Ballooning at Crystal Palace, 1872

by The Curious Scribbler

Long before the days of instant messaging the Victorian family might keep its dispersed members entertained by producing a journal to which its members contributed choice memories, sketches, verse, and family news.   One such family were the Palmers, a tribe of 19th Century printers, teachers and clergymen  one of whom, George Josiah Palmer is remembered as the Founder of the Church Times.  At the beginning of the 20th century the Palmer family journal “The Pilgrim” was laboriously typed, bound and circulated by post around ten or more family members.  It appeared intermittently between 1901 and 1907.

'The Pilgrim' a family journal produced by the Palmer family in 1901-1907

‘The Pilgrim’ a family journal produced by the Palmer family in 1901-1907

A stirring reminiscence was provided by Carey Linnell Palmer, and published in two installments in Volume 1 No 5 and Volume 2 No 1.   It must be acknowledged that the  account of the two young men’s adventures at Crystal Palace (George aged 26 and Carey aged 17) may have been embroidered a little in hindsight, for the story reproduced here was written by Carey Linnell Palmer in 1902, thirty years after the alleged events. However since the target audience included family members who had been present in the Palmer home at 6 Percy Circus, Clerkenwell on the fateful day in 1872, I incline to the view that it is probably not entirely a work of fiction.  I reproduce it here for the edification of today’s balloonists.

AFTER MANY DAYS

It was a steaming hot day in the August if 1872 and a holiday.  The house at Percy Circus as was its wont, looking uninviting, and the back garden didn’t offer much in the way of a jaunt.  George, who was always keen on engines and trains, voted we should spend our pocket money going up and down the underground.  “Well”, said I, “that’s pretty good fun, but I think it’s possible to go one better. How about the Captive Balloon at the Palace?  It’s only a bob a head, & a jolly tough rope, and heaps of other things to see besides.”  Dear George didn’t often use slang, but this time he said he was ‘All there’, and with the help of the train we soon arrived at Sydenham and its great glasshouse.  No side shows tempted us: we shouldered our way through the holiday crowds to the filling ground to find the men in charge blowing up the monster balloon for its trial trip.  “My aunt”, said George, – a very favourite expression of his, “but what do you feel like now?”  By this time the unwieldy creature was swaying backwards and forwards overhead, straining at the ropes that held her, and the car looking the frailest place of safety under the circumstances.  “ Oh well it’ll be alright when we are once down again” said I, “in for a penny, you know, and we shall get a good view, see Kings Cross perhaps, and all the places we’re used to” but my heart was sinking.  “ Now gentlemen!” shouted the proprietor through a fog horn “ Jump in and we take the money on board, – no vittles or drink allowed, as we shall be back in half an hour!”.  But the people wanted a lot of coaxing and unaccountably hung back.  The man caught sight of our faces, upon which a fearful joy and expectancy was painted, and started again to harangue. “Here are two to start with” he shouted and almost bundled us in.  The people grinned, but didn’t follow us, and sooner than lose any more time, and mentally meaning to give us a short journey, he and the man jumped onto the car gave orders for the ropes to release her and away we went.  But at the moment of mounting, to our dismay, one of these men with incredible swiftness swarmed down the side of the car and dropped to the ground, and we shot up.  “What is the meaning of this?” cried George and we weren’t left long in finding out.  The man’s face was white with rage.  A jeering shout was sent up, and looking overboard we discovered that the captive rope was severed, and with its end trailing beneath us the balloon was rising with ever increasing velocity towards cloudland and the sky beyond.  We were thunderstruck and turned to the ‘Captain’ for explanation or help of some sort.  But to absolutely no purpose.  He was dazed with fright – or something stronger, and muttering something about “His mate Bill” and that “he’d be even with him yet,” he sank in a speechless heap on the floor of the car and there remained. We looked at each other in amazement.  The minutes went by without either of us speaking, but at last, with as equable heads and hearts as we could manage we proceeded to take in the situation.  Up above us the great swaying canvas was shouldering the wind, the breeze singing through its cords, as the car cleft its path through the sunlight and blue sky that lay about us.  Below was the kindly earth and safety, the vanishing Palace and its thousands shining through the simmering haze of heat.  The practical problem emerged. “Chance it”, said I, and taking a pendent cord in our hands we pulled for all we were worth.  Out with a hissing and roaring rushed the gas and we descended – too quickly indeed for our breathing powers.  We held her up and looked over to see if any bearings were available.  Yes, there towards the south west was a town, Croydon we thought, and knew enough not to come down amidst bricks and mortar: so having let the valve go, we looked about for ballast.  Nothing to be had.  The only thing we found was some bread and butter and cold tea.  We weren’t too upset to appropriate this, and without any scruple, but there was nothing to throw out.  Luckily the wind kept us moving south west, and at a safe height.  On we went, the first feeling of not unnatural alarm giving way to a certain fearful joy at our extraordinary venture.  We could see people gesticulating at us, trains running about like little white tailed rabbits, houses and buildings looking all too funny from our standpoint, and the immense sweep of landscape all round us.  “Well” said George at last, “how long is this to last, think you? And what will they do at home? We must get out of this somehow.”  “ I’m agreeable”, was my reply “so long as we don’t land in the sea”.  “Oh stow your jokes”, said George “and say what we’d better do with this snoring hulk”, and he prodded the ‘Captain’ with his foot.  He only grunted.  If we could only have got from him his story, and why his partner had played such a wicked trick it would have been something.  Presently we could see the houses thinning and the country becoming more open, and at no very great distance some farm buildings.

