Thursday, 30 July 2020

Yanworth: death by hanging, death by plague

Yanworth is a small Cotswold village. It has two reminders of death. 

The first is the Hangman's Stone. This lies by a track to the north-east of the village, in a rather isolated spot. It's a long thin stone slab, not very large, apparently natural except for a slot carved into it. I first saw it in 2012, when it looked like this:

I went back to see it again while pitched at Burford. It hadn't changed, but the grass was shorter and more of the stone could be seen.

I know of another Hangman's Stone. It's by the side of the A3052 road near Branscombe in south-east Devon, close to where the B3174 joins from Beer. Here it is, in two 2017 pictures:

It's even smaller than the Yanworth stone, and has no slot. 

The question arises, why are these called 'hangman's stones'? If they really were used in some way to hang felons, why are they so small - and recumbent? And why does the Yanworth stone have that slot in it? Of course, it may be that all we see now are fragments of what was once a much larger - and upright - monolith. When wandering around Burford during my first evening I saw a stone shaped to function as a set of steps for mounting a horse:

Now such a thing would be much better as a Hangman's Stone. It has some height. Probably not enough, but certainly more than the Hangman's Stones at Yanworth and Branscombe. 

The condemned person has to be able to 'drop'. If there is a sufficient drop, as there used to be on a properly-constructed scaffold, then releasing the trapdoor mechanism will let the body fall freely, and the jerk when the rope abruptly stops this fall should be enough to snap the person's neck, instantly killing him or her. Apparently the Official Hangman up to 1956, Albert Pierrepoint, was expert in calculating how much drop was needed to snap a neck, given the condemned person's height and weight. Too much drop, and the head might be wrenched off. Too little, and the neck wouldn't be broken - the condemned person would just dangle there choking to death. As must have happened with most rough lynchings in the past, where the victim was hauled upwards by a rope thrown over a tree branch, and then left to die slowly by strangulation. As indeed happens nowadays, when despairing people string themselves up in prison cells.

I'm suggesting then that the two modern Hangman's Stones at Yanworth and Branscombe might in each case be all that remain of a stepped monolith that has been knocked to pieces since its last serious use. As well might be. Plenty of local people would want to see such a grisly relic of grim justice destroyed so that it couldn't be used again. In its heyday it would have stood next to a regular gibbet, like this one I saw near Elsdon in Northumberland in 2018:

It all hangs together. Except that (a) there is no stone at the Elsdon gibbet, and (b) I haven't explained the purpose of that slot in the stone at Yanworth. In any case, why was a specially-shaped stone needed at all? Couldn't the condemned person just be made to mount some tall wooden steps - neck in noose - and the said wooden steps then kicked away? It's all rather a mystery.

Yanworth also has an entirely different relic of historic death inside its church, which is set apart from the modern village. A guide inside the church explains that during the terrible Black Death of 1349 most of the village existing at that time was pulled down and set alight, in a frantic effort to contain the spread of the plague. Only the most important buildings, such as the parish church, escaped destruction. The rebuilt village now stands at a little distance, and only farm buildings are close by. It's a peaceful spot now. In the churchyard are the graves of the local landowners, the Vestey family, famous for their butchery business. 

Inside the church, on a pillar, is the stone face of a woman with eyes puffy from far too much crying. It seems to be a primitive and naïve work at first glance, but actually it's quite subtle, as the expression on the woman's face changes as you view it from different angles. But none of the expressions are benign. This is a woman facing dire hardship. She has lost her man and her children, and bitterly resents the injustice of it all. She is aggrieved with her God. But in the end, she is simply forlorn and lost, with nothing now to live for. Rather different from the celebratory carvings and other images one generally finds in a church, that offer hope. There is no hope in this face, only raw grief and anger.

Whoops! Just a minor slip of the chisel, my lord!

I spent a lot of time exploring old Cotswold churches while pitched at Burford. It was very nearly the only game in town that had much appeal for me. I didn't want to join the seething crowds of parents and kiddies at the few so-called 'attractions' that had reopened. Way too much risk of virus infection! But country churches, quite apart from their charm and historical interest, and photographic possibilities, were likely to be very safe places to visit.

So each day I looked at the map and created a tour for myself that would take in a string of attractive Cotswold villages, each with a church. In the main, I didn't know what I would find. I hadn't packed any specialist guides, and without a usable mobile internet connection to surf at breakfast-time I couldn't look up anything in advance. Truly, then, I had to be prepared for constant surprises.  

And I found some. Let's kick off with a church containing some very fine marble monuments to dead aristocrats - but compromised by a mason's error that must have been rather embarrassing when discovered, and impossible to mend invisibly! 

So, to Sherborne in the pretty valley of the River Windrush (lovely-sounding names on the Cotswolds!)  

The present church is not ancient, but was built when the Sherborne Estate house and grounds were being constructed in the eighteenth century. The National Trust now owns the estate, but the house and grounds are mostly given over to commodious 'character' flats leased from the Trust, forming a posh little community set in lush countryside. I won't say that casual visitor is discouraged, but it all feels rather private, and not at all like the usual NT property. I followed the signed route around the side of the main building, and parked where indicated, next to the churchyard. It felt like trespassing. 

