Posts Tagged ‘Cotswolds’

Snow day in the Cotswolds: if the power goes off, can you find your matches to light a candle or the fire?


I’ve become a proper countrywoman. Or as good as an incomer can get. A few nights ago I held a newspaper across the front of the fireplace to make the chimney draw stronger. The fire was feeble: I didn’t even have to think what to do.

The boyfriend who taught me the trick is long gone. But I learned all the back lanes between Malmesbury and Moreton in Marsh from him, plus multiple knacks of making rural life comfy.

I was eight years old in 1969 when my father’s work moved us from East Anglian suburbia to the edge of a small Berkshire town. Our gate opened onto a potholed lane with Green Belt woodland opposite.

Nobody told me about vixens.

Night after pitch dark night, searing screams and screeches woke me in paralysed terror. I wasn’t allowed a bedside lamp. I was too frightened to switch on my torch. It was Not Done to wake my parents. 

Presumably I worked out that some wild creature in the woods made the noises, but it was years before I could put a name to it. Meanwhile, my dreams were troubled and Dr Who didn’t help.

Learning to love the night

At age 12 I won the nasty battle for parental permission to cycle alone to the shops and library. Down the lane, around the end of the woods and across the wasteland, under the railway bridge and into the village with its sticky heaven of a sweet shop. Nowadays I’d shun that route as a rapist’s paradise. In the early 1970s it was independence.

By my early teens, on summer camping expeditions I was the Girl Who Loved The Night. I walked at the front of the group across fields under vast starry skies. How did I manage that? As an only child, asking for help was Not Done: I faced fears alone and head on. So I learned to love rural darkness. Here in the Cotswolds I still walk without a torch on star sparkled nights. If I must carry a light, I prefer the warm glow of an old fashioned miner’s safety lamp. Just one of my quirks.

Paris to popcorn

London and Paris featured in my student life. They were only fun if you had money. Marriage brought me to suburban Luton, to recession, redundancy and depression.

Running away with my then husband to a gamekeeper’s cottage beyond Newbury couldn’t save the marriage, despite good will all round. Even so, I was developing rural skills all the way. Keeping in a solid fuel burner. Keeping out damp and rodents. The tiny 19thC cottage efficiently circulated warmth from downstairs. The cats grew glossy and athletic, hunting rabbits and rats nearly their own size.

I probably saved the whole neighbourhood one night when I alerted the farm manager to the grain dryer fire alarm. If I hadn’t, there’d have been popcorn raining down all over West Berkshire!

Power cuts and indoor camping

Since 1993, when I gave up trying to be married, I’ve enjoyed renting accommodation in the countryside. From a room at small dairy farm held together with bailer twine, to neatly trimmed modern feudalism.

I tamed a coal fired Rayburn, with gritted determination on mornings when the dratted contraption would heat neither kettle nor eggs. (There were electric options but I’m stubborn!) That Rayburn moistly and tenderly cooked the biggest Christmas turkey I ever offered to guests. Fancy stuffing and all.

Solo neighbours took refuge with me on nights of storm and power cuts. I like thunder and lightning: they didn’t.

The first Saturday after moving into a beautifully redecorated farmworker’s cottage near Cirencester, I woke to the mewing and scratching of my two cats – and looked outside to see a red fire engine with hefty firefighters moving briskly. Chimney fire next door, right behind my bed. Luckily, order was swiftly restored. My neighbours were in fact the kindest people, born and raised in the countryside. They showed me how to stack wood tidily and now I get compliments. 

Candles, lanterns and the wood burning stove turned regular power cuts into camping adventures: you can very nicely heat baked beans, cook sausages and make toast with a woodburner. A small camping pan boils water for tea. It was comforting to potter about in the dark and quiet, with the crackle of logs and the gleam of candlelight on my ornaments and picture frames.

At least by then I knew about vixens’ screaming. And the dogmess stink of fox on morning paths.

Hot water bottles that purred

At my next home, owls duetted on the fence at dusk just metres from where I sat on my garden sofa. Small, rounded shapes uttering friendly “towhoos” in the summer dusk.

But it was an odd village: a hamlet of wealthy recluses, who seemed to regard a 40-something single female with cold suspicion. The husbands were not seduction material, believe me.

The down to earth, unobtrusive friendliness of my farmer neighbours made everything bearable. Cups of spontaneous coffee on sunny morning benches. Fascinating conversations about what farmers really do and think – their bone deep love for the land, for their animals domestic and wild. Hard truths: “If you’ve got livestock, you’ll have dead stock.”

