I am British; I obsess about the weather. The reader over these past 11 posts will have noticed.

It is almost impossible to believe that two months ago my front garden was under water, as was my drive. But since the beginning of May scarcely a drop of rain has fallen. It is not just here in East Anglia, traditionally the driest corner of the UK, but country-wide. Rainy Northern Ireland has a hose-pipe ban. There are wild fires near Manchester, one of the wettest parts of this island.

It is not just the drought, with cracked earth and shrivelling crops, but the sun – now at its zenith – blazes down from a deep blue sky with Mediterranean intensity. The dog and I walk in the misty cool of the very early morning, and now she lies panting in the shade.

I am a gardener, and so the concern with rainfall, or lack of it, and sun is of importance. For a few weeks in early summer my garden gives a tolerable impression of an English cottage garden,

but now it is tired, dusty, thirsty. The vegetable plots at the rear of the house are also thirsty, but they are at least yielding their first fruits, and few actions give me greater pleasure than picking my supper; so far broad beans, French beans, courgettes, chard, onions and potatoes.

The watering is constant and time-consuming. My five water butts are long since empty. I remember when I bought the first water butt. I went to a builders’ yard to buy some breeze blocks to stand it on:
Employee in yard: what do you want?
Me: some blocks to stand a water butt on.
Employee: do you have a big butt?
…Collapses in giggles.

This hot, dry, burning weather has accelerated the passing of the seasons. At the beginning of June we were scarce into early summer, but midsummer with its flowers has raced past, and now high summer is here. The barley is ripe for the harvest. All in the space of a month. Gone are the cascades of dog roses in the hedgerows, the early summer meadow flowers; gone too is the full-throated dawn chorus, replaced by the incessant and insistent cheep cheep cheep of baby birds, beaks constantly open to be fed by exhausted parents. Soon they will all be fledged and gone.

When spring burst upon us at the beginning of May after months of cold and wet nature’s overdrive ensured that what is usually spread over many weeks happened in a rush. And so the grass seeded all at once, making for one of the worst hay fever seasons I can remember. When I was a teenager taking exams (which in those days happened towards the end of June) that was when hay fever was at its height. Rain was fervently prayed for to damp down the pollen, and when this didn’t happen I sat exams doped and foggy with primitive antihistamines. This year hay fever attacked from mid-May onwards. I walk, dosed with eye drops, nasal spray, Vaseline smeared round the eyes, and dark glasses on. A friend, whose cognitive faculties waver occasionally, suggested I go out in an eye mask…

There have been few excitements this month. Generally I prefer it that way. One of them has been a portrait commission from someone I have never met (but of whom I had heard, for he is famous in some circles) who chanced to see some of my work on Facebook. This is so boosting for an ego which inflates and deflates with every puff of wind. I do not generally work from photographs, for how can you convey the reality of a person without his presence? Flattered, I agreed. It has – I think – gone well; the commissioner was happy (good, since he had paid up front).  Because the recipient, its subject, is as yet ignorant of its existence I can give no further details, but will include photos  next month. And the reaction of the recipient.

The other major event for me this month was attending the massive march in London on 23 June (the second anniversary of the disastrous, ill-thought-out referendum) to demand a people’s vote on the final Brexit deal. I still cherish a very faint hope that the lunacy can be stopped. It was a wonderful event, with more than 100,000 participants from all over the UK, and a particularly large Irish contingent – unsurprising when one thinks of the effects of our leaving on the Republic of Ireland, and on the North, where I have family interest, and fear a kicking-off of the simmering resentments there if the deal does not satisfy both sides of the border. There were people too from all over Europe.

Two days before the referendum of 2016 I was sitting on a train in Italy, chatting in a mixture of stumbling Italian, English and French to an Italian woman who said “Please, no Brexit. Please. We need you. All of us need each other.”

I believed then, as I do now, that the days of the sovereign nation state are long gone; we cannot recapture them, if that is what is meant by “getting our country back”. It is incomprehensible to me that people cannot understand that unity – community – is better, more productive, safer than standing alone, grasping for illusory better deals, trying to shut our doors against all comers.

There is one way in which I hope we can regain something of a lost Britain: we were once welcoming to the stranger, the exile, the dispossessed. We took in those who needed to come to our country, and they became part of who we are now. This is our richness as a country – not this “little England” pull-up-the-drawbridge pettiness of spirit. We are historically a bastard race, we have a bastard language. That is part of our strength – absorbing what the newcomers have to offer, and in turn embracing them. I do believe we shall be the poorer when we leave the EU. Poorer economically, politically, culturally, morally and spiritually.

But in the past week or so fortress Europe has fortified itself further. Populist governments are taking sterner measures to keep out the dispossessed seeking a better, safer, life. Italy turns away ships; more migrants drown; Macron continues to turn a blind eye to the gross abuses of human rights in northern France; Hungary is intransigent; Merkel’s position is threatened by right-wing politicians; asylum seekers kill themselves in despair in our own detention centres.

To protest at our policies, and to stand in solidarity with refugees and exiled people two friends and I organized a “Share the Journey” walk for our parish, and filled in cards to be sent to the Prime Minister, asking her to work with world leaders to ensure respect for the human rights and dignity of exiled peoples. Not many came.

And here ends the lesson for this month.

The year has turned, the solstice has come and gone, and the sun has started its slow decline. But for the moment it shines bright from a radiant sky. It is summer, and the living is easy.


It is the law in England that bank (public) holidays should be cold, windy and extremely wet, with television coverage of deserted seafronts with deckchairs blown across beaches, and giant waves breaking on promenades as the rain spoils days out. The exception to this is Christmas when temperatures rise unseasonably high. But “new month, new weather”, and both the May Day and the (misnamed) Whit holidays saw record high temperatures.

Hot dog

The sun has shone almost all month. The barley, rippling in the breeze like newly unplaited hair, has started to turn colour. The bright acid yellow of rape flowers has faded.

