This is the time of year when the outside of our house, and the one to which we’re attached deck themselves in scented clouds of wisteria.
There’s lilac below the kitchen window: that’ll bloom very soon: already the tightly furled buds are loosening and hinting at the soft mauves and purples that will emerge. That’ll be for next week then.
We’re less than a week into the month of May. Let’s mark the arrival of this lovely month by celebrating Beltane.
BELTANE AT THE ‘STONEHENGE OF THE NORTH’
May 1st 2016
Not much further than a mile from us as the crow flies, lies Thornborough Henge. It’s a prehistoric monument consisting of three giant circular earthworks. Constructed 5000 years ago by the first Neolithic (New Stone Age) farmers, it was probably an enclosure for their ritual gatherings. The Henge became an important centre in Britain for pilgrimage and trade, although its exact purpose still remains a mystery.
It sends shivers down my spine to think that this ancient piece of our history lies just a short walk from our home.
We can visit it any time we choose, simply to tramp round and try to imagine it in its heyday, and we’ll have the place to ourselves. Not on May Day though. Today is the Gaelic feast of Beltane, half way between the spring and summer solstices. It’s a day to mark the beginning of summer. Sadly, today is very cold, rather windy and a bit wet.
Back in pre-historic times, rituals were held on this day to protect the cattle, crops and people, and to encourage growth. Bonfires, deemed to have protective powers, were lit. For many centuries these practices died out. But nowadays, at sites like Thornborough, pagans, Wiccans, New-Agers and lovers of history and tradition gather once more to celebrate the renewal of life and growth.
Today I was there too. For an hour at least, for the opening ceremony. Brrr! It was cold.
I was strangely moved. The Green Man, representing rebirth and the cycle of growth was our Master of Ceremonies. He invited us all to join hands, whether friends or strangers, in fellowship, and shout out three times the invocation to new life. We hailed Brigantia, Celtic goddess of Northern England. Then at his bidding and as he sounded his horn, we turned to the east and welcomed the summer rains. We turned south to welcome the sun (who was coyly absent today), to the west to welcome summer winds, and to the north where the wolves apparently are.
Then a man, naked from the waist upwards save for his covering of woad-coloured paint, leapt among us bearing the flaming torches which would offer us all protection over the coming months.
And that was the ceremony over. Dancers entertained us. They seemed to me to owe much to flamenco and to middle-eastern belly dancing traditions, but we all cheered them on with enthusiasm.
I shan’t be there this year for the closing ceremony. I’m still thawing out. But weather permitting, I’ll certainly go along next year. Will you come along too?
I’m sorry to say I’ve not been since. I would have gone this year, but … cancelled … Covid.
From a bird’s point of view, though not from a human’s, our local patch is a watery world. Our nearby town of Ripon has three rivers and one canal. The River Ure passes our house. Gravel extraction is a local industry, and once exhausted, these sites are made over to wetland nature reserves. Geese flock here. Autumn and spring are the times when large V-shaped formations pass noisily over the house, honking and calling. The feature photo shows just two – are they greylags? I don’t know. Herons are here – yesterday we watched as one heaved itself from the river, and, battling against the prevailing wind, launched itself towards a distant stand of trees, where it circled, circled, before finally finding its perch. Black-headed gulls follow the farmers as they plough and harvest. I was going to go on a trip to look at coastal birds too, but no – let’s stay local.
On the last day of April, I took myself for a short walk, from country house to country house near me. They’re all called Sleningford-something-or-other – Old Hall, Hall, Grange – in memory of the village of the same name that was ravaged by marauding Scots in the Middle Ages, never to be seen again. Though they had older antecedents, all these buildings are from the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, and they all mark pleasant pauses in our walking routines. Here’s the gatehouse to the first, Sleningford Old Hall, its window enabling the gatehouse keeper to keep his eye on all the comings and goings into the estate. Well, the last actually. I’m showing my last photo first, and working back towards home.
Only the upstairs windows of the house itself were visible over the high wall which maintains the owners’ privacy.
A mile or so beforehand, I’d already passed Sleningford Park and Hall. You can see the house set in its parkland in the feature photo. The conservatory has glass enough, and the gatehouse too has windows pointing in every direction to help the gatekeeper do his job.
I’d started from home of course, less than a mile before that. Not that we live in the house you see here. But we’re lucky enough to live in its grounds, in a rather simpler dwelling, which has its own long history – that’s for another day.
I think that my choice of books this month make not so much an ordered chain as an untidy, loosely related pile. Beverley Cleary‘s Beezus and Ramona is the starting point, and is about Beezus’ travails with her younger sister. Somehow, though my children read this book, I didn’t read this one along with them.
But we did share another book about an annoying small sister. Dorothy Edwards‘ My Naughty Little Sister is charmingly dated and old fashioned in a Listen with Mother kind of way, but is an appealing set of stories for bridging the gap between reading full-on picture books aloud with your child to those with few illustrations . My children enjoyed these cosy domestic dramas so reminiscent of their own daily lives, as well as the occasional pictures by Shirley Hughes.
