An icy blast

Mid May has brought a reversal of the march to better weather: the weather forecasters are saying the season’s gone back to winter.  But the saints whose feast days were celebrated at  this time were known as the ‘ice saints’ so perhaps it’s not that unusual. They were St Mamertius, St Pancras and St Servatus, for the geeks among us!

Because of it, I’m prompted to write about skiing; but I’m also prompted because a 4 year old greatniece, eager for “hospital stories” on Facetime (and her mother eager to do some housework!) has made me revisit my experiences on the slopes and in an Austrian hospital. People say I’m accident-prone, but my accidents are rarely major; of the ten broken bones I’ve suffered (so far), only one was really serious and that was a skiing accident, breaking a bone in my knee.  Well, you might say, it’s a dangerous sport.  Actually, not so much now.  You are probably more likely to be hit by lightning than to incur a crash skiing.  My accident happened some years back but it was on January 1, the slopes were packed, and I was one of only 8 patients in a 16-bed hospital.

What a fab sport it can be! Ski when the sun’s out and slopes are sparkling – you’ll go again and again; but trying it in bad weather, cold and overcast, is no fun.  One friend came with me for 2 weeks, but left after the first week, as her beginners class was in the afternoon when the sun had gone behind the mountain.  She saw no point in standing around in the cold, going up a hill, in order to come back down again.  Who could blame her?

My first experience should certainly have been enough to put me off for life.  Scotland, Easter 1966; travelling 20 miles each way in a bus, then lugging long skis uphill, very little snow, rocks showing through, ski schools had to search for enough patches to ski more than a few feet;; unable to grasp the concept of balance on a button or T-bar lift.  Sounds fun? Added to all of this, a hotel which was actually a noisy pub, family rows, no other children staying there – and I was told I was heading to a different school the following term.  Not good.

But I persevered; the end of my first term at university saw me boarding a train with fellow undergrads for Zurs in Austria.  I started in the beginners class.  After a week, I was put down a class; the only way I could stop on skis was by falling over. But I did make one friend for life there with whom, a few years later, I had another go.  And it was magic!

Three of us drove through France to Italy in a day, loaded with supplies, for a self-catered couple of weeks in a friends’ chalet.  We had hoped to have more friends coming, but it was lucky we were only 3, as the chalet boiler was on its last legs and one bath took about 30 minutes to draw! Arriving late at the French side, we put the car (a MiniTraveller) on the train to wait for the first shuttle through the mountains in the morning – and tried to sleep.  Morning came, no movement for some hours and no explanation.  When the train finally moved off, and we reached the Italian side, we learnt why: it had snowed phenomenally, several feet, overnight.  Cars with chains could drive off the trailer, we had to be carried off! Longing for a hot bath after our 24 hours of travelling, we were stuck in the village – at least a hotel was open which served us breakfast.  They were unearthing (or un-snowing) cars, buried several feet deep, and getting supplies to people hanging out of upstairs windows, unable to open doors because of the snow piled up against their houses. Eventually, word got round that a snow plough would be leading a convoy out of the village and on to scattered villages along the main road, so we joined it.

Peter and Peter Italy

The next day, the ski instructors were out bashing down the slopes “by foot” (no machinery could cope) and skiing began again on Day 2.  And such skiing! It was SO soft, deep and glorious, if you fell, you just couldn’t get hurt; the sun shone and the slopes were empty because the snow made it difficult to get there.

Skiing in italy

Hooked by that experience I went 4 more times, before ending up in hospital with the broken knee (I hesitated, was going too slowly and when I fell, the ski didn’t snap off).. Coming down the mountain by blood wagon was an interesting experience; at least my goggles hid my tears, more of frustration than pain, as I saw fellow skiers looking with great concern at me as I had done with others before.

I didn’t “get back on the horse” soon enough, my job had a peak in the winter, so holidays were impossible during that time and although I tried skiing one more time, wearing a knee brace, I was so scared that I froze solid; as proper sports people know, to do sport well, you have to be relaxed – no way for me.

What was great about skiing? The main things for me were the astonishing feeling of controlled gliding across pristine white – and the diamond quality, the cold brisk freshness of the air in the winter mountains.

The last few years with climate change has meant that snow fall for skiing both in Europe and Scotland has diminished; it has even had to be manufactured and sprayed on mountains to maintain the economy of skiing regions. Could it be that coronavirus brings awareness of how we are distorting nature, how we “use” it (or even “abuse” it?), and skiing ceases to be a sport for everyone and reverts to being an essential skill for those living there?  And we find other means of enjoying and appreciating the natural beauty of mountains.