Spring came suddenly, and now spring has segued into early summer.

The flags are out!

The Common is once more clothed in magic. The orchids were a field of magenta mingled with a million buttercups. The horses returned mid month, and the first foal has been born. The blossom has been magnificent this year.  It is as though nature is over-compensating for the months of grey, wet, miserable, cold.

And somehow symbolising this return of hope is the pure exultant song of the larks high high above the fields. An exaltation indeed.

This warm, wonderful weather has been a kind nurse to me this month, encouraging recovery.

In the old days (when I was young) of television and the “wireless” the announcer would say, in case of a glitch, “Normal service will be resumed as soon as possible.” Normality – in terms of daily activities and routine (which, the reader will recall, tend to centre on the Common and my garden) – has been my aim this month. Normality after weeks of immobility recovering from a double ankle fracture. This means back to long walks, and growing my own food. And full  recovery does not seem the impossibility it was during the dark days. Normal service is on the way back.

The ankle survived a silly setback in the middle of the month. The steering group of the Confraternity of Pilgrims to Rome was to meet in the grandeur of the Guildhall, for our chairman – I am told – is, or was, an alderman of the City of London. I decided I could easily hobble from Liverpool Street Station to Guildhall and back in rush hour without a stick. The unyielding pavements, the crush of commuters, the feeling of vulnerability took their toll, and pain returned. But not for long. The compensation was visiting Guildhall, and the thrilling City skyline from the meeting room.

Often I take the young dog to walk on the vast flat expanse which is Metfield airfield (“RAF” Metfield as it once was). Here the remains of concrete runways make perfect paths for one who is learning to walk unaided again.

The airfield was built for the United States Army Air Forces (USAAF)  as a heavy bomber field. During the Second World War it was known as USAAF Station 366. Metfield was one of the most isolated Eighth Air Force stations in Suffolk, built as a standard, Class-A bomber design airfield, consisting of three intersecting concrete runways. Today it is down to arable cultivation, but the signs of its original use are still there to see.

From here the bombers attacked airfields, bridges, and coastal defences both preceding and during the invasion of Normandy , and strategic objectives in Germany, striking communications centres, oil refineries, storage depots, industrial areas, shipyards, and other targets in such places as Berlin, Hamburg, Kassel, Cologne, Gelsenkirchen, Bielefeld, Hanover,and Magdeburg.  I lived in Metfield for a year once, and on moonlit nights thought of the young men setting out in their machines of death, and felt in my imagination the vibration and roar of the heavy planes as they took off.

One evening in July 1944 the bomb dump at Metfield exploded. One bomb mysteriously detonated,  setting off almost the entire munitions storage area. 1200 tons of high-explosive and incendiary bombs rocked the countryside for miles around. Five men were killed. An elderly farmer of my acquaintance, a nine-year-old lad at the time, living three or four miles off, told me of shattered windows and a barn roof blown off.

Another advantage of walking on the deserted airfield is that, while I am still walking with two trekking poles (and thus cannot easily put the dog on a lead), we meet no-one. In the very early morning, nearer to home, I don’t usually see anyone, but this month had a strange and unsettling encounter.

The compassionate reader will understand that traumatic events are closely connected  with strong negative emotions, causing these memories to be powerful and more easily recalled than those of other events. Although a fractured ankle is not high in the hierarchy of trauma, the memory of the accident stays with me, and I feel vulnerable to the point of panic at the thought of a recurrence. One morning I saw the other dog who, with mine, had cannoned into me from behind at such speed that the impact shattered bones and damaged ligaments. I put my dog on the lead and called out to the owner, an elderly woman who – how can I put it kindly – is not known for her rationality, to do the same. She didn’t. I kept asking, and – for whatever reason – she did not respond. As her dog hurtled towards me I screamed. And screamed several times in a terror born of the memory of that winter afternoon that changed my life for the next few months, and possibly more.

Obviously this triggered something in the woman, who came up to me and shook her stick in my face. No dialogue was possible; there was a diatribe:

– My husband will come and haunt you. Look at the end of your bed when it’s dark and he’ll be there
God will judge you and you’ll go to hell.
-You’re an intellectual nobody

And so it continued as she danced to and fro, shaking her shillelagh in my face as she got near.

Her last two statements may well be true, but I am happy to say that the first was unfounded. I had no glimpse of her husband in my bedroom… But we avoid that path at certain times now.

As one commentator on last month’s blog said, “Who would have dogs, eh?” Well, the answer still is – I would.








Probably many blogs written about April begin with Eliot:

April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
Winter kept us warm, covering
Earth in forgetful snow, feeding
A little life with dried tubers.

It’s a bit of a cliché to do so, but in truth this month has not been kind, giving only the briefest glimpse of what might be called spring. Since the new year there have been few exceptions to the dark and drear weather here in East Anglia. Day after day the rain has fallen from a dark, louring, cold sky. One hopes for better of April. The month began, on Easter Day, with a prolonged and chilly downpour. The front garden flooded, the drive was under water and had to be pumped out before deliveries could arrive. April ends, similarly, with temperatures far lower than those of Christmas Day, gale-force winds, and a pitiless constant deluge. April’s new foliage stands out, electric lime green, against the grey.

What keeps us going? What keeps us from despair? Always the hope of better to come. And, mid-month, there was a snatch, a tantalising tease: a few false, fleeting days of spring – of summer, even. The sky was a soft blue, the sun shone from dawn till dusk, near-record temperatures soared. The siren voices whispered, “This is it. This is how it will be. Abandon your fires; abandon your five layers of woollens. Relax the muscles which you tensed against the cold. Here is balm for your body and soul.”

But we were deceived, seduced by amnesia, forgetting briefly that in this country warmth and sunshine rarely perdure, and foolish the person who hopes otherwise. The cold and grey and wet flooded back, and have not relinquished their grip.