When snow was deep and the temperature fell to -12 degrees C, as in earlier homes I slept in two duvets on my sofa next to the woodburner. With furry hot water bottles that purred.

In 2017 the farm was sold. All cottage tenants had to leave. After 16 cosy years I decided on total change – after all, I’d lived in London and Paris – and sought “café society” in town.

Drunks and druggies kicked off every night until dawn, pissing and vomiting all round the square. Seagulls used my elegant oval skylight as watering hole and toilet. Noise assaulted the flat from restaurant kitchen fans, an air compressor, shop alarms, idling engines and amplified buskers. Town air was like diesel soup. My health imploded. At least the flat was within walking distance of the hospital oncology department.

In the valley of power cuts

December 2019 brought me “home” to the Cotswolds again: a tiny cottage on a hill. Talk about timing.

Throughout Lockdown chemo, shielding and after serious surgery, village neighbours I barely know and old friends have brought me supplies and giggles.

As I recuperate, everything I’ve loved and learned about living in the countryside has sprung back into relevance. From watching buzzards and kites circle over the fields, to double checking the outside tap isn’t dripping. I stock up tinned and dry goods in summer against winter bad weather. I bring firewood indoors to dry on the hearth before use. I’m restored to my countryside quirks, such as wearing the colours of the day that I see out of the window in the morning.

Back in the valley of power cuts, a certain life hack is crucial again: leave the tail of at least one match sticking out of the box so you can find it and light your candle in the dark. And put the box in the same place all the time, so you always know where your matches are.

One day, Chloë of the Midnight Storytellers will buy batteries for all the modern torches she has in the cottage.
Meanwhile her spoken word performances are going online for the rest of UK Lockdown and beyond.
It’s a great way to reach a worldwide audience.
To commission your own bespoke Story Cabaret set for grown-ups, or family storytelling, email chloe@midnightstorytellers.co.uk

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This was the third successive year I entertained audiences at a cosy boutique hotel near Witney, in Oxfordshire. Think squashy armchairs and a splendid log fire.

Their Christmas tree looks like a gift from Norway* and is pleasingly decorated with more enthusiasm than elegance. Dogs are welcome: they sprawl like well groomed furry cushions close to their humans, a little anxious in strange surroundings, flinching occasionally at the sound of my voice.

On Christmas Eve I told ScaryTales to so many guests that extra chairs had to be brought, which always makes my inner diva punch the air in triumph. The dear listeners winced and gasped in all the right places, and nobody snored. (That happened on Boxing Day afternoon.)

Who do you please?

Unlike other gigs, at a hotel Christmas session you never know what kind of audience you’ll face. Oh, officially it’s families at afternoon tea time and adults after dinner. But it’s usually the case that any performance – five over three days – must please mostly adults while still being suitable for one or two children, or teenagers.

One set this Christmas had to be tempered for an eight-ish-year-old girl whose parents sensibly let me know before starting that she’s terrified of scary stories. She was tearful even coming in to sit down! Luckily I had my sparkly grey furred Winterbeast in my bag, so he was set beside the little girl with firm instructions to protect her through the storytelling.

I’d chosen a tale with plenty of magic and delight but also a major section of spooky forest and dodgy old ladies… I was hyper conscious of adding or modifying phrases to turn the scary down. A fascinating performance challenge. I like to think the girl began to understand what stories show so well: that frightening situations can be handled.

Competing with a tree…

Another challenge at this type of gig is the physical layout of the room. Any large room has a ‘sweet spot’ where your voice naturally bounces off the ceiling and down to the far end … but not with different ceiling heights created by a minstrel’s gallery. And a hotel lounge full of sofas, armchairs and coffee tables tends to lack a focal point where a speaker can visually command attention.

I struggled to compete with the giant twinkly tree. It was also difficult to position myself to talk towards the good ears of several senior guests with impaired hearing, or even to stand where they could see my face (a lot of people, deaf or not, lipread to some extent when listening to a live speaker). Inevitably there was the hearing aid that squealed. It’s also distracting when hotel staff, despite their manager’s instructions, start clearing the room for the evening cocktail party while you’re halfway through your set!

But stories told live are powerful. And an audience that wants to listen cannot be deterred. “Those stories made my Christmas,” confided one very frail older lady.

Out in the world, war and flood and earthquake and avoidable poverty and loneliness and preventable pollution continued without mercy. And death claimed yet more people whose talents we treasured. In the face of all that, for a few hours, in the comfortable house by the river in the garden, we flew on the magic of words.

