Winter descends with a hurling wind and sideways rain. The sun still just about warms my bones- when I can find it – and the wind whips hair across my face. I am gloomy. Too much grief, too much uncertainty and change. Way too many losses. In a way it does not help that two days ago it was t shirt weather, people sitting outside cafes, dogs relaxing at their feet. Warm in an unreal, heady, not sure what is happening way. Of course, we said, we know it cannot last. Any delay to the onset of winter though is most welcome. So today feels shocking.
The horses are already paddling in mud. The stable yard flooding. I am tired just thinking about what is to come. After a social media prompt, I gladly turn to reread Horatio Clare’s The Light in the Dark- a winter journal. Published in 2018, I now read it most winters. Horatio’s atmospheric prose adds a beauty to the often-painful events he relates and takes us along on his journey to find a solution to the winter blues. Both challenging and enlightening, and most importantly hopeful, it is a beacon in the dark.
And at least you know you are not alone.
In his prologue he highlights the challenge
“It is not fair to blame the winter, but it does set the stage so well, with its clamped down rains, its settled and introverted darkness, its mean ration of light, its repetitions.” 
I find myself almost shouting “yes.” This me, who is often stir crazy by 5.30 pm, restless against the confinement of the darkness and cold. Tired of TV, of damp and wet, of muddy dogs and dirty houses, of changing boots. Constantly changing boots, and coats. Tired also of being tired and not having the energy to change any of that.
He highlights how he will, this time, arm himself against the onslaught of depression.
“Depression kills your power of vision, turning you fatally towards yourself, but I will practice looking, and looking outwards like an exercise, as though I am training for an expedition.”
This year I determine to write my own journal. Not just write, but also practice looking for the joy, practice turning towards the light in the dark. Practice noticing. It will not be as eloquent or literary as Horatio’s, for sure. In writing I hope to also encourage the noticing. Looking. Not sinking. It will also enable me to have a reason to practice my writing, honing my words, finding ways that they may become relevant to others. With my own more mundane voice, the everyday nature of my reality and experiences, my own thoughts.
Horatio’s winter journal will be my reminder, my guide, my assistance to not sink, my prompt to look outwards, to savour, and to seek out experiences that refresh the soul.
I have just finished another book. Phew. Sigh of relief.
I wish I felt that rush of pride that so many others talk about- a bird finding its wings and flying out into the world- or some such poetic description.
Nope, mostly its relief.
Thank goodness I managed to finish it. My ADHD brain always encourages me to give up half way through. My self doubt and imposter syndrome sparks up and leads me to question why I wrote it in the first place.
It will probably be rubbish -by the end of the process I have lost all ability to judge!
No -one will buy it, especially if i don’t promote it properly (I probabaly won’t) .
I do not really even want to look at it, as I will want to change it. (too late)
It was intended to be helpful (how will i know if it really is?)
Have I done justice to the subject, my dogs’ voices, the young people and their families I intended it for?
It makes no difference if I am being published ( disagreements with editor (who knows best) about titles and cover images (that I do not like) ) or if I self publish- making a decision, sticking to it.
The really, really sad and unfathomable thing is I am already half way through writing the next one, in my head.
We wake to an early cup of tea in bed and a biscuit. Well, I have the tea and biscuit, Teya makes do with a biscuit. The sun does its winter best to turn the frost into a sparkling playground as we head out for a walk across some lovely grounds. The university gritting lorries are already out so we avoid those paths for Teya’s paws sake. We head for ponds and an interesting architectural spaceship style building, all stylish glass and metal. I am weirdly happy to find it is the Caudwell International Children’s Centre. Caudwell Children is a disabled children’s charity aiming
“To change the futures of all disabled children providing access to the services, equipment, therapies and treatments they need. To increase awareness and understanding of the needs of disabled children across the UK. The CICC is the UK’s first purpose-built centre for multi-disciplinary therapy programs for childhood disability and research of neurodevelopmental conditions”.
