18 June 2010

'I do like to be beside the seaside...'

Barafundle Beach, Pembrokeshire coast

"I do like to be beside the seaside"

Music hall tune written by John Glover-Kind (1907)

Every delights to spend their summer's holiday
Down beside the side of the silvery sea
I'm no exception to the rule
In fact, if I'd my way
I'd reside by the side of the silvery sea.

But when you're just the common or garden
Smith or Jones or Brown
At bus'ness up in town
You've got to settle down.
You save up all the money you can till summer comes around.
Then you go away
To a spot you know
Where the cockle shell are found.

Oh, I do like to be beside the seaside,
I do like to be beside the sea!
I do like to stroll along the prom, prom, prom,
Where the brass bands play ‘Tiddly om pom pom.’

So just let me be beside the seaside,
I’ll be beside myself with glee.
And there’s lots of girls beside,
I should like to be beside,
Beside the seaside!
Beside the sea!

The seaside holiday--like the camping holiday-- is an iconic experience of British life.

Mainland Britain is blest with over 11,073 miles (17,820 km) of coastline, much of which is protected and preserved by the National Trust, and other such organizations, and easily accessible.

As a result, nearly everyone you meet has a story, or two, at least, of fond childhood memories of family holidays by the sea.

The locations may differ (Saundersfoot, Blackpool, Scarborough, St. Ives, Torquay, and son on) but the details are invariably similar: tales of stunning views, breath-taking beauty, surprising sunshine, and of course the ever-predictable rain.

Growing up in the land-locked, lush and humid landscape of the American south; where relief from an arid summer’s baking heat came only in the shape of ponds, lakes and muddy rivers, the British seaside holiday, as I imagined and read about it books, seemed a magical thing.

For me, this image/idea was captured most successfully and indelible by the singer Morrissey (The Smiths) and his song “Everyday is Like Sunday”. The video for this song splashed onto MTV in the summer of 1987; and featured amazing British actress, Billie Whitelaw, as the blithe and breezy, tea-making mum. (Billie Whitelaw should be everyone’s mum!)

Perhaps, dear Reader, if you of a certain age, you will recall this one, too?...

The DEB and I have a little Mercedes camper van that provides us with transport and shelter on our little holidays and getaways. This past week we took the Princess Puppy and ventured off to the beautiful landscape of the Pembrokeshire coast in South Wales.

We stayed at a Caravan Club site near the beach at Freshwater Water East.

The site was run by Brian & Janet and Geoff & Babs two, really helpful and friendly couples. They were always at the ready with advice and recommendations.

The location was quite remarkable, more of a park ground really, with rabbits bobbing around everywhere; and we were flanked on one side by the sound of bleating sheep on our left, and the sound of splashing waves on the right. Magic.

We were smart to plan our trip for the week just after half term, which meant – NO KIDDIES!! In other words: quiet campsite, day and night; and beaches that were practically secluded and nearly empty.

The amazing thing about British beaches is that on a really good, hot, sunny day you could be anywhere in the world, the beaches are that spectacular. The only things that “good, hot, sunny days” are never guaranteed on this precious isle.

This is one way in which living in England has changed me/my life forever. My life, as never before, is utterly ruled by weather! For our 1 week holiday in Wales, I packed as if we’d be away for 3!

Fleeces, jumpers, socks, jackets, flipflops, trainers, shorts, long trousers, capris, summer skirt, dressy skirt, warm skirt, swim suit (swimming costume), and a wet suit – just a few of the items in my bag!

It’s all about layers and being prepared for the unexpected, and the inevitable. For example, I took along three different jackets: a light, J.Crew denim one; a fleece zippy one; and a puffy, quilted water-proof one.

Well, it is only June, after all.

And, anything could happen weather-wise! On Sunday, we were on the beach, roasting (yes, roasting) nicely in the sun; Tuesday found me berating myself for foolishly leaving my precious green wellies behind!

A soaked DEB in soggy Saundersfoot

Something I would not normally have done, but my one excuse is that it was June, and I was hopeful...

A familiar, washed-out, British seaside holiday scene

Fortunately, the rain only dampened our plans for one day; and the rest of the holiday was blissfully sunny.

We explored the spectacular Pembrokeshire coastline, which made us proud to be members (and in my case, staff) of the National Trust.

