14 January 2021

A Farewell to Herts.....

To every thing there is a season.....

A time to get, and a time to lose; 
a time to keep, and a time to cast away;

We are about to move on.  After seventeen and a half years in a cul de sac in Harpenden, we are about to be uprooted and transported to a village in Norfolk.

Retirement from local education establishments, the eventual death of my mother in a care home near St Albans, the slow descent of my wife, Amanda, into the disorientation of dementia, and the independence of our two daughters - all of this warp and weft of life has led to a realisation of impermanence and the decision to move on.

Of course the options were endless.  If I were solo, I might have followed my ancestry and moved to Western Ireland, seeking Irish citizenship and a breath of Atlantic air.  Or I could have retraced my steps to Italy, to end my days in sunshine and vineyards.....

Or I could have stayed put.

But this man is not an island, and I have, at least for the moment, some residual responsibilities for others, and so the intention was to find a home with space for assistance for Amanda, and a stimulating environment for all.

Although I grew up in Berkhamsted, I'm not actually a Hertfordshire boy; my birth took place quite quietly in Southsea, Hampshire, a stone's throw from the boating lake, and I spent the first five or so years of life in Portsmouth, inhaling sea air and exhaust fumes from her majesty's (and others') navies.  

In fact, not one of my immediate family was born in Hertfordshire, though between us we must have lived here for a cumulative couple of centuries, at least..... 

Dad's father started it. After the First World War he was a schoolmaster and in around 1925 he moved to Northchurch, now almost absorbed by Berkhamsted, where he took up the post of Headmaster of the local school (as well as choirmaster and organist at St Mary's). In the mists of my misspent youth, my elder brother and I used to drink in the Red Lion, across the A41 from the school and church, and the locals would regale us with tales of our grandad, such as the time he lined the entire school up in the playground and whacked the lot.... What larks!  No intervention from erstwhile Fireplace Salesmen posing as government ministers then!

Dad attended local school, went to Uni, then to War. After which, following a period in Portsmouth, where I happened, he returned to live out his life in Berkhamsted, as master at the School and then as secretary of the Old Boys' Association.

When he retired, I tried to persuade him to move away, to start anew, but he would have none of it, and his ashes rest in Kingshill Cemetery, where mum has now joined him.

All this, and this scattering of local photographs, is why I am feeling apprehensive.  Hertfordshire, or at least a slice of it from Berkhamsted to Harpenden, spilling over the Chiltern scarp and down the dip, encompassing villages and farms, pubs and chalk streams, is a part of me and I am a part of it.

In the past year, for instance, Amanda and I have walked some thousand miles of footpaths in the area.  Sometimes glorious in their flowers and hedgerow blossoms, sometimes Somme-like in the sludge and slurry.

In the past sixty years and more I have walked, and cycled, most every lane and bridleway across this part of the Shire, and stopped to rest or take refreshment in villages that until recently showed little change since the Domesday Book.

In the early seventies, my elder bro lived in Stevenage, and I was then temporarily back home with my parents in Berkhamsted, living in the house where Graham Greene had himself grown up (and to which I, oddly, refused him entry, but that is another story....)

On a number of occasions I walked between the two towns, a 28 mile road hike (passing through Harpenden), taking a footsore seven hours, but never thinking of the traffic. I  wouldn't risk it now......

There are wonderful stretches of land here, whether in broody summer:

Or in moody winter:

There are great houses, with beautiful grounds, like Ashridge, where Amanda posed so youthfully just a few years ago....

My grandparents lived and then died near here.  An aunt and uncle and their three children were Harpendenians (?). 

And our dear girls grew tall and came of age round here - this was taken on Sarah's 18th birthday above Tom's Hill, Aldbury....  Happy days!

Amanda and I were married in Hemel Hempstead, and to celebrate our silver wedding anniversary - some good few years ago now - we returned with the girls to commemorate the day....

But, there are times to weep, and times to laugh; times to mourn, and times to dance...

In 2003 we settled in Harpenden, where there is the old:

And there is the new:

The town is famous for its science:

But also for some of its famous residents.  Eric Morecambe, for example, is still fondly remembered by many, while Owen Farrell, George Ford and Maro Itoje, all attended St George's School.  Maro, in fact was one of my most delightful English pupils, and a model boarder:

Owen shook my hand one parents' evening when he was chaperoning his sister, effortlessly crushing my fingers while he smiled, charmingly .....

There were good days.....

And now it is time to turn, turn, turn....

