Friday, 27 March 2015

Sister Cara Mary

The journey through life we all take brings us into contact with many people and, if we are honest, the vast majority we come across mean little or nothing to us. However, every now and then we meet someone who in some way becomes an important to us – either because of who they are or of what they teach us: sometimes both.

This blog is a celebration of one such: the late Sister Cara Mary of Tymawr Convent near Monmouth.

When Marcia and I lived in Avonwick some twenty years ago, another remarkable woman, Greta Scott, lived not far from us. To be more accurate her home was there but she spent most of her time at Tymawr where she had acted as unpaid bursar ever since she had retired. Thus it was that Marcia came to know about Tymawr and to decide that she would visit the convent with a view to a week of silent retreat. I drove her up and we were met by a small nun with spectacles and a rather curious hearing system. She announced that she was Sister Cara Mary and was to care for Marcia during her stay. On that occasion I was with Cara for less than two minutes but that was enough to make a real impact on me – and I must admit that I was far happier leaving Marcia in her care than I had thought I would be.

Over the years, when Marcia was spending a week at the convent every six months, she and Cara became very close and one summer, to my delight, it was arranged that Cara would spend one week of her summer holiday with us in Avonwick. How many of us realised that some groups of nuns actually take a summer holiday?

The weather was wonderful and we had a wonderful time. We drove up to fetch Cara and the first thing she did on arrival was to disappear and change out of her habit into some casual clothes. ‘I have put that nun away in the wardrobe,’ was the way she put it.

Cara was certainly as deaf as I am and it could well be that this was an important factor in our relationship. Not just deaf but determined to continue to communicate with other people using whatever technology we could and putting as much effort into understanding as was needed. Not surprisingly we spent a good deal of time talking about the problems the deaf face and the various ways of trying to deal with what is, actually, a quite serious disability which can, depending on the causes of the deafness, be rather painful.

Cara had an interesting background. She had studied fine arts at The Courtlaud (alongside Anita Brookner and Anthony Blunt: ‘Such a poor muddled man’ amongst others) and had spent much of the war working at Bletchly Park before entering the Order and teaching.

Why was she so important to me? I think it was because in her eyes the church was totally inclusive. She would say things such as, ‘She’s a Christian although, of course, she doesn’t know it’. Having said that she was strict both with herself and others. If you agreed to do something – she would expect you to do it. Thus, having taken her vows she never gave a moments thought to turning her back on them even when life in the convent was for her was very hard.

Sadly, on her third holiday with us (this time at The Hermitage) she suffered a severe stroke and it was not long before she died. We can, however, look back at the five or six days she spent there with the certain knowledge that she was very happy.

PS Had a PET scan yesterday and expect further news next week.

Friday, 20 March 2015

Entering port

This is going to be one of the hardest blogs to write as it contains some pretty grim news. However, over the years I have become very attached to you all – and especially those who send encouraging emails or leave comments. So . . .

As you know I was suffering from anaemia at the back end of last year. As a result I have been taking medication to increase my blood count and that has been working (I feel better now than I did then) but it left unanswered the basic question: why was it happening? We now know. I have a malignant tumour growing in my oesophagus and that is at the root of all the problems.

It has been decided – I have decided – that an operation is not an option. All the advice is that I would be extremely lucky to survive what would be major surgery. So, more and more tests as we look at other treatments. I will keep you informed but I have no intention of dwelling on this in future blogs.

My apologies for ignoring last week’s comments (and messages via email, Facebook and so on). I am sure you will now understand why.
Achieve with David Griffiths at the helm.
Only one photograph this week: Achieve. She is that blue boat moored on the river Dart. Now in semi-retirement, all she does is help with the ferry between the town and the castle at the river mouth during the height of the season. She was, however, the River Dart Pilot Boat until the river trade came to an end with the closure of the Baltic Wharf in Totnes. The name gives the purpose away: it was through this river that much of the timber from the Baltic ports that was destined for use in the west country was imported.

Achieve belongs to my friend David Griffiths: one time and last River Dart Pilot. One day, about thirty years ago, I suppose, I accompanied him out of the river on board Achieve (crewed for the occasion be Messrs Distin and Bell) and we – David and I – boarded one of those ships from the Baltic (climbing a rather scary Jacob’s ladder). From the bridge I watched as David threaded this ship up the river – and I use the word ‘threaded’ very advisedly because there are places where the channel is both very narrow and very tortuous.