Transpires it is a butterfly rather than a spaceship. It looks beautifully other worldly, reflecting the rising sun.
Caudwell Children is the brainchild of John Caudwell (once a car salesman who went on to set up high street retailer Phones 4U) who is one of Britain’s most influential entrepreneurs and philanthropists. His inspired rise to huge monetary success (right place, right time, right vision, self-belief, brains,passion) and having a disabled son led to the charity formation. He “remains the charity’s largest single benefactor and most passionate supporter. He enables the charity to offer complete transparency to its supporters, with 100% of direct donations going directly to the children and families who need it. John is also a prolific fundraiser, regularly completing physical challenges and staging events to inspire and encourage the support of others”
His fund raising in Monaco and across the world has led to many other celebrities supporting the cause, including the Life-Changers Circle- each member has pledged to donate £1 Million over 10 years to support the charity. He is certainly a powerful character, luxury yachts, apartments in Monaco and Mayfair, marathon cycling challenges, and never appearing to forget his terraced street Stoke- On-Trent roots.
However that is not the only reason that John Caudwell interests me. Back in DC (During Covid) and lockdown, the British government introduced a raft of financial support for the majority of workers and businesses. This worked extremely well for some people who received 80% of their salary for staying home. Many started new businesses or got second jobs during this time. Still others enjoyed the unusually gorgeous spring weather and the chance to unwind. However, in excess of 3 million self-employed people were denied this support, for a variety of illogical and unjust reasons. Denied, in fact, any kind of support.
I was, of course one of them.
I won’t drone on about the reason (it still fills me with a deep sense of being devalued and ignored after working my whole life and paying taxes for 50 + years). Simply put, the year used for qualifying accounts, I stayed home to care for my mum who was dying- so did not earn enough to qualify. If you sense a residue of bitterness, you may be correct.
Back to John Caudwell (a major Conservative Party donor and supporter), he really fought our corner, as we became #ExcludedUK- a lobbying, action and support group. He petitioned parliament, personally and in the media, appearing repeatedly on television and radio to highlight the injustice and illogical nature of the rules. He could not understand why any government, particularly a Conservative one, would penalise entrepreneurs, self-directed business folk, able to innovate and create. It made no sense to him. Or us. He was a giant supporter but to no avail. The ExcludedUK group had so many people lose their homes, their business, and in some cases their lives. There were 20 suicides amongst the group – that we knew about. John worked hard to help us, to no avail. The man in charge of all of that is now our Prime Minister.
These memories and thoughts flit through my mind as Teya and I walk past the impressive building and head back to the hotel for breakfast. Sausages for Teya go down well. In the lobby where we had to eat our breakfast due to the dining room not being dog friendly at all, I meet a couple with a lovely Airedale Terrier. They turn out to be the brother and sister in law of Tracy, who volunteers for the charity that brings dogs to the UK from (including Teya), and many, many other dogs over from Cyprus. Tracy is a whirlwind of a fundraiser, and has ceaseless energy and commitment to raising money for these beautiful dogs. Such a random chance meeting that makes me unreasonably cheerful.
I reflect on all the good conversations I have had due to dogs, the people I have met, skills learnt, hearts both healed and broken. How much fun. A sense of connection, due to these amazing creatures. Teya just asks politely for more sausage. It is after all, exactly what she deserves.
We are late now, so rush off to shower and change for Day 2.
Pre- Registered attendance at the workshop was low, so the university staff ask a student who is helping with the project, to see if he could get a few more people along. We had, just in case, made plans for a small group which would allow for a different kind of discussion- when in walked the entire, confused, baseball team. They did not really know what they were there for but did their best to join in with enthusiasm. There was great discussion, with some sound ideas for taking forward a chance to interact with animals on campus, without it turning into an animal welfare problem, or upsetting those who did not in fact want pets on campus (strange as it seems to me, there were plenty of those!). Linking with a local rescue to go there and walk dogs (win-win); bringing dogs along from somewhere like Pets As Therapy for dog walks around the lakes and lovely grounds; having a designated space for people who wanted to meet dogs. All things for the university staff to consider and evaluate. The cameras whirred, neither Teya or I were phased this time, she made new friends. I hoped I had been useful.
