I could have chosen
  6. Nights at the Circus by Kneehigh Theatre Company adapted from Angela Carter’s novel. A very innovative company and I love their work.
  7. David Tennant's Hamlet because he made it so much his own and so fresh.
  8. Top Girls by Caryl Churchill because it's a remarkable play by a woman playwright and I have enjoyed teaching and directing it myself. I also enjoyed the recent revival.
  9. Street of Crocodiles –by Theatre de Complicite because they create stage poetry and I have grown with them.
  10. Our Country's Good by Timberlake Wertenbaker. I saw an excellent production at the Young Vic and also Lou Wallace’s recent production at the Barn. Good memories of teaching it and constantly making new discoveries with students.

Quite tough decisions there but it's better not to think too long.

So it has been a joy to discover so much theatre available to us through the medium of modern technology. Of course it's not the same as live theatre but it is some compensation. Thursday evenings have been the highlight of my week when I have been able to watch streaming from the National Theatre on YouTube. And other offerings are available. The Radio Times contains details of how to stream films and theatre and tv on our devices. I hope you are benefiting from this. The interesting thing for me is to find that it is often the plays that I am less enthusiastic about which turn out to be most enjoyable. So these are plays that I might not have chosen to go to see.

So, I hope you are managing to keep entertained in these times. I do find that it is the Arts that are so necessary to us as they show us what is important in life and, deprived of friends and family, they help to nourish our souls.

Best wishes.
Pamela Williams.

Click here for 12th instalment.

Week 10 - TIME FOR A POEM – WRITTEN UNDER THE PARASOL IN MY GARDEN ON A BEAUTIFUL DAY

I thought I might be brave this week and share a poem with you. Not just any poem but the first poem I wrote about 3 or 4 years ago. But, in order to share this, I would have to tell the story of how it came into being. Some of you may know that my husband was a published poet and gave frequent readings in many venues including the Queen Elizabeth Hall back in the sixties. But, because many of our friends were poets, I always thought the world had enough poets and I would spare them my efforts. However, that one autumn I suddenly got the poetry bug and turned out about a dozen poems. Of course I showed them to the Oracle, who deemed them worthy of praise but I knew they were far from polished. Whilst I was engaged in this flurry of creativity, I suddenly remembered that I had a discarded fragment lying in a drawer which was worth a second look. And this is where the story begins.

The first miracle was that I found the fragment. I could see that it was hopeless but I could also see that it had the kernel of an idea and some good phrases. And now for the backstory. My husband had a friend called Leni. She was a fellow poet. We first met her when she lived in Harpenden. She was widowed with two teenage daughters. She and Rik became good friends and some time later she moved to the Dordogne, France, near Perigueux, and bought an old farmhouse with a smallholding attached. We would often go to stay with her in summer and enjoy this beautiful location. In order to get there we would either fly to Limoges or take the train. Limoges remains a favourite airport as it's small. Leni would usually meet us and drive us the hour or so to reach her home or we would hire a car. Each year she would develop the site with the help of her WOOFERS. The acronym stands for World Organisation for Organic Food. Young people would come from all over the world to work on the land in return for board and lodging. And anyone who had ever been there at the right time would never forget Leni’s walnuts. She had a walnut tree in the garden and I have never tasted such lovely walnuts! One year Rik went to help with the preliminary work to convert her old barn into what was to become a beautiful annexe for people to stay and to socialise. I have a fond memory of a party she was to hold while we were there and she suggested that I might like to cook a whole salmon, which she had had at one of my parties, while her daughter made several vegetarian dishes. Well, I had never cooked on an Aga before and that was the challenge. We planned to cook it in the oven but the oven seemed very small and temperature and timings were a matter of luck. It was with great hilarity that we managed to get this salmon into the small oven. But it turned out fine. I loved the party and the chance to practise my French. (Leni was quite a linguist.)