Shrugging off the sensation of being where I had no right to be, I stole my way to the church entrance. Off to my left, a lady, one of the resident flat-owners, was instructing a workman as to precisely which bits of a climbing rose bush should be clipped. They didn't notice my coming and going. 

Well, the inside of the church was nothing very special. Or so it seemed at first.

It was certainly neat and tidy, with a particularly well-cared-for feel to it. That coat of arms above, with the lion and unicorn, was finely painted and recently dusted. But nothing began to excite me until I advanced towards the screen.

Aha. Some large and obviously important marble monuments close to the altar. I liked this one. A female angel apparently having a conversation with a skeleton. 

I'm sure it can't be intentional, but it looks as if this jaunty skeleton - what's he actually doing? Popping out of his grave for a chat? - is telling the angel what he thinks is a jolly good joke. I fear that she won't be laughing at the punchline. She's far too lofty and serene for that. The notes on this website explain the scene differently, and draw attention to the skill of the sculptors of this and the other monuments there - see Skill, certainly: it must have been a nightmare chiselling the skeleton's ribs and other delicate bony details. The flowing drapery that barely hides the angel's resplendent female body is no less skilfully rendered. The web link just given emphasises just how much this kind of death-monument would have cost - a truly colossal amount, compared to the wages of even the high-status servants working for the estate at the time. 

On the opposite wall was another, larger, monument that is the real subject of this post. 

A life-sized noble chappie - Sir John Dutton, baronet - deceased at age sixty-one but depicted in his prime - leans casually against a giant urn. Head held high, he wears the garb of a Roman patrician, a senator maybe (which gives the sculptor abundant scope for carving a realistic flowing toga) and is the epitome of the civilised gentleman of the times. Below, the inscription (thankfully in English rather than Latin) describes his career as MP and JP, his genealogy, whom he married, and mentions his chief virtues. 

But what's this? Has someone meddled with the inscription?

Oops! The mason has carved the wrong name. The deceased's father, Sir Ralph Dutton, married a doctor's daughter (the man was no local sawbones, but a physician at the court of Charles II) and someone clearly boobed when researching the father-in-law's full name. It turns out that the name originally carved - John Barwick - was Peter Barwick's elder brother. See An unfortunate mistake! 

Perhaps it was the careless blunder of the Sherborne Estate secretary, tasked with getting the facts right, but falling down on the job. It must have been highly embarrassing to discover that the right name was actually Peter Barwick, and that the small fortune lashed out on this monument was wasted. Or at least, the result was compromised with a glaring error that hit the eye. No doubt the offending secretary got demoted to swineherd. Or just dismissed, to starve in the gutter. And you can imagine the acrimonious exchanges that followed between the mason who carved the inscription in good faith and the noble heir who had commissioned this monument to his lately departed forebear:

Mason: My lord, the money for carving Sir John's monument is still owing. 
Noble heir: You impudent scoundrel. You carved the wrong name! I won't pay you a penny. 
Mason: My lord, it's not my fault. I was told to carve 'John Barwick' and I did, with all proper skill. Blame the person who gave me the wrong name.
Noble heir: I suppose you do have a point. What can we do about it?
Mason: Well, my lord, if we are stuck with the inscription as made, I can try carving a neat correction.
Noble heir: How neat?
Mason: Oh, it'll be very discreet, my lord. Nobody will notice. But I will require further payment...
Noble heir: Go ahead then, damn you.   

But I really don't think the mason succeeded. That correction isn't at all discreet. It rather catches the eye and holds your attention!

I did wonder who precisely the 'noble heir' might be, as the inscription on the monument makes it clear that Sir John's attempts to get a son failed, despite two marriages. It turns out that his nephew got the Estate under the terms of his will (see,_2nd_Baronet), and after changing his surname from Naper to Dutton in order to inherit (as you would, if a fortune were at stake). He went on to found an ongoing Dutton dynasty (this time of barons).

You'll notice the strange way of stating the date of death: 1st February 1742/3. Dates around that time were affected by a reformation of the calendar, which made it legal for the year to begin on 1st January rather than 25th March, as had thitherto been customary. So anything that had happened in January, February and most of March could be assigned to a choice of years - in this instance 1742 (Old Style) or 1743 (New Style). It's explained in Wikipedia at and at As the act of parliament that authorised this great change didn't become law until May 1751, it must be that the inscription on the lower part of this monument to the late Sir John Dutton wasn't begun until nearly ten years after he died. The upper part of the monument - that is, his statue and the urn - are dated 1749. So it seems to follow that the monument was installed in the church by 1749, but the carved inscription (showing the Old Style and New style dates) had to be left blank until 1751. The name-correction would have been made at some point after that. 

No doubt that lazy estate secretary rode high until his sudden and permanent reduction to swineherd, and the squalour of a filthy and insanitary estate cottage. Or starvation in rags. He should have performed due diligence in the first place. An awful warning to the slapdash.   

Amazing the things that crop up in one's Cotswold meanderings!

