22 April 2014


A WITNESS: Huddled 'gainst the cold. The wind will often howl up here - penetrating your bones. Tis one of my most favoured places. Sheltering in the lee of these old stones. I trace my fingers over the layers, over the rock and feel the essence of those who went before. My father and his father and my brother Enfred whose eyes were as blue as the afternoon sky. We lay here breathless one summers afternoon after we had chased and speared a young boar and then we lugged him back to the valley, still hot with blood, swinging heavily and our mother sang our praises - engorged with maternal pride as my heart pounded in its bony cage. Oh that night we feasted and our women danced in the firelight under silvery stars that filled the sky like spilt  milk. I watched their animated shadows on the trees as we clapped our hands in unison.

They say that in the ancient times our forefathers made sacrifices here to Lugus as sunshine surrendered to the shadows of nightfall. Listen carefully and behind the moaning of the wind you may still hear the chanting of our kinsfolk and the writhing death cries of  a young deer beneath the knife.Like everyone, I came from The Green Earth and here as I venerate these stones, I feel the warm embrace of my belonging. Twas in the days before Merlin and Arthur when the world was young.

The Ox Stones are three miles out of Sheffield, near to Ringinglow. You cannot see them from the road. Down below - in the valley, the city of Sheffield rises. Half a million people like ants in an antheap. But once it would have been a swampy valley where rivers met. In those days, The Ox Stones would have been little different. Ancient British people would have been captivated by such inexplicable outcrops - attaching a range of myths and superstitions to them. Special places. There would have been pre-Christian rituals and meetings. Why build temples or henges when Nature itself had provided unique stone edifices like The Ox Stones?

21 April 2014


Who invented the nylon cord strimmer? Was it Nathaniel P. Strimmer, the American gardening entrepreneur? If so, he needs shooting.

In my life I have been the not-so-proud owner of four or five strimmers. You know the sort. Underneath there's a "self-feeding" cartridge containing nylon cord. And the idea is that if your cord snaps, as it is wont to do every three minutes, the strimmer will magically feed out another length so that you can continue merrily strimming.

I need a strimmer in order to tackle the grassy edgings of our lawns and paths - getting in all those awkward places where my Bosch lawnmower won't go. Only, I seem to spend more time dismantling the bottom of my strimmer and then manually feeding through more of the extra-breakable strimmer cord. Take this morning. I must have turned that bloody strimmer upside down at least twenty times till in the end I just gave up and came back inside to write this ranting blogpost.

Once, long ago, when we first moved into this house, our new garden had become a veritable jungle. This had sprouted during the springtime of 1989 - in the months after our bid for the house had been accepted - and it now resembled the deepest forests of Borneo. I hired a petrol-driven strimmer and set off into that jungle telling Shirley and the kids that I might be gone for some time - "It's a jungle out there!" I wore goggles and ear protectors and rather than having nylon cord that beast of a strimmer had a lethal chain underneath that desiccated unwanted greenery and toes like Attila and his Huns ransacking the Balkans. 

Now that was a real strimmer. The nylon corded ones I have owned have all been wimpy - like Old Etonians at a Yorkshire beer festival. Perhaps Nathaniel P. Strimmer designed the nylon corded strimmer to drive users towards the brink of insanity. I speak from personal experience for I have stood on that brink with strimmer in the air, waving it like a shillelagh while emitting blood-curdling battle cries. 

Maybe I should just have the entire garden concreted - then I'll never have to use a strimmer again. Or perhaps there's somebody out there working on a new, effective strimmer design. I live in hope.

19 April 2014


Above you can see our lovely daughter Frances. I snapped that photograph earlier today as I walked with her above Edale on the edge of the Kinder Plateau. Below there's an impressive gritstone pedestal which looks down upon Grindsbrook Clough. It was next to the path we took to walk back to the village of Edale.
This wasn't entirely a leisurely country walk, more of a training walk for Frances who will be undertaking a much longer walk in early June - to raise money for Alzheimer's Research UK. Her longer walk will see her taking in Yorkshire's "Three Peaks" - Whernside, Ingleborough and Pen-Y-Ghent - twenty six miles in total. It is quite a big ask for someone who spends the majority of her working time sitting at a computer screen or talking on the telephone. So today - as she was home - we went out into the Peak District to test her new boots and tackle six arduous miles.

