The protective fire of Beltane.

The protective fire of Beltane.

Not much further than a mile from us as the crow flies, lies Thornborough Henge. It’s a prehistoric monument consisting of three giant circular earthworks. Constructed 5000 years ago by the first neolithic (new stone age) farmers, it was probably an enclosure for their ritual gatherings. The Henge became an important centre in Britain for pilgrimage and trade, although its exact purpose still remains a mystery.

It sends shivers down my spine to think that this ancient piece of our history lies just a short walk from our home.

An ariel view of Thornborough Henges (photo courtesy of Historic England)

An ariel view of Thornborough Henges (photo courtesy of Historic England)

We can visit it any time we choose, simply to tramp round and try to imagine it in its heyday, and we’ll have the place to ourselves.  Not on May-day though.  Today is the Gaelic feast of Beltane, half way between the spring and summer solstices.  It’s a day to mark the beginning of summer. Sadly, today is very cold, rather windy and a bit wet.

Back in pre-historic times, rituals were held on this day to protect the cattle, crops and people, and to encourage growth.  Bonfires, deemed to have protective powers, were lit.  For many centuries these practices died out.  But nowadays, at sites like Thornborough, pagans, Wiccans, New-Agers and lovers of history and tradition gather once more to celebrate the renewal of life and growth.

Today I was there too.  For an hour at least, for the opening ceremony. Brrr!  It was cold.

The Green Man and his horn.

The Green Man and his horn.

I was strangely moved.  The Green Man, representing rebirth and the cycle of growth was our Master of Ceremonies.  He invited us all to join hands, whether friends or strangers, in fellowship, and shout out three times the invocation to new life. We hailed Brigantia, Celtic goddess of Northern England.  Then at his bidding and as he sounded his horn, we turned to the east and welcomed the summer rains.  We turned south to welcome the sun (who was coyly absent today), to the west to welcome summer winds, and to the north where the wolves apparently are.

Welcoming the West Wind.

Welcoming the West Wind.

Then a man, naked from the waist upwards save for his covering of woad-coloured paint, leapt among us bearing the flaming torches which would offer us all protection over the coming months.

Protective flames.

Protective flames.

And that was the ceremony over.  Dancers entertained us.  They seemed to me to owe much to flamenco and to middle-eastern belly dancing traditions, but we all cheered them on with enthusiasm.Beltane&BanquetingHouseMay2016 052

I shan’t be there this year for the closing ceremony.  I’m still thawing out.  But weather permitting, I’ll certainly go along next year.  Will you come along too?Beltane&BanquetingHouseMay2016 047

The pirates return

It’s time to leave Phil Sayer in peace. My daughter gave him a glorious send-off last Monday, with a funeral attended by nearly 400 people, celebrating his life with tears certainly, but also, nostalgia, humour and even laugh-out-loud moments. When were you last at a funeral which began with Monty Python’s ‘Galaxy Song’? Just before we try to resume normal service, here’s a post I wrote two years ago, celebrating Phil’s time on the pirate ship Radio Caroline.

Rest in peace, Phil.

From Pyrenees to Pennines

Alex and Ben rush down the gangplank of the pirate ship. Alex and Ben rush down the gangplank of the pirate ship.

This post probably won’t make much sense if you’re not from the UK.  It won’t make sense even if you’re British if you’re not at least in your mid- 50’s.  You won’t know of a world where your radio listening choices were limited to the Home Service (much like Radio 4), the Light Programme (much like  Radio 2) and the Third Programme ( much like…. yes, Radio 3).  What’s missing from this list?  Yes, indeed, Radio One.

If you were a teenager before the mid 1960s, you weren’t going to get much joy listening out for a diet of pop music by choosing the BBC.  The only option was to tune in to the commercial Radio Luxembourg.  The amount of music it offered grew rapidly throughout the ’60s, but anyone from my generation will remember the commercials too…

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‘Mind the Gap’

'Mind the gap' (Wikimedia Commons)

‘Mind the gap’ (Wikimedia Commons)

Many of you know already that Phil died on Thursday.  Though the news couldn’t be surprising, somehow the reality is shocking.  We mourned the man we knew and enjoyed spending time with: the family man, a husband, father, grandfather and uncle.  We remembered his wit, his generosity, his Sunday roasts, his techie skills and strongly-held opinions.  We wept.

Knowing that he’d been on regional radio and TV back in the ’70s and ’80s – before we knew him, Malcolm and I thought he’d qualify for a mention in the local press.