Wednesday, 29 July 2020

Le Bal Masqué

While I was on holiday it became the rule in England to wear a face mask when inside shops. Well, I had my home-made mask ready, but clearly needed to buy some ready-made masks, as I couldn't wear the same one day after day. With a few days to spare before the rule would come into force, I saw a pack of three masks at the checkout in Waitrose (at Witney), and didn't hesitate for long.

Why did I hesitate at all? Well, this pack of three cost £15 - £5 each, which seemed a bit steep. On the other hand, I saw that they were masks of quality and fashion, and likely to be a whole lot nicer to wear - so far as appearance goes - than the very plain and functional black masks you see a lot of nowadays, or the clinical pale blue ones that suggest you are either in the grip of some horrific disease or a medical worker tasked with disaster duties.

I disliked having to wear a mask at all, as I'd already found they were uncomfortable to wear for more than short periods, definitely inhibited breathing, and made your glasses steam up. Nor did I have any faith in their slight virus-protective properties. But I wasn't going to defy a government rule. And if I had to wear one, then let it be a Statement Mask. Or a Catwalk Mask. Something striking anyway. And this pack of three face masks, apparently designed by Raeburn, Mulberry and Halpern, seemed the business. Eco-compliant too. Trust Waitrose!

In side that pack were also two white cotton storage bags. Why only two? A bit mingy? But of course! Only two bags were needed: one for each of the two masks standing by. The third mask would be worn, or at least ready to be donned at a moment's notice.

So I now had four masks to wear for the rest of the virus pandemic. These three new ones, plus my original homemade one:

Surely four masks were sufficient, when the occasions I'd need to wear one in a shop would be few. After all, apart from food stores and filling stations I hardly went into shops now: it was just too much bother if there were a long queue, and (if it happened to be a clothes shop) you couldn't try anything on to check the fit, so there was no point.

As it happened, I didn't use even my homemade mask more than once or twice in the remainder of my holiday - there was only one more visit to Waitrose (this time in Warminster), and two occasions when I got fuel for Fiona. It was only this morning, with the home made mask drying after a spell in my washing machine at home, that I got out one of the new 'fashion' masks and put it on for some food shopping. I chose the snazzy yellow Halpern mask.

Aha! It certainly caught the eye. Here I model the mask in my conservatory, while (under the mask) exhibiting various extreme emotions:

It hid my horror, anguish, despair, anger, and total outrage pretty well. In fact, you'd scarcely know it was me behind that jazzy fabric. I could rob a bank with impunity in a mask like this.

Or so I thought. What actually happened was that every time I entered a shop I was greeted with a 'Good morning, Lucy! Did you have a good holiday?' Which was, of course, highly pleasant. But so much for the mask being a perfect disguise. Surely my eyes weren't that distinctive? Or maybe it was the hair, or the hairband. Or something to do with the way I sashayed into the shop with a do-si-do. Who knows.

I had to admit that the 'bought' mask was better-made than my homemade effort, and breathing seemed easier, but it was no more comfortable. I wouldn't want to wear either kind for too long.

I still have to other two new masks to try, the Raeburn (blue) and the Mulberry (brown):

They won't have quite the style impact of the yellow Halpern mask, but to my mind they are still a lot better than the boring masks most people wear, particularly the disposable or short-life sort bought for a pound each from the local chemist. My new masks can be washed dozens of times and will surely outlast the current pandemic. (I can pop them in my bra bags, which will stop them getting tangled up with the other washing)

If the pandemic goes on and on into 2021, and wearing a mask while out and about becomes a social norm, I may even invest in the ultra-posh kind of mask I've spotted in country-town boutique windows - expensive limited-edition masks for the lady of leisure (and means). Would that be silly?

One thing I would not welcome would be a situation in which women have to wear masks and men do not. I dare say there are many men who see mask-wearing as a cissy thing to do, an affront to their precious manhood. They might well be the kind of bossy or controlling men who dictate what their girlfriend or wife should be wearing, and will abuse her about if she doesn't comply. Sensible governmental rules based on health considerations are one thing; unilateral rules imposed by arrogant men with attitude are quite another. They can all swivel. Or rather, they can catch the virus and suffer.

Tuesday, 28 July 2020


I'm back home. I got back from holiday yesterday afternoon. The first week was at sunny Burford, on the eastern edge of the Cotswolds. The second week was rainy Longleat, between the Mendips and Salisbury Plain. Actually, the sun did peep through on many occasions while I was at Longleat. What didn't was 4G. While on site I could get no mobile phone signal whatever. And that was very inconvenient.

It was surprising because the Caravan Club site was close to Longleat House, the famous stately home, and of course close to the even more famous Safari Park. Close by was also the Center Parc Resort. You'd have thought that the phone companies would see to it that all the thousands of visitors to this area, caravanners included, would be able to make phone calls and send texts and other messages with pictures attached of everyone getting matey with wild animals, or riding around the lake on a miniature train (I could see them go by from my own caravan). But no.

I'm a constant mobile internet user, and although it's foreign to my nature to send daft pictures to my friends, I do need access to the cloud for proper practical reasons. It was so frustrating not to get any signal from inside my caravan. I had to set up my half-dozen most important documents and spreadsheets for offline use, with an offline backup. It worked fine, for those files. The rest were inaccessible. As for looking up places to go to, and whether they were open, and what it might cost, no way - at least not from the caravan. If I leapt into Fiona and drove two miles to the nearest village on the main road, then yes, I could get a signal. But that was impractical in my nightie first thing in the morning, or late at night.