It’s a wrap, off to lunch, journey home. Not as pleasurable as the journey there, the weather had turned, accidents forced me to use a different route, but all was safe.
We arrive home tired and happy. Feeling that the 2 days had been a wonderful experience- well I did.
A two day 300 mile round trip to participate in a Pets on Campus research project as a non- academic partner with an excellent university sounded a great idea in sunny June. I was honoured to be asked and jumped at the chance. By December with a cold front coming in, getting dark by 4, and two of our dogs having unexpectedly died, the whole thing didn’t sound quite so adventurous. My worry head kicked in. Would the car be ok? It is pretty old, tired (or is that just me?) What if it gets icy? What if Teya didn’t enjoy it? What if my presentations were rubbish? What if she wee’d in the classroom (not that she ever had before). What if no one came? Imposter syndrome taking hold!
Frustration overtook exasperation at my constant worry! This was an adventure! A chance to meet new people, do something different. Goodness knows I often rumbled on about what I did day in and day out. This was new. Exciting. Paid well. With students who were interested, committed. Teya was always entrancing. The car spent a few hours getting checked out. All was well.
I vowed to treat the journey as part of the adventure, easier as the sun was brilliantly shining, it was a glorious day. I had found myself a lovely dog friendly café with walks along the route, like being on holiday. This halfway stop was at Sudbury, where the Childrens’ Country house and museum, stands, a National Trust country hall
“an experience where children are encouraged to be curious and have fun with history. All while protecting the late 17th-century collections.”
It looked to be fun, with interactive teaching, arrangements for those with disabilities, and a way of looking at history, with some modern progressive beneficial influences. Closed, so I could not actually check it out. The National Trust seemed to cast a certain ambience across the village. People were smiling and working outside, 3 people spoke to me in the first 100 yards. Or maybe that was just the sun.
The National Trust was founded in 1895 for “the holding of lands of natural beauty and sites and houses of historic interest to be preserved intact for the nation’s use and enjoyment’.” They own somewhere in the region of 620,000 acres of land, 780 miles of coast, more than 200 historic houses, 41 castles and chapels, 47 industrial monuments and mills, the sites of factories and mines, 9 lighthouses, 56 villages, 39 public houses, and 25 medieval barns. In 2021 they hit the news while being subjected to a sort of coup /takeover bid, by a group who objected to their seeming change of direction, and a report detailing the links between historic slavery and colonialism in 90 of their properties, as well as their equality and diversity work. The nature of their grand houses meant that they had been historically owned by people who may have benefitted from either colonialism or slavery. These people were historically some of the trust’s biggest benefactors. There was something of a “culture war” as it was penned, the NT described as becoming “woke” and ignoring their key values. This was treading close on the heels of covid lockdown which had seen them loose so many members, revenue and activity. Many staff were sacked, volunteers were left rootless, complaints abounded.The takeover failed, but the controversy continues. On a brighter note after lobbying and voting by members they banned hunting with hounds on their land. Difficult to police and monitor though, but perhaps a reflection of the changes in membership values and attitudes. Hunting is another British institution gradually loosing favour and entitlement here.
Apart from all that, the Hall was beautiful, there were some lovely dog walks, the sun was still shining, and The Sweet Little Café turned out to be just that. I stayed a while due to the fact they forgot my order ( it was worth waiting for and I did not let it dent my mood!). A range of lovely shops (Christmas presents also sorted) and we continued our journey in good spirits.