Easter Day

“Come to lunch”, said a friend, “There are one or two coming.” One or two turned out to be 32, a banquet laid out in…their coach house, where they entertain large gatherings, for these are estate-owning, Tory-voting, Brexit-supporting, landed friends. I painted him once, consciously as lord of the manor; the next year I painted his dog, who adopted a similar pose.

These are good friends, probably the only ones to whose politics I can turn a blind eye. I remember asking them and other friends, including an Irish woman, to supper once. My land-owning friend’s wife was heard to say from one end of the table, in piercing patrician tones, “All immigrants should be sent back to where they came from.” From the other end of the table came a feisty, Irish, response.

The Women’s Institute

Rather to my surprise, I joined the WI last year, as a result of attending an informed and convincing talk on climate change organized by the local branch. We are a small rural gathering of women who –contrary to the myth – do not spend our lives making jam. Among our number are highly skilled and experienced professional women; the topics for discussion have a bearing not only on our community but on national and international matters.

It was therefore with some trepidation that I accepted an invitation to speak to them. They are a not uncritical audience, and ringing in my ears was their feedback on one of last year’s speakers – an unfortunate woman who would do well not to show her face again…

My subject was “Pilgrimage”. I prepared a PowerPoint slideshow to illustrate the general theme and to demonstrate this with reference to my own walking pilgrimages. The linking of my computer to the projection facilities in the village hall required not a few journeys there and back, and a constant to and fro of orders from Amazon of this connector and that cable and this plug and that socket in response to well-meaning and sometimes misinformed advice. But we got there, and – having spoken of pilgrimage in general, and our hard-wired need to create and visit shrines of various sorts – I shamelessly played for my audience’s admiration with pictures of cramped dormitories, unsavoury washing facilities (a showerhead between two urinals), arid treks through Spain, climbing through snow on the Great St Bernard Pass, and various wildlife – wild boar, snakes, mosquitoes, bedbugs…

And yet I hope I conveyed that there is something in that rhythm of walk-eat-sleep, walk-eat-sleep, something in the solitude, the space, the liberty, the pattern of meeting and loss that is not only the rhythm of life itself but is also, in some wise the Way, life in all its fullness.

But maybe this is all I convinced them of:

Inspired by Becker
Harry Becker was the son of a German immigrant, born in Colchester in 1865. At 14, his artistic talent being clear to see, he was sent to the Royal Academy of Antwerp for formal training. He finished his education in Paris during which time he was greatly influenced by the Impressionists, in particular Edgar Degas.

From 1886 Becker lived in Colchester where he painted watercolour portraits as well as landscapes in both watercolour and oils. In 1894 he moved to London to open his studio where he became well known for his lithographs and dramatic graphic work. But in 1913 Becker took the decision to shun the commercial art world, and moved with his wife and daughter to Wenhaston in Suffolk (near here), and lived in near poverty till his death in 1928. His pictures of the Suffolk landscape and skies and an agricultural world now lost inspire local artists, and an “Inspired by Becker Art Society” (IBBAS) now flourishes, exhibiting annually in Wenhaston. With some daring (because there is a great gulf fixed between the formally trained and the untrained artist) I applied to join and have been accepted.


In that brief taste of spring, the few sunny days of warmth, buds opened, flowers emerged. A winter landscape of skeletal trees was transformed in what seemed like hours into a dazzling jazzy intensity of green.

I now hobble far enough on my mending ankle to witness the great constellations of primroses on the side of ditches being succeeded by cowslips and oxlips, and the blackthorn come out in bridal finery; to see the sooty black tips of ash twigs  (Tennyson’s “More black than ashbuds in the front of March”) transform within a day into silvery pink flowers.

On one of the few sunny days of the month I was driven to the orthopaedic clinic at the Norfolk and Norwich Hospital, some 30 miles away. This ran with expected efficiency on well-oiled NHS wheels: plaster room – cast cut off; x-ray; orthopaedic registrar…who peered at the x-ray (an armoury of metalwork in the ankle), wiggled the scabby swollen foot, and pronounced me good to go –and my delight was such I barely heard the warning that I was unlikely to get full range of movement back, and that arthritis was a certainty.

And just as that door to freedom, to walking, and a more normal life opened ajar, the way was barred by a writhing monster of pain. The fracture is healing well, but all the soft tissue damage – the ligaments, tendons and nerves hitherto protected – started to sing out. And they sang loud! I have been reduced to a gibbering, sobbing wreck, and any activity has to be followed by a period of rest with my foot up, waiting for the agony to subside.

As with this spring, one step forward, two steps back.


March – spring, but not yet for me

The reader who follows this online journal will recall that I have been immobilised by a double ankle fracture. My world has perforce shrunk: no idyllic walks, no amusing anecdotes from village life…my scope now extends no further than the four walls of the house, and – cautiously – to the end of the garden.

Photo: Olivia Martin

So this month I assume the mantel of pedagogy. A lesson follows. Some readers will know that the last decade of my professional life saw a complete change of career (I am not sure my succession of jobs and positions could be called a “career” – though it’s been fun). At 56 I retrained as a fitness instructor, progressing from a basic qualification to a first qualification in “Exercise Referral”, enabling me to take patients referred by GPs. And then came highly specialised training and qualifications – cardiac rehabilitation, mental health, obesity and diabetes.

As well as instructing individual patients, I took groups,  the doctors being most willing to prescribe exercise for the intractable cases. I wish I could say that lifestyle change (the object of referral, other than getting the patient out of the consulting room) always ensued. The benefits ceased all too quickly when the course of exercise finished, but some persisted.  The main reason for referral was obesity and its many co-morbid complications. My aim with the Over 60s group was to keep them independent and active as long as possible. As we age we lose lean muscle mass rapidly; our balance deteriorates; proprioception (the awareness of where our bodies are in relation to what is around us, and of where parts of our body are in relation to the whole) diminishes. This is why elderly people are more prone to falls.