Of course, I could get messages and emails while driving along during the day, and when walking around towns. If I had the opportunity to read them while out, then I'd respond. Otherwise, they had to wait until the next day.

Frankly, this lack of mobile internet was a major downside of pitching at Longleat, and I don't think I'll be returning. I may not be the best communicator in the world, but I do like to be in touch at all times, and it was terribly annoying not to be.

Perhaps my notion of a holiday is very different to yours. I merely want a change of scene, plus the particular pleasures of travelling with car and caravan. I still want to enjoy the routines of my ordinary life, and feel deprived and disturbed if cut off from them.

I dare say a psychologist would assert that my caravan is literally my home from home, and that without such a safety-capsule I would quickly fall apart. Certainly I do treat it as my comfortable residence for the time being, and not as a mere shelter from the elements, somewhere to doss. And I do like to be able to shut the door and relish the private space within. Exactly as I can in my real home. That doesn't mean that I'm a recluse. I want connections. I want to be reachable. And to reach out. I couldn't at Longleat.

Years ago, before the Internet, before mobile phones, a lot of people who lived alone must have felt very isolated, and quite possibly prone to despondency and worry because of it. They might have had an old-fashioned landline telephone, and there could have been the occasional letter. But for days on end, the TV and radio had to supply their need for human contact. Not so now. The Internet is there to be tapped. It's bursting with news, opinions, advice, commentary and analysis on every conceivable topic, with all manner of entertainment and stimulation for the mind. You do have to be discerning and discriminating, and aware that most websites have an axe to grind, or a message to promote, or something to sell. But subject to that, there is more than enough to stave off loneliness and boredom, and encourage involvement in something congenial. I've got into the habit of looking daily at a string of favourite websites. It's a definite pleasure. And although my life isn't built around doing this, if I can't 'do my rounds' I do feel starved of knowledge about what's happening, and what's new.

Behind all this must be a fear of getting too old, too tired, or too mentally slow, to be concerned or care. I wouldn't be surprised to be told that using the Internet as I do is a way I've developed for staying alert and on the ball. Well, it's better than doing sudoku or crosswords. And although I like reading - I've bought four books recently, and finished one of them already - I find I'm more likely to nod off over a book than a laptop.

Morpheus beckons, so I'll end on that note.

Well, not quite. Talking of Morpheus, a few days ago I was exploring a narrow twitten (that's the Sussex word; I'm not sure what a narrow lane is called in Somerset) in Wincanton, when I found this fixed to a wall. It looked as if someone had gone to a lot of trouble to compose a seasonal poem for their Mum, illustrated with a suitable seasonal photo, and laminating the ensemble to protect it from the weather.

The poem reads as follows:

The Blackbird no longer sings, mute now 'til Spring.
His young have flown. he sits alone, duty done.

Chills of Autumn are on us now,
Morning mist that cloaks the hills 
rises and evaporates like last night's dreams -
it seems as though Summer never was.
Memories of it slip through my fingers like sand.
A grain or two lingers like those mayfly words
that came and went like a sunbeam.
Sunamis of sadness 
and joyous moments of magic madness remembered.
Times when the earth turned
and my heart leaned to love.

In the tweenlight I invite Morpheus to come, 
take me in his arms, hold me tight and rock me gently into sleep -
I embrace the transition of day into night.

Moonrise comes early...
witching time time when silence falls and slumber calls.

I am no judge of poetry, but this evokes (for me) wistfulness for a carefree summer that came and went, replaced by the colder and darker days of Autumn. (Shouldn't it be 'Tsunamis'? I don't suppose it matters) It was so unexpected, finding such a thing down a narrow lane in a small Somerset town.

You may be sure that while parked at Wincanton I fired up my phone and caught up on my emails!

Sunday, 19 July 2020

What would YOU do?

I've just spent a week at Burford, on the eastern edge of the Cotswolds - my first caravan getaway of 2020. Today I have moved on to Longleat on the western edge of Wiltshire - almost Somerset, and not far from Dorset. I have to say that so far it's been little different from any other caravan holiday I've taken in the past. There have been a few coronavirus measures in place on site, and it's been harder to get a pub lunch, or tea and cake, during the day when out and about. National Trust places either haven't been open, or have been unavailable for spontaneous decisions to visit them, as you have to book in advance so that visitor numbers are controlled. But then I don't rely on any of these things for the essence of my holidays, and I wouldn't say that Covid-19 has spoiled my time away one bit.

It's an odd coincidence that the Club sites at both Burford and Longleat are adjacent to a wildlife park. In Burford's case, it's the Cotswolds Wildlife Park, and at Longleat it is of course the famous Safari Park, home to the original Lions of Longleat. Neither attraction is to my own taste, but plenty of people want to go and see the animals, and I can testify to a steady stream of visitors queuing day after the day, from early morning onwards, at the Cotswold Wildlife Park across the road from the Club site entrance. It was that close. At Longleat it's half a mile off. In both places there are wild beasts that you wouldn't want to encounter in their natural setting, as you would be prey. Such as big cats and rhinos. I didn't hear any roaring at night at Burford (just the calls of peacocks, actually) but the Lions of Longleat may be more vocal after dark. You do wonder whether the big cats and rhinos and gorillas are truly confined in their enclosures, with absolutely no possibility of escape.