Very soon after moving here Leni began to hold Arts Events based in her village but requisitioning local small hotels and her own farmhouse. They were mainly for poets but also sculptors and other artists. Rik attended several of these in the days when I was still teaching. One was based around the Troubadours who travelled a route near this location; another was on the Occitane language. One year Rik had been on this course for about a week and I was to join him for the party and performance at the end. (It was half-term.) Well, it was a most enjoyable and convivial event and there was obviously a real creative buzz there because the next day I scribbled down a few lines inspired by the events of the previous evening and particularly the joy of the young boy who chucked some confetti in the yard outside. I buried these few lines for a long time as I knew they would not constitute a poem. And then! On finding them again I saw what needed to be done to render them into something like a poem. It must have been acceptable because this poem was selected by Enfield Poets to be Poem of the Month at the Dugdale Theatre in Enfield. This meant that it was displayed on a poster and featured on the poetry jukebox in the foyer and I have read it at poetry meetings. So here it is. It is dedicated to Leni and entitled “Confetti”.

CONFETTI

When the child flung his wild rebellion to the skies
The discs danced a state of joy
Brief as a butterfly on the air.
They spoke a pure Esperanto of the heart,
Quite analloyed by the doubt and uncertainty of the pen.

Next morning, after the storm,
They eddied round the back door
Declaring the dominion of chaos over order.
Refusing to lie down but lifting like bubbles of memory
Rising to the surface of last night's wine.
Their hectic presence disturbed the grey order of the gravel.
They were the embers of yesterday's sparks
Still present in the words, in the verse.

Click here for 11th instalment.

Week 9 - ISLANDS

This is the theme that has been running in my head this week when it occurred to me that the word for "island" in Italian is "isola"; in Latin it's "insulam". From there it's a very close step to isolation. But in this last week’s celebrations for VE Day we have heard the phrase "This Island Nation" oft repeated as something to be celebrated, something which kept us safe, just as in Shakespeare's Richard II, John of Gaunt speaks of England as "this sceptre isle"…

"This fortress built by Nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war".

So that's one out of two then. For our island geography did protect us in some measure during the last war but it has proved no safeguard against "infection" in the 21st century or, for that matter, some plagues of previous centuries. Islands have been used historically as places of exile – a political expedient for disposing of those whose views do not accord with the state. I am thinking of Napoleon, the poet Ovid, Seneca, Victor Hugo and Nelson Mandela. Islands have also been used in earlier times as places of isolation for plague victims or sufferers from leprosy. And, in our more enlightened times the Isle of Wight has been chosen as a test site for the government's Test and Trace strategy.

More generally, we tend to think of islands today as something to be desired – an island holiday to somewhere more exotic with its own particular characteristics. A place to "get away from it all" – not necessarily in isolation. But I have also thought about the long-running popular radio programme on Radio 4 – Desert Island Discs – where guests are invited to contemplate being shipwrecked alone on an island and have to select 8 records that they would wish to have with them, assuming they had the means to play them. I expect many of you might have considered this yourselves. But back in my English teaching days, my husband, another English teacher, devised a scheme of work to demonstrate pupils' oral abilities based on this programme. Most of the pupils had probably never heard the programme, but they relished the chance to be able to select their favourite music and to talk about it and its importance to them and really rose to the challenge and spoke freely about themselves and their choices. This became a popular task and became taken up by many colleagues and entered into the schemes of work for our departments.

The current presenter of this programme is Lauren Laverne (my favourite was Kirsty Young) and, listening to the programme this week, I learned that the programme has set a challenge for these times. They are asking listeners to select one track or piece of music and to tell the story of what this piece means to them and the place it holds in their memories. It should make for very interesting listening even if the contributors are not celebrities. So my challenge for you this week is to select 8 records. Or might you manage one? I think that's harder. I think my choice might be "Who Knows Where the Time Goes" by Sandy Denny. Why? Because it’s achingly beautiful and reminds me of many friends in the past – but that’s a long story.

I would like to finish with the words of John Donne, writing in 1624, in his illness.

"No man is an Iland, intire of it selfe; every man is a peece of the Continent, a part of the maine,
if a Clod bee washed away by the Sea, Europe is the lesse, as well as if a Promontorie were,...
Any Man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankinde;
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee."

Pamela Williams

Click here for 10th instalment.