I drilled my poor over-60s (many were over 70s and 80s, and I had two nonagenarians) like a sergeant-major.

We did weights; we did aerobic work; and we did balance exercises. Reader, break off now for a moment and see how long you can stand on one leg. Try going up and down onto tiptoe on one leg. Then the other. Now close your eyes and try. We used wobble boards and steps as well – all geared to fitness for autonomous living.

And how grateful I am that, however boring and wearisome these exercises are, and however unwillingly, I have kept them up. Before I was allowed to put my foot to the ground with gentle weight-bearing I had to do everything on one leg (the side with my dodgy knee)  and I don’t know how I’d have managed had I not been in practice.

Here ends the lesson.

Other lessons, for me this time.  My lower leg is still in plaster and I am still on crutches, so I cannot carry things. This I do with the aid of a “Rollator”. How are the mighty fallen! One moment you’re triumphantly marching into Rome after 2000km on foot, and the next hobbling round with a walking aid like a geriatric. Patience (the word that people love to say to me at the moment); forbearance; and above all – gratitude.

Gratitude first of all to both daughters who have given up time, work, family to come and care for their mother, but it is a decade or so too early for one’s children to become one’s parents. They proved themselves to be tender and thoughtful carers, cooked delicious and nutritious meals, and walked the dog for hours through more blizzards and gales. Gratitude to friends who shop, visit, and transport, and also walk the dog through snow; and to kind Providence and the answer to prayers that have found me reliable and intelligent gardeners; a wonderful dog walker who can cope with the ebullience of the young dog; and a cleaner who doesn’t appear to mind the inevitable mud and dog hair.

And that is March. Will the view have extended beyond the confines of house and garden by April? Spring and hope spur me on.

Photo: Olivia Martin


February – the view from my bed

The snow is pouring out of the sky – a white out – whirling wildly, and the strengthening wind sends it crashing and avalanching heavily off the branches. I love snow with a child’s excitement: the world is transformed into a place of tranquillity and beauty. People, too, are changed – all too temporarily – by it: they stop and speak, they help neighbours, they face challenges together.

I have a dress circle view of it, but I am not out in it, enjoying the purity of the white fields, watching the young dog cavort and frolic, seeing the myriad tracks of small animals. This month’s journal is written from a bed.

I have just been discharged from the Norfolk and Norwich Hospital, having had a double and displaced fracture of the base of the tib and fib pinned, plated and plastered. In front of me stretch a good three months of recovery and the frustration of dependency. When my father was in the last year or so of his life, and obliged to accept a certain loss of independence and dignity, I used to say (no doubt pompously) that dignity lies in acceptance. These things come back to bite us.

On long walking pilgrimages one learns the kindness of strangers, and to trust that provision will be made and needs met. Now it is the goodness of friends and family. I am accommodated by dear friends in luxury surroundings being waited on till a relay of dutiful daughters takes over. The dog is being looked after. I want for nothing.

You couldn’t fault the much-derided NHS (except in the culinary department, but then I wasn’t hungry). The care was first class, explanations were given, I was treated with intelligence and respect. I tried to add up what it would all cost in the private health care sector (those of us who pay vets’ bills get a glimpse of the astronomical sums for surgery and nursing and drugs).

But it was nevertheless an enormous relief to be liberated to a peaceful bed where the nights are silent and the room dark. Because of the lack of an orthopaedic bed I was put on a surgical ward (with its attendant risks of infection from open wounds – I have to wash with anti-microbial stuff for another week). A stout Polish woman beside me snored like a grampus all night, her phone regularly leaping into life with a loud tinny tune. On the other side an elderly Irishwoman with dementia (and obviously frightened) took exception to the Filipino care assistant, and the nights were filled with piercing shrieks of “Get him away from me. Don’t let him touch me. They’re doirty doirty people.” The patience and kindness with which this was met was astounding. But three nights passed with little rest.

And so here I am.

The Year of the Dog!

Before the fall…

And how did all this occur? Ah, the irony – at the Chinese New Year and the dawning of the Year of the Dog! I was walking up a country track with a local dog-walking friend and her black Labrador. The two young dogs play fight all the time and came racing at top speed up the track behind us, heads down, tussling over a stick. My dog weighs 26kg…bang! I went down screaming. But then had to hobble home with a stick. Oddly, it didn’t hurt that much, and so I put off going to A&E thinking it might improve. Five days of lying on a lonely bed, shuffling downstairs on my bum and a friend bullied me into seeing a doctor. The doctor pronounced “Ligamentous, but get an x-ray to be sure.” Just as well I didn’t, by then, believe him. Another kind friend took me to Casualty. The worst bit was the manipulation of the fracture before the temporary cast. Entonox somehow didn’t quite cut it.

All this has meant I didn’t get back to Calais with a second load of cold weather goods (tents, sleeping bags, hand-warmers, clothes) for the Auberge des Migrants. The situation there is worse than ever with the French police under orders to eliminate “tout point de fixation”, which means that anywhere a migrant can linger, or find a spot to shelter in, must be destroyed – and this means the brutality I described last month. I cannot imagine their life in this freezing weather, burying their meagre possessions like animals to keep them away from the police. Fortunately a fellow parishioner took it on himself to go in my stead.

Before my accident all was going so well. Spring seemed just around the corner, the mornings and evenings noticeably lighter, the signs of hope multiplying.

My elderly cat, having spent a year in huffy isolation outside in a cat kennel because he refused to come inside to be plagued by a bouncing puppy, suddenly decided he’d had enough of winter, and now prowls the house and refuses to leave. He tolerates the dog who is delighted to see him and wants to play. He has even decided that he prefers dog food to his own food, and presents himself at dog feeding time to get in before it has all been wolfed down. The cat shows an intelligence not seen hitherto : the dog has a Pavlovian response to the 6pm chimes of Big Ben – “Supper time!” – and reminds me this is the hour. The cat now also recognises the moment and is ready to get there first.