* Every year the city of Oslo in Norway sends a huge Christmas tree to London, to stand in Trafalgar Square sparkling with lights, in thanks for help from Britain during World War 2.

NOTES:
♦  Mistletoe Storyteller costume by the amazing AJ at Dragons & Unicorns, based on a design idea by me
♦  Booking now for World Book Day / Book Week in schools: Thursday 2 March 2017. Please contact me soon to avoid disappointment! Year 3 to Sixth Form. Dragon Days as Agent Green the world’s only living Dragon Whisperer. Legends of Britain and beyond as Nightshade, Un-Wisewoman of the Woods.

www.midnightstorytellers.co.uk

Poster for 28 July 2015 Storytelling Dragon Tales at Sutton Coldfield LibraryA rare flying visit from the Dragon Whisperer brings a morning of fantasy and magical adventure to Sutton Coldfield Library (Birmingham, England) on Tuesday 28 July.

As part of the Record Breakers themed Summer Reading Challenge 2015, gorgeously costumed Agent Green the world’s only living Dragon Whisperer tells Dragon Tales from around the world to age 7+ at 11am. At 12.30, Agent Green breaks out the drawing pens to show age 9+ How To Draw Your Dragon – bring your favourite sketchbooks, pencils and colouring pens.

Both sessions are free thanks to sponsorship from Sutton Coldfield Charitable Trust. The Library is at Lower Parade, B72 1XX. Tel 0121 464 2274.

Thrilling legends and folktales include a dragon in hiding and the dragon who was really a lost princess, ranging from Eastern Europe to Bamburgh Castle.

Agent Green, who is alleged to work for DCHQ, Dragon Conservation Headquarters, also reveals hot tips on dragon care and training, and talks about her mission to find and save the world’s last dragons. You’re welcome to ask everything you ever wanted to know about dragons – because the Dragon Whisperer has the answer!

Behind the bling is Chloë of the Midnight Storytellers, a storytelling entertainer and writer/illustrator from the Cotswolds. Celebrating 15 years as a spoken word artist, Chloë sets a new record this August as the first ever Dragon Whisperer in Residence at Sudeley Castle (Gloucestershire).

Chloë’s performances for children take her to primary schools, community events and festivals all over the UK. Her story cabaret shows for adults are acclaimed from Cheltenham Literature Festival to cruise ships on the Mediterranean. For her 15th anniversary celebrations Chloë has launched a new contemporary story cabaret show Scheherazade’s Shed which tours to Kidderminster Arts Festival 14 August and Windsor Fringe Festival 24 September. The Dragon Tales CD is available £5 from Chloë, while the fully written out and illustrated Dragon Tales are available as a Kindle ebook (£2.99).

  • The annual UK Summer Reading Challenge, an initiative from the Reading Agency and the Arts Council, encourages UK children aged 4-11 into libraries to read up to 6 books during the long summer holiday. The scheme is designed to maintain reading skills and confidence which can otherwise weaken during over that time.

Chloe with Save Our Libraries banner at Bourton on the Water

Trying to Save Our Libraries 2010-11

I’m 54 and live in rural England. Whatever you see on the tourism websites, life round here is not glamorous. We endure low wages, expensive housing (second homes and tourist prices), poor public transport, poor work prospects, unaffordable leisure and arts (tourism again), lost banks, closed post offices and libraries. If it weren’t so stonkingly beautiful every time I look out of the window, there’d be no point living here.

Anyway, the UK holds a General Election next week. Mindful of what British women went through to get the vote, and of how many countries deny their citizens any vote at all, I’ve been trying harder than ever before to understand what the political parties are offering.
And NEVER have I felt so excluded, misinformed, disinformed and generally treated like an idiot.
For once it’s not the BBC’s fault. The wretched political parties release tiny dribbles of information. Partial glimpses of the truth as they’d like us to see it. There are no facts – only opinions and sniping. It’s impossible to make an informed decision.
 
The only possible conclusions to draw are:
  • Nobody in power actually understands Britain’s finances, and they have no idea what we need or what we can afford. This is terrifying!
  • In 2015 vote Tory = vote cruelty
  • Vote Labour = vote incompetence 
  • Vote LibDem = vote not sure what will happen
  • Vote Green = vote naive
  • Vote UKIP = vote rabid racist and cut us off from Europe. Although this morning UKIP leader Mr Farage sounded like he’s been fitted neatly into Mr Cameron’s pocket [prime minister since 2010; Conservative]. Both of them are ‘insisting’ they want to ‘offer the country a referendum’ on leaving the European Union. Talk about distraction technique!