Achieve was already in Totnes when we arrived, her crew ashore to take the bow warps as David turned the ship around in the turning bay before sliding her gently alongside the Baltic Wharf to await unloading.

Then it was back down the river to Dartmouth. It had been a wonderful day – and profitable. At the time I was writing a regular column for Yachts and Yachting and the experience gave me ample material for one of my pieces.

Down the centuries pilots have taken over as ships near the end of their voyages and I am now looking towards that final trip from the open sea to a secluded berth. Luckily I have the best of pilots. You know her as a novelist.

Friday, 13 March 2015

The oak, the ash and the thorn

Welcome to my Friday the Thirteenth blog. Some are, of course, unhappy with the day/date combination believing it to bring bad luck. Not so my late father-in-law who was born on a Friday the thirteenth and, throughout a long and generally very happy life, maintained nothing could be luckier. Odd thing, superstition.

The oak
Here, in England, some of the oldest superstitions and myths involve three trees: the oak, the ash and the thorn (the latter being, almost certainly, the Hawthorn). Those who were brought up in Puck of Pooks Hill by Rudyard Kipling will, I am sure, remember that the children were magicked into forgetting their encounters with Puck and his friends thanks to this simple act:

He (Puck) gave them each three leaves – one of Oak, one of Ash, and one of Thorn. ‘Bite these,’ said he. ‘Otherwise you might be talking at home of what you’ve seen and heard, and – if I know human beings – they’d send for the doctor. Bite!’

Then there is a rhyme which runs:

Oak before ash,
In for a splash.
Ash before oak,
In for a soak.

This goes back a long way and older versions are more elaborate:

When the oak comes out before the ash,
You’ll have a summer of wet and splash;When the ash comes out before the oak,You’ll have a summer of dust and smoke.

Most years, of course, the oak and ash ‘come out’ at the same time in that in both cases the leaves begin to burst out of the buds at the same time. When that happens, Marcia and I call it a ‘sploak’. Marcia and I have paid close attention as to which comes first for many years and made a couple of interesting (if unscientific) discoveries. The first is that for there to be any accuracy, there has to be somewhere where trees from both species are standing close together. Only then will all other factors be removed: height above sea level (which equals differences in both air and ground temperature), exposure to winds and so on. Thus it is that when we find such a pair, we call them a ‘sploakometer’.

The ash. 
The second discovery is that the old rhyme does seem to be right. On the rare occasions when one or other comes out significantly earlier than the other what follows is as predicted. How can that be? How can a couple of trees ‘know’ what is going to happen to weather in future months? The only explanation can be that they don’t but that minute variations (far too small for us to recognise) in conditions over the months preceding each spring create some sort of pattern which determines both when the oak and ash leaves come and the weather conditions to follow.

Sadly the fate of sploakometers in the UK is at risk as a fungus that is gradually killing the vast majority of our ash trees spreads across the country. We have a one mighty ash in the front garden and a few youngsters growing alongside the boundary to the rear. We would both be very saddened were anything to happen to them. I have no doubt that there will evolve a strain of ash that is immune to this fungus in the same way as we are now seeing elm trees which are immune to Dutch Elm Disease establishing themselves. Even so, it means that there will be areas of the country where the landscape will be altered for ever.

The hawthorn or may
Although the oak was undoubtedly the most venerated of our trees (it was, of course, sacred to the Druids who took their name from the Greek word for the oak, drus) the ash was often involved in some bizarre forms of medical intervention. Incidentally, when we say ‘touch wood’ we are following a custom far older than the birth and death of Christ and the wood in question was, of course, the oak.

Do you have a child suffering from rickets? Nowadays you might be tempted to believe the youngster to be short of Vitamin D but a few centuries ago you would reject such an implausible idea and realise that the only sensible cure would be to invoke the spirit of the ash. Accordingly you would find an ash with a trunk of less than a hand span in diameter and you would split it with a sharp axe, heavy knife or bill hook. The split had to be long enough so that on the following morning, just as the sun was about to rise, you could take the child and, after stripping it naked, open up the split and pass the child through it. That done, the trunk would be bound back together and the wounds sealed with clay. Behold, as the tree healed so did the child – or so it was believed.