Arriving at the Marriott hotel on the university campus was also a delight- having Teya alongside created a lovely warm welcome from staff and guests alike. I bathed in her reflective glory! Luxury accommodation thoroughly checked out by Teya and found acceptable, we headed out for a walk through the beautiful grounds and onto our first workshop of the day.
I was to talk, while Teya hopefully demonstrated how the K9 project works. What we do, why we do it, what difference the dogs make, if any. Lead a conversation about animals in general and how they help our wellbeing. Maybe a conversation about leaving animals at home when you come to uni – let’s see where it all goes. Meanwhile university lecturer’s videoed, observed, took notes. The entire research study was exploring “pets on campus”. Yes or no, what would be the difficulties, what might work, what would be gained/lost? There was an online survey, individual interviews and focus groups, and my workshops. We were just a small part of the overall project, and the only part that involved a dog!
I met Dr Dan, who I already knew, and Mark who was my “minder” for the stay and ensured we did not get lost on campus. The workshop was fine, the students had plenty to say about pets on campus, and loved Teya- who wouldn’t? We went out for an evening meal which proved a little tricky. Finding both dog friendly/ not full of almost end of term lively students letting off steam, and watching the world cup football, was a challenge. I also met the Head of Department. Lively and different discussion, new ideas, sharing of experiences.
Teya and I went back to the hotel, another walk, and then collapsed, exhausted, onto and into the huge bed. Fell asleep pondering that this was a light in the dark experience. A bright spark, something different, meaningful, and working as part of a team, all with the same objective. A beautiful day with a beautiful dog.
We both slept well, to repeat the process, in reverse order, tomorrow!
“Happy Heavenly Birthday Steve” was the post on Steve’s’ Facebook timeline.
I felt shock. Not surprised, exactly. But still shocked. I had headed off to that virtual space as I had done for the past 2 years, to wish him a happy one, never knowing if he saw it. We had not heard from him since the day he phoned my husband Kevin, to incoherently tell of the death of his beloved dog Chilli. Chilli was all he had left in the world by then, and his death left us with concerns for Steve’s wellbeing.
The first time we saw Steve was at the animal shelter where we were all volunteer dog walkers. Independently of each other, Kevin and I had both noticed him and the skill set he had with the dogs. The kennels were old and poorly designed. Getting dogs in and out was a stressful, visceral experience as the dogs lunged at each other across the narrow walkway between the kennels. By the time you got their wriggling bodies harnessed up, outside their kennel, along that narrow corridor of stress, and outside to the grass, you felt exhausted. That was before the actual walking part happened!
Then this man was standing, in the centre of the green outside the kennels. Totally calm, still. Totally in and of himself. A slight man with a commanding but kind presence. A large cross breed dog threw himself about in a frantic frenzy of frustrated energy at the end of the lead. Steve waited. And waited. Impervious to the loud barking, the rest of us being hauled about, the general mayhem. The dog looked a bit puzzled, eventually calmed, and off they went for a walk.
We were impressed and made sure we spoke to him the week after. We all hit it off, felt a camaraderie amongst the heartbreak of the kennels. Steve and Kevin began to walk Taz together. Taz was extremely large, and semi-wild. A rottweiler cross mastiff. It took both of them to safely get him out without being pulled over. Even then he was a handful. Sometime in the future, and after many pleading phone calls from the shelter, Taz came to live with us. Although that is another story altogether. Steve came and worked with us on our K9 Project, supporting young people alongside rescue dogs. He demonstrated the same calm approach with people as with dogs. He had enough of a rebel in him to get on with most teenagers, and a dry sense of humour. He was with us when we met Izzy at a different rescue, instrumental in her coming to live with us. He formed an amazing relationship with a young man called Jack, on the autistic spectrum. Our weekly walks were the highlight of Jacks week.
Along the line things got difficult for him. His wife tragically died of a heart attack next to him in bed one night. She was really his rock, his guiding light, his star. Their home was linked to her family, Steve had to leave. He experienced PTSD, flashbacks, confusion, alongside his immense grief. He was admitted to hospital. It got pretty hazy understanding what had happened for, and to, him after that.