What if they got out? What if they saw a chance and got through an open gate, and spread out in every direction, free for the time being?

I suppose the first thing you'd know about it would be a siren, and suddenly lots of loud, panicky announcements telling people at the attraction to run for their lives - or back to their cars, anyway. And screams, as the cats found victims. I shouldn't think that the average car would be much of a sanctuary from a lion or tiger whose hunting instincts had been triggered. And I'm sure that a rhino could and would overturn and trample most small cars with one swipe of its horn. On the Club site, we'd be doomed. With only one way in and out, and a barrier to get through, and one access road, there'd be no dash for safety in our cars. On the other hand, we'd have our caravans and motorhomes to hide in. These might prove big and bulky enough to provide a proper shelter, although I wouldn't pin much hope on that if a wild beast got one's scent, or saw movement through the windows. Double-glazed they may be, but caravan windows are made of plastic, you know. I can't speak for the average motorhome. But neither kind of mobile holiday home is built like a tank!

Well, having survived a week at Burford without mishap, it's ironic that at Longleat I've placed myself in even greater danger from those animals who must have fresh meat every day or else go mad. At least the Club site at Longleat is not the only target for quick snacks on the hoof. There's also a large Center Parcs holiday village, and the thinking lion will get better pickings there - more bite-sized children, for one thing. There's a preponderance of Old Bones on Caravan Club sites - tough meat. The cat on the move wants something more succulent.

I am, of course, not being too serious about dangerous hungry beasts breaking loose and going on the rampage! But it does cross one's mind. And it has brought back a memory of a comic from long ago. I wasn't much for comics, but my younger brother Wayne was. And I remember now that I regularly got a look at an early-1960s comic called - I think - Boy's World. This was an upmarket publication, a bit glossy like the Eagle was, and just as expensive for a cash-strapped child to buy. Perhaps it was really called Posh Boy's World? Well, the thing about it that caught my eye was the cover, which always showed - in full colour - an Emergency Situation. And always with a question for the child seeing it: 'What Would YOU Do?' There would be various dire scenarios. In each a young chappie would be confronted by a fast-unfolding disaster that required an instant remedy, if the said chappie were to live. A galloping pride of escaping lions, rearing up on their hind legs with fangs bared and claws extended, their blood-maddened eyes fixed on the young man, could well have been the kind of tense emergency that would need thought and consideration. There would always be a solution, a correct thing to do, which would deftly save him from a horrible death. The young reader would have to buy the comic to find out what that solution was - just in case the situation ever cropped up in real life. As well it might, at any moment.

I can't remember all the situations illustrated on those front covers. They may have included being dragged under by the suckers of a giant squid, or ensnared in the groping tendrils of a meat-eating plant, or trapped in the closed jaws of a giant clam, or marooned by a searingly-hot flow of lava, or caught in a foaming whirlpool, or sliding about helplessly on the sloping deck of a sinking ship like the Titanic. The situation that has stuck in my mind is the picture of Our Young Man passing a tall building that's so ablaze that one entire side is about to fall on him. What does he do? Does he run for it, or what? What would you do?

As ever, the right answer isn't obvious. According to Boy's World the young man would make a bad mistake if he tried to run away from the collapsing buiding, as he can't outrun the flaming rubble as it spreads out. No, the proper thing to do is run towards the building, and crouch against the base of the wall. The red-hot brickwork will then fall outwards, and not downwards, and Our Plucky Quick-Thinking Young Person won't be crushed. In fact he'll emerge scarcely dusted, congratulating himself on Knowing The Correct Thing To Do, and getting hearty commendations from the firemen who thought he was going to be killed.

This particular scenario, and its non-intuitive solution, made a big impression on me; and for a long while afterwards I looked for opportunities to use this important new knowledge. But none ever came, perhaps because I was never silly enough to go anywhere close to furiously-burning tall buildings that were about to collapse.

Decades later, would I still rely on such advice? Well, I'm not sure. Take cliff falls, for instance. The crumbly chalk cliffs of Sussex regularly shed tons of rock, and it's obvious that it falls downwards, and not outwards very much. Perhaps brickwork and masonry would behave differently, but chalk rubble definitely doesn't 'fall clear'. So I'm thinking that in general the clever answers to the other 'What Would YOU Do?' questions in those Boy's World back numbers were equally flawed. This is why I have, throughout my life, avoided giant squids, carnivorous plants, huge snap-shut clams, molten lava, ferocious whirlpools, and doomed sinking ships. Therein may lie true wisdom.

Saturday, 11 July 2020

Now another plate for my next car

I admit to having a thing about personalised car number plates. I want to give my pride and joy something special to go by. I don't mean something flash or contrived. Just something that will make my car stand out a bit, make it recognisable in a line of similar parked cars, and give it a little presence in a sea of anonymous lookalikes. If it has any further meaning or effect, well, all to the good.