The DEB at Barafundle, National Trust coastline and beach

The Princess Puppy surveying the land of her ancestors on Stackpole Estate Beach (National Trust)

We donned our wetsuits and braved the waves. The first time for me! Incredible experience, and now I’m hooked!!

We ventured off the beaten path, after taking a wrong turn, quite literally, and discovered a small village pub in called the Stackpole Inn.

The food was gorgeous, on our first visit I had salmon and the DEB had Welsh pork. We went back on our last evening and we both had fresh, Welsh lamb. Lovely! And, the most delicious Summer Pudding that I have ever had!

I have to say, I didn’t find Welsh ale very inspiring. Compared to good, old English ale, the Welsh variety seemed a bit stale, flat and bland. But, then, to be fair, I only tried one or two. I am, however, more than willing to explore this topic further!

The Welsh get a lot of stick, for their beer, and a whole host of other reasons. There’s an old adage I’ve heard, that goes like this: “The Scots hate the English, the English hate the Irish; and everybody hates the Welsh!”

Well, The DEB and I really enjoy Wales and the Welsh; and as my paternal grandmother was proudly a “Jones”, I claim a bit of Welsh pride.

The nice thing about Wales is that it is so close (4 hours drive for us to the coast), and yet “feels” so far away. Not bad for ticking all my holiday boxes: history, culture beach – and not necessarily in that order.

Pembroke Castle, birthplace of Henry VII (Henry Tudor)
(Pembroke is a nice little town, with an excellent Fish and Chip shop right near the castle!)

17 June 2010

May column: "Why I W.I."

There have been few moments in my life more powerful than one I had a few months ago in Leamington Spa. On a bright, spring day in March, I found myself in the auditorium of the Spa Centre, in the midst of roughly 1,000 Warwickshire women, standing shoulder to shoulder, singing a rousing rendition of “Jerusalem”. My heart swelled with pride, and I fought back tears, as I surveyed the sea of sisterhood that surrounded me.

I am proud to be a member of the WI.

I will confess, when I first joined the Barford WI in 2008, I was secretly harbouring an ambition be “Miss August” – but I soon realized that there is more to being a member of the WI than Calendar Girls.

Surely, I can be forgiven for my initial, naïve assumption. In my American imagination, fueled by novels, television, and films, I envisioned the quaint world of the WI as one teeming with formidable, handsome women, dressed in sensible skirts of year-round tweed; gliding through idyllic, English villages to their monthly meetings on little bicycles, with wicker baskets affixed to their handle-bars, filled to the brim with flowers that had been arranged with great care. To be sure, I also understood that the niceties and tweed of this Marplesque world were on occasion put aside, or rather, shed for the camera in aid of a good cause.

First formed in 1915, the Women’s Institute, was established with two key objectives: to revitalise rural communities, and to encourage women to become more involved in food production during the First World War. Since that time, the WI’s aims have broadened to play a unique role in providing women with educational opportunities, the chance to learn new skills, to take part in a wide variety of activities, and to campaign on issues that matter to them and their communities.

The WI is the largest voluntary organization for women in the United Kingdom, with over 205,000 members. Of course, the WI was emblazoned upon the global imagination by the film Calendar Girls. However, beyond the delightful characters, and the wonderful controversy of the film’s storyline, I was most impressed by the incredible sense of community these women espoused, and their willingness to ‘tough it out’ together. The cause that spurred them on was immediate and personal - one woman’s loss became the community’s crusade.

I was moved by the evocative ending of the film wherein the dynamic Calendar Girls returned to their tiny village, after their somewhat fraught promotional trip to Los Angeles. They arrive just as the monthly WI meeting has commenced, they creep into the village hall tentatively, unsure of their welcome; but rather than being shunned, as they expect, they are enthusiastically gathered back into the flock, just in time to join in singing “Jerusalem”.

I recall my own apprehensive approach into the WI on a brisk, autumnal night in 2008. I slipped shyly into the Barford Village Hall, unsure of my reception, and was met immediately by the warm, smiling face of Jean Tuck, Barford WI Registrar at the time, who encouraged me to sign the book. With a giddy heart and trembling hand, I added my name, just as then-President, Angela Watkins, lowered her gavel to start the meeting. There and then, I, too, was welcomed and embraced into this incredible fold. Never once feeling out of place, out of step, or out of sorts. I felt, and still do, that I belonged.