Would you like to sponsor her? Every little helps. Go to her page on the Just Giving website and follow the instructions. Click here.

17 April 2014


The Frank Whittle Memorial roundabout in Lutterworth
On our leisurely drive back from London, we paused in a delightful Leicestershire village called Dunton Bassett. Inside the ancient village church, we chatted with two elderly women who had lived their entire lives in Dunton Bassett. They pointed at the medieval stone font and said that they had both been christened there and one of the women said that both of her parents and her grandparents and her three children had also been christened in that same font. I find something very attractive and natural about that kind of belonging to a place. It is a dying phenomenon in the modern world where lives and families are often spread like seeds on the wind.
Dunton Bassett parish church
After Dunton Bassett, we stopped at Narborough where I was hoping to buy an old cast iron pub table from a company called Trent Pottery. In the event the tables turned out to be modern imitations so we left and carried on to Leicester. Round the outer ring road and then onwards to a town we had never visited before - Melton Mowbray - famous for Stilton cheese and pork pies.

We bought a handmade pork pie from Ye Olde Pork Pie Shoppe and had a delightful traditional afternoon tea in Mis B's Tea Shop on the High Street - Victorian tea pot and a strainer for the tea leaves. Through the window we could see the impressive tower of St Mary's Church - especially praised by the architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner.
The Regal Cinema - Melton Mowbray
"The Generous Briton" pub in Melton Mowbray
Fourteenth century alabaster tomb in St Mary's Church - Melton Mowbray
Caption on shoppe - Melton Mowbray
The town's free guide sheet claimed that the expression "To paint the town red" originated in Melton Mowbray:-

...a tale dating from 1837. It is said that year is when the Marquis of Waterford and a group of friends ran riot in the Leicestershire town of Melton Mowbray, painting the town's toll-bar and several buildings red.

That event is well documented, and is certainly in the style of the Marquis, who was a notorious hooligan. To his friends he was Henry de la Poer Beresford; to the public he was known as 'the Mad Marquis'. In the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography he is described as 'reprobate and landowner'. His misdeeds include fighting, stealing, being 'invited to leave' Oxford University, breaking windows, upsetting (literally) apple-carts, fighting duels and, last but not least, painting the heels of a parson's horse with aniseed and hunting him with bloodhounds. 

After two hours, it was time to leave Melton Mowbray and head back Up North, through Broughton Astley, Nether Broughton and the curiously named Ab Kettleby. Earlier we had stopped briefly at Frisby on the Wreake. Such evocative names! Onwards to Nottingham and thence to the M1 which leads to the land of milk and honey - Yorkshire, my Yorkshire. Ahhh!
View across a rape field to Frisby on the Wreake

15 April 2014


After the football match, we went to Soho. Not to a a sleazy striptease club or what is nowadays euphemistically called a "gentleman's club". No. We simply went for pre-dinner drinks in a lovely old-fashioned pub called "The John Snow". Apparently, he was an eminent London doctor in past times. Incredibly, the beer prices in this quaint establishment were cheaper than in my local in Sheffield. In London they usually ask you to hand over a large chunk of your life savings.

When I sauntered up to the bar to buy the second round, I noticed a young woman standing at the opposite bar. She was transfixed by her mobile phone - as many people seem to be these days. I had my camera at hand having just taken some interior picture of the pub and unbeknownst to her I snapped her a couple of times. As you will realise, I am in the habit of taking lots of pictures but rarely do I look at one of my pictures and think, "Yeah, that's special!" But that is how I feel about "Girl on a phone". 