Week 8 - VE DAY - 75 YEARS ON

This Friday the nation will celebrate 75 years since VE Day, the day when the war in Europe was officially declared over. This must have been a day of very mixed feelings for many people, who had either lost loved ones or seen their lives significantly changed. And, for everyone, war had occupied six years of their lives and devastated much of Europe. I have found myself reflecting on this and watching some old films or films which portray this period. I was born a short time after the war but it seemed to be a louring presence in my childhood. Parents would often regale us with tales of their experiences; we played on disused bomb shelters in the park; friends lived in prefab houses; we still had rationing on some items; there was some bomb damage downstairs (before we took over the whole house); my grandparents’ front door was warped from a bomb blast and; in the cupboard under the stairs was my Dad’s old kitbag and a gas mask and then there were Dad’s medals – a source of fascination to a young child.

Now my parents are no longer with us I find myself with too many questions unanswered. So I feel the need to set down what I do know. Last November, on Remembrance Day, my six-year-old granddaughter expressed an interest in what it was all about and it set me on a bit of research into my father’s medals and my mother’s story. What I have only just got my head around is the fact that my mother was so young at the outbreak of the war. She would have been 17. Like so many, her youth was lost in war. No wonder she did what she could to enjoy herself. Having had only a basic education, she was working at the Rego Garment Factory, Edmonton as a seamstress and tailor and some of the work involved making uniforms. My research has revealed that this company was a significant employer in the area and had been a scene of political activism in the 1920’s. Living in North London, she loved to go to the theatre and dancehalls. But in 1940 the factory burnt down and my mother was "called up" to work for the GPO on making crystal set radios. She loved this job and the mixed company. This helped to make the war experience bearable. Her tales of sleeping in bomb shelters sounds pretty awful. My grandfather was persuaded to build his own in the back garden. Sadly, quite early on in the war she lost a beloved brother in France.

My father was six years older than my mother and would have been 23 at the outbreak of war. He was engaged in military action all through the six years of the war. He served with the Reconnaissance Corps and was very close to the action. By 1942 he had met and married my mother but was then overseas for the duration. He drove a truck all round North Africa with the 8th Army and he was in Sicily and Italy, fighting at Montecasino. I have photographs of him by the pyramids and in Jerusalem and by the Parthenon in Athens. His regiment produced a book which outlines their campaign – perhaps now is the time to read it properly. Like most men, he told very little of his experiences, just scratching the surface, but I do believe he was changed by what he witnessed. It was not just his head of blond hair that had gone. Nevertheless, they were loving parents and did what they could to ensure we had better lives. So, I shall be celebrating this Friday somehow, if only in tribute to that generation that came before us and gave so much. Somewhere in the footage of those crowds of people celebrating the end of war in London is my mother. I keep looking for her.

With regard to the medals, I had intended to have them remounted in time for VE Day, but I didn’t get organised in time and then, much to my delight, my brother found the missing cap badge which I had asked after. So now I will be able to have them mounted together as a tribute to my father and a legacy to nine grandchildren.

Love and Peace to all.

Pamela Williams

Click here for 9th instalment.

Week 7 - REASONS TO BE CHEERFUL

I thought it was definitely time for a little levity this week. The gorgeous sun has disappeared but, for once, we are grateful for the rain for our gardens.

You may remember a quirky song by the inimitable Ian Dury, no, not "Sex and Drugs and Rock'n'Roll", the other one as above. I thought I would take this as my theme for this week and then I discovered that Channel 4 had beaten me to it with a programme with the same name, introduced by Matt Lucas and requesting members of the public to submit their videos of things they have been up to in lockdown. However, not to be deflected, I continued with my thoughts. I thought I would write a parody using the same rhyme scheme, although his does switch and mine is just a short version. Having been set a challenge on Facebook last week to choose my ten most influential music albums, I’ve come over all nostalgic with all this time on my hands and, as Noel Coward once said, "Strange how potent cheap music is". For those of you awake that was from "Private Lives", which the Theatre Visits group went to see last summer. So, my version is about growing up in the sixties.

The Welfare State, playing with my mates,
Roller skates and chips!

Education grants, learning how to dance,
Going off to France and seaside trips

Sixties Rock’n’Roll, dressing like a doll
Eating Swiss Roll and walnut whips

Sitting in the sun, chatting with my mum,
Riding pillion at a ton and trouser zips!

To be continued ……………
Perhaps I could set a challenge to write the Lockdown Version.