Westminster politicians are incapable of representing the electorate because they don’t live real lives – they have NO IDEA what it’s like to struggle for a fair chance in Britain today.

I see my friends’ lives, their creativity either sidelined or crushed by the daily grind to pay the bills. Members of Parliament have never lived like that. Nor do many County Councillors have to worry about paying the Spare Room Tax. None of these people has had to go without food or warmth because their benefits were sanctioned when the bus made them 10 minutes late for the Job Centre. Note that it’s County Councils – under the Westminster thumb – now relentlessly taking away services which directly affect daily life.

Clever people have said “Nations get the government they deserve” – well, we deserve better than what’s lining up for Westminster now. I see nobody capable of governing this country with intelligence let alone compassion and decency. It’s a shock to get to my middle age and realise how bad things have become and how powerless we are.

Cotswold Life magazine requested spooky local yarns for its online pages during October. I sent them a true story… Here’s The Museum in Black – don’t have nightmares!

Come and enjoy Hallowe’en family storytelling and adults’ Story Cabaret

during October

starting 12 Oct. 4pm with Sunday Afternoon Tea & ScaryTales at the Burrow Café, Stow on the Wold, Gloucestershire

Chloë at Hallowe'en

Chloë tells scarytales [photo by Ken Skehan]

Chloe and her cat Midnight

Midnight at home

The author James Friel this week wrote an article for BBC online magazine about Singlephobia – Why Are People So Mean To Single People? [Link below*]

Which reminds me…

In 2001 I moved to a tiny hamlet in the Cotswolds. I needed the quiet and the green. Socially, I felt the reaction like sunburn on my arse: “Ooh, she doesn’t have a partner so is she going to pinch one of ours?” So that was the local dinner party circuit closed off to me. I’d been labelled: arty weirdo… suspect…

Worse, I’ve chosen not to reproduce so in some circles I’ve ‘failed’ as a woman, too.

I had to be super careful about money, and everyone except a politician knows that being poor makes it nearly impossible to have a social life or go anywhere or do anything.

So it seemed that I was Beyond The Pale. (Or is that just Gloucestershire?)

Now I’m 52. All shop staff etc assume I’m a ‘Mrs’. This is painful, because calling me by my mother’s name wakes nasty associations.

Being alone and over 35 has been a nightmare. As a single woman, if you try to change your condition – if you go to parties, heritage sites, theatres or (gods help you) a bar or restaurant alone – then half the population judges you a whore. And/or sad, hysterical and desperate. Including the grubby losers on dating sites.

Real, high quality potential flirt mates / lovers / partners are beyond reach because they’re at work or socialising in places I cannot access.

In 2004, after another no-go relationship, and besieged by depression, I re programmed myself: Stop Wanting What You Can’t Have.
It works.
It might not be fair to me as a moderately attractive woman with a lovely warm personality [..sigh..], it might not be fully logical – but it instantly freed me from emotional neediness.

I have fully adapted to self sufficiency (although depression knocks me off my perch from time to time). It would now be very difficult for me to accept another person’s life in my schedule, let alone their snores and soiled underwear in my home. MY home! MY cats on MY bed!

With a small, strong network of friends, not all but mainly female, I feel that I enjoy enormous freedom and independence. My challenges are lack of life structure and excessive self indulgence.

As a Spoken Word Artist I hope that my work promotes self reliance and an independent mindset. Even if you pair off, you should be in a team of equals bringing mutually supportive skills – not locked in a feudal overlordship. I want my work to gently, clearly feed people the message that they need not fear being alone.

* Read James Friel at  http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-20219349

photo by Gill Fothergill

“Cotswolds are closed today,” said my landlord the farmer. He’s out playing with his snowplough – a man in his element: big tough machines and huge amounts of stuff to move!  People for miles around are grateful, as we stare out across where arctic whiteout has replaced the fields.

How happy I am to stop in the warm, fire blazing (saving LPG!) and snuffles medicated.  Hundreds of thousands of people all over Britain are struggling to keep up daily life, let alone get into the Christmas countdown…

This was the weekend shopkeepers and many other businesses were counting on to keep their financial heads above recession.  Friday and today were supposed to be the Great Chrismas Getaway.  Instead there is frustration, pressure, struggle… Crowds overheating, queues shivering… With all my heart I hope people find the patience and invention to reach safe places, with friendly faces.  Deliveries will be late, shopping will keep till better weather – we’re humans, that means good at adapting. It’s a survival skill, and we’d better remember it. In every aspect.