“Here goes”, said George, “I’ve got a good idea”: and with that he set to work to haul in the captive rope.  I joined him hand over hand.  “ Now then, let the gas go and tie this old fellow up”, said he.  And that’s exactly what we did do.  All unresisting the ‘Captain’ let us coil  that rope round him from head to foot, making it fast about his middle.  The wind dropped, the gas escaped, and we descended gently for a farmyard.  Coming within hailing distance, the shouts of labourers reached us, and making an arch of our hands, we trumpeted “ Hullo there, where are we?”  Back came the ready answer: “Why, you’re in a ballune, bor!”.  Which wasn’t exactly what we wanted but it served to make them merry.  “Well, catch then” shouted George.  And using all our strength we hoisted the ‘Captain up to the edge of the car and slowly payed him over.  That did it, down, down he went till within a yard or two of safety, all the yokels expectant, – when the balloon gave a lurch, our muscles relaxed, and bang he went into a pond among some ducks.  “That will wake him” said George.  There were plenty of willing hands about us now. The ‘Captain’ was a fine makeweight; the rope was laid hold of, and when within sight of twenty yards, we didn’t wait for a second venture, – no we didn’t, we swarmed down that rope quicker than usual and then for the first time critically took in the dimensions of that balloon.  We explained matters to the open-mouthed farmer, saw to the deflation of our airship, and having sent a line to the Palace authorities as to where they would find the man and his charge, railed it home.

“Well” said George, that evening at supper, “ Carey and I are jolly hungry I can tell you, but Charlie, I’ll tell you a story afterwards.”  “ Oh bother!” was Charlotte’s reply, looking up from a Miss Young.  “You’ve said that so often: you’ve only learnt some more poetry and want me to hear you.”  “No, no” said I, “ It’s not poetry this time, – you listen.”  …..She listened, and in the waning hours, when “night’s candles were burning out” and the casement was a glimmering pane, Aunt Charlotte was still listening, but Uncle Fred (the youngest at home then) who began well, had to be carried to bed at half time.  He hears the story now, perhaps for the first time, after many days.

xxxxxxx

Carey Linnell Palmer became a master printer at 23 Jesus Lane, Cambridge.  His brother George went on to be a clergyman and Doctor of Music. The ten year old ‘Uncle Fred’ who fell asleep during the narrative, succeeded his father and elder brother to become the proprietor of the Church Times.

 

 

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Storm Frank

Not a lot of time for blogging during a family Christmas, but I managed to get almost all the guests out of the house at high tide this morning to enjoy the spectacle of Storm Frank.  Not as destructive as the un-named storm which devastated the prom two years ago, but impressive none the less.

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The Aberystwyth seafront on 30 December 2015

Huge waves break on the bath rocks

Huge waves break on the bath rocks

The Aberytswyth seafront on 30 December 2015

The Aberystwyth seafront on 30 December 2015

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We also went to the harbour, where great bursts of water shot up into the air, and flooded across the breakwater.

Aberystwyth harbour

Aberystwyth harbour

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Lastly to my favourite haunt, Tanybwlch beach,  where the suction of the huge waves grinds and stacks up the dark cobbles on the strand.  Water broke over the whole length of the jetty and streaming in an unbroken sheet over its surface.

Tanybwlch beach pounded by Storm Frank

Tanybwlch beach pounded by Storm Frank

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So unlike the idyllic waves of Christmas Day.

Tanybwlch beach on Christmas day

Tanybwlch beach on Christmas day

 

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The first Ginkgo bound for Australia

by The Curious Scribbler

I have been reading the transcript ship’s log written by  a distant relative of my husband, a navy captain named Lieutenant  Edward Riou.  In 1789 this gentleman was given command of the naval frigate HMS Guardian, a fifth rate frigate built to carry some 250 men and 44 big guns.  But his voyage was not a military one:  immediately before his command, the ship had been returned to dock in 1787  and refitted as a transport ship, to carry stores and convicts to the newly established penal colony at Port Jackson, now Sydney, Australia.  Founded with the arrival of the first convicts in 1788 the colony was little more than a tented village set in sandy scrub.  Nothing edible was growing there, and all supplies must therefore be brought in by ship until such time as agriculture could be established.  The navy was charged with delivering every possible necessity, and more convicts, both male and female in the following months.