To fly to pastures new, and to open a new chapter.....

Moving on will be hard.  There's never a good time.  We came here in a heat wave.  The first night we opened all the windows, and I couldn't sleep a wink for all the trains hurtling past the foot of my bed.

Now it is wet, and wintry, and we are getting old.  We will lose all familiarity, and have to carve out new habits.....

But there's no going back.  However much you turn, turn, turn, you cannot go back....

And so we leave. Thank you to all who have travelled with us thus far, and who have been friends and supporters through thick and thin. And, though our ways must part, I sincerely hope this is not, in any sense of the word, the end of the road.....


1 January 2021

One for the New Year

I had a Dream.....

If we make it through December
Everything's gonna be all right I know
It's the coldest time of winter
And I shiver when I see the falling snow

If we make it through December
Got plans to be in a warmer town come summer time
Maybe even California
If we make it through December we'll be fine

Merle Haggard

I was in a school.  A teacher of some low rank, I think.  I must have been a new recruit, and quite young.  It wasn't now.  There was no Covid.  All was busy and lively and I was confused.....

I was carrying a large fish - about a metre long.  Probably a dogfish of some kind, not scaly, but smooth.  It was impassive, but not dead.  I think I had been entrusted with it by a colleague, and it had been with me for the lessons prior to break time.

I was carrying the fish, cradled in my arms.  It was heavy but offered no threat.  I saw a colleague, senior, possibly the head, who indicated through the crowd that we could eat together.  

I was awkward about the fish.  A person said there would be room in the performance centre so, leaving the fish somehow with these colleagues I hurried to ascertain space to park the same.  Somehow I hijacked a lift to an upper floor (it was very busy, there were excited children everywhere and I think I had to force my way).  It was a lift for small children and I went one floor too high, squeezing myself out of the compartment before it descended and cut me in two.  

The place I found myself in was inappropriate - there was an enthusiastic rehearsal for some musical feature going on and and the conductor was not receptive, so I  made my way along a narrowing corridor. A kindly man that I recognised, but with whom I had not made friends, said yes I could leave the fish there, in a dark sort of prep room.

So, grateful that someone I didn’t know was prepared to help me, I returned in haste to the canteen, where those I had hoped to eat with had almost finished their Bakewell tarts.  The fish was not present.....

If I dream much I don't remember them.  This was unusual as it didn't wake me in a sweat, worried about the development.  Here was a complete dream (albeit without a clear ending) as vivd as they come, with colour, sound and movement.  

I was in the past a teacher, and every scene was as real as you can imagine - except for the fish.  Poor fish, to be mixed in with my subconscious.....  (and out of water!)

Anyone can play at interpretations.  Very like a whale....  But I suspect, and don't take this to taste of wormwood, that this poor fish, bewildered and unhappy in my arms, might have been my damaged wife, unconscious of my stressed efforts to find a safe haven for her, and actually OK in some ways in her own imagined world, without my fretful stumbling.....

May the future be better than the past.....

Tonight the bottle let me down
And let your memory come around
The one true friend I thought I'd found
Tonight the bottle let me down

Merle Haggard

24 December 2020

O still small voice of calm.....

The Narrow Road to Deepest Norfolk

A squadron of geese flies under the radar....  It wakes my wanderlust.....

Breathe through the heats of our desire
thy coolness and thy balm;
let sense be dumb, let flesh retire;
speak through the earthquake, wind, and fire,
O still, small voice of calm!


John Greenleaf Whittier



From our current home to where we are going to be living at the end of January, much of the journey follows the A10, a narrow route to the north. Shrouded in the mists of Cambridgeshire we pause at Ely, on the way, an aspiring island rising from the swampy realm of Hereward the Wake, a kind of pre Brexiteer in reverse, as he resisted the Norman invasion....

How times change....  This celestial lantern is not lit by smoky reeds.....

Every day is a journey, and the journey itself is home


Matsuo Basho

The Narrow Road to the Deep North

Yes, home is where the heart aches....  And, to take our minds off the miseries of modern times, we have decided to go back in time, to upsize, to live it large.... We are moving house and home, cat and all....

As some will know, Amanda is a victim of Frontotemporal Dementia (semantic variant) and last summer I made the executive decision that we needed to have room to comfortably accommodate residential carers, and for our daughters to stay and help with her care without us all tripping over each other.  This meant moving further from the London region, and, for various reasons, I found what I was looking for in Norfolk, not far from King's Lynn.