Fiona, the car I drive at the moment, and have done for the past ten years, and plan to keep driving for five years more, has the number plate SC10 CUR, which actually means something: it's bad Latin for 'I know why'. I realised from the start that some would connect 'CUR' with an aggressive dog of dubious breeding. But if that made other road-users wary of my approach, and anxious to keep out of my way, then I wasn't going to complain. A woman driver needs all the help she can get on the roads! And I must say that, over the years, Fiona has got respect. That may be because she is a big Volvo. But I am sure that the number plate helped, sending a message that I wasn't to be messed with.

I could pass SC10 CUR to my next car, as if it were a baton. But by 2025 it will have been associated with Fiona for so long that I might feel that she 'owns' that plate and that she should go to her grave with it. It would have become part of her identity. So I won't necessarily recycle it. In any case, the next car will be a different kind of animal, all-electric rather than diesel, and no doubt with quite different styling. A fresh plate seems to be called for.

With this in mind, I bought SC10 FAB last December, and I now have the right to use it anytime I like.

The 'SC10' part is still there to maintain continuity with Fiona's plate, but with a different set of letters now following, and the whole thing no longer makes a Latin phrase. 'FAB' has several associations, but primarily it indicates that the car (and possibly the driver) is fabulous. So far as the next car is concerned, I think this will be an accurate description. Much less so for its driver, but hey.

Recently, however, I've had some second thoughts about 'FAB'. If - post coronavirus - we are in for a long recession, with many people out of work or on a reduced income, will it tactful to whizz around in a brand-new, personally-owned, high-tech electric vehicle with a flippant or tongue-in-cheek number plate? And if I leave SC10 FAB parked somewhere, might not some out-of-work low-life decide that it should be fabulous no longer, but damaged and distressed in various moronic ways? Alternatively, I can imagine a gang of vandals watching me park and walk away, and then - inflamed by the number plate, and bent on destruction - trashing my gleaming new car. That would make my day, and no mistake. No, in an era when the haves will be pitted against the have-nots, decking out a cherished car with 'FAB' could be asking for trouble!

What else, then? Something that's still arresting, but not offensive or provocative to those who are down on their luck?

I've given it some thought - and considered what is still available to buy - and have now purchased SC10 SHE. (Once again, not at great cost; but my plan to replace my smartphone in 2021 will have to be put back a few months - not an issue, as it clearly has plenty of life left in it) Here's what SC10 SHE would look like on Fiona. (But bear in mind my next car might have radical styling and could resemble the Millennium Falcon in Star Wars, albeit with four wheels)

This latest plate for my next car has its own pros and cons.

I have to agree that SC10 SHE announces the fact that the driver is a lady, and that I'll have to expect some unwelcome attention from misogynistic male drivers. On the other hand, the better performance of my car - being electric and very powerful - will teach these scrotes some manners. I'll have the whip hand. I'm not a driver who puts up with nonsense.

The many proper gentlemen on the road will of course see the plate and give me plenty of courtesy. Hats will be raised. They'll let me go first at road junctions. Policemen will salute. And undoubtedly a way will be cleared for me through traffic congestion, so that I can drive through unimpeded. (Ah, all in my dreams. But who knows?) 

There are other advantages with 'SHE'.

Like Fiona, my next car (and all others after that) will have a female name, and the plate will be right for them all. Indeed, it's a plate that I can keep transfering from car to car in the future. (This might indeed be the last time in my life that I need to spend money on a distinctive registration number!)

It may also be that a car with a plate like 'SHE' will enjoy a certain immunity from casual car theft. The chief perpetrators of car-crime are going to be young and male, and I'm guessing that they wouldn't want to be seen in the driving seat. It would be a slur on their manhood. It would also look very suspicious to the police, to see a shifty-looking leather-jacketed youth with a week's stubble on his chin, driving a car with a feminine registration - one that must clearly be owned by a woman, not a man. The sight would scream 'stolen car!' So I'm hoping that any potential thief with half a brain cell will see the risks of getting behind the wheel, and leave my car alone. 

I'm still looking at 2025 for buying my next car, so there's plenty of time to ponder all this further. Meanwhile, I've furnished myself with a choice of three plates - all of them eye-catching - for when the time comes to visit Volvo and order my electric car - and save the planet.

Wednesday, 8 July 2020

How nice people can be

I am constantly surprised - in a good way - at just how nice people can be. I never had this sort of attention and kindness when I was younger. For much of my life I felt rather taken for granted, somebody who didn't matter very much. That has all changed in the last dozen years. Perhaps I now look old and tired, just a bit vulnerable, and deserving of extra consideration. Perhaps people - total strangers, often - find something in me that they like. Maybe I exude the kind of pheromones that prompt people to be pleasant to me. Or is it the 'Ultrabrite Smile that Gets You Noticed'? (You need to remember the mid-1970s TV ad to hook on that reference)

Who knows. The fact is, I often get smiles from passing women, and even men sometimes. I have a theory that I must go around with a cheerful smile on my face, and people see that and respond to it. I could be right! So many passers-by look morose and grouchy and tired of life. Not me! Then again, a couple of months ago two youths rode past me on their bikes in Steyning (a nearby town) and said 'Cheer up!' as if I'd been frowning. I certainly did after that. How annoying of them. How impertinent! But I couldn't keep it up for long. I soon cheered up.