In other news, some more reasons to be cheerful this week. I finally got to see my grandchildren on Facetime and they looked so well because they have been out of doors. Got terribly excited when the Waitrose delivery arrived, only to discover that somehow the cereal had been left off my list. As my muesli is the sine qua non of my mornings, I was disappointed that I had boobed. The gardener arriving to cut my grass was a great blessing and has motivated me to do more gardening. I finally finished all the painting I am planning to do for a while and it’s made a great improvement. The phone calls to friends and family seem to get longer but we all need that contact. The quality of those little You-tube videos just seem to get better and more entertaining. My latest reading has been "The Hare with the Amber Eyes" and I have found it fascinating and absorbing. It’s another of those lovely hardbacks that was given to me as a gift and I just hadn’t got around to reading. And then there’s the wonderful selection of Arts programmes available on i-player or You-tube. I have enjoyed "Twelfth Night", "Wise Children", "Phantom of the Opera"(plus an old South Bank Show programme about Lloyd Webber), Matthew Bourne's "Swan Lake" (seen many times but lovely to watch again) and there's so much more! Thursday’s National Theatre transmissions have become a highlight of my week, so I’m looking forward to "Frankenstein" this week with Benedict Cumberbatch and Andrew Scott. Again, I saw it live-streamed at Campus West but it's well worth watching again.

I am not including here what I haven't succeeded in but the same things seem to remain undone. Ah! Well, I guess we still have time.

Stay well, stay sane and stay safe, everyone. I would like to hear from you if you have enjoyed the blog (or not as the case may be).

Pamela Williams

  • Click here for 8th instalment.

    Week 6 - ISOLATION DIARIES

    For many of us it's becoming increasingly difficult to distinguish between the days and even weeks of this lockdown no matter how we attempt to put a shape to it. The thought of longer separation from our friends and families is daunting and it's a challenge to stay positive. This was brought into sharp relief to me this week by listening to a radio programme that had previously been aired as part of the "Reunion" series introduced by Sue Lawley. This particular edition concerned those who became known as "The Beirut Hostages" who spent five years in captivity, much of it in isolation, between around 1986-1991.

    I had always taken a particular interest in this story, having spent a brief sojourn in Beirut with my husband as guests of a member of the government. We had stayed in a suite at the Holiday Inn, the hotel that was to be at the start of the hostilities there, and we had a diplomatic car at our disposal. When we drove along the Corniche and out of the city going north, you could see the vast refugee camp just outside the city. Apart from that, it was a very divided city and not difficult to imagine a civil war breaking out. Our visit was around 1972 but it made the hostage crisis in 1986 very real. Little news was leaked out, except by other hostages who were released, and for a long time we didn’t know whether they were dead or alive or in what conditions they were kept. Five years later, when their stories came to be known, it was with astonishment that we learned their accounts of their lives. They were three very different men but they all had very special qualities that enabled them to endure their ordeal. John McCarthy was a journalist who had attended Haileybury College, just outside Hertford; Terry Waite was the Archbishop of Canterbury's special envoy and Brian Keenan was an Irishman and a teacher. But, when they were kept together, they established a human bond that made them stronger and forged relationships that would stand the test of time. They had been kept in very harsh conditions and subjected to some beatings. Their plight had inspired me earlier to devise a series of Drama Lessons as part of my programme of study to bring world affairs to the attention and understanding of young people.

    Listening to the radio programme this week, they told how they had eventually been allowed books but when the first books arrived they were totally inappropriate. One was a book on breastfeeding – so there was much humour among them too which helped them to survive, despite not knowing whether each day might be their last. They solved the book problem by drawing a penguin and asking their captors to find books with penguins on. An ingenious solution. And it became apparent that what kept each of them alive was the fact that each had "a life of the mind" to escape to. Like the old soldier in the television advert asking us to stay at home, he says, "In my mind I’m free!"

    And I'll finish this reflection with the words of Hamlet: "I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself a king of infinite space".

    Interestingly, Stephen Hawking alluded to this in the title of his book, "The Universe in a Nutshell". He too was a man who was in some ways isolated in his body.

    In other news – I have moved on to painting the garden fences – my own particular "nutshell".

    Stay safe, everyone.

    Pamela Williams

    Click here for 7th instalment.