Her Mona Lisa face is illuminated by her glowing phone screen. A group of friends are socialising behind her. The pub is an Aladdin's cave of shiny things and polished wood and outside, as the evening arrives, a shopfront star hangs above the street. All of these elements come together to make what is in my estimation a really successful composition and I am proud that it's one of mine, presented to you here in both colour and Victorian black and white. Please click to enlarge:-

14 April 2014


Hull City 5 Sheffield United 3 (FA Cup Semi-Final)
We beat them fair and square. We beat them good and proper. Our goals were all beautiful - like living works of art. And the artists were Tom Huddlestone, Yannick Sagbo, Matty Fryatt, David Meyler and Stephen Quinn. At half-time I didn't feel too wholesome, too gigantic, rather queasy. Oh no - at half-time I felt like a Monster Raving Loony Party candidate waiting for the results to be announced after a by-election. Doggy doo-doo time.
Statue of Bobby Moore at Wembley
But at half-time in the dressing room, unbeknownst to me, our Captain Fantastic central defender Mr Curtis Davies was giving the other lads a right dressing down. Many expletives were expleted. Far more than the pathetic Oscar Pistorius yelled at his imagined burglar millady. Like a real leader, Curtis told the others they had played like fairies in the first half - making underdogs Sheffield United look good. It was time to get some fire in their bellies. Time to fight for the cause and for the massed Tigers fans weeping on the terraces of our national football stadium.
Ian and Shirley at Wembley
And in the second half they came roaring back like a cyclone in Queensland, like a tornado in Canton GA and those beautiful goals rained in. I thought of Spitfires, of the Guns of Navarone of a herd of gnus thundering to an African river, of Passchendaele. The Sheffield United defence lay ragged and bleeding, moaning for assistance but we murdered them. They say that football is a game of two halves and never was this saying more true. "WE ARE ULL, WE ARE ULL, WE ARE ULL!" And we sang it to the Wembley rafters on that beautiful Sunday afternoon - bathed in spring sunshine.
Yes my friends, I was there with Shirley and Ian and Chris. We witnessed every moment. Forgive us our trespasses for thine is the kingdom. And at the end of the match, when the battle was won and the smoke was clearing, the Wembley authorities played our club's anthem over the speakers:-

Wise men say only fools rush in
But I can't help falling in love with you
Shall I stay
Would it be a sin
If I can't help falling in love with you

Hull City have existed since 1904 but this is the very first time we have made it to an FA Cup Final. And who stands in our way? Nobody but The Mighty Arsenal - that footballing beast from North London. Those nancy boys with their cultured, grumpy, elegant economist of a French manager, those fall over and cry mummy players with their shiny Porsches and their yellow Lamborghinis. Oo - don't tackle me I'm posh! Do they really think they can defeat the Tiger Army? We are the Tamil Tigers, Siberian Tigers, tigers stalking prey in the night forest. We will go into that May game with the belief  that we have a chance, a real chance to go the distance. We shall not be the also-rans. We are Ull! Steve Bruce's Barmy Army! Up The Tigers!

12 April 2014


A recent academic study has focussed upon the first names we saddle our children with.  The names of 14,449 first year students attending the University of Oxford between 2008 and 2013 were compared with the frequency of given names in the population as a whole. The study concluded that people with rather traditional first names like Eleanor. Peter, Simon, Anna, Richard, Elizabeth and John are three times more likely to be accepted into Oxford University as people with what we might think of as more trendy, transient names like Stacey, Connor, Reece, Kayleigh, Jade, Bradley and Paige.

This doesn't surprise me. As a secondary school teacher, I was instinctively convinced that youngsters with solid old-fashioned or biblical names were more likely to succeed than the kids who arrived bearing fashionable names. There were many variations on the name Kayleigh - Kaylee, Keeley, Kealy, Kelly, K-Lee etc.. And it always seemed puzzling to me why families who demonstrably put little store in literacy were very defensive about their creative and often idiosyncratic spelling of their offspring's first names. Why, for example would anyone insist on spelling Mathew with a single "t" in the middle? Or Barny without the final "e"? Quite bizarre.  And I recall a boy with the surname Allen whose first name was Alen and a girl called Neika whose name symbolised the love that her parents - Neil and Karen  - felt for each other. Equally bizarre.

I am not entirely sure of the psychology behind choosing baby names but I think that some people want the safety and security of "respectable" names that won't rock the boat, others seem  determined to embrace current naming habits while yet others deliberately seek the unusual. Whatever the psychology I am convinced that those choices say a lot about us - how we see life and the kind of aspirations we have for our  children. What do you think?