I never had the opportunity to join a sorority in my undergraduate or post-graduate university days – as nearly all of the women of my family have done. So perhaps, now, at this stage in my life, I am seeking out sisterhood - beyond the standard bonds of family or friendship - an ‘incorporated sisterhood,’ or, a sisterhood with a mission statement.

Despite long-held views of the WI being merely a composite of ‘middle-aged, middle-class, Middle England,’ in truth, the modern WI is a thriving and evolving organization that has a solid appeal to women across ages, cultures, economic backgrounds, races, and geography.

Notably, in recent years there has been a rise in the number of newly-formed WIs, particularly of a younger generation variety, who have dubbed themselves “WI Lite”; as well as a steadily growing number of urban and inner-city WIs, springing up in places as seemingly un-‘bicycles-with-wicker-baskets’ as Hackney and Manchester.

Such evolution should be no surprise in our age of economic re-evaluation, clarion calls to thriftiness, and communal goals of living more simply and responsibly. With its utopian ideals of ‘building Jerusalem’ from the hearth, home and garden, the WI has always been at the fore of progressive thinking, long before the now-fashionable ‘mend, make, and recycle’ trends being championed today by such social commentators as India Knight.

But just what does the WI mean to the diverse range of women who are being drawn into its ranks? I can only speak for myself and surmise what it has meant to and for me.

The WI has helped me to re-connect with the more practical and crafty side of myself; offered opportunities to campaign for a tidier village, the British honeybee, trees in Ethiopia, AIDS prevention in South India, and against violence to women; provided an outlet for my longstanding trivia addiction with its regular Quizzes; and has renewed my interest in the all-important hearth and domestic realm; which, in turn has rejuvenated my professional life as a Shakespeare scholar, by inspiring me to pursue a cookery book project centred on Shakespeare and food. In short, the WI has improved the overall quality of my life.

In addition, and in some ways more importantly, the WI has shown me the true meaning of community. My status as a newcomer to this area could not have been more pronounced for me than last year, when my ‘Darling English Boy’ proposed (on Christmas Eve, no less) and we decided to marry in May 2009.

Here I was, a lone bride-to-be with family and friends an ocean away. My WI chums became the mothers, aunts, and sisters that I so desperately needed. They were quite literally and metaphorically, anchors of support in the midst of my nuptial travails.

Their ingenuity, creativity, good humour, and endless cups of tea helped me through the drama of orchestrating a transatlantic wedding: from offering advice on wedding music (“Jerusalem” was the chosen as the closing hymn, of course); to churning out vats of the Lavender Jam (made from a recipe we invented) that became the precious wedding tokens given to our reception guests.

Their role and importance on the wedding day itself cannot be overlooked. As Queen Victoria once noted, every bride, no matter who she may be, is ‘pale and anxious’ on her wedding day. As I stepped into St. Peter’s Church, that glorious May afternoon, I was indeed somewhat pale, and undoubtedly anxious.

Then, I heard the sturdy tones of my fellow WI-er, Philippa Wilson, who declared resolutely in my direction, “Beautiful.” My nerves subsided instantly as I looked up and saw her, and a gaggle of the Barford WI filling the rear pews of the church.

Just as they shepherded my arrival, the Barford WI enriched our coming forth. As my new husband and I exited the church, to our surprise, we were flanked on either side by a stunning WI guard of honour, holding aloft long wooden spoons decorated beautifully with garlands of flowers and streaming ribbon.

It was an incredible moment. Like a scene from a Jane Austen novel! But more than that, it seemed to encapsulate my rite of passage from one phase of womanhood to another, shielded by the matrons of the WI.

Clearly, on that fortuitous evening in October 2008, I came away from my first WI meeting with far more than just a jar of green tomato chutney and blackberry jam. The Barford WI is a group of terrific, dynamic, engaged and engaging women. Women I am proud to call my friends. Our membership spans an age range of ‘the nearly 100s’ to the ‘nearly 40s’. The fellowship, exchanges of ideas, sharing of wisdom, tradition, history, and life experience that transpire therein are quite remarkable.

I have yet to master ‘the merciless Marmalade’ (my sole attempt at the great WI institution that is “Seville Orange Marmalade” was more akin to congealed orange Fanta), I doubt I will ever win the Annual Corsage competition, and sometimes, I still hanker to be “Miss August,” but beyond a shadow of any doubt, joining the WI is one of the best life choices I have ever made.