    Week 5 - A LA RECHERCHE DU TEMPS PERDU

    Well, this week, instead of relating what I'd been up to – which isn't much, I thought I would offer a few recollections of Easters past and hope that some might be familiar to some of you as we have just passed the strangest Easter holiday that most of us will have known. The weather has been glorious but, as we know, it can be very unpredictable at this time of year and I think I heard a weatherman say that we were statistically more likely to have snow at Easter than at Christmas.

    So – childhood Easters. Do you remember how ALL the shops were closed on Good Friday except the Baker’s where we could buy our hot cross buns? And in those days they were ONLY available then and were fresh not like the pre-packed ones from supermarkets today. The only other shops open were the fish shops and everybody ate only fish on Good Friday. Of course, I am describing a life in a pretty mono-cultural north London in the fifties. I believe even newsagents were closed on this day, it being one of their only days off in the year. Television and radio were very sombre on those days, reminding us of our Christian heritage.

    Easter Sunday, however, was joyous. Of course there were Easter eggs but one or two, not the choc-fest that children expect today. We would have boiled eggs with painted faces for breakfast and then off to church, which looked resplendent with plenty of yellow, gold and white and flowers and joyful hymns. Ours was a high Anglican church, so it was like church with all the trimmings. Each year I would have a new outfit for this occasion. My mother was a marvellous needlewoman and tailor and so would make beautiful tailored coats and suits for me and I can still remember some of them today. These were times of considerable austerity so I don’t quite know how she managed it but I guess the Co-op came in handy with its saving schemes and dividends. The other essential was a new pair of sandals. These had crepe soles and T-bars and had to last through till September. On Bank Holiday Mondays we would make an expedition for a day out and a picnic. We would visit such exotic places as Cuffley or Bayford, easily accessible by the trainline which ran from from Bowes Park to Hertford North. It was a chance to explore the countryside within easy reach. I am sure that sometimes we visited some of our numerous relatives that lived in and around north London

    And then teenage years dawned and with it the opportunity to roam further afield. By then, we had moved to Enfield. My boyfriend had a motor bike and I used to ride pillion. Easter was the time to visit Brands Hatch to watch motorcycle racing, which I found exhilarating. Our bike was a Matchless 500cc for any bike fans out there. My boyfriend (later husband) was also a keen cricketer and the cricket season began about this time of year. Cricket occupied most of our weekends for several years and I helped with teas and later did the scoring. Looking back, I don’t know how I endured it but there was a good social life attached, especially when we joined the much larger Edmonton Cricket Club. My younger brother always spent his Easter weekends camping in the Lake District and it's not difficult to imagine the effects of the variable weather conditions!

    Moving on several years, when I came to marry for the second time, we chose Easter Saturday for our wedding, which was secret, apart from our witnesses. Needless to say, it SNOWED! I felt rather chilly and was glad of the shawl I had. The next day we announced it to a gathering of the parents in Dorset, where my parents then lived.

    Jumping ahead another decade or so, Easter was also a time to go skiing as the conditions were often favourable, especially if Easter was early. I have a clear recollection of a glorious skiing holiday with two very dear friends in Chatel on the Swiss border. It was the night of the Hale Bopp Comet and we stood on the balcony of our apartment toasting the comet with plenty of wine! Happy Days.

    In more recent times Easter has usually featured family gatherings with my brother and his family. Grandchildren have conducted Easter egg hunts whilst the adults have enjoyed their Easter roast lamb. I must say I missed that this year – my solitary lamb chop just didn’t cut it. We have all had to sacrifice our family gatherings at this time.

    So to finish, I would like to add the first verse of my mother’s favourite poem, Robert Browning’s “Home Thoughts from Abroad”. I don’t doubt that this was passed on to her by her mother:

    Oh, to be in England
    Now that April's there,
    And whoever wakes in England
    Sees, some morning, unaware
    That the lowest boughs and the brushwood sheaf
    Round the elm tree bole are in tiny leaf
    While the chaffinch sings on the orchard bough
    In England - now!

    VERY IMPORTANT POSTSCRIPT - Don’t forget to look at the newsletter on-line published on this website.

    Pamela Williams

    Click here for 6th instalment.