May is the month of….

Maying, Mary, commemoration, celebration – really anything you want it to be; without a doubt it is a month when most people’s spirits rise, spring is definitely here, days are getting longer, birds are thoroughly enjoying themselves and a young man’s fancy….

Two special celebrations this month – 75 years since VE Day on 8th, but also, the bicentenary of the birth of Florence Nightingale on 12th May.  Interestingly if you Google her, it comes up immediately as “statistician”! Not nurse, not founder of modern nursing, not The Lady of the Lamp!  Yes, she was all those things, and we owe so much to her, we should be clapping loudly for her on Tuesday week.  But how many of us know that she was the first woman member of the Royal Statistics Society? While we are so dependent on statistics to help us get through this and other pandemics, we should appreciate her even more for lobbying for cleanliness, for compulsory sanitation in housing, for using data ( in a way ordinary people could understand – she invented the pie chart!) to demonstrate how to improve the health of the nation.

By coincidence, May is also the month for Red Cross and Red Crescent week; no fundraising events inevitably outside for this week (4th – 10th), but you can shake your own bucket at home.  An organisation which is even now on the front line with the NHS, caring for all those in need in these difficult times. (

In the late ‘60s, my mother was a Vice President of the local British Red Cross branch – most elegant in her uniform; the job entailed attending meetings around the county, giving talks about the organisation but also making presentations of awards to young people who could become junior members, learning and  gaining skills to equip them for emergency response.

Another of Mum’s tasks was to organise local collections during this week, which were done house to house by key individuals in villages. After the week, she would collect, count and give in the area’s donations.  One May, perfect spring weather, I was at home, deep in the countryside, revising for GCEs: no lockdown, of course, but after a day of pouring over my books, I was desperate to head out for a break.  “Rather than driving round, why don’t we walk there and back?” What a perfect purpose – to help Mum carry the loot (not so much folding money then, no, lots of coins and therefore quite heavy, even though it might only have been a few pounds) – a great excuse for a walk as the evening closed in and the birds were beginning to go to bed.  It’s such a lovely time of day, when you want to stay outside for ever.  It was about 2 miles to Wallington, along footpaths, through the woods, wading knee deep through swathes of bluebells, with the dogs casting about for rabbits to chase and interesting sniffs.

Chatting and strolling, it became something of a regular summer evening sortie for us. My father was already very deaf, sadly he didn’t enjoy evenings made for listening to the birds, or words spoken over the shoulder, so he rarely came with us.  But at least he knew where we were going and could – might – come in search if we got lost. No mobile phones, of course.  One evening, we had probably set off rather later than intended, so on the way home, it was getting increasingly dark; instead of going through the wood, we walked along its edge, making the most of the fading light.   We eventually realised it was turning away from the direction we expected, so quite worried, had to “regroup”; it was a much longer walk than planned, but at least we made it back, well after the birds’ bedtime, under the stars.  Much treasured times.






May Morning Memories


Oxford, MayDay morning celebrations, sadly not happening this year – but oh how traditional and what fun they were! They WILL take place next year, fingers crossed, but for the moment, memories of past events, and anticipation for the future, have to make do!

My course was four-years long, so I did have the chance to attend 4 times;  I made it twice – onto Magdalen Bridge for about 5.30am. The Bridge is crowded – so much for the popular image of late-sleeping students! It’s way already light but usually cold, and you haven’t a hope of meeting friends from other colleges, but it’s a very jolly crowd.   I even think College provided us with a first breakfast before we set off! Certainly, a second breakfast at the normal time was available (you just didn’t tell ‘em you were coming round twice!).

Magdalen Choir sings on the Magdalen College Tower at 6am– barely audible, despite the “shush”es among the listeners; when I was there, nearly 50 years ago, there was no amplification. Then off you set, down the High Street, passing various extraordinary sights.  I remember a piper on a window ledge of University College; how he didn’t hyperventilate, I do not know!


You find Morris Dancers near the Sheldonian, Jack o’ The Green in The Broad, people dressed up as The Green Man, strange headgear on many,

Such headgear

coffee/beer all over available in many bars and caffs, open to make the most of the crowds.