I first heard he’d made the national news when fellow-blogger Agnes Ashe told me.  I googled him. Over the next hours, articles from the Guardian, the Independent, the Daily Mail, the Daily Star tumbled into the search engine.  Then Spanish media.  Then sites in Germany, the Netherlands, Italy, even the USA.

And all because this was the man whose voice any visitor to London will know.  The voice that admonishes you to ‘Mind the gap’ as you step from the platform onto the London Underground.

Ten years ago, just as Ellie was giving birth to their twin boys, the couple’s voice-over business won the contract to do a huge number of station announcements for the London Tube, with Phil’s deeper, masculine tones being required for the all-important ‘Mind the Gap’.

Phil followed this up by winning contracts to do similar announcements for South West Trains, the Southern Network and Northern Rail.  As we take the train on journeys through the UK, and in London, we’ll listen out for Ellie’s voice, or Phil’s, and excitedly text our friends when we hear them.  In the early days, when it was all very new, I accosted a porter on Wimbledon Station on hearing Phil’s voice announcing the arrival of the next train. ‘That’s my son-in-law, that is’.

So though he was never spotted in any visits to London or as he travelled round the country, his voice was known by millions.  That’s why he made the cut in the BBC Radio 4 and TV national news, and on BBC One’s North West programme yesterday, as well as further afield.

And just for a while, I found that my pride in his achievements, and the knowledge that his work would live on as a memorial for Ellie and the boys cut through the grief and brought a smile to my face.

Finally, for a bit of fun, here’s why Ellie and Phil are sometimes dubbed ‘Britain’s most apologetic couple

You’ve seen a picture of Phil in a previous post.  And as he’s known for being in a certain sense unknown, I thought this image of Ellie and Phil, take from their website, would be appropriate.sayer hamilton


Irritatingly, both German and Dutch reports use video of the only station in London, Embankment, that does not use Phil’s voice to advise people to ‘Mind the gap’.  This is in deference to the widow of the previous ‘voice’ who regularly uses this station.

Brian and Betsy

Even though these last few days have left us feeling bleak and helpless, with time passing so quickly, yet so slowly, there have been good moments.  You might expect two dogs to be behind one or two of them.

Here’s Ellie, Phil and the twins’ dog Brian letting off steam with his best friend Betsy. Luckily for them, Betsy’s owners are among Phil and Ellie’s best friends too.  So there are lots of playtimes for these two energetic dogs to look forward to.

Phil is still being cared for at home during his final days.

Phil, Ellie, Ben and Alex - a recent photo.

Phil, Ellie, Ben and Alex – a recent photo.

This seems the time to come clean about what’s really happening in our lives.

My son-in-law Phil – the husband of my daughter, and father of those twin boys – has been given only days – at most a week or two, to live.  He’s never had much of a mention on this blog and it’s tough that this is how he’s introduced to you.

We hadn’t been back in England long when he was diagnosed with cancer.  With a mixture of surgery, treatment, chemotherapy and sheer bloody-mindedness he kept it more or less at bay, though never defeated it.  Suddenly last week, cancer took over, irrevocably.

He and my daughter have – or had till yesterday – a respected and successful voice-over business, which they’ve temporarily closed with immediate effect, though my daughter will relaunch it.

There’s plenty to say about Phil and his life and times.  But not today.  Ellie has said it all so much better than me, on Facebook.Capture.JPGB


Easter holidays.  Time to have those ten-years-old grandsons over.  Time to keep them so busy they don’t have a chance to realise that ours is not a home stuffed with devices.  Not a smart phone in sight.

Let’s get them back to the past straight away, even before we get them back to our house.  Are they too old for an Easter Bunny hunt at Fountains Abbey?  Apparently not.  Not when there’s a chocolate bunny to eat at the end.  Are they too cool for egg and spoon races and egg-rolling down the hill?  Apparently not.



Would they like to visit ‘Forbidden Corner’?  They agreed they would, even though we failed to provide a description of what to expect.  We couldn’t.  It’s been described as ‘The Strangest Place in the World’.  Perhaps it is.  It’s a folly.  It’s a fantastical collection of follies.  It’s woodlands, walled gardens, mazes, tunnels, grottoes, built in the manner of a topsy-turvy collection of fairy tale castles in enchanted grounds.   Every stone putto is liable to pee on you as you walk past.  Every passage is too narrow, too low, too dark, and may lead nowhere.  You just want to try to get along it anyway, because at the end there may be another secret door, with halls of mirrors, or ever-changing fountains, or grotesque stone gremlins, or stepping-stones ….  And beyond, in every direction, the glorious countryside of North Yorkshire.