    Week 4 – 7th April 2020

    Well, is it really Week 4? And are there still more changes and challenges to face? The Queen has spoken to the Nation; Boris has sent us all a personal(?) letter; we are banned from going to parks unless for exercise (no standing and staring then!); and now the Prime Minister himself has succumbed. Meanwhile our NHS continues to inspire, as well as all those working in the caring professions and all the essential services which help to keep some semblance of normality. But if we get a glimpse on the news of what is actually happening in hospital wards, it’s enough to sober us and keep us from the temptation to go outside. This is a very unpleasant virus and we owe it to ourselves, our loved ones and our NHS to do all that we can to stay safe. The alternatives are untenable and the figures of hospital admissions and deaths are dreadful.

    On a positive note (well, fairly) I know of three friends who have had it mildly and made a good recovery – all younger, I must admit. I have another contact living in China, who has had a baby during lockdown and is now coming out of isolation and she sent a video of a walk around the city where she lives and where all the shops and restaurants are beginning to open. So, there is life after Coronavirus! As for me, I am finding this isolation exhausting!! I have stood at my door and clapped for the NHS and I have put a rainbow in my window – one that my granddaughter made earlier – but the fact of confronting all those jobs which need doing is a bit overwhelming But I am making valiant efforts. I have nearly finished painting the garden furniture – one more chair to go. And I have been doing so much sanding that my fingerprint no longer works on my i-phone!! Not to mention answering all those emails and responding to family Whatsap messages and friends’ Facebook posts. What happened to using the time to draw breath and reflect on what we really want to do? I suppose it’s all about using that precious time productively and staying in touch with people. Like many of you, I am really missing the grandchildren at this time. But there are many delights available to us right now through streaming of arts events, virtual tours of galleries and museums and the national U3A association. I do hope you are able to access these. We are also inundated with advice on what to do in these difficult times and how to exercise to keep fit whether indoors or out. I also hope you are able to get outside for a walk or in your gardens. Our Summer Newsletter is to be published soon and this time it will be on-line for those of you who have access to computers and will be posted to those who don’t.

    As today is the 250th anniversary of the birth of the poet Wordsworth, I thought I would leave you with this thought from the poet, which I once had emblazoned on my favourite T-shirt.

    “One impulse from a vernal wood
    May teach you more of man,
    Of moral evil and of good,
    Than all the sages can.”

    Pamela Williams

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    Week 3 - 1st April 2020

    Well, the world looks very different today. It would have been hard to imagine a month ago just how much life could be changed by this. So, I hope you are all feeling well and trying to stay positive. It is essential that we stay home as far as possible and just sit it out. When I was a schoolgirl we had a headmaster, who was rather other-worldly, but, at the final assembly preceding the school holidays, he would always utter the immortal words, "Spend your leisure …..(pause)….wisely." The whole school would erupt in joining in with the final word. But it was good advice and perhaps that phrase has just stuck with me. Believe me, I am perfectly happy to put my feet up on the sofa and read a book or watch television. But, faced with what now looks like a protracted period of "leisure", I felt like I needed a project beyond the necessary chores that required attention.

    So, at the first mention of possible isolation, I ordered a variety of shades of garden furniture paint and set to sanding down and repainting my not inconsiderable range of shabby relics of days spent with good company in my summer garden. So far so good but, not having done much physical work in recent months, it was pretty exhausting but very satisfying as each day I took a before and after photo to put on my facebook page and received lots of comments from friends and family. So far I have managed the garden bench; the grandchildren’s playhouse; the bird table and the large table. That’s as far as I got before the weather changed and what was pleasant in the sunshine was not very appealing in a cold wind. And there’s no hurry!! So the next challenge is the SIX chairs!!

    I feel sure that many of you will be able to enjoy your gardens soon as the weather gets warmer again. Indoors, I have read Hilary Mantel’s "Bring up the Bodies", which I enjoyed very much for its historical detail. This week it’s "100 Years of Solitude" by Gabriel Garcia Marquez – appropriate I thought! Both of these had sat on my shelf unread. Then there’s the various "cupboard challenges". One friend posted a picture of her immaculate airing cupboard, so I felt it incumbent upon me to share a photo of my totally chaotic one – creative chaos I like to call it but now I feel I must do something about it given that we have the time. Then there’s the spices shelf in my kitchen! Once I started to go through it I saw what a collection of veritable antiques there were!! So they had to go – but the bin smelt good.