Going back to College for excellent scrambled egg and then the day begins as normal.  Roads are cleared by 9, but some festivities continue in various colleges.  There was a tortoise race in Corpus which was covered by Blue Peter– my foot featured, as I’d secured a place in the front; fortunately not nibbled by winners or losers. Gambling was strictly forbidden! One year, one friend held a wine and cheese party – wine and cheese!!! at 7am!! Oh dear, not good.  I could not make the 9am lecture. The following year, I determined instead to have croissants and coffee for the celebration; 9 of us (including men) in my tiny room, guests in college before 8am, usually strictly forbidden. The gardener and observing squirrels were taken by surprise! IMG_2098 In my 3rd year, I had decided not to go, as I had a difficult essay to write for a tutorial at 9 that morning;  I worked through the night (till about 3) and, blow me, if my ex-boyfriend and a chum called on me, very hearty, at 6.30!  I was not best pleased.

The celebrations will be cancelled this year – you can’t socially distance thousands of people on Magdalen Bridge – but another year, perhaps even more people will think of getting up at crack of dawn (around 5), to get to experience an extraordinary Oxford tradition.


Spending a penny?

Overheard on the Heath – “Did you have a wee before we left the house?” asked a parent of a three-year old?

I didn’t hear the answer but it made me ponder the euphemisms we use for such a natural act…. And when and why they go in/out of fashion.

How long ago did we stop saying “I need to spend a penny”? I’m sure it was long after a. the penny was in use; b. the loo doors were secured by penny slots.  Who collected those pennies anyway? Were they enough to pay for the cleaning and maintenance of public loos? When did they get wise to the scam that if there were two of you, you could get away with using just one penny, as you’d hold the door for your partner in crime to enter…

and why should chaps get away without paying?  For them, “spending a penny” ie going into a closed loo space would have been for other reasons… perhaps to be left unexplored!

Other euphemisms I have heard – on a group walk “I’m just going to tie my shoe-laces”; “I’m just heading round the corner”; “I’m going out now and may be some time” – well perhaps not that last one.  Or could that have been why Captain Oates left the tent?

Oh, the kinds of things you meditate on when going out for the daily permitted exercise!!



Lockdown – in the cold

How many of us currently “in lockdown” remember the extraordinary winter of 1962/3? It had snowed in November – my father coined the phrase “Snow in November, a January to remember!”.  And boy, was he right.  It got colder and colder, and at the end of December there were blizzards in Wales and the SouthWest, arriving in the rest of the country in January. It was indeed a month and more to remember.  For a ten-year old, it was VERY exciting, really romantic. We were snowed in!

Frozen garden

So much happened then.  Thank goodness, we had central heating, then a new thing! When we moved to the country 18 months before (quarter of a mile up a farm track, a helluva walk for small legs down to the school bus), the house barely had running water; it wasn’t on main drains, so that much had to be  done to it before we moved in, including, thank goodness, oil-fired central heating.  It was only turned on during the day, though it might come on in extremis with a low set thermostatic control.  Many days we’d wake up to find ice on the inside of the windows. It was hard to open the door, but lovely to crunch outside in boots on crusted virgin snow.

We had a big larder and my mother had proved an ace at bottling fruit and veg, so we had Kilner jars full of them.  We had free-range chickens, quite a lot of them, so had eggs and meat; the only problem was keeping their water from freezing.  I remember struggling to their field with kettles of hot water to ensure the poor things had something to drink.

After a few days, the local village storekeeper crossed the fields on a tractor, bringing us bread and milk.  My mother begged his packet of cigarettes off him; that was one of the spurs to her to give up, she was so ashamed of the craving!

My sister’s beautiful sleek black cat, known as Miserable Starkey, disappeared; a few days later, she decided to come in from one of the barns (where we assumed she’d been holed up).  She was calling us, miaowing pitifully, and we saw her jumping up several feet and disappearing again, as she negotiated 3 feet deep soft snow to get back to the house.  Once indoors, she barely stirred from the fat (and warm) central heating pipe by the boiler.

Our cocker spaniel, Tina, walking with my father when paths had been beaten down through the snow, eventually could walk no more; why? He carried her home, to find that snow had balled under her “arms” and she was stuck!