The rescue chickens, unrecognisable from their former featherless selves, are thriving. I had started to give them some liberty to range, and they took to it like….ducks to water, scratching and pecking and finding worms.

This month’s journal is very “me me me” but I know the reader will understand. In a month’s time shall I still be resigned, still accepting? Certainly still dependent, but at least by then I should be able to be weight-bearing a bit. Watch this space!




January – Calais and elsewhere

A rainy January evening in Calais. I have temporarily abandoned my common or garden existence in order to come to Calais and work a week with Help Refugees at the Auberge des Migrants, bringing with me a carload of goods donated by my own and a neighbouring parish. What a spotlight that has been on people’s attitudes: many generously bought good quality new items from the “priority needs” list. Others unloaded dirty smelly old tat.

The day of my arrival the police (the CRS, the French riot police whose brutality I had witnessed several times when I lived in France) had done one of their “clearances ” – the systematic destruction or confiscation of refugees’ belongings, depriving them of any means of shelter against the winter weather. That day’s raid had been more violent than usual, and a teenage migrant had lost an eye when a CS gas canister hit him full in the face. It was one more skirmish in the war of attrition waged by the French authorities and police with the regular use of beatings, CS gas, and pepper spray aimed onto migrants’ clothes, sleeping bags, tents and even water supply, often in the early hours of the morning.

These gross abuses of human rights, in part funded by the British taxpayer, do not remove the migrants from Calais, but they do make their desperate lives a degrading misery.

In his speech in Calais two weeks ago President Macron said that migrants’ illegal camps and squats would no longer be tolerated and that migrants must go to the CAES (Centres d’Accueil), but these do not house or feed them, except in exceptionally cold weather when they open containers. Unfortunately the authorities close these without warning, with migrants’ few belongings lost inside. And despite Macron’s saying that the State would henceforth ensure people are fed, there is no sign of this. He also said police who acted violently and “without respect ” would be punished. Ha! Only nine days later the 15-year-old lost his eye. When he comes out of hospital there is nowhere for him to go; no-one to look after him.

Another result of police action is that Help Refugees and similar organisations have to work doubly hard to replace the goods destroyed. The day I wrote the above there had been a day-long distribution of 360 tents. In the afternoon we were called from our usual jobs of sorting and packaging clothes to help roll, tie, bag and pack 750 blankets. Two days later these had been removed or destroyed again.

Other regular jobs at the Auberge Des Migrants include cooking and distributing as many as 2500 meals a day, cutting and bagging firewood, and the School Bus Project which normally goes on the road twice a day to offer educational facilities . There is also an Info Van where people can charge their mobile phones and get wifi.

But the recent brutal suppressions have meant a great deal of tension, anger and volatility among the migrant communities, and volunteers’ safety can be jeopardised. My own work in the warehouse has no dangers, other than exhaustion, but I see migrants crouching in the scrubby bushes round makeshift fires outside our locked compound.

The displaced people of the world number many million; in Calais the prospect of getting to the UK draws hundreds, sometimes thousands, of them. It is one of the great humanitarian tragedies of our time.

It is all a long way from the tranquility of rural Suffolk.


January has been a miserable month at home, but Calais puts that into perspective. There has been scarce sun, and we have lived in a perpetual sullen twilight punctuated by tremendous storms. The mornings are still dark when I set out with the dog, who detects through her nose all the scents and creatures of the night. All around in the darkness I spot the comforting lights of farmhouses, so many named for – presumably – the trees that grew beside them – Willow, Poplar, Yewtree, Elm, Holly Tree. Some are descriptive of their location – Common Farm, Mill Farm, Rookery, Hall, Church, School, White Post, Spong (which meant a narrow strip of land), or owners long dead – Larter’s, Watson’s, Slade’s, Gissing’s.

But one morning there was a more absolute dark. Winds of nearly 70mph had brought down power lines, and we were without electricity for more than 14 hours. This lack slows down life: candles must be hunted for, lit; fires laid to provide some warmth; water heated. No telephone, no computer, no television. I read by crepuscular candlelight in pre-Victorian gloom.

The Common, all but under water, was – for three days – home  to a huge flock of fieldfares. They stood thick on that ground which was unsubmerged, occasionally taking to the wing in a synchronised starling-like murmuration. One day, as the dog and I splashed through the wet, I saw three buzzards fly above the Common, scattering all smaller birds in panic.

Towards the end of the month the light changes, a subtle shift, and a feeling that spring is not the impossibility it seemed at New Year. In the morning a blackbird sings, then a thrush. Snowdrops suddenly are there, green and white among the dead leaves.

And this intimation that life is coming back stirs a longing in me, that desire to be walking the paths of freedom once more, off on adventure, the challenge of the unknown day:

Afoot and light-hearted I take to the open road,
Healthy, free, the world before me,
The long brown path before me leading wherever I choose.
Henceforth I ask not good-fortune, I myself am good-fortune,
Henceforth I whimper no more, postpone no more, need nothing,
Done with indoor complaints, libraries, querulous criticisms,
Strong and content I travel the open road.

Walt Whitman.

I cannot go. I chose to have my joyous crazy dog instead, but oh, the longing is intense.



In the deep dark of the year the land sleeps; the garden sleeps; small animals sleep, and even my circadian rhythms respond to this time of hibernation. The Common, unusually dry for twelve months is, after heavy rain and melted snow, on the way to being a wetland once again. Walking the fields on public rights of way collects kilos of mud on my boots, weighing me down, slipping and sliding; but returning home over the Common provides an ever-deepening boot-wash and clean. As I write, on the final day of 2017, the nearby Waveney Valley has been turned into one long lake from Beccles to Diss.