Hospital stays left him confused, he was discharged with a heady mix of prescribed anti-psychotic drugs and he was also self-medicating. He became homeless for a time. Eventually rehoused, he was then alone, and attempting to reshape his life. We met him again by chance out walking with our dogs. Our joy at seeing him was tempered by sadness as he was incoherent, frail, fragile. This previously articulate and humorous man, who ran his own business and lived a full life, had become a fragment of his former self. He was still unstable, muddled. Determined however to reshape, to try again. We live an hour away and did what we could to assist with his reshaping.He was very isolated, his pride made it hard to ask for, or accept help. At that time he still had Chilli, we helped with money, mostly for transport and vet bills for his beloved Chilli, who was all he had left. We went out for dinner, to try and establish some normality for him – a total pleasure with glimpses of the old Steve with his humour and wit. He came back to work with Jack when he was well enough. He came to our K9 Community Café, where he and Chilli were popular attendees.
Then he disappeared again. He previously talked of moving to Wales where he had family. We hoped he would make it there -it seemed the best chance of healing for him. He was in my mind often, as my feelings of helplessness and unease quietly rumbled along in the background.
After the phone call to tell us Chilli had died, we never heard from him again. Texts and phone calls were not answered. It seems not so long after that he died, we have not been told how. I can only imagine what happened.
Visually I have strong memories of him- standing in an oasis of his own quiet strength and calm, surrounded by the dogs he helped so much. Or maybe wandering along arm in arm in the sunshine, with Jack, each making the other one happy, dogs trotting merrily close by. And laughing, laughing.
The subject of mental health is a complex one. I do not pretend to be an expert. Each person is unique, each response needs to be equally so. I know that some of the support Steve received from front line workers was positive and highly valued by him. I cannot comment on his hospitalisation and drug treatments as he was always unclear about what exactly had been happening. Nevertheless I do know that mental health support is geographically variable, and relies on a pharmaceutical approach to treatment, with not always positive results. (see Horatio Clare- Heavy Light -amongst many others) Currently we are told we are going through a “mental health crisis”, especially amongst the young. Anxiety is on the increase. Suicide rates are increasing, especially amongst young men. Mental Health Services remain stretched to impossibly thin, unsafe levels. Covid created a vacuum into which many people fell, and I know many who are struggling to get back to the levels they were before covid before. I do not have any answers. Just concerns.
Finding it almost impossible, today, to look outwards, to find the joy. Impossible to not feel the weight of the 4 days of rain. Rain so dense it looked like fog. Or mizzling rain that should not make you wet but does, just a little more slowly. Real fog too- the kind England is often (mistakenly) thought to be cloaked in, all winter. I feel disillusioned, disappointed at my own lack of fortitude and resilience. How pathetic am I? Get a grip! It is just weather. I irritate myself with my inadequacies.
Seasonally sensitive, that doesn’t really cover it. Maybe SAD does. Seasonal Affective Disorder, seasonal depression, is now recognised as a mental health condition potentially affecting 2 million people in the UK and 12 million across Northern Europe. According to the NHS website symptoms of SAD can include a persistent low mood, loss of pleasure or interest in normal everyday activities, irritability, feelings of despair, guilt and worthlessness, lethargy.
Shorter days, less sunlight, increased production of melatonin, being female, getting older. Lots of predisposing factors- none of which we can do much about. Unless we follow the sun across the hemispheres with the seasons. An attractive thought, sadly way beyond my reach.
Treatments can include light therapy. I do have a light. (note to self, find it and switch it on occasionally). Talking therapies such as CBT.
Horatio Clare in his book, The Light in the Dark, talks about going to see a psychiatric nurse after a referral from his GP. His relief at not having bipolar or clinical depression- of being cyclothymic instead, is palpable. He goes straight from the assessment to the health food store and buys a variety of supplements. At the till he breaks the pill bottles open.