There was something appealing about this property, once the village bakery, with its locally quarried Carr stone facade, and sufficient space to park an horse and cart.... So, after several months of indecision, complications with surveyors and builders, the arcane ways of solicitors and the difficulties of Covid, we now find that we have exchanged contracts and are committed to move....

The locals seem tranquil.... (when they're not whooping that is....)

There is a gentle air about the place which makes me think that my increasingly cantankerous nature may be calmed here....

(Non, I have no egrets....)


Sitting quietly, doing nothing, Spring comes, and the grass grows, by itself.

Matsuo Basho



The local residents come in all shapes and sizes.  A senior doctor in the surgery just down the road is also the Queen's personal physician.  While another old fellow regularly takes the waters at nearby Blakeney Point.....

In fact, as our deal is sealed, other seals deal with the sea.... (please don't look at me like that....)

While others bathe in the shingles of time (which can be irritating)....

And yet others display what looks suspiciously like post-natal depression (if you can pardon the anthropomorphism.....)  

Or is it just that it is Sunday afternoon and the kids won't let you sleep?

Whale.... it takes all sorts, and you can't win everything all the time....

Winter solitude-
in a world of one colour
the sound of the wind.

Basho Matsuo



It's a wintry kind of landscape, brushed by cold winds from the far north, shrouded by frets and fogs and muddy airs....

There is nothing you can see that is not a flower; there is nothing you can think that is not the moon.

Matsuo Basho

But I think we may find peace here.  I hope so.  The skies are immense,

And the village glows with a kind of subtle Christmas cheer that gives me hope that, on balance, the years to come may not all entirely be a waste of breath.....

We are now committed to move in a month.  I will let friends know the address when it is all over.....

16 December 2020

A Christmas Card from through the (looking) glass

Anniversaries and Angels.....

Three tiers for Christmas!  London is abuzz.

Visitors abound.  Loving themselves and each other.  They so belong here.....

Though Churchill's brazen memory still leans towards FDR's ear in the drizzle.....

And anti-socially distanced queues line the dark streets eager to part with their valueless inheritances.

While the most important thing is to make contact with those who are not near.....

And receiving such is a lonely drag on an unhappy cigarette. 

Though for some everything Rolls on so easy....

Stop the bus!  I want to get off.....

Help me up?  It's a cold cold world....

Meanwhile, back home in the country, I fail to celebrate my 36th wedding anniversary.  It's a question of memory, I guess.....

But we walk across the muddy, watery landscape, sniffing the sunlight and clouds....

It is what we do.  Every morning.  36 years, and counting.  Whatever else, I still love the trees, and the light.....

The land's sharp features seemed to be

The Century's corpse outleant,

His crypt the cloudy canopy,

The wind his death-lament.

The ancient pulse of germ and birth

Was shrunken hard and dry,

And every spirit upon earth

Seemed fervourless as I.

The Darkling Thrush

Thomas Hardy

Of course, some days, some mornings, are brighter than others.....

Some are misty....

And some, perhaps, are sparkling.....

Clouds beyond clouds above me,

Wastes beyond wastes below;

But nothing drear can move me;

I will not, cannot go.


Emily Bronte

There was a time, for me, when the world was beautiful, and full of hope.  It is harder now to feel so confident.

The dreamed Christmas,

flakes shaken out of silences so far

and starry we can’t sleep for listening

for papery rustles out there in the night

and wake to find our ceiling glimmering,

the day a psaltery of light.


Gillian Clarke 

Though not impossible.....

The roads are still there, to travel down.  And I sometimes think I could ride off, into the horizon.....

So, though the skies are dark, there's light behind the trees and maybe not all is lost.

Imagine how it must have been, aeons ago, when there was no Regent Street full of Angels, no Prime Minister's Question Time, no such place as Barnard Castle.  A time when a bed of ferns in a mud and sapling hut was luxury.   Imagine how limited hope might have been when life had no expectancy and Accident and Emergency was the rhythm of the day?  No Sage could decipher the pandemic and a plague was on all our houses.

The brilliance of dementia is that none of this has any meaning.  

Come on, baby, take a chance with us

Come on, baby, take a chance with us

Come on, baby, take a chance with us

And meet me at the back of the blue bus

This is the end, beautiful friend

This is the end, my only friend

The end

How she told me that one day we would meet up again

And things would be different the next time we wed

If I only could hang on and just be her friend

I still can't remember all the best things she said


Bob Dylan