The farmer’s pond froze; we dared to scrape snow off a circle of about 13feet in diameter and some old leather boots and skates were found from lofts, and we had a go. Toboggans proved incredibly useful as well as fun.IMG_2081(1)

Did we get to school? Well, yes, after a few weeks.  In fact, at first, I stayed with my best friend’s family in the town near school (we’d moved away quite a distance, but I was coming up to the 11+ so it was felt important I should stay put in that school for that year). I was there a week.  The journalist husband was in Australia, covering the England cricket tour, definitely in clover! We were suffering with blocked pipes (particularly, I remember, the LOO!) and finally, no hot water, which sent me back home.  So my mother made a big effort to drive me the 17 miles across the country.  I remember one lane might be open and sometimes drivers (the selfish ones) would try to push through and one of us would end up with the bonnet deep in snow.  In some places the army controlled the traffic (this is in the country!) and we’d drive with snow ten feet high on either side.

The football season was cancelled and a pools panel met every week so people could continue to bet; many seasonal businesses and farmers suffered hugely – it was one of the factors that finally put paid to any commercial traffic on the canals.  We had bits of snow right up to April, but much of it was gone during March, and life returned to a frozen country.

We had the occasional power cut – we all had torches and candles – food was a bit dull, we were living miles from our friends, but I don’t remember really hating it – it was cold, your fingers and toes froze, we didn’t have the kind of great kit that people have now for winter conditions, but as a child, it did not seem perilous, just exciting.

So let’s hope that kids in this period of lockdown will look back on it as an extraordinary time, exceptional, exciting – and won’t remember it with horror.  We must make sure life returns but NOT necessarily to the norms we’ve been so used to in the last few years, but valuing lives and life and those who make it meaningful, in a new and more appreciative way.






Unintended consequences

With this lockdown, people are finding imaginative ways, especially technology, to reach across the world to friends and relatives. I was most touched by this story;

Next week is Pesach, when Jews around the world, religious or not, come together to commemorate the Flight from Egypt; it’s a tender and exotic story to non-Jews and a stirring tradition. They eat what is known as the Seder meal, which includes roast lamb (perhaps the origin of our Paschal lamb for Easter) and bitter herbs, sing songs and tell the story of the Exodus.

One culturally Jewish friend tells me her family is part of a long tradition stretching back before the Second World War.  Pre-war, two families in Berlin used to come together every Pesach for the Seder meal.  Both became refugees to this country, ending up in parts of North London.  Discovering each other after the War, they resumed the tradition, celebrating Pesach year on year, despite the inevitable departure of the original family members.  My friend’s sister-in-law and her family is now in Israel and they keep promising themselves that one year, they would head there to celebrate with her.

This year, having discovered all the virtual meeting opportunities, the North London families will not only be together in London virtually, but also with the sister in Tel Aviv, joining for a Seder meal, an “e-seder”.  How joyous.


A Cathedral Cat

A weekend spent in the splendour of Norwich Cathedral, 900 + years of worship and prayers which we were adding to with our renditions of Ireland’s Greater Love Hath No Man, Elgar’s The Spirit of the Lord, Howells, Dyson, Guerrero, psalms, hymns and Responses.  Such a joy.  Despite the City itself being so full of treasures to explore, it was not a penance to stay inside for rehearsals and services, coming thick and fast; no, Storm Dennis put paid to any thoughts of sitting in sunshine with a sandwich, visiting the churches (one for every week of the year) or pubs (supposedly one for every day of the year) or boating on the Broads – in any downtime we might find.

To jolly us along, we were joined by the Cathedral cat, white with black and ginger markings.  Budge (who has a Twitter account @BudgeofNorwich with lots of photos) wandered around, with clergy and congregation batting nary an eyelid, while we, unused to cats in a church, restrained our hilarity and maintained our focus on the music and the music director. I’ve not sung to a cat before and luckily, Budge didn’t sit in front of the altar (or us) and start to lick clean various parts of his/her anatomy, which might have broken us apart.  No, he/she just ignored us (tells you something about how well we sang) and carried on with his/her exploration of what might be under the seats.

The only other time I’ve experienced a cat wandering around during a service was on a hot Australian Christmas Day,  in a church in the back of beyond; candles wavered in the breeze from the open doors, robes fluttered and the cat followed the “altar party” down the centre of the church to join in.  He/she, too, was pretty well behaved, not lying down or performing embarrassing cleaning rituals, just curling up in the sunshine, so people had to step over him/her.

A curious coincidence – both churches were led by women clergy! In Australia 20 years ago, she was my first experience of a woman priest leading worship; and such interesting, new and different insights were brought to bear on the familiar stories.  In Norwich, the new-ish Dean is also a woman, and excellent, of course.

In neither place did cat or female clergy generate surprise! Hurrah – equality in some senses at last!