Hawthorn (or the May Tree) had an absolutely vital role for without it there would be no passion, no love and, obviously, no children. In those days the maypole would be made from hawthorn and it would be used to make the garland with which that summer’s ‘Green Man’ was crowned and the girls would adorn their hair with the May blossom. Obviously it was important to ensure that cows remained fertile and provided sufficient milk: a prudent cowman would hang a bunch of hawthorn outside his byre. Note the outside, bringing hawthorn indoors would be to invite bad luck – which brings us back to Friday the Thirteenth.

No matter how you look at Friday the Thirteenth, it was a lucky day for Sugar when she was rescued by Keith and Jeanne Giles: it's called falling on your feet. It took a lot of organisation to bring her over five hundred miles to the Giles' home and I am hoping that Jeanne will tell us how that was achieved in her comment this week.

Friday, 6 March 2015

Tavistock at work 200 years ago

The problem with looking into the history of a place is that sometimes you end up with a feeling of total disconnect – a feeling that the place you know so well could not possibly have been anything like what your research tells you.

Less than two hundred years ago Tavistock was completely and utterly different. It was an industrial town which depended on people to provide most of the power needed to drive that industry.
One thing is certain, 200 years ago there was no Book Stop. It was here, as I am sure most of you know, that the launch party for Marcia's first novel Those Who Serve was held. That was a long time ago but the book is still in print and continues to sell in both print and ebook editions.
In the early 1800’s copper in considerable quantities were found in and near Tavistock. This simple fact had a huge impact on the townspeople in general but what I want to talk about is what happened to numbers of young girls and women: they were employed in the copper mines carrying out filthy, back-breaking work all of which started when they were no more than thirteen years old.

No Bedford Hotel . . .
They weren’t employed underground (or, if they were, there is no record of this happening) but it was their job to carry out all the work needed to convert the ore bearing rocks and detritus that was dug out below and brought to the surface. The whole process was called ‘dressing’ and the areas where most of the work was carried out were called ‘dressing floors’. Some were covered, others were in the open air.

No Crebers . . .
First all the material that had been mined had to be taken from the mine head to the dressing floors. This was done by teams of two women using shovels and hand barrows: usually in their twenties because this work demanded great strength.

Next was work for the younger girls: to wash out the rubbish and put to one side the lumps of rock in which there would be copper ore. It was important that these girls neither discarded valuable ore nor allowed useless material to be passed on to the next process. In short it demanded knowledge and considerable concentration. New girls would work alongside those with experience in order to learn the job and all day their hands – and often their clothing – would be wet as they carried out this physically demanding work: they would be lumping around pieces of rock that could weight up the thirty pounds or so all day long.

No Duke Street . . .
All this work built up their strength and they would be moved onto breaking up the rock and turning it into a powder. This was done in two stages. The first used short and heavy club hammers to break the rocks down to the size of pebbles – the second used flat headed hammers to break up the pebbles and grind them to powder.

Then would be the final stage: the separation of the particle of copper ore from the ‘guange’ (pronounced ‘gang’) which comprised all the bits of stone and so on which were of no value. This part of the job is almost exactly the same as panning for gold – using water to separate out the lighter guange from the heavier metal or ore.

No Pannier Market.
We are talking about quite big concerns: we know that one mine employed over a thousand workers at one time and the other was a somewhat larger operation. That would mean that a third of the town’s population was involved.

Can you imagine what those working conditions were like? Can you imagine any of our youngsters today being prepared to carry out such work?

One thing is for sure: none of Marcia’s characters would recognise the Tavistock of 200 years ago. It was the copper that lined the pockets of the Duke of Bedford who was to use much of this wealth to rebuild the town in the 1830’s. Few of the buildings in the centre of the town existed then: no Guildhall, no Pannier Market, no Duke Street, no Crebers in which to meet Felicity out shopping and no Bedford Hotel in which to eavesdrop on Kate and Cass gossiping over coffee.

This is the cover of Postcards from the Past as published in the USA. The painting is by Vitali Komarov and Marcia loves his work (we have one of his original oils hanging in our sitting room) and she was thrilled to bits when St Martin's Press decided to use his work on the covers of her books. If you want to see more examples of Vitali's work, click here
Vitali Komarov
The real loss is that there was no Marcia Willett in those days to leave behind a word picture to enable us to imagine what it felt like to be living there at that time.