The gesture that suggested this post was made in Waitrose in Burgess Hill the other day. A fair number of the staff there know me by sight, and several know me by name as well. How so? Well, I've been a twice-weekly customer for over ten years. But also, I'm apt to make conversation, subject of course to how busy the shop happens to be at the time. Mind you, I always get a greeting from some of the staff, or at least a wave, even if they're not actually serving me. I can generally count on having a chat, however brief, at the fish and meat counters, or when at the checkout. I don't know if Waitrose has a secret dossier on me, built up from pooled conversations over the years. If they have, it must contain a lot of information about my personal circumstances, and what I do with my life.

At any rate, I am always asked for my news, and the other day the ladies on the fish and meat counters did that. One of them is called Tracey, and we are quite pally. I told them that I'd put on a special lunch for my local girlfriends, a few days in advance of my birthday. 'Oh when's that, then?' they asked. So of course I told them. And showed them my new pearl pendant. After a little more chat, I wandered off to get the rest of my shopping.

I go to Waitrose early in the day nowadays, to avoid queuing to get in, and was soon as the till. I'd only just finished taking things off my trolley to be scanned, when a breathless Tracey plonked a big bunch of complimentary flowers next to my purchases.

'For you, Lucy,' she said. 'On the house! Happy Birthday!'

Wow. What an unexpected surprise! I said to her, 'You deserve a kiss for this! What a pity I can't give you one!' (Because of social distancing)

Well, that sparked a conversation with the lady on the till. This wasn't an everyday occurrence. While talking with her, I wondered what had been quickly arranged behind the scenes. Tracey must have first rushed to find a manager, to get authority to gift me the flowers (for surely ordinary members of staff can't hand out freebies without an OK). Then she had to make a suitable choice at the flower display, and create a 'nil' receipt for their records. Only then could she look for me before I left the store. She just made it, as I would have been through the till and gone.

I was delighted. It was so unexpected. A simple verbal 'Have a really good birthday' would have been more than enough. Well, I must be better-known at my local Waitrose than I thought!

And as you can see, they were excellent flowers! A great choice.

I cut the stems for a glass jug, and put them next to the white birthday blooms that Valerie had given me.

That wasn't perfect, as the two bunches crowded each other, so I soon found another spot.

Those big sunflowers were very striking. I told the girls about them. Jo approved of Tracey's choice - her late Mum had loved sunflowers. And I rather think this was a bunch that my own Mum would have enjoyed getting, as she always appreciated bright, sunny colours. Jackie was very impressed with Waitrose. Apparently it wasn't something that would have happened at Tesco, Sainsbury's, or at ASDA. 'Ah,' I said, 'It was only because I mentioned my birthday, as a bit of personal news.' And of course Waitrose did know my date of birth, in connection with the My Waitrose card I flash at the till. So it should have been easy to check that I really did have a birthday coming up.

Still, I hadn't actually touted for anything like this. It's more evidence, in my view, that if you are nice and warm-hearted to the right people, they will be nice and warm-hearted to you. Well, it made my day!

Tuesday, 7 July 2020

Cooking on one's own birthday!

There are five of us: Sue, Valerie, Jo, Jackie and myself, all local to this part of Sussex, and we think of ourselves as The Girls. It has been so for five years, since we first came together, and much has happened in those five years in the way of personal and family events. For my four friends anyway. I'm the odd one out. I'm the only one not to have a husband. I'm not unique in being childless - three of us are in that boat - but the combination of no husband and no children, nor even a pet, does mark me out as very much alone.

That said, I think that in some respects the others are wistful for the personal freedom I enjoy, for being completely in control of my life, for not having to consult with anyone, and for not having any dependants. But in other ways they must think my solitary and self-absorbed life rather lacking in warmth and companionship, of reasons to invest time and money in a lovely home, and all the pleasures of sharing. Husbands, children and grandchildren may be a constant source of concern for one reason or another, but I think that if it came to it, none of my friends would swap their occasionally-complicated lives for my simple one.

All that said, however, I'm rather glad that my life has worked out so that at the grand old age of sixty-eight - that birthday was yesterday - I am shining serenely as a sun without planets, at the very centre of my own universe. In no way do I feel disadvantaged, or denied happiness, or facing a meaningless future. Very much the opposite. I look around Melford Hall and tut at its growing shabbiness. But one day, when I've bought my all-electric car and my savings are building up again, the house will gets its overdue radical makeover. That will obliterate the home that Mum and Dad created twenty years ago, and I will regret that, but when I'm seventy-five or so I'll want a setting that will suit myself, and reflect my own much more modern tastes and sense of style. Plus all the eco-friendly installations I'll want. 