From a naughty little sister to a naughty and irrepressible young boy. Just William by Richmal Crompton has been around since the 1920s. My mother liked him when she was young. I liked him: so did all my children. Martin Jarvis reading yet another misadventure of William Brown and his gang enlivened many long car journeys when they were small.
These books all seem to be about boys. I wasn’t keen on boarding school stories for girls: Malory Towers and The Chalet School held no appeal for me. I was much keener on Anthony Buckeridge‘s decent ordered word of Linbury Court, the prep school where irrepressible Jennings and his nice-but-dim friend Darbishire were pupils, and responsible for a fair bit of amiable disorder. It was never a good idea to Leave it to Jennings.
I’m still with unruly pupils who go to prep school, this one going by the unlikely name of St. Custard’s. This was where Nigel Molesworth was educated, and he recorded his ‘thorts’ (sic) in Down with Skool! (assisted by the author, Geoffrey Willans and illustrated by Ronald Searle) on lessons (‘chiz chiz‘), the Head Boy Grabber, who was ‘winner of the Mrs. Joyful prize for raffia work’, and the ‘utterly wet‘ Fotherington-Thomas (‘Hello clouds, hello sky‘). His thoughts are clever, cynical, philosophical, yet optimistic, and he really can’t spell. To re-read them as an adult is to realise how much passes over the head of a child of a child of ten. Perhaps it’s best to think of the Molesworth books as being about childhood, but for adults.
Now I’m going to cheat. My next choice isn’t a book at all, but a defunct magazine, The Young Elizabethan. It was a magazine aimed at grammar school teenagers, and its heydays were the 1950s and 60s. It was about books, about history, world affairs, astronomy, nature, about the world at large, and attracted writers like James (now Jan) Morris, Geoffrey Trease, and Nigel Molesworth himself. I once won the runner-up prize in a story-writing competition, and got a certificate and a postal order for 10/- (fifty pence). Or was it half a crown – 2/6d (twelve and a half pence)? This magazine was unapologetically high-minded, but with writers of quality at its beck and call, I always read it from cover to cover.
I’m not quite sure where to go from here. Maybe a book I read at the time which has since reached a wider audience through having become a popular television series, which diverged wildly from the original as the series progressed. I got Gerald Durrell‘s My Family and Other Animals at Christmas when I was ten, and finished it before the day was out. Gerald certainly frequented no prep school, but rather the University of Life. His family decamped to Corfu when he was about the age I was then, and he had the chance to develop the obsession with the natural world which informed his entire adult career.
So that’s my Six Degrees of Separation this month. We’ve started with a popular children’s book, and meandered through some of the reading choices I and my children have made. If you want to know more, this is what Six Degrees is all about: ‘On the first Saturday of every month, a book is chosen as a starting point and linked to six other books to form a chain. Readers and bloggers are invited to join in by creating their own ‘chain’ leading from the selected book’. You can read what other bloggers made of their chains here.
We’re going back eleven years today: not to Malcolm’s actual birthday, which is In The Bleak Midwinter, but to an April day when we were still living in the foothills of the Pyrenees, and when a bunch of amateurs – the friends and family of Malcolm – formed an impromptu production company to deliver, for one day only – Malcolm and the Microlight – to celebrate his birthday.
Shot on location in the Ariège by Jacques, Malcolm & Margaret.
A Lawrenson-Hamilton-Clift Production MMX
‘Curiously, I had no feelings of fear or apprehension, perhaps because of what our friends had told us about Jacques, the pilot, and his machine – it’s his pride and joy, and he takes great care of it.
There was a sharp feeling of exposure after take-off – we were not in a cabin, there was no protection from wind, we were just vulnerable beings in a powered shell under a giant wing – it reminded me of riding pillion on a motorbike, but this was in the air.
The various destinations came up quickly – not like travelling on the ground, even though our speed was only about 80-85 kph.
Over the mountain peaks, it was very cold – temperature had fallen from 13 or so on take-off to minus 1 over the snowfields and the flat white surfaces of isolated frozen lakes were still clearly to be seen. And suddenly, directly underneath, a herd of Pyrenean chamois, running and leaping, disturbed by the engine’s sudden sound in their snow-quiet world
A few minutes more and we were at 2600 metres, when the mountains seemed so empty and cold, even in the lovely morning sunlight. We could see long distances in the clear air at this altitude – 200 km away, we could see the Pic du Midi
The warmth after we left the mountains behind and lost altitude was welcome, and I could concentrate on the views of walks we had previously done, and which had sometimes seemed long and meandering, but were now clearly visible with their beginnings and ends.
Then back to the field and the short grass runway. As we flew over, I could see Margaret far below, waving. Then it was down, very smoothly, and a turn, and back to rest. What an experience! And how kind of my family to make this possible.‘
Nobody can bake cake without flour, without sugar or without butter. Can they? Well, I found this recipe for Date Brownies with Black Pepper in Saturday’s Guardian, and let me tell you, they’re a very bright idea. Not pretty, not at all. But who cares when they taste so good?