Grassy triangles and other unusual wild spaces!

Recently, as I was trying to turn out of a tricky junction on one of the narrow and winding lanes near my Devon home, I wondered why there are so often mounded triangles of grass at road junctions? How did these not entirely convenient features come to be?

When I looked into it there is, of course, a perfectly logical reason. As horses and carts, farm animals, carriages and eventually cars, turned left or right over the years, a wide splay often formed at the junction of country roads. Between the turning curves, undisturbed by traffic, grassy triangles were often left untouched when the roads started to be covered with tarmacadam. And so, these little oases of green are often home to all sorts of plants and wildlife – a mini nature reserve. 

I find it so interesting to see how nature makes the best of things in often the most hostile surroundings created by man. I recently sat transfixed for 10 minutes in a motorway service station watching the thriving wildlife in a scrubby hedgerow at the side of the parking area. A blackbird was busy feeding her young, two robins were having a punch up, and I even saw a tiny mouse skitter past. All around were fumes and noise and litter but they carried on with their lives perfectly happily.

Roundabouts are also havens for all sorts of wildlife too. Obviously when I am a passenger and not driving (she says hastily) I have caught sight of gorgeous wildflowers, butterlies and glimpses of wildlife too, slap bang in the middle of a very busy road system. Their inaccessibility to man is their saving grace.

To me, the most unexpected area for flora and fauna has to be motorway verges. Now that many have been established for decades, they have truly become nature reserves. Often covering quite large areas, these are inhospitable places for man, but they are often smothered in wildflowers and I have often seen merlins, and other birds of prey, hovering overhead their beady eyes fixed on a rabbit or other mammal happily hopping around in the vegetation below. How quickly nature adapts and accepts and then conquers these remote places. It gives me great pleasure to know that, given just the slightest chance, nature will always overcome in the end…

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The origin of sayings…

Have you ever thought about the expressions people use on a daily basis and wonder how they became such an accepted part of the English language? I often stop and think – now where on earth did THAT come from?! I have had a quick Google to see if I can get to the bottom of some of them…

Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater
Meaning: Don’t throw valuable things out by mistake!
History: During the 1500s, most people bathed once a year – ugh! Even when they did bathe, the entire family used the same tub of water. The man of the house bathed first, followed by other males, then females, and finally the babies. You can imagine how thick and cloudy the water became by that time, so the infants’ mothers had to take care not to throw them out with the bathwater when they emptied the tub.

Eating humble pie
Meaning: Making an apology and suffering humiliation along with it.
History: During the Middle Ages, the lord of a manor would hold a feast after hunting. He would receive the finest cut of meat at the feast, but those of a lower standing were served a pie filled with the entrails and innards, known as ‘umbles’. So, if you were given ‘umble pie’ it was humiliating as it informed others in attendance of the guest’s lower status.

Too many to shake a stick at?More than you can shake a stick at
I love the history of this one!
Meaning: Having more of something than you need.
History: Farmers controlled their sheep by shaking their staffs to indicate where the animals should go. When farmers had more sheep than they could control, it was said they had ‘more than you can shake a stick at’ and chaos ensued!

Given the cold shoulder
This is an interesting one, as its meaning has actually reversed!
Meaning: A rude way of telling someone they aren’t welcome.
History: Although giving someone the cold shoulder today is considered rude, it was actually regarded as a polite gesture in medieval England. After a feast, the host would let his guests know it was time to leave by giving them a cold piece of meat from the shoulder of beef, mutton, or pork.

A selection of cold shoulders!Rule of thumb
Like so many old sayings, this is one with an awful origin.
Meaning: A common benchmark
History: Legend has it that 17th century English Judge Sir Francis Buller ruled it was permissible for a husband to beat his wife with a stick, given that the stick was no wider than his thumb. Must make sure this is a saying I avoid in future!

Sleep tight
Meaning: Sleep well.
History: During Shakespeare’s time, mattresses were secured on bed frames by ropes. In order to make the bed firmer, one had to pull the ropes to tighten the mattress.

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Happy anniversary WI!

It seems to be a good year for anniversaries. Not only has the Queen just become our longest reigning monarch and ‘Alice in Wonderland’ celebrated 150 years since publication… but the Women’s Institute is 100 years old this week!

There’s been a great deal of publicity for this institution’s centenary – and yet for many years, it was seen as distinctly fuddy-duddy and very much for the ‘older’ woman. Today it is riding high, gaining new members and is regarded as pretty trendy. I can’t help but think a lot of this resurgence is due to those clever ladies of Rylstone Women’s Institute who came up with the ‘2000 Alternative WI Calendar’ of slightly risqué photos of nude ladies tastefully hidden by cakes and flowers. It was, of course, made into the film ‘Calendar Girls’ with the calendar itself going on to raise over £3 million for Leukaemia & Lymphoma Research. What a wonderful achievement. 

And what a far cry from the beginnings of the WI! The first WI meeting in the UK was held in Llanfairpwll on Anglesey, Wales, on 16 September 1915. Since then, the organisation has grown to become the largest women’s voluntary organisation in the UK with over 212,000 members in 6,600 WIs.

The WI was originally established to educate rural women and to encourage countrywomen to get involved in growing and preserving food to help to increase the supply of food to a war-torn nation. Education and the sharing of skills have always been at the heart of the organisation, and they still are. 