In mid-month there were blizzards and the land became monochrome, blanched of all colour. We have had snow, ice, gales, torrential rain and then, suddenly for Christmas, as so many years, temperatures of late spring, mild, soft and gentle. When the family comes for Christmas I need my garage as fridge and larder, but once more Christmas Day was warmer than early June can be.

More than 16 hours of night in each 24. Drear weather and days when gloom never lifted and the day never grew fully light. I love the cheer of the annual festival of light and feasting, even if it seems a million miles from Bethlehem. A nearby village is the very Las Vegas of Christmas, with vying flashing Santas and their reindeer flying across roofs, illuminated blow-up Santas ho-hoing in the gardens, electric Happy Xmases, giant snowmen, and multi-coloured lights twinkling on and off. I offer just one example:

My own efforts are more low-key.

But sometimes there is deep frost, real midwinter weather when the fields are iron-hard and the ice on the puddles crackles under foot, and the world glitters as the sun rises. These are champagne mornings of exhilaration. The dog gallops off, nose to the ground, reading the invisible alphabet of scents and their message. Just occasionally I too catch the reek of fox. Was this the one that made an end of all my hens last May? On less frosty mornings there are tracks – deer, their small muntjac cousins (the enemy of all who grow vegetables), rabbits (ditto), hares, stoats, and … the fox.

The name I gave my young dog when I acquired her nearly a year ago now has got me into trouble. My father’s mother came from the Black Country in Staffordshire, and brought with her dialect words which my father learned. For example, in my early years I was told to go and “wash your donnies”, a word still used in parts of the country for “hands.” When searching for a suitable name for the puppy one of my daughters suggested “Nerker”, for that was the dialect for “mischievous child” – so apposite in this dog’s case. That is what my father called me, and then later my own children. It did not occur to me that it might mean anything else. But it does, and Facebook friends from further afield were not slow in pointing this out when I posted a picture of Nerker on her first birthday. In North America and elsewhere in urban slang it is a variant of the n***** word. Oh dear, and the dog is indeed black as the ace of spades.

Black dog in a blizzard

What to do? I cannot now rename her, so I must comfort myself that few in this Suffolk backwater will understand as I call out her name.

If you’re not interested in the words I heard from my West Midlands granny skip this bit:
Mucker – mate. Donnies – hands. Fisog – face. Trazis – trousers. Ganzy – vest. Weskit – waistcoat. Kaline – sherbet. Wommel – dog. Fawpny hock – four penny hock. Fake break – fag break. Tuttie pegs – baby teeth. Kiddling – dribbling. Wooden hill – stairs. Bobhowlers – moths.

Early in the month I was preoccupied with the production of the Confraternity of Pilgrims to Rome’s first e-newsletter. Last March I gave a talk to the AGM of this organization after my own walk from Canterbury to Rome in 2106, and was then rash enough to volunteer to become the editor of its publications, taking over from that great name known to so many walking pilgrims, Alison Raju.

I suggested the Confraternity should start to publish regular electronic updates, as well as produce a printed bulletin annually. Pride dictated that this first effort be a good one, so there was much labouring and sweating over unfamiliar technologies. It was done, despite and not because of British Telecom, who managed to deprive me of broadband for the fifth time since September.

It makes one despair of this country: rubbish broadband if you don’t live in a town; roads and airports unusable after a couple of centimetres of snow; and a bigoted, blinkered 52% who voted to leave the Union which has ensured peace and relative prosperity in Europe for nearly seven decades.

And that last does not fill me with unmitigated hope for 2018. On a personal level there is of course always hope. Dear reader, I wish you a very happy and blessed new year.



The wood burner is alight.  This morning snowflakes were whirling on the north wind as I walked. I have just seen another flurry from my window as I write. Despite the inconveniences caused, and the cold which invades the house and my bones, there is a comfort that winter weather still stays true to itself. Often in the last decade or so it has been colder in June than at Christmas. The gales of last week brought down remaining vestiges of leaf, as well as breaking panes in my greenhouse. Now the skeletons of trees stand stark against the sky.

We have had the first really frosty mornings when the ground crunches underfoot and I see my breath white on the air as the dog and I set out.

As we start out on our morning walks the dog gallops off invisible in the darkness: “Only a felon has dogs you can’t see in the dark” (Wolf Hall)….

In mid month a visitor comes to stay, an old friend. The weather is obliging, with a bright low sun. One day we walk with the young dog through Dunwich Forest and Heath, and back along the beach to Minsmere Sluice and Eastbridge. My friend, in holiday mood, eats a huge plate of fish and chips and drinks Adnams’ winter beer. I ask him ‘What would you like to do tomorrow?” He replies, somewhat whimsically, that he has a Romantic notion of a wood with beautiful trees surrounding a ruined church.

“I can do that,” I say. And we walk under deep blue sky across ploughed fields to the ancient wood wherein lie the ruins of South Elmham minster. It is a magical place, charged with atmosphere even on a sunny mid-morning. The church was built on the remains of a Roman temple. Does that explain the very real sense of …something…felt there, or are we merely prey to our imaginings when we see a ruined church?

And here I put on my pedagogic hat:
There is apparently evidence for late Roman and Saxon occupation on or near the site, and when I first walked here a quarter of a century ago I believed the building was sixth century, and connected with St Felix. Several shards of Roman pottery were found in 1964-65 in trenches dug across the enclosure ditch, on the surface of the adjacent field to the south, and in small-scale excavations conducted in 1984 to the south of the church. There are also early 19th-century records of urns filled with burnt bone and ash, probably from a pagan Saxon cemetery. When the buried footings of the south-east corner of the nave were exposed during the excavations of the 1960s, a weathered fragment of late Saxon grave slab was found built into the wall, perhaps obtained from a Christian cemetery nearby. However, at the date of the Domesday survey in 1096, the manor of South Elmham was held by the bishop of Thetford, and was purchased shortly afterwards by Herbert de Losinga, first Bishop of Norwich. It is likely that the Minster was built by de Losinga, who is thought to have been responsible also for the construction of a similar church at his manor of North Elmham (in Norfolk), and that it served as an episcopal chapel, although there is also some evidence that the site of the bishop’s palace nearby may, for a time, have been occupied by a small monastic foundation.