Next day, off to Brimham Rocks.  No child can resist the opportunity to climb and jump among these extraordinary tottering towers of balanced rock formations.  A visit there is a regular fixture for Alex and Ben.



And finally – yet more rocks.  Underground this time.  Stump Cross Caverns: limestone caves set about with stalactites and stalagmites, tinted in all kinds of shades from the iron and lead seams that also penetrate the area.  Gloomy, dark and mysterious, and guaranteed to fire the imagination.  Photographs courtesy of Ben.



In the evenings we sat round the kitchen table and played board games.  The London Game brought out everybody’s inner mean streak as we blocked other players in, or despatched them to the end of the line at Wembley Central.  Stone Soup gave us the opportunity to lie and lie again in an effort to get rid of all our cards.  All very satisfactory. A good time was had by all.

But Granny and Grandad would quite like a rest now.  Please.


Weaving for pleasure

Last Thursday, I learnt to weave.  Not a splendid rug with intricate and richly coloured motifs.  Not a cosy scarf in soft heathery colours in subtle, muted stripes.  Not even a simple table mat, plain but serviceable.

No, I wove a ….. er, thing.  A ‘thing’ I have yet to find a use for (Mobile phone mat? Drugget for a pet mouse?). But I thoroughly enjoyed myself.  I rather resented the fact that because I was on a course, I was time-limited, and had to finish and tidy up just as I was getting into my stride.


This course, you might guess, was at Fountains Abbey, where I’ve volunteered to be part of a new project.  The idea is to open up Swanley Grange, once an abbey farm (since 1358 in fact) but in more recent years the Education building.

The aim is to create the ‘feel’ of a monastic farm space as visitors enter the sheep-field/grange area and to help them make connections between the grange network and the abbey. Until now, there’s been little to highlight the importance of the wool trade to the expansion of the abbey.

Over winter, the building has been redeveloped inside, and outside there have been very exciting happenings.  There’s a ‘mediaeval style’ vegetable garden, just waiting to be planted up with mediaeval-style vegetables (kale, beans, leeks, that sort of thing.  Potatoes, courgettes and tomatoes need not apply).  Traditional cleft fencing will enclose a flock of sheep, just like the old days, and there’ll be chickens, and bees in mediaeval-style skeps.

Beekeeping, tacuinum sanitatis casanatensis (14th century) (Wikimedia commons)

Beekeeping, tacuinum sanitatis casanatensis (14th century) (Wikimedia Commons)

The volunteers will be keeping an eye on the animals, and with the help of the gardeners, maintaining the vegetable plots.  Most of us who’ve volunteered feel quite comfortable with that.  But most of us who’ve volunteered are less comfortable with mediaeval crafts.

Spinning with a distaff....

Spinning with a distaff….

So the other day we learnt to spin wool, first of all using a distaff, then a spinning wheel.  I don’t think I’ve found a new hobby.  Teasing out the raw, though washed wool, keeping the distaff turning, turning, to twist the wool into a useable fine thread seemed frustrating and, frankly, dull.  It was work that women did constantly, even when minding the children, walking, talking, working.  But you can find blogs written by those who enjoy it, even now it’s no longer an economic necessity.  The greater mechanisation of spinning seemed less tedious, but quite tricky, all the same.

... and with a spinning wheel.

… and with a spinning wheel.

A spot of carding.

A spot of carding.

We did a spot of carding, combing out wool into parallel, useable fibres ready for that all important spinning.  Even that was hard going, and we were glad to break for lunch.

And after lunch, there they were.  A collection of small table looms, the warp already prepared so we could get busy with the weft.  If you don’t know what I’m talking about, look here.

And we got busy. We learnt to like the rhythmic back-and-forth as we pushed our wool-laden shuttles through the warp threads.  I felt the need to get above myself, and try something just a little more complex.  Here it is.

A mini-masterpiece? Or an adequate first attempt ?

A mini-masterpiece? Or an adequate first attempt ?

But if I could produce that in not much more than half an hour, who knows what weaving genius is within me, trying to get out?

This post is dedicated to blogging friend Kerry, writer of Love those ‘Hands at Home’, who inspires me with her love of textiles, of learning new things, and of life.



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