“I neck fish oil and vitamin D and St Johns Wort. Come on life- lets have you back”
I love that sentiment.
Now I take vitamins D and B complex in winter, maybe they help,and it feels logical. Fish oil too. Get outside when the weather breaks. Get outside anyway- the horses ensure that happens. There is no doubt that owning horses, and any livestock, is harder in winter. Mud, cold, dark, wet. The horses can get a different sphere of ailments in winter, although lets be clear, horses can get a dizzying array of ailments whatever the weather. Each season brings its own unique challenges. Wheelbarrows, however, are easier to push on dry ground, and longer days spread the chores out.
Naming it, accepting it, not fighting it, working with it. That has to be the way forward, for me. Small lifestyle changes to accommodate being “seasonally sensitive”. Lower expectations, less stress.
And keep looking, looking for that light.
Bathing in winter sun. Wonder at the ultra bright blue winter skies. Enjoy raindrops flashing. Icicles sparkling.
Keep looking, for the light. If it is not here now, it will come.
I am awake. Early. Unreasonable, unrequired, undesired. Darkness still presses against the windows. Silence.
I stretch a leg out to the end of the bed, feeling for Izzy dog. She is not there. She never will be there again.
Those 14 years of daily rhythm and flow, easy companionship. No more. Every day starts like this now.
Today is a Saturday and I am off to a county youth work conference. My travel crate is full of inspirational postcards, books, ADHD toys. I hope to sell some, or even give them away. Everything is full of Izzy. She even wrote the books. So many memories. So much shared love and fun, so much to be thankful for.
She demonstrated to young people that they could still live their best lives, without having to be the same as everyone else. Without always fitting in. Just find a passion and a purpose -“I realise I can be crazy and lovable all at the same time” said David aged ten.
She demonstrated to me that it was fun to go wild swimming, encouraged me to try paddleboarding (although sitting still was a bit boring for her wherever it was). That we could enjoy finding people in trucks, in water, hiding in fields in the dark. That it was fine to be independent, whilst close. To be both busy and restful. Slightly off field yet still whole.
Loosing a pet is now (hopefully) widely recognised as a painful experience. How can it not be? They live alongside us, very much a part of all aspects of our family life. For many they are the only family. Especially dogs, with their non judgemental approach, their relative dependence on us, their joy in everyday activities. Worldwide we now have many organisations providing pet bereavement support. They offer free, confidential advice and support through our grief. There are also books, videos, webinars, a myriad of mediums to help us through this inevitable process. That’s the thing -we sign up for the pain the moment we take on a pet. Inevitably they do not live long enough. Inevitably we are broken by their loss.
We seem freshly surprised each time at the depths of our despair. Inevitably, I am a serial victim of my own actions, of this life compulsively shared with dogs. I cannot stop signing up. Even though the loss is so brutal.
This time feels harder than before. She really was my best friend. This quirky girl found on the streets, narrowly missing death in the shelter, arrived in my life like a whirlwind. She is braided into the fabric of my life, entwined in thought and deed. Here or not.
I miss her.
There is an irreplaceable part of me missing.
I miss that part of me, alongside the deep missing of her.
The wet clings to my hair, my eyelashes, my lips. For three days now the sky has been so grey and low I feel I can touch it.
If I could touch it, I would push it upwards, back where it belongs! Rain and yet more rain pours from the blocked stable yard gutters in sheets. Strong winds send the leaves ever spiralling downward. Melancholia invades every sense, collaborating with the sky to press me downwards.
What happened to the girl who liked the rain? Who would deliberately get wet and rejoice in the seasons? Who never let a little weather beat her need to get stuff done? She seems a long way back, right now. I give myself a shake, put up the hood on my partially waterproof coat, and head out of the barn into torrential rain.
