I was in back in Wisbech, my home town, and took an early morning walk in Wisbech Park. I’d been expecting storms and heavy rain, so the start of a beautiful sunny June day was unexpected and very much appreciated.
Wisbech Park itself was a place where I spent many hours as a child and it was good to see it thriving – many of the old features and facilities I remembered fondly had gone, with new ones in their places. But it was the trees that caught my eye. As a child they were very much taken for granted (with the exception of the conker-bearing horse-chestnut), and were simply stations to run between, hide behind, climb on and shelter under.
Seeing them again as an adult I was overwhelmed by their beauty, size, and variety. Beeches, horse-chestnuts, maples and sycamores, planes, sequoia, limes … and probably loads more but those are the ones that I remember now. The most striking for me were the oriental plane trees – very large trees with a beautiful grey flaky bark and the most amazing tentacle-like branches reaching high and wide in all directions.
I can’t remember seeing trees as striking as these except maybe in Westonbirt Arboretum – nowhere near as many of course, but surprising for a small town like Wisbech.
If you are over in the east of England and loves trees this is one place that is really worth a visit.
After sitting through Great British Bake Off’s pudding week it seemed there was only one course of action – get ourselves some steamed pudding!
The bakers had the task of creating a steamed pudding like what we all had at school, and it was mouth-watering. Of course, we never had anything as exotic as mango or tonka beans at school, but for me the main memory was not school at all but my mums basic but delicious treacle pudding with custard made with good old Bird’s custard powder.
So off we went to Morrisons to get ourselves a steamed pudding – one of those things in a tin. Who needs mangos and tonka beans?
As it turns out mangos and tonka beans would have really helped. I realise that treacle pudding from a tin (technically syrup sponge pudding I think) and custard from a tin could never match the dizzy heights of either Bake Off’s cooking geniuses or my mums no-nonsense full-flavoured family fare, but the disappointment was crushing. The pudding was stodgy, lacking in flavour and relying on the sugar hit of the golden syrup to have any sort of effect at all. The tinned custard did little to help – somehow over sweet but bland at the same time. We dutifully ate it, but with hearts as heavy as the pudding itself.
Caerthan at this point would have given it up as a bad job, but I decided the time had come to pull my finger out and have a go at making a steamed pudding myself. It had to happen, even though I had never consciously considered doing it before that point. Why else had I acquired mum’s pudding basins, waiting patiently in the cupboard to see the light of day once more?
One week later … I pulled up a few recipes and set about it with determination, not realising how totally EASY the whole thing is! I should have done this years ago!! My tooth is not as sweet these days so I didn’t reach for the golden syrup, instead opting for my home-made blackcurrant jam, for which I use a lot less sugar – so technically not jam at all really, but sharp and VERY blackcurranty. The only tricky bit was tying the string for which I would have liked a couple more hands …
As for the custard – there it was was lurking on a back shelf – a tin of Birds. I tried to not think about the expiry date. Now, I have made perfectly serviceable custard in the past – bung in the custard powder, bung in the sugar, mix it with a little milk etc etc. Just like my mum would have done, making sure that was plenty of custard powder and plenty of sugar. But again, in deference to my slightly less sweet tooth I thought I would follow the instructions on the tin. Not a good move. It came out thin and wasn’t even yellow. Caerthan was rather generous: “It’s fine. We’ll call it Creme Anglaise”, but all I could hear was Prue Leith’s cutting comment: “That’s not custard – that’s a big mistake”. And my mum would have agreed.
But the pudding … Delicious! The sponge was light and open and the topping sweet sharp and fruity. It hit the spot and although it wouldn’t have earned me Star Baker, or even a Hollywood Handshake I reckon my mum would have been impressed.
Great British Bake Off – thanks for the inspiration!
At the end of the year – time to remember. 2016 was rough. As well as Dad, I said goodbye to my old schoolfriend Moria Taylor (née Kinsey). Also dying was Betty Fox, a wonderful warm family friend (a childhood friend of my Mum’s), and with particular sadness, Adrian, from Exeter, who took his own life.