Riou’s journey was not a success.  On leaving the Cape of Good Hope he met with a gigantic iceberg in the South Atlantic and later on Christmas Eve collided with it in the fog.  In the ensuing disorder on Christmas Day the boats were launched and some of the crew disembarked on a launch.  Others drowned in the attempt.  The capacity of the boats was nowhere near sufficient for the entire crew and the 25 convicts.  Riou and  60 men and a 10 year old girl remained on board the severely leaking and rudderless ship and after an extraordinary eight weeks at sea, pumping and baling constantly with the lower deck filled with water, they limped into Table Bay, Capetown. The ship proved to be irretrievably damaged, and most of the contents rotted or destroyed.   Only a quantity of salt pork, salt beef and the convicts and their superintendents were eventually transported by other ships to their Australian destination.  Not till the summer of 1791 did Riou and the last of his crew make their way home.

A fascinating detail of the account is the lists of goods, food and livestock which was packed aboard the Guardian for the use of the nascent colony in Australia.  In London no less a figure than Sir Joseph Banks involved himself in the design and construction of a greenhouse on the deck of the Guardian, to accommodate 100 large plant pots on shelves, and fertilizer, mulch and all necessities for the use of the ship’s gardener, James Smith.  He itemized his charges as follows:

Artichokes 2, Horseradish, Sorrel 2, Balm 2, Sage, Aloe, Mint 2, Tea Tree 2, Chives 2, Tarragon 2, Camomile, Hyssop, Marjorum, Tansy, Penny Royal, Rumbullion Gooseberry, Greengage Gooseberry, Red Dutch Currant, White Dutch Currant, Filberts, Raspberries 2, Large Blue Fig 2, Large White Fig 2, Almond 2, Mulberry 2, Walnuts 2, Pomegranate, Ginkgo biloba, Roman nectarine 2, Red Magdalen Peach 2, Royal George Peach 2, Newington Peach , Brussels Apricot, Cherry 3, Morello Cherry 2, Early May Cherry, Orange Tree, Lemon Tree, Shadock, Royal Muscadine Vine, Syrian Vine, Muscat of Alexander Vine, White Fronteniac Vine, Gibraltar Vine, Black Hamburgh Vine, Claret Vine, St peter’s Vine, White Muscadine Vine, Black Fronteniac Vine, Blue Morecils Vine, Black Sweetwater Vine, Red Fronteniac Vine, Burgundy Vine, White Sweetwater vine, Grisley Fronteniac Vine, Black Orlean Vine, Uruge nectarine, Italian Nectarine, Brugner Nectarine, Nonesuch apple 2, Dutch Codlin apple 2.  93 pots under my care.

Most of this list is of herbs, fruits and vines which could form the basis of productive farming in the colony.  The superintendents and the convicts had themselves been selected for those with some agricultural experience or skills which could be put to use.  Banks clearly envisioned a Mediterranean style settlement of vineyards and orchards in sunny Australia.  But there is one remarkable exception  –  The Ginkgo biloba.

A look around the eighteenth century mansions of Britain is enough to demonstrate the social significance at the time of this newly-discovered Chinese tree.  Kew Gardens has one known to have been planted in 1762, Blaise Castle House ( built 1796) in Bristol has a huge one adjoining the mansion and the picturesque dairy by John Nash. Ashton Court, another wealthy Bristol merchant’s estate, has three.

The ornamental Dairy adjoining Blaise Castle House.  and a large Ginkgo to the left in view

The ornamental Dairy (1806) adjoining Blaise Castle House. and a large Ginkgo to the left in view

Nanteos mansion here in Ceredigion boasts a group of three of which one is the largest in our county, standing in the pleasure ground adjoining the mansion and screening the garden wall.   Significant houses have at least one of these exotica placed as specimens close to the house.  Towards the end of his career ‘Capability’ Brown routinely included a Ginkgo,  a Cedar of Lebanon, and perhaps an Oriental Plane or a purple beech in plantings viewed from the mansion.

It is reasonable to conclude then that the Ginkgo was destined to complement the Governor’s residence at Port Jackson, though this was probably little more than a shed at that time. It ended its days cast overboard from HMS Guardian along with the cattle, sheep, horses and pigs taken on board at the Cape.  Governor A Phillip of the new colony reported to the Admiralty that in the absence of the expected supplies much of the colony’s small stock of livestock had to be slaughtered for food, and that the convicts, on half rations, were too enfeebled to make much headway with building the store houses and accommodation. With 1000 convicts shortly to be dispatched to his jurisdiction, the loss of  the ginkgo was probably the least of his worries.

 

Source:  HMS Guardian and the Island of Ice  compiled and annotated by Rod Dickson.  Hesperian Press 2012

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A belated return to my blog

by The Curious Scribbler

Who writes a blog when there's a baby to play with?

Who writes a blog when there’s a baby to play with?