It is after all, the best time to sweep the fallen leaves away. Use the rain to sweep the leaves. Use the melancholy to lift itself. Lift my face to the rain in defiance and push on with lightness.
Somehow, it works.
The tidy yard gives me a feeling of satisfaction. I am wet and cold but that is no big deal, really. I quietly cheer myself for turning the gloom into action. I am happy for a small win, although really I feel like I have won some huge battle.
And that I totally deserve the tea and cake that I intend to eat.
The first of two writing workshop days start in a sleepy Cambridge, with a creamy oat milk coffee and a crumbly cinnamon bun outside Fitzbillies. Following the beautiful brass and bronze flower studs along the pavement (there are 600 of them in the Cambridge Core and Flower trail, designed by Michael Fairfax and inspired by a dig as recently as 2000 which revealed The Magdalene Hoard of medieval coins). Pale winter sun glints through the tall and architecturally diverse buildings. I feel like I am on holiday. I am not, but I savour the feeling. Already feeling inspired.
These workshops help me work out what I do not want to write, as much as what I do. Both tutors are fascinating and knowledgeable, inspiring and informative. Menna, I have known and workshopped with for years. Emily, new to me in person and in her work. One writes fantasy, one crime. Both masterly in their craft having spent years honing and developing their skills.
The second workshop, by which time it is definately winter, is a NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) workshop that I recklessly signed up for- writing 50,000 words for a novel in a month. I’m into the second morning session when I get with total clarity that I do not have a novel in me. Also there is still so much here that I can learn to improve my non-fiction writing.
It is a joy to be in an actual room with actual people, writing, talking about writing, learning about writing, listening to others writings, expanding, creating, developing. Interesting people beyond my usual daily reach, writing in a variety of genres, some for radio and television, some just started, some well on the way. Some published, some not. Lunch is a sociable affair, probably the first for me since BC (Before Covid) in a quirky setting with full length glass windows so you can watch the church service happening next door. The only shop we go in is a tiny chocolate shop that is so very special it only opens twice a week.Later I am disappointed that I did not succumb, or invest, depending on how you view it.
Cambridge is a stunning venue that should unleash the masterly creative side of each of us. Authors who graduated from here include such names as Tennyson, Wordsworth, Byron Plath, Hughes, AA Milne, and more recently Stephen Fry, Margaret Drabble, Sebastian Faulks, Salmon Rushdie and some favourites of mine Susannah Charleston, Nick Hornby, Joanne Harris. There are many, many more as well as world changing people from all disciplines and educational fields. My working class origins are a world away.
The buildings are stunning, the atmosphere one of historical brilliance and deep learning. We sit in a dark wood panelled room with open fireplaces topped by ancient works of art. Even the biscuits are more than ordinary, the water jugs elegant.
One writing activity is “object as character”. People write about those paintings, fireplaces, wood panels, full of history, exotic subjects, far lands. I write about the radiator. You know the one that is painted brown to become unnoticeable, that people put their backsides on, that people chat across while warming their hands. I feel encouraged that Menna, who studied at Oxford, also felt herself overawed by the Oxford surroundings, experiencing a need to produce something literary, complex, and utterly grand. (her first book was, in the end, called Men, Money and Chocolate, so it seems she went with her heart, anyhow.)
We set writing targets, which I quickly break, and a whatsaapp group ,which people quickly stop contributing to. This feels reassuringly familiar.
This blog is my promise to myself, to introduce some self discipline to writing. To publish once a week.
When we leave the workshops Cambridge is a different city, all frenetic bustle, with walking and cycling crowds, all going in opposite directions, on ridiculously narrow pavements, with steep drop offs enough to easily break an ankle. The brass flowers are a little less shiny, the road leads uphill on the way home. Tiredness kicks in. It rains.
I remind myself that these glimpses of gold, sparks of light, encouragement, new people, fleeting contacts, previously unseen surroundings, different experiences and situations, can be some of my light in the dark of winter.