The third week of the month saw a year since one of my near neighbours died. We use words such as “tragic” too glibly and easily, but his death seemed to me to have the hallmarks of a tragedy. Jamie Perkins had come to our village, and to this little outlying hamlet, less than two years before. He was a fine art dealer, responsible for identifying a Constable, and involved in its sale to Tate Britain.

Constable’s Fen Lane, East Bergholt

Jamie was the best company: informed, open emotionally, sweet-natured. I always felt better when I had been chatting with him.  But he was also a deeply troubled man who found some solace in a quiet Suffolk life. He suffered from recurrent depression and anxiety, his “black dog”. He enjoyed open water swimming, often driving off to Walberswick at five o’clock on a summer morning to swim, accompanied by his canine black dog, Eddie. That night in November last year he drove to the nearby River Waveney, and his car was found – unlocked and with a door open – at 10.30pm. Unusually, Eddie was left at home. There was no verdict of suicide, but he was agitated and disturbed that week.

The village church was packed for his memorial service. He had found his way into all our hearts.

In my younger days as a reporter on a local paper I attended many inquests, often hearing a verdict of “suicide while the balance of the mind was temporarily disturbed.” I realise that those words might, perhaps, bring comfort to those grieving, suggesting that such an act was out of character and if the deceased had been thinking straight s/he would not have done it. I am sure some suicides are the result of an angry or despairing impetuosity, but it seemed to me then, and still does now that experience has made me better acquainted with suicides, that it is a lucid and rational act, the logical way of ending a situation that has become untenable.

And as I enter old age I truly hope I might have the courage and the means to spare myself and those close to me the sight of my unbearable pain or decline. The Lancet Psychology this month said:

Suicide in old age is often considered to be the result of a rational decision. Frailty, dependence on others, loss of a partner, and loneliness are seen as reasons that might explain many instances of suicide. Similarly, suicide can be interpreted as a legitimate exit in case of dramatic changes in social status and role. Ageistic views tend to consider depression as a normal feature of the ageing process, and advanced age as the antecedent of an anticipated and definitive ending. Accumulation of physical illnesses and disabilities, life events, and losses can be seen as the so-called right cause to step out of this stage of life.

 I said at the end of “October” that November is the month of the dead, and so I must ask the reader to forgive this rather morbid preoccupation.

Seven weeks – what a difference

I will end on a cheerful and gratifying note. Two months ago I collected ten “rescue” chickens who had lived their lives as egg machines in cramped quarters in continuous light. They came to me almost featherless, looking like plucked birds,  miserable and bewildered by their change of accommodation. Today all their feathers have grown, and they are unrecognisable from the poor specimens of a few weeks ago. Two are even laying each day, a brave and unusual act in the dark of the year. They have become bold, running to get food, sometimes taking it from my hand, and not above giving me a peck if it does not appear quickly enough.

And so we approach the frenzy which is Christmas.




Golden October

The Common is strangely empty; it seems larger without the mares and foals which were taken away mid-month, not to return till May. Now the only life I see is barn owls, buzzards, and colonies of rabbits. The pond is at the lowest level I have seen, save in very dry summers. The garden now is similarly bare – vegetables are harvested. I clear and dig, clear and dig.

Reader, forgive a rant: I begin where I ended last month: the reliance on an internet connection and the impotence, fury and frustration engendered when this means of communication is cut off. This is 2017, and broadband is no longer a luxury or a novelty; it is the fuel that powers work, relationships, leisure. Without it there is isolation. For three weeks in a total of six I have been disconnected from a large part of my world. British Telecom has fobbed me off with lies, excuses, promises and missed appointments. The “executive level” case handler said “If it’s on today that’s all we can ever hope for.” So much for the term “service provider!”

Night is already falling as I write this at 4.30pm; the clocks have been put back an hour, and we are now on a winter timetable. This darkness also insulates and isolates from the outside world. It is easy to understand why alcoholism is more prevalent in the countries of the north where winter daylight lasts only a few hours. In my early twenties I went straight from my first year of living in the brilliance of a southern French sun to a winter in Glasgow where it seemed never to get light, and where the cold seeped into my soul. Shillings were saved to feed the gas meter, and I stayed in bed to keep warm. I have found the dark of the year difficult ever since.


But the beauty of autumn brings compensations. Yesterday saw the first crisp chill and a touch of frost. Where the lane was lined with straw in August and caked in muck last month, now leaves drift down in a thick carpet, eddying as the breeze lifts them. The last fields are being ploughed, including “mine” – the vast expanse over which I look from my kitchen. The tractor works to and fro all day, followed by a white wake of squabbling gulls which swirl and settle after it. The light strikes the deep ridges and furrows, surrounding me with a dark rolling sea whose waves lap the edges of my garden.


Our morning walks start in torchlight, and end in sunlight. The dog rolls in deep grass wet with dew, grunting in ecstasy as she does.


Despite the dryness of this year there are many mushrooms under foot. As a child I would go out with my father to collect horse mushrooms to eat with bacon for breakfast  (“mushers” he called them – was this the language of the Black Country, where his own mother grew up?). I too used to pick mushrooms, but I have been wary for a while now. Years ago when I worked on a local newspaper I was a stringer for the Sunday Express. I sold them a story about a Norfolk woman who had gone to pick mushrooms and came back with a good basketful. Her husband told her not to eat them, but she cooked them and ate all the same. They were Death Caps, and she was rushed to intensive care in London at death’s door.