Where have I been and what have I been doing since mid November, my regular readers may well ask?   Well nothing really out of the ordinary: a very busy Christmas with the house bursting with guests, a daughter moving house to Bristol, an enchanting one year old grandchild to play with, a nasty bronchial cold, and the fallout from the collapse of a fellow local historian’s book on the very brink of its publication by a small Trust.  This last event occurred as if in illustration of an article by Matthew Parris in the Spectator entitled “Why are volunteers so mean to one another?”  Parris wrote ” What is it about voluntarism, what is it about organisations composed of public spirited people giving of their own time and money for some purpose larger and nobler than themselves, that breeds the poisonous atmosphere that so often chokes their deliberations?” .  In an attempt to answer this question he posits a new explanation.  When people ‘give up their own free time’  for no remuneration, they become very difficult to command. Volunteers consider themselves released from the usual rules of the workplace.  In the case in question, a volunteer steering committee, having engaged a volunteer author, decided, two years later, that they wanted a different book.  Had the publication been driven for profit, the outcome might have been very different. As Parris remarks – the pursuit of principle is an infinitely more corrupting thing.

My own last regular printed output has also come to an end in January  but it was a bloodless end, the death of the magazine Cambria came because it simply could not afford to continue without Welsh Books Council grant aid.  And committees  don’t wish to fund ‘more of the same’ indefinitely.  Cambria has existed for 18 years and for most of them I have been its garden correspondent.  It seldom could afford to pay me, but I was rewarded in other ways;  my copy was never hacked about by an insensitive editor, my pictures were reproduced handsomely, my picture captions emerged correct.  These are virtues which cannot be taken for granted in the world of magazines.  The choice of topics was invariably mine, and my final piece was an account of a visit to the immaculately restored and recreated Allt-y-bela.  The story had first appeared on this blog, in July 2014.  As a final bonus, the magazine has long enjoyed a special status in the catalogues of the National Library of Wales.  So for every article in Cambria, I have been awarded an author-indexed entry in their catalogue, as I would be for articles in more heavy-duty scholarly publications about Wales.

The last issues of Cambria magazine

The last issues of Cambria magazine

But blogs too may earn their immortality and I was gratified to be asked by the NLW for permission to copy and index my blogs relating to the remarkable sculpture by Mario Rutelli on the Aberystwyth war memorial.  This topic continues to develop, leading blog readers to make the pilgrimage to Via Quattro Fontane in Rome to verify the identity of the original bronze, and report back their findings.  Keeping a foot in both the electronic and the printed camps, I propose to write up the story of Aberystwyth’s ‘Humanity emerging from the Horrors of War’ for a printed journal this year.

Letter from Aberystwyth will continue, for the most part as a vehicle for overlooked or long forgotten fragments of our local history.

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Kicking a Badger

by The Curious Scribbler

Last week I was out in my pyjamas at one o’clock in the morning kicking a badger in the ribs.  Which may surprise you since I am in general a tolerant animal lover.

The story begins at about 11-30pm when my guests, recently retired to bed, complained of extremely odd sounds from the quiet lane below their window.  Not, they thought, a cat fight, but a worrying assortment of groans, barks and guttural mumblings.  A car had drawn up and then driven on.  Our family dog had barked within the house.  And the strange sounds continued.

Armed with a torch I went out to investigate.  All was silent, but as I approached the entrance to a field gate I saw a great ball of fluffed out brownish fur.  As I approached it, a sleek young stripey-headed badger detached itself from beside it, and slipped under the field gate to run up the field.  The lump of fur though scarcely moved.  It seemed to scrabble forward with its front feet but the hindquarters dragged on the ground and after a few inches it lay still.  I considered the scene for some time, guessing that the injured badger had perhaps been struck by a car.  It was certainly in shock and shivering.

Reporting back to the family, I described the scene and suggested that the large motionless badger would shortly die of its injuries.  Both the practicalities and the ethics of mercy killing a badger seemed daunting, so we went to bed.

But it did not die quietly.  Soon the grunting and groaning resumed and I rose once more, arming myself with a clump hammer, and thinking that if the badger still lay paralysed and groaning I could perhaps knock it on the head and put it out of its misery.  I went quietly down the road with a torch. The sleek young badger was back, sitting companionably with its back leaned against the older animal , and 50 yards down the road by the light of the only streetlight I saw another young badger running towards me.

As I approached the gateway, companion badger again squeezed under the gate and ran up the hill, but this time old badger was on its four feet, moving around a little.  It seemed a bit dazed but showed  no obvious injury other than some blood around its nose.  Perhaps, I concluded, it was making a recovery.  The clump hammer was stood down and I went to bed once more.

Noise abatement was not achieved.  If anything the gutteral squawks and groans increased and at One a.m. came the sound of a heavy body or bodies colliding with our dustbin.  It rattled back and forth, just failing to fall over.

So up I got once more, dragging on jeans and jumper and running down the road.  And there, beneath the streetlight some 25 yards from where my injured badger had been sheltering was it and a young assailant, locked together and snarling, rolling and dragging one another too and fro in the middle of the road.  Doubtless it was they who had almost toppled the dustbin.  So on the principle of siding with the under badger, I kicked the young attacker in the ribs and chased him 100 yards down the road.  My guests lay in bed transfixed by my yells of  ” Bugger off!  You’re making too much noise.”