I remind myself to look outwards, to connect with others rather than always to draw inwards.
Explore opportunities, view things differently, keep searching for the light.
It is a late September day on the Cambridgeshire fens. Autumn suddenly disappearing behind gloomy melancholy clouds. I do stable yard and field chores, sweeping, raking, clearing. My own little plot of fenland heaven, studded with trees and growing hedgerow. I am connected to these few acres in a deep, palpable, tangible way. I know each footstep, horse path, damp patch, birds’ nest, rabbit warren. Today I can feel winter nudging, not yet here, but closer. The spring and summer filled with birdsong and sunshine, is unquestionably over. The barn swallows have flourished in my stables, graduating from their initial four early nests, to eleven. The nests are balanced on every crosspiece of wood, in every stable. Their glorious chatter and calling, swooping and soaring flight, have filled my summer and my heart. Mostly they are calling to each other and dive bombing me to tell me to go away. I am certain they have not understood my many efforts to help them thrive. Flooding some of the field (so they have enough mud to stop nests drying completely out); cultivating a huge horse muck heap (many flying insects for them to feast on); hosing the stable roof down when it gets blisteringly hot (to stop the chicks overheating). There is also Jackdaw and Crow Patrol for when the chicks cannot quite leave the ground. As I sweep and listen to their noisy, cheerful chatter I remember many days sat listening to the horses munching, the air full of the swallows entrancing flight, red throats flashing, electric cobalt blue feathers glistening. Those impossibly tight turns, the hovering in the stables going from flat out to a standstill, the gentle loops, calling sweetly. The day my elderly pony died was when the last nest chose to fledge, and they fluttered and rested all around us, cheeping him onto his next journey.
Lost in reverie of summer losses and joys, I realise it is strangely quiet. I look up from my chores to see every fence line and rail is filled with sitting swallows. They perch on branches, posts, rails. Strangely silent, they flutter and hop, sometimes changing places. I realise they are getting ready to leave. These are not just my swallows, but hundreds more. I am filled with excitement underpinned by quiet dread. I go to join them in the fields, sitting with my back against the only fence they are not resting on. Surrounded by subdued chatters, hops, flutters, as they call quietly to each other. Changing places sometimes. I wonder if they could be renewing acquaintances from their long journeys, meeting friends last made in Africa. I wonder how this year’s babies feel about being among so many new birds. I know many will not survive the journey, even fewer will return here next year. I am already feeling both a sense of loss and of privilege. Determined not to miss their departure.
I sit mesmerised, clouds growing darker and more menacing. I may be here a while. I know they are leaving, and I know I will not miss it. The cold increases my melancholy and I start to cry, quietly. I am so lonely in their leaving, so changed by their being. My summers are marked by their arrivals, their courtships, nest making, initiations, first flights. Their swoops and chatter. Sometimes their sad little deaths too.
I watch as they rise and fall back, little waves of them as if to say “Now! Now!”. Perhaps the wiser say “not yet not yet”. Invisible and unfelt currents of air (to me anyhow, as a mere human) inform their decision making. In one large, smooth, flowing group, they leave. It seems sudden although we have all been preparing for hours. I watch and cry as they rise steadily into the sky, looking so small against the dark clouds, so fragile for such a long journey. I call “bye bye” swallows, safe travels. I hope I will be here next year when some of you make it back. I’ll miss you.
Every loss I have ever felt is caught up in their leaving, somehow.
As quickly as it happened, it is over. The air becomes still. There is a hollow hushed expectancy in the stillness. I realise how cold I am as the tears dry on my cheeks. The silence is shattering. Everything so empty, so still. I ponder the privilege of seeing their leaving, the future magnificence of their journey. I hear the emptiness. What now?
Walking wearily back to the house, a song thrush surprisingly serenades from a nearby tree. Pure and joyful. It sounds an affirmation – I am still here, and so are you. A restorative reminder. A connection.