Christmas Day for me is very special quiet time, and after sorting out the animals and taking in the morning I got the living room seriously cosy and settled down with Gwen and Herbert to listen to The London Requiem by Benjamin Till. I bought the CD back in October and quickly realised that this should be one of the Christmas Day main events. The London Requiem is a 2012 choral work about loss of loved ones, but more about honouring and remembrance, than raw grief. Alongside the usual ‘kyrie’s and ‘pie jesu’s there are english texts taken from London gravestones, and as well as the choir there is a range of solo performers from Tanita Tikaram to Arnold Wesker and Barbara Windsor. This isn’t meant to be a review of that album – I know I could never do it justice – suffice to say it is a wonderful creative concoction that defies easy categorisation.
There is so much to feel when someone you love dies, but when it is someone very close, as my Dad was, there is also so much to do. After the funeral and memorial, there were endless trips to Brecon to deal with his belongings and his home – fortunately for me, a shared task. But I didn’t feel like I did any real grieving – apart from writing my song The Last of Laura’s Children. It was all going on of course, and here at Christmas it was time to move on a bit. Listening to the words of others, sung and spoken by other people again, whilst reflecting on my own experience helped to put the whole thing into the larger pot of life – we come, we live, we die, we leave memories and stories.
What great ones there were! Memories of Dad, his stories and our time together flowed into memories of Mum and Dad, the Scilly Isles, and further back – of times with Betty Fox and her husband Arnold. My childhood in Wisbech … With both my parents now gone, somehow that part of my life feels more … complete. And then to my day in the summer with Moira Taylor, who had travelled back from the States to say goodbye to her brothers and friends.
Moira had a rare form of cancer which she had tackled once and successfully kept at bay for a few years, but when it returned she very bravely decided enough was enough and that she would rather have quality of time over quantity. I had travelled to Wisbech expecting to have a couple of hours of her time, but was astonished to find her full of life and rearing to go, albeit with the aid of wheelchair and sticks. Although she was in pain she held back on the painkillers in order to keep a clear head and enjoy her reunions. Most of our talk concerned our somewhat troubled teenage years, which had forged such a strong bond between us, but we also touched on our very different current lives – she was now devoutly Christian, conservative and supportive of Trump, although she knew she would not live long enough to vote. It’s a funny old world. How else would someone like me have ever ended up at the Shrine of Our Lady in Walsingham? What I remember most is the laughter – we spent the day laughing! Moira died shortly afterwards on August 7th. I was so grateful she made the monumental effort of that last trip, and delighted that our love and laughter was so much stronger than our differences.
As for Adrian, I just felt sadness. He was not a close friend of mine, but of Barrie, and as such his sudden and unexpected suicide affected me as well. Memories of the Supremes, Diana Ross and Exeter – his connection with Barrie.
So … animals by the fire and on the sofa, a few joyful tears, and my own memories blending with powerful moving music; my own experience shared with Benjamin Till’s ragtag collection of tender words and amazing performers; both strong and fragile voices singing of war heroes, memories, passion and above all love … a Christmas remembrance.
For me it started with a phone call from a shopkeeper in Brecon on Friday morning, 1st April. For my dad, it started a few minutes earlier when he fell and hit his head on the kerb outside her shop. She told me that he was conscious but had probably broken his nose and the ambulance was taking him to Merthyr Tydfil. After liaising with my brother Mike, I set off for Merthyr expecting to take Dad home to Brecon, make him a meal, and generally try to cheer him up.
Caerthan has got his new website up and running, and hopefully his new business too. Have a look at his amazing dyed yarns at the Triskelion Yarns website. He has been selling them on Etsy for a few months, but has rapidly developed enough of a client base to have his own site. Hopefully, if he can sustain it, I will be able to relax a little more and get on with sorting this place out. Time will tell …