Vacation, all I ever wanted...

Why is returning to life after being on holiday so difficult? Or, perhaps a better question is Why can't we just be on holiday all the time?

At any rate, we're back after an incredible week in Wales, update to follow!

05 June 2010


DEB and I escaping to the Pembrokeshire coast this morning! Hope there's wifi there!! :)
If not, I'm back on 12 June!

Costume Inspiration: Madonna, "Like A Virgin", 1984

For those who are too young, or too old, to have seen this at the time...here's Madge in all her glory!

04 June 2010

Choosing wisely

You know you’ve married the right man when

He buys you a set of fish knives & forks for your first wedding anniversary and thinks it's utterly romantic and so do you!

This past weekend, the DEB and I had just celebrated our first wedding anniversary – (can it really have been a year already?!) – and we had an incredible time.

Anniversary cake and cupcakes
(in our wedding colours)

Our rellies from up North came and joined us, dividing their time between our new house and that of the DEB’s brother, The Guru. It was absolutely wonderful playing hostess to Uncle C. and Auntie D.

They arrived late afternoon on Thursday, and after getting them settled, I launched into Domestic Goddess mode. I prepared my first "dinner for the family". The trout was a huge success. Here is the recipe I used:

Tangy Trout

4 trout fillets

100g breadcrumbs

1 tbsp butter, softened

1 small bunch parsley, chopped

zest and juice of 1 lemon, plus lemon wedges to serve

25g pine nuts , toasted and half roughly chopped

3 tbsp olive oil


Heat the grill to high. Lay the fillets, skin side down, on an oiled baking tray. Mix together the breadcrumbs, butter, parsley, lemon zest and juice, and half the pine nuts. Scatter the mixture in a thin layer over the fillets, drizzle with the oil and place under the grill for 5 mins. Sprinkle over the remaining pine nuts, then serve with the lemon wedges and a potato salad.

(I cooked the trout for a bit longer than suggested, and served with beetroot and spinach salad; asparagus; new potatoes and a parmesan cheese sauce.)

Our Darling Nephew, H., turned up for a surprise visit, and Hostess-with-the-Mostest that I am (or strive to be), I always have a bundle of sausages and a packet of chips at the ready in case he drops by. That's his favo(u)rite meal!

On Friday, the DEB and I took Uncle C. and Auntie D. to Charlecote Park for the day; and met up with The Guru and his partner,The Guru-ette, for an evening meal at The Peacock, an award-winning Warwickshire pub in the tiny village of Oxhill. Splendid.

Saturday was a busy-ish day, with last minute preparation for the Big Anniversary Bash on Sunday.

As noted in my “How should we celebrate our first anniversary?” poll, I was stuck on what would be the best way to commemorate the day. This is where gurus come in handy. A random conversation over dinner with The Guru in April, inspired me to opt for an evening “do” with a twist: Fancy Dress.

Who doesn’t love getting into costume?

Finally, my dream came true: a “We Are the 80s” fancy dress party! (Any excuse to remember the 80s, and dress up as Madonna is a good one as far as I’m concerned.)

The DEB glammed up nicely as Adam Ant, in full Prince Charming/Highwayman regalia – 'Stand and Deliver', indeed! And, I scoured the internet and successfully pulled together a Madonna “Like A Virgin”(MTV Music Awards 1984) outfit.

I found a designer, who calls herself “Princess Petticoat”, via eBay UK who custom-made a copy of Madge's iconic, billowy, white skirt. It was absolutely dreamy!

And, who isn’t a fool for tulle?

Princess Petticoat’s other specialty is custom-made versions of Carrie Bradshaw’s little tulle skirt from 'Sex & the City'. (Check her out on eBay UK!)

The party was a huge success, even the weather cooperated! Everyone really went for it. That’s the thing about Fancy Dress/Costume parties, it is so much more fun/funny when people make the effort and go all out. And in this regard, I was not disappointed in the least!!

Mr. and Mrs. Chef as 'Suzy Quattro' and 'Slash'

'Andrew Ridgeley' from Wham! and 'Adam Ant'

I have to say the very best moment was when the extended DEB family turned up en masse, and enacted a grand entrance through the garden. They came around the corner individually, for