    I sincerely hope that you all have hobbies or pastimes to enjoy in these difficult times and perhaps we can share our experiences some time soon. It's certainly a good opportunity to try to learn something new. We at U3A have always been known for our resourcefulness. The good old telephone has come into its own again. I spent much of Sunday morning chatting to old friends I rarely see. I have been delighted to see how music and poetry have been a source of great inspiration and solidarity for us, featuring on news broadcasts as well as the usual media. Plays, opera and concerts are becoming increasingly available to us via the internet, so do try it out if you are able.

    So, stay well, stay safe and stay in touch everyone.

  • Click here for 4th instalment.

    Week 2 - 24th March 2020

    What a week! It started badly and it just got worse with each day bringing us more bad news about the limits to our freedoms which we normally enjoy and the imminent threat of the dreaded coronavirus. So, first of all I would like to wish you well and hope that you are all managing to survive under these conditions and to stay safe and cheerful. I must confess to feeling a little less buoyant than last week but thank goodness for the beautiful blue skies and sunshine. We have just passed the Spring Equinox – a time usually of hope and optimism. Next weekend the clocks “spring” forward so more hours of daylight. What seems such a pity is that we¬’ve looked forward to this time of year through a pretty wet and miserable winter and now we have to stay home.

    But home, for most of us is not too bad. I expect many of you have families who are struggling to work at home and look after their children. So all we have to do is to stay put! Personally, I have really enjoyed the chance to chat on the ‘phone to family and friends. Social media has been brilliant for keeping in touch with wider circles of friends and to see and hear their experiences. I have also enjoyed the jokes – great for keeping a sense of perspective. You may like to know that the Committee has set up its own What’sAp group for ease of communication. For the first time in most of our lives we are all in this together and, at best, there’s a great sense of camaraderie about. This has been exemplified by some lovely footage of people singing on balconies in Italy – really uplifting. I especially enjoyed a clip of a guy singing "Nessum dorma". That’s what we need, "Vincera!"

    I thought I would like to share some of my best and worst moments of the last week. The worst was when Boots, the Chemist, lost my regular prescription. This resulted in THREE visits to the pharmacy, where no-one seemed to be observing social distancing, and THREE ‘phone calls to my GP surgery and the pharmacy (no easy task) before it turned up. I was building up to a complaint but, when I saw the fatigue on the pharmacist’s face, I just wished them all well. The best has to be last evening, when the student who lives next door and whom I have only seen once or twice, brought round a huge bag of vegetables because the restaurant in which he works had closed down. Roasted peppers for me tonight!

    I woke this morning to the lines of Ted Hughes’ poem, "The Jaguar" in my head. They seem appropriate here:
    "there’s no cage to him/More than to the visionary his cell:"
    and
    "Over the cage floor the horizons come."

    Stay well and stay safe everyone.

    Pamela Williams

    Click here for 3rd instalment.

    Week 1 - 17th March 2020

    Good Morning friends and fellow members. Well, at least it's Spring and it's good to see some sunshine and the spring flowers look wonderful. How to stay sane if we are isolated? Well, we can still go outside as long as we avoid people. We are fortunate in Welwyn Hatfield to have some beautiful green spaces, parks and woodland to enjoy if we are fit and, if not, how about a drive to a local beauty spot to admire the view? Trees and green spaces are very good for our well-being. And it's important to stay fit. Many of us have gardens and I am going to use the time to attend to my much-neglected one. Time is a precious commodity and we often bewail the lack of it so now we have a gift of time to use at our disposal Maybe it's time to de-clutter or sort those precious family photos? Top of my list is to read some of those books on my shelf that have been upbraiding me for being unread. Radio 4 is a godsend and a curse, with all the news coverage. But maybe time to listen to all those CD's you love. Music is good for us too, of all varieties. Maybe we should be dancing round the kitchen to Gloria Gaynor's "I will survive"?
    It is important to stay in touch with friends and family, so use what you know, whether it's the telephone, social media, skype or try something you haven't used before.
    At U3A we will endeavour to stay in touch and keep you informed. I will try to post updates regularly. I feel sure most of the committee will be happy to chat on the 'phone if you wish to make contact.

  • Click here for 2nd instalment.
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