Returning, I expected to find injured old badger, released and lying exhausted in the road.  But no, his walking ability had clearly returned and I found him stubbornly back at the field gate where I had first found him. Unlike his slighter young associate he did not seem minded to squeeze under the gate, so I climbed upon it, released the farmer’s wire, and opening it wide over the sodden earth, I poked my badger with a stick until it reluctantly went through into the field.  It trudged off alongside the hedgerow, and I went to bed.

I sat up reading websites about badger social behaviour.  Was our field gateway at the margin of two territories?  Was the companionable badger one of its social group, sitting up against him to share fragrance from his rear scent glands.  Was young badger in the road a warrior from the adjoining tribe down the way?

It’s hard to tell.  But at least the young fighting badger did not return after my blandishments, and the old badger was nowhere to be seen dead in the hedgerow the following day.

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Historic derailment on the Devil’s Bridge Railway

Wet winters are the time for reminiscences, and for ferreting out memorabilia amongst the old photographs which every family accumulates.  This activity recently took me back almost 28 years, to my last excursion on the Vale of Rheidol Railway and a sensational incident now largely lost in the mists of time.

The railway is one of the last narrow gauge railways to be built in Britain, commissioned by Act of Parliament in 1897 as a multifuctional line.  It would transport tourists between Aberystwyth and the spectacular beauty spot of Devil’s Bridge, but it would also extend from Aberystwyth station to the harbour, and facilitate the export of timber and of lead ore from the mountains through which it passed.  There were some difficulties with the financing, but the line opened in 1902 and in its early years it flourished, and indeed stimulated the re-opening of several of the lead mines which to this day scar the flanks of the valley with their mineral-rich spoil heaps.  Two wars and several changes of ownership followed, and at many times the axe must have hovered over this eccentric little railway.  In 1912 it became part of Cambrian Railways, and in 1923 the company was absorbed by Great Western Railways.  In 1948 it became a small but anomalous part of British Railways.  It seems extraordinary that this little steam railway escaped the Beeching cuts.  Aberystwyth lost its rail link to the south at this time, the line which meandered through Llanilar, Tregaron and down to Carmarthen was closed.  Ever since that decision  the residents of Aberystwyth have had to travel to Shrewsbury, in England, before they can get to south Wales.

So on 26 May 1986, when my husband and I and my young children boarded the train with other families for an afternoon excursion to Devil’s Bridge we were in fact travelling on the last steam railway to be operated by British Rail.  It was a fine day, and we all piled into one of the  cheaper fare open carriages which had unglassed windows from which it was customary to wave frenetically at the motorists queued up at the level crossing in Llanbadarn. Then we chugged sedately up the valley, pausing at tiny stations along the way.  At Nantyronen we stopped to take on water.  Children hung out of the windows and  watched fascinated as a great grey hose like an elephant’s trunk was swivelled over the engine to pour water into its tank.   Then the train set off once more, to Aberffrwd, Rheidol Falls and Rhiwfron Stations before arriving at the terminus at Devil’s Bridge.   Here the adventurous would pay for tickets to pass through the tall green turnstile gates and explore the precipitous footpaths of the Mynach Falls and gaze up at the three bridge arches, sitting piggy back atop each other, so that the public road now crosses the valley at a great height above the river.

The open-sided third-class carriages were at the rear of the train on the outward journey up the valley in May 1986

The open-sided third-class carriages were at the rear of the train on the outward journey up the valley in May 1986

The less adventurous, and those with small children would buy ice creams at the kiosk and return to the station half an hour later for the return journey.

In the cheap fare carriages we sat upon bench seats, hung out the windows and sometimes inhaled a gust of steam and soot from the Owain Glyndwr which propelled us.  But there was a grander option, the First Class Carriage, which had glazed windows, and upholstered seats, just like a full sized train.  And in 1986 there was also a special, even more expensive coach, the Vista Car which we had recently watched passing the Llanbadarn playground.   In it the passengers sat in tiered rows like a theatre, all facing out the side to admire the view through a big plate glass window.  The line hugs the south side of the Rheidol valley so the big views were all to the north.  It was the front carriage on the outward journey and the last carriage, at the back of the train on the return.

The return journey is easier for the locomotive, being downhill or level all the way, and there was no water stop at Nantyronen.  But 1/3 of a mile further along, as the train rounded a gentle corner and passed through some trees, there was a violent lurch, metallic screeching and our train jolted to a halt.  Leaning out of our open sided windows we soon realised that while we 3rd class passengers in the front three carriages remained on the tracks the last two carriages were tipped over at an angle of 45 degrees, stopped from falling further by the felicitous presence of a small embankment beside the track.  The driver, the only attendant on the train, walked back along the track to view the scene as the First Class passengers, some visibly shaken threw back the doors and clambered out the upper side of their leaning train.  Those in the Vista Car had all been tumbled onto the plate glass, and had to clamber along it to emerge through the end door on the other side.