While the meeting venues might have changed from the local village hall to the local café, the ethos of the WI remains the same, and women join now to meet new friends, learn new skills and make a difference on matters that are important to them now, just as fellow members did back in 1915.

There has been a resurgence of interest in baking (The Great British Bake Off) and in traditional pursuits such as knitting and quilting, making the WI even more relevant today. Look at their website and you’ll be amazed at what they offer – and what their members get up to!

Here’s what they have to say about craft: “Craft has always been treasured within the WI. The making of a crafted artefact tells and records stories; protecting heritage and traditional skills. Making can have a positive impact on our lives. It can create space to socialise, and allow for the learning of new skills and sharing of ideas. Craft brings together communities, generations and cultures. It can also be the perfect medium to discuss issues that affect women. However, the most inspiring thing about craft is its democracy; everyone can make something no matter if you are a beginner of a more experienced maker. Craft can change lives!”

I thought that was rather profound! Well done the Women’s Institute and congratulations on your 100 years, may you enjoy many more!

Are you a WI member? If so, what do you enjoy about it?

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All part of life’s rich tapestry…

My mother Diana’s tapestry.Slowly but surely, my Mother and I are working through the deep cupboards and large boxes of her possessions. Some things are priceless and irreplaceable while others well, not so much, to be polite. The photographs are all being carefully kept but the ornaments and trinkets have to be thought about carefully as nobody has enough room for their own bits and pieces as well as my mother’s!

One morning we decided to go through the framed paintings and needlework. My mother has completed a few pieces of tapestry in her life and framed some and not others. Out came a pretty Jacobean design  and, as you can see from the picture, it was beautifully made and framed. I hadn’t seen it before as it had been tucked away my whole lifetime. As I turned it over and saw the date she had worked it, I gave a squeak. My mother looked at me and asked what was the matter. She had made it in the summer of 1953… while she was pregnant with me.

My tapestry.Thinking I should strike while the iron was hot, I nipped home (we only live a short distance over the hill) and collected the tapestry that I worked on in the summer that I was expecting my first daughter. Here you can see the larger design that I did. I showed my mother and like me she was amazed, what are the chances that we would both independently choose an almost identical piece of needlework to create during the last months of our first pregnancy? She had never seen my work and I didn’t know about her picture quietly stored away.

So I have them both hung in the house at the moment – one day I am guessing I will have to downsize and I wonder if my daughters will want them. But for now I am enjoying the co-incidence!

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Curiouser and curiouser – ‘Alice’ appeal lives on 150 years after publication

John Tenniel’s original AliceThe Mad Hatter, The White Rabbit and a little girl called Alice – three of the many fantastical characters created by Lewis Carroll in his 1865 masterpiece ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’, characters loved by generation after generation of children the world over. 2015 is the 150th anniversary of its publication and there are Alice in Wonderland events happening all over the place and a whole new generation is being introduced to the little girl who fell down a rabbit hole and tumbled into another world.

I adored reading Alice in Wonderland as a child. I spent quite a lot time looking for a rabbit hole large enough to fall down because I was convinced I’d have the same adventures if I did and I longed to meet the White Rabbit and the Cheshire Cat. The book manages that magical mix of humour, fantasy and a little bit of fear – would the Queen of Hearts cut off your head? Would you be trapped forever always too big, or too small, to escape from the endless passage and through one of the enticing doors?

Little Alice Liddell was the real-life Alice who inspired Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (Lewis Carroll was his pen name), to write the novel when she asked him to tell her a story on a boating trip down the Thames in Oxford. Even when I have re-read it as an adult, I have found it entrancing and dream-like. There are so many character and phrases that crop up in modern culture and many plays and films and other books have been made about it or been inspired by it.

The real ‘Alice’, Alice Liddell.Charles Dodgson was an English writer, mathematician, Anglican deacon and photographer. After Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, he wrote Through the Looking-Glass, which includes the poems Jabberwocky and The Hunting of the Snark both wonderful examples of fantastic nonsense!

But is it really a children’s book? The story plays with logic making it as popular with adults as with children. It is one of the best examples of the literary ‘nonsense’ genre popular in the Victorian era, with one of the other most famous ‘nonsense’ writers being Edward Lear, he of ‘Owl and the Pussycat’ fame! Goodness, can you imagine being at a literary lunch with those two authors!

I often find myself thinking of particular ‘Alice’ phrases – I think one of two have even slipped into my own books! Here are a few of my favourites:

“Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”

“Begin at the beginning,” the King said, very gravely, “and go on till you come to the end: then stop.”

“If everybody minded their own business, the world would go around a great deal faster than it does.”

“Why is a raven like a writing desk?”

One of Arthur Rackham’s Art Nouveau illustrationsOne of the things I loved most about Alice in Wonderland was the illustrations. The version I had featured the beautiful Art Nouveau images created by Arthur Rackham, but the original book featured the work of John Tenniel. Both of their illustrations are stunning and so very ‘of the era’.

And what of the book when it was first published 150 years ago? The entire print run sold out quickly – Alice was a publishing sensation, beloved by children and adults alike. Among its first avid readers were Queen Victoria and the young Oscar Wilde. The book has never been out of print and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland has been translated into at least 174 languages.

Couriouser and curiouser,” as Alice would have said!

Did you read it as a child, or an adult? Did you like it? Which was your favourite character? I think I’ve got to choose the White Rabbit!

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