Anyway, once the coronavirus restrictions began to be eased somewhat, and the social-distancing rules allowed it, we - The Girls - started getting together again for socially-distanced garden lunches once a week, taking it in turns to put on something nice that would feed five. Last week, on the 2nd July, it was my turn, and it was agreed that this would be my Official Birthday Lunch, even though the real birthday was actually 6th July. I didn't mind at all that I'd be cooking something on my own birthday. I was after all being let off doing a starter, or a dessert, or supplying things to nibble. Just a main course. But I would make it a good one.

I don't entertain often. My home doesn't lend itself to a big gathering. As little as eight people will make it seem crowded. As it was, it would barely be within the social-distancing requirements for just five people, and that was with a one-metre separation, not two. It was just about doable. Ideally we'd eat out on my back patio, Jackie providing the table and chairs, but it became obvious that rain and wind might defeat that notion (and it did: we stayed indoors). So I extended the round table in the conservatory to seat five with reasonable separation, and hoped that by having the door to the garden open, plus all the windows, we'd get away with it.

Jackie is vegetarian. We were all used to that, and it meant only that there was no meat or fish on the menu. There was abundant scope for concocting an interesting main course. Me being me, I wasn't going fob my friends off with just 'baked bean on toast'. 'One of your stir-fries, please!' the cry had been. I would comply. But I fancied going further than that. Certainly I'd serve up a colourful medley of stir-fried vegetables; but to supplement that, some baked stuff including halloumi cheese; and some garlic-and-olive flatbread, in case it still wasn't enough. There were five of us, after all.

The big day was on a Thursday. I'd set aside Tuesday and Wednesday for getting my house in order, and in particular making the garden neat. But Tuesday was a wet and windy day - impossible to do anything outside - and I had to cram my entire preparation effort into the day before, the Wednesday. I ticked off a lot that day. I seemed never to sit down. Even so, I was surprised to see, at bedtime, that I'd clocked up over 22,000 steps just buzzing to and fro about my house and garden!

I slept soundly, as you might well imagine!

Next day, Thursday, I was up promptly and set to efficiently. The other four girls were due at 12.30pm, and I'd worked out my cooking-timings and the other things I'd need to do on the day. I knew that whoever had brought nibbles would break them out, and we'd be washing down some rosé wine before I'd start getting the food in the oven and on the hob. I just needed to have the table laid, and everything ready to cook. I remembered to put the oven on, to pre-heat it.

The stir-fry was just a matter of cutting up red and orange peppers, courgettes, broccoli, asparagus, with raisins to add towards the end, to introduce a note of sweetness. I had a big wok to cook all of that.

There were also new potatoes and young carrots to parboil with a little fresh mint, and then bake in an oven pan, along with lots of little vine tomatoes.

It was fun to arrange the above in an oven pan, to be baked.

The Cypriot halloumi came in 250g bricks, which I cut into more manageable 125g brickettes, slitting each with a knife, and drizzling over with olive oil and a scattering of fresh mint. I didn't necessarily expect my guests to consume a whole brick each (which would be a whopping 40 syns, in Slimming World terms, when you are allowed only 15 syns daily!) but the stuff was going to be there if they had the appetite!

The final item for the oven was the flatbread.

Set out on the table were the cold items: baby leaves, large sliced tomatoes, sun-dried tomatoes, and dressings.

I'd narrowed my choice of clothing down to a sleeved red top, to be worn with black leggings, or a sleeveless blue summer dress. I decided on the dress. Both had V-necks, which would best show off the new pearl pendant I'd be getting as my birthday present from The Girls.

I was ready with five minutes to spare. Everyone was punctual. Valerie had brought me some flowers and a fruit pie she'd made as a dessert. Here she is, putting the flowers in a jar for me.

The others poured out wine and started on the nibbles. Here are Jo and Sue, coming in from my back garden:

And, while the table still looked tidy, I took two shots of us all, with myself in the second:

I set a ten-second delay on the Leica, and nearly didn't make it. But Jackie got a proper shot of me, closer up - wearing the pearl pendant after presentation and a rousing chorus of 'Happy Birthday To You' - although she has made me look uncharacteristically over the top in the grin department! It does show off the pendant nicely, though:

Soon it was time to serve up my main course (which fortunately I'd remembered to pop in the oven). First, Jackie popped a cork out in the back garden. I was hoping to catch the cork jetting off into the air, but it was too quick for me.

It seemed to be well-received. I felt certain that I'd attempted too much here, but better of course to serve up too much than too little. As it happened, there was enough left over to make a good meal that evening for Jo's husband Clive: Jo told me he thought it all yummy. So I must have done OK.

More wine, more chat. Then Valerie's fruit pie with cream. So indulgent.

I have to confess that, all told, my syn total for that day was an outrageous 85.5.

It wasn't a party, but it felt like one. It wasn't even my proper birthday, but it definitely felt like it was! The binge lasted until 5.30pm: that's five hours for a lunch, when, after all, the main course was simple straightforward fare that took no cooking talent whatever to prepare. But then, that's the best I can do. Not having to fix meals for anybody but myself for most of the year,. I never develop any skills. I don't think I could cope with cooking every day for a family! It's hard to confess to being a failure as a potential housewife, but you have to face the facts. Gosh, when I think of what my Mum would have done in the way of expert cake-making, to embellish all this...