The Vista Car at the rear of the train had tipped over, dragging the next carriage with it

The Vista Car at the rear of the train had tipped over, dragging the next carriage with it

1986 was before mobile phones and the driver had to walk off to find a landline to summon assistance.  Then everyone was instructed to walk back to the nearest halt and wait for buses to collect them.  I don’t believe anyone was more than bruised but it took a further two hours before we were returned the six miles to Aberystwyth.  Many mused on the disastrous possibilities had the accident occurred on a different corner, without embankment, where the carriage could have rolled unimpeded into the valley below, dragging the train with it.  Most of us felt very lucky and I don’t think anyone received compensation.

The front three carriages remained upright, while the rear two had lurched off the line.

The front three carriages remained upright, while the rear two had lurched off the line.

 

Passengers emerging from the Vista Car and the First Class coach in front of it.

Passengers emerging from the Vista Car and the First Class coach in front of it.

The Vista Car was never seen again.  It was new that season, and on that fine May day, heavily laden with passengers seated in tiers, I believe that its uneven distribution of weight and high centre of gravity  caused it to topple on the bend, pulling the rest of the train with it.  A British Rail Accident Enquiry was announced in the local paper the next week but I never heard the result of it.  In 1989 British Rail was privatised and the railway is now run by a charitable trust.

For years afterwards my young children would demand to play the “Devil’s Bridge Railway game”, which consisted of a leg ride on a parent seated on the sofa.  The ride became gradually more vigorous until suddenly the giggling child would be pitched off onto the floor to the accompaniment of squealing sound effects.  Re-enactment games are the best.  Before long it can be played all over again, with my first grand-daughter, who was born at Christmas.

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The Joy of Cats ( episode 2)

by The Curious Scribbler

In November 2012 I wrote about Boris and Bertha, our new tabby kittens, latest in a distinguished series of tabbies to dwell at this house.  Now they are adults, 18 months old.

Shortly after that post they underwent the indignity of being spayed – an obligation you have to sign up to in an explicit pledge if you get your kittens form the Cat’s Protection League.  It’s undoubtedly a good rule to limit the feral cat population, though I can’t help also remembering fondly the days when we had un-neutered toms, Tomcat and later Kevin, whose rich private lives were hinted at by their erratic disappearances and by the hunger and occasional scars with which they returned home, triumphant.  Kevin, in the 1990s contracted feline AIDS, and I remember the gloom which enveloped the household after his blood test revealed him to be FIV positive.  The vet remarked that, in view of the diagnosis he was surprisingly well at present, and so we took him home and promoted him from “Black Cat” brand cat food at 12p a tin to little pieces of fresh cod and other nutritious delicacies. To everyone’s surprise Kevin thrived, and lived life to the full for another decade.  His blood test had been promoted by the appearance of a sort of raw growth, a ‘Rodent Ulcer’ on his nose, an affliction comparable with Kaposi’s Sarcoma in people.  Surprisingly, on his improved diet this regressed and healed, but it left him with a lopsided and slightly quizzical sneer on his face.  When he wasn’t in pursuit of voles and rabbits he liked to go to church, where he would stroll up and down the aisle during the sermon.  We never went with him.  As one of the parishioners, the writer Kathleen Humphreys, informed me one day, “You may not be a churchgoer, my dear – but I would like to inform you that your cat is extremely devout.”  Kevin was a huge personality and formed a close bond with Kay.  So much so that she left him something in her will.  Unfortunately he predeceased her.

Anyway, Boris (who was in any case destined to live with his sister) was deprived of his testicles in late November a year ago, and appeared not to notice their loss.  For Bertha the experience was more trying and she excelled herself in her efforts to remove her stitches.  The vet provided a sort of post surgical baby-gro for her to wear but she soon extracted herself from it. Instead she had to wear a humiliating lampshade on her neck and kept colliding with doorways she expected to pass easily through.  Every day I would release her from her lampshade for while, so that she could eat in comfort, and play with her and take her mind off grooming her scar.  By the time the vet removed the scratchy black stitches ten days later her tabby pattern was growing back as a soft velvet pelt on her shaved patch.

Bertha did not much like wearing her lampshade collar.

Christmas provided scope for new exploration, and both cats entered into the excitement of tinsel and glittery baubles, and the comfort of relaxing with their family.

Boris gets to grips with a tinsel decoration

A  sofa full of pets and family.

Bertha (left) and Boris (right) assess a new toy. Bertha’s fur was regrowing on her shaved patch.

And so we learned that Boris has a very special characteristic – he chatters his teeth!  When his attention is caught by a bright ceiling light, or reflected sunlight tracking from a bauble across the wall, he gazes fixedly at it and his lower jaw judders to audibly rattle his teeth.  He will chatter his teeth in short bursts for minutes on end.  No previous cat of my acquaintance has performed this trick.  He catches mice and voles too, though he has not yet found out how to eat them and leave the gall bladder on the mat.  Bertha is particularly adept at catching flies.

The relationship between the cats and Otto the Lhasa Apso is everything I could have wished, the three are firm friends.  The cats often sleep together, and groom and play fight amongst themselves. Both cats also submit to having their ears groomed by affectionate dog licks, and present themselves for inspection when they re-enter the house.  Otto and Boris also have an understanding where wild cat chases are concerned.  These are invariably initiated by Boris and may involve several circuits within the house.  But my morning tea time is pet chill-out time, and all three animals adopt positions of ease around me on the bed.