I can’t now remember whether she lived or died, but the Express take on it was – this is what happens if you disobey your husband. But that was 35 years ago…

The weather has been far from “normal.” The year has been the driest I can remember – winter, spring, summer, autumn with little rain. Mid-month the temperatures rose, and it was shirt-sleeve order. My guests and I ate Sunday lunch outside. Then came Storm Ophelia which battered our western regions, but which here produced what some said were “apocalyptic” phenomena. On a fine if breezy afternoon I suddenly looked up and saw the still-high sun was blood red.

Then the sky darkened as though the sun were eclipsed, and then all turned an eerie yellow-orange. Although I knew it must be Saharan dust blown ahead of the storm nonetheless atavistic fears rose within me. Hard not to see it as an omen presaging some disaster.

Concern for our planet, for neighbours near and far, for the world we are wishing on our children and grandchildren has prompted two friends and me to work for CAFOD, the Catholic Fund for Overseas Development. This organization leads in trying to implement the care for the environment (“our common home”) urged by Pope Francis in his encyclical Laudato Si’. We hold a stall at a monthly local produce market, selling cakes, biscuits, scones, sausage rolls, garden produce, plants and seeds as a small contribution to further this work.


A year ago, on 21 October 2016, I arrived in Rome after a 2000km pilgrimage on foot from Canterbury. This is not as unusual an achievement as it may sound, but for me it was a great adventure – throwing myself on the kindness of strangers and the mercy of God. It was my fifth walking pilgrimage, and since retirement I have tramped through France, Spain, Switzerland and Italy. I know now that without these minor adventures into the unknown, and without plans and possibilities of such, something in me feels trapped and only half alive. I tell myself that the journey into old age must be my adventure now…



This October entry in my online journal makes for rather melancholy reading, reflecting the dying of the year, and now we begin November, the month of the dead.

A note to the new reader: to understand where I am coming from, in both senses, read the static information pages in the sidebar to the left: Introduction – The Common – The Garden.

September 2017

A note to the new reader: to understand where I am coming from, in both senses, first read the static information pages in the sidebar to the left: Introduction – The Common – The Garden.

No golden Indian summer, but equinoctial gales, and a chill mid month.

Where last month the lanes were lined with straw, now they are caked in muck. By muck I mean the straw on which animals (mostly pigs) have been bedded. It has the look and consistency – though not the smell – of rich fruit cake. My neighbour Joe’s ancient and rickety tractor and trailer sway and bump along the road, depositing gobbets and clumps of the stuff all the way.

Our morning walks now start in near darkness, and I stumble – and the young dog gallops, chasing hares – across ploughed land. By law farmers are required to reinstate a footpath (public right of way) within 48 hours of ploughing, and then again after drilling. Of course they don’t – why should they? They don’t want people on their land. But plough is almost impossible to walk on, so I take long deviations round the headlands. Few farmers leave enough uncultivated land round the edge of a field either for wildlife – or for a walker.

My harvest continues, but I am up against tough opposition. I returned from a week away to find that rats had eaten all my sweetcorn cobs. Now they are busy climbing up onto the bird feeders for the peanuts and the fatballs.

The holiday! The dog and I went to Northumberland, and I was blown away, not just by the gales, but by the beauty and vastness of the beaches. She and I walked for miles along coastal paths, across dunes and shining sand. Our walks were sometimes solitary, but to her joy there were often dog walkers. She met more dogs on the beach on our first walk than she had seen in her entire nine months, and frolicked and cavorted and raced and chased, splashed and rolled. We had fun.

Another month another funeral. They are frequent. This time it was a 90-year-old Canon of St Albans Cathedral who had retired to nearby Fressingfield.

I had a particular interest in this event. The Canon’s son had placed my portrait of him in the village hall to preside over the funeral meats. Some years ago, before my friend who inspired this blog died, I painted her portrait (see below, right). She and her family were pleased with it, and it hung in their sitting room. It was seen by many and several commissions resulted. One by the wife of the Canon (I am tempted to call her Mrs Proudie, which will define her for those who have read Trollope). By this time the Canon must have been in his early 80s, and his once fine mind was deserting him.

My friend Pat, the inspiration of this blog

A portrait should, I believe, say something about the subject and his world both interior and exterior, not just reproduce a likeness. I asked that the Canon should wear his clerical suit. He – and his world – had shrunk, and the suit hung about him, symbolising the decline and the drawing in of what had been a rich intellectual and ecclesial life. Before the reveal to Mrs Proudie I showed it to friends who knew them well. Yes, they said, that is exactly him. So I took it to her, apprehensively. A great silence fell. Her mouth turned down. No comment was made. A cheque was signed and handed over, with some reluctance.

I later found out that she had not understood, living with him as she did, how much he had aged, and was shocked. I also believe she grasped intuitively how the portrait represented the shrinking of his world and of his mind. I was vindicated, however, these nine years on, by the compliments the painting elicited at the funeral.

At the end of the month I went to fetch ten “adopted” hens, rescue chickens. They come from chicken factory farms all over Suffolk, and would otherwise be culled at 18 months when it is considered their most productive egg-laying days are done. The British Hen Welfare Trust arranges re-homing. My chicken run has been repaired (I trust fox-proof now) and waiting for some time.

A sad sight they are, and one which should prevent anyone buying eggs from caged hens ever again. They have few feathers, and have to be taught how to peck, scratch, and roost.

This month’s entry into this online diary is being done in a hurry. For two weeks now I have locked horns with British Telecom over their inability to restore my broadband. I have driven miles round Suffolk to scrounge connection and office space from friends, and still my broadband does not function. I wait, in a queue, the second visit of an engineer. I do not wait with much confidence. So here I am in a neighbouring village. It is 2017 and they cannot provide reliable internet connection. Maybe by the time I come to write next month’s it will be back….