Saturday, 27 October 2007

Back to school

A couple of weeks ago I found out that Father Christmas wasn’t real, but Mr Ellis, the school inspector. Where did this definitive proof come from? It was in the written records of the village school that I attended from the age of five. On reaching its 100th year, this venerable establishment threw open its doors to all old pupils. Some seemed very old indeed.

The staff and governors kindly opened the school on a Saturday. The children had made colourful displays, record books dating back for 100 years were available to peruse and even a traditional lunch provided. Not the dreaded mince followed by blancmange that looked pink and tasted pinker, but a tasty shepherds pie and butterscotch tart. Yum!

I stood in my old, shrunken classroom and read the school records with much pleasure. My Dad was mentioned several times. As the local forester he delivered the tree for our Christmas carol concert. I can remember being very proud when he arrived in the National Trust Landrover, a huge Norway spruce poking out of the back.

My big sister found an entry that stirred guilty feelings. Her best friend had been punished for, “Extreme rudeness to a teacher…”, Over 50 years later she still cringes. On Valentine’s day she’d dared her best friend to ask their young male teacher for a kiss. No kiss was offered but the friend got two strokes of the cane instead. It seems incredible now.

Neither of us were ever caned in school but we were both smacked with a ruler. Surprisingly, I don’t remember being troubled by physical punishment. It was a fact of school life and infinitely preferable to writing lines or having to stay in at playtime. In our rural school, surrounded on three sides by beautiful countryside, I remember sitting in class watching kestrels hover over the downs and longing to be free like them. I hated being indoors.

There were a few people we remembered at the reunion. Some very different, some hardly changed. Often I recognised a smile or laugh rather than a face. It was and still is, a very happy school. Though I’m puzzled by the smartly dressed middle aged gent who greeted both of us fondly. When we obviously didn’t recognise him he looked wistful and said, “Oh I remember you both so well. You’re the M..… girls. You lived in the woods.”

I left that school at the age of eleven with a greater knowledge of tree and plant names than I did of maths. I’d read Jane Eyre and Treasure Island and had a sketchy knowledge of British geography. I knew that Sussex was named after the South Saxons and Dorking after the Dorks. I’d also picked up that girls didn’t need careers, only husbands . It took a few years and some hard knocks before I realised they don’t teach you everything in school.

Sunday, 14 October 2007


Scalan is a collection of old seminary buildings in the Braes of Glenlivet. Though long deserted, it remains an enigmatically spiritual place. Tucked under encircling spartan hills, its ancient stone buildings huddle round a burn and a clear spring that’s commonly known as The Bishop’s Well. Some of the buildings are in ruins with yellow stonecrop clinging to the walls. Some have been restored; a place to shelter from the rain and ponder on the austere lives they once sheltered.

The ground surrounding the buildings is dotted with gnarled and twisted trees, sparsely fruiting rowans and sycamores, fissured alders, branches laden with blue grey lichen, that edge towards the waterside. All around the burn soothes and tinkles.

Apparently Scalan, set in its lonely isolated glen, was a Catholic seminary dating from a time when to be a Catholic was a risky business. I am not a Catholic, or even a particularly spiritual person, yet the place is profoundly moving.

My first visit was on a sunny afternoon when it glowed green and friendly. The second time a faint Scottish drizzle fell softly on my skin and evening was coming on. Then there was a slight air of apprehension about the place.

It may have been partly because four belligerent looking cows and a rather nervous calf stood solidly by the running water, between me and the bridge. They obviously resented the intrusion and my heart beat a little faster as the biggest one splashed purposefully through the burn towards me. The others followed, stopped almost face on, then nosing the calf before them, they turned shifty glances towards me, before nudging the calf up the bank. Once on the path they looked my way and waited.

I was too nervous to pass them so I also waited. We eyed each other, then I waved my arms. The older cow turned on her heel, gave her nearest companion a stroppy shove with her head and they all trotted away, looking back resentfully a couple of times before disappearing behind a small hillock.

Scalan was empty again. The burn played and the wind sighed softly in the trees. Once again it seethed with ancient spirituality, with a mysterious atmosphere that seemed to predate the long gone priests.

We dallied a while, breathing in the atmosphere and taking photographs, as dusk fell we walked back in the softly falling rain. On leaving the silence flowed slowly in behind us.

I caught a movement in the corner of my eye. To my disappointment it was only the cows creeping quietly round the back of the barns, waiting for us to leave, reclaiming their shelter for the night. It was cows, but it could easily have been something more secret and hidden that was also waiting for us to go.

Thursday, 4 October 2007

How I got on at the Samaritans' Craft Fair

One of the best things about having a stall at the Samaritan Craft Fair, apart from the obvious one of helping a wonderful organisation, is that everyone is so positive and cheery. I’d had my doubts. I was staying the weekend with a close friend, the person who’d asked me to have a stall in the first place and a committed Samaritan. I could hardly back out, whatever the weather, but the day before the fair was so wet I’d feared drowning on the M25. I expected the fair to be a washout.

The Craft Fair was set in a lovely house and garden that’s not usually open to the public. The owner and organiser greeted me like an old friend, despite the fact I’d just mistaken her husband for the gardener. (Well he was dressed in overalls and raking the leaves off the lawn. And it was the type of house to have a gardener. Very grand! I only realised my mistake when he entered the house wearing his boots.)

Despite steady drizzle, the lady of the house assured me the weather would be lovely and it was. How could the sun not shine on the Samaritans.

I have never been at a craft venue where everyone was so resolutely cheerful and supportive. Though I know from my experiences from Purple Coo, that goodwill is surprisingly infectious. Stall holders helped to look after each others stalls and praised their rivals work to potential customers.

I even smiled reasonably sweetly as I extracted my bright glass beads from the hands of yet another sticky toddler. Agreeing once again that, ‘Yes they did look exactly like sweeties.’ Though secretly wondering why the little poppet wasn’t firmly restrained in the pushchair.

Visitors came to the fair determined to buy. I had a good day and came away a satisfied and happy bead maker and the weekend was made doubly pleasant because I was staying with old friends.

I can’t say I returned home any richer. Craft fairs are full of temptations. I really did need a craftily turned wooden salt pot, some excellent hand made soap, that exotic chutney and, as for the plant stall…Well, need I say more.

Several people have asked where to buy my beads. They are currently displayed in Concepts in Art, Hurstpierpoint, West Sussex and Simply Unique, East Mey, Caithness.

I’ll also display a few on my blog in case anyone is tempted. If you are, please send me a PM for further details.

The flat beads (£14.50 + p&p) are threaded on silver wire (approx 40cm) and the beads have gold inclusions, one on a yellow background, the other on a turquoise background.

The bead drops (£19.50 + p&p) are on silver wire (approx 40cm) but the drops themselves are white metal with white metal beads in addition to the glass beads. The first drop is mainly mauve and orange glass, 2nd Turquoise and mauve glass, 3rd I call my 'Garden Beads', red raised flowers on a cream background, 4th a flat orange flower with a small black centre.