The animals take their ease while I have my morning cup of tea

The animals take their ease while I have my morning cup of tea

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Hospital is no place for the old

I listened to Anne Clwyd MP on the radio the other day, describing the conditions of disinterest and neglect ( like a battery hen)  which marked her husband’s death in hospital in Cardiff.  In the wake of the Mid Staffordshire inquiry, she has been appointed to a government committee to advise on how NHS hospitals should handle complaints.

She has been inundated with correspondence from people from all over the UK whose relatives received little care or compassion on NHS wards. But perhaps most shocking is that while individuals regularly make the same observations, it is widely recognised  among professionals that hospital is no place for the old.

I was responsible for managing my nonagerarian mother’s care and experience in a nursing home in the last five years of her life. About 3 years ago she became severely dehydrated as the result of prolonged diarrhoea.  In need of rehydration the GP assigned her to hospital.

I say assigned because, although the distance was less than a mile it took four hours for her to be admitted.  Those four hours were spent in an ambulance on the tarmac outside A&E, parked alongside three other ambulances containing elderly non-urgent patients.  It was a a freezing cold, brilliantly sunny, January day.  Only two ambulances remained in service, I was told, to deal with emergencies in the entire county!

This part of the care was, however, very good to my mother.  While an IV saline drip cannot (for reasons of arcane regulation)  be provided in a nursing home, she was promptly attached to one in the ambulance.  The heating in the van was excellent, and for nearly four hours she lay quietly rehydrating, attended by the paramedic, the driver, a young care assistant from the care home and myself.  If only, after the four hours, she could have been taken back to her nursing home!

She was at last processed in A&E and eventually admitted to a ward within the target waiting time (not including the ambulance-blocking hours, which do not count towards the target).  It was there that the inadequacies of care became seriously apparent.  Placed in a side ward she was left alone for long periods and not provided with a call bell.  Anti nausea medicine prescribed by the doctor took more than seven hours to appear from the pharmacy.  Simple comforts like tea appeared seldom, ( certainly not on request) while meals were served during “protected mealtimes” when witnessing relatives were banished from the ward. Nursing staff were sullen and uncommunicative.

‘Is she eating anything?’ I asked at the nursing station on my daily visits.

‘Oh we’re very keen on food.’ was the evasive reply.

But evidence there was none.  Full plates were cleared away untouched.  Food and fluid  intake charts were not filled in.  Although quite able to stand my mother was manhandled with a hoist and wheelchair to visit her en suite loo.  No one sought to find out what her physical abilities were. In her own words, she felt she was handled like a piece of meat. Over a week she became more and more deeply miserable.On the sixth day, without explanation, or recording in the notes, she was put onto a glucose drip.  Perhaps they finally noticed she wasn’t eating anything?

Laundry is a reponsibility of the visiting relatives, and on each day I would be provided with a bag of dirties to take home.  Because the reason for her bowel problem remained undiagnosed she was receiving ” barrier nursing”.  How then did the bags I took home prove to contain other patients’ labelled clothing?  When I called to point this out the staff nurse told me that that the two owners of the nightdresses had died, and that I should throw these items away.  A little research proved this to untrue.  One of the ladies was back at my mother’s nursing home, and I eventually returned her freshly laundered nightdress!  I failed to trace the other. But it summed up the attitude on that ward.  Old women with a nursing home tag on their admission bracelet were not seen as individuals.  They were a generic nuisance.

Eventually I wrote a letter to the consultant ( whom I never saw) requesting that she be discharged, whether they knew what was wrong with her or not. I refused permission for invasive tests, which she would have experienced as nothing short of an assault.

In the course of that week I realised then that hospital is just too harsh an environment for a frail nonagenarian.  And that the quality of care is lowest for this category of patient. In her subsequent management I always pointed out to GPs responsible for her care that hospital was not an appropriate destination for the very old.  No one ever disagreed, or suggested that the benefits could outweigh the de-merits of hospital admission.

 

 

 

 

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Twelfth Night

by The Curious Scribbler

We took down the Christmas tree today.

The tree bears witness to six decades of decoration styles

It seems there is a certain amount of debate as to when you start counting the nights of Christmas and when the children were small we usually took it down on the 6th, Epiphany. No serious bad luck attended this oversight I’m glad to say.  Now there is a wealth of advice on the web which explains that Twelfth Night is really the 5th of January, though an exception is often made for decorations featuring the crib, since the wise men are not scheduled to rock up until the 6th.

So the boxes are retrieved from the loft and I spend the afternoon dusting and putting away the Christmas treasures each in their own flimsy sectionalised cardboard box.   For our tree represents a sixty-year accumulation of treasures: gaudy Czechoslovakian blown glass baubles, clip-on glass birds with glass fibre tails, wooden toys, metal musical instruments, American painted wood hummingbirds dangling on long white strings, glass candles, foil flowers and angels, and twisted bi-coloured metal strips which hang from the branches turning in the slightest air movement.  Almost every year a box or at least a few items have been added to the tree.

This year I will show you the oldest baubles we have: five British-made Austerity baubles from 1945. My newly married parents spent the last two years of the war in the Gold Coast (now Ghana) and then moved to smoke-stained and dispirited York, a far cry from the brightly burnished tourist town of today.   Burnished decorations were also in short supply, the Czech glass industry  all but extinguished.

But someone in Britain had sought to fill the gap, with ornately moulded glass not seen before or since, and my mother bought a box of five.  The little caps with the spring legs which slot into the neck are far solider than in normal baubles, and with an inconveniently tiny eyelet which makes them difficult to thread.  And they are quite drab-coloured, rather than the familiar mirrored glass, one is misty blue, one red, one green.   Their opacity resembles Roman glass retrieved from the sea. Two smaller ones are mirrored silver, probably indeed made like mirrors, and like old mirrors the silvering has slipped and tarnished.   But these wartime baubles held their own as the glossier foreign goods reappeared and have always had a special place in my affections.  Those who grew up reading the Tim books by Edward Ardizzone will remember when Tim went to sea and Ginger, the cabin boy, illicitly drank of the first mate’s patent hair-growing medicine.  The blue bauble has always, for me, represented the flask of the dreaded hair tonic in the book.  And the other baubles have ridges, grooves and ornamental bosses unlike anything which has been produced since.  Neither the largest nor the brightest, these ornaments set the stage for the continuous collecting of the following years.

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The blue moulded bauble reminded me of Ardizzone’s hair tonic bottle.

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The Green glass bauble

The mirror glass baubles have not aged well

Also from 1945, showing signs of age

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The red bauble moulded in the same form as the green one

Czech glass appeared in glittering heaps and bins in the upstairs section of W.H.Smiths by the late 50s. I remember the year my mother bought a golden glass trumpet with the metal reed set in its flaring bell, which we were each allowed to blow, just once, before it was hung on the tree, and I remember the year I was allowed to select my own novelty bauble and I chose a copper coloured kettle with handle and spout, about two inches tall.  I treasure it still.

    My Copper kettle - A Czechoslovakian glass bauble from the later 1950s

My Copper kettle – A Czechoslovakian glass bauble from the later 1950s

 

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Reflections on dementia

by The Curious Scribbler

My mother was never considered to be suffering from Alzheimer’s disease.  Indeed her death certificate (for she died, a week ago, aged 94) has a slightly farcical ring about it.  Her certified causes of death are Hypertension, Old Age and Memory Loss.  It reads as if she just forgot to go on living.   More likely vascular dementia played a part.  Abnormalities of this sort were detected in a brain scan about seven years ago, and her final years were marked by a number of TIAs (Transient ischaemic attacks) or mini strokes, from which she usually physically recovered, though there were new lapses in memory and ability.

But what is more striking than what she lost is what she retained:  an iron certainty that she was right, and that the only way of doing things was her way.  In my last blog this certainty applied to the control of the items on her overbed table and to her method of achieving quality control on her diet of chocolate buttons.

Here she is five years ago in another white-knuckle account I wrote then:

Shopping for my elderly mother: The quest for the perfect toothbrush                     13 February 2007

I have searched every chemist in town for a small-headed Maclean’s toothbrush like the worn one I have been compelled to carry around in my handbag for the last week.
Eventually I go to the dentists’ and queue to ask if they have any of these toothbrushes (this is where Mummy says they come from, – but because they are no longer on visible display she did not ask for them when she went to the dentist last week). They sell me an OralB small-headed toothbrush which is very similar to the Maclean’s one. The assistant has worked there for eight years. She is quite definite that they have never sold Maclean’s toothbrushes.

I took the toothbrush round to my mother and handed it to her.
She gazed at it and laughed merrily.  “Ha,Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha.” She chuckled.

 I couldn’t muster such a cheerful peal however hard I tried.
She drew breath and laughed again.
“What,” I asked calmly “is so funny about it?”
“Oh, I’ve never seen one like it!” she replied.

I point out its similarity to her present Maclean’s tooth brush, which I fetch from upstairs. The small head is exactly the same size. The handle has one blue flash rather than three diagonal stripes. The handle, she says is very long. She has never seen such a long toothbrush.

I hold them side by side:  once you subtract the packaging, the two toothbrushes are exactly the same length.
So now we come to the bristles. This new toothbrush has the tufts of bristles cut on a slight diagonal so that they are longer at the front. The toothbrush she has just started using has them cut square. The manky brown-stained ex-toothbrush in my handbag has alternate pairs of long and short tufts.

But I can tell, it is not, and never will be, satisfactory. I tell her that the assistant at the Dentists’ says that they never did stock Maclean’s toothbrushes. She shakes her head emphatically with a knowing grin. She knows when she is being told a whopper.

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Was this a symptom of dementia?  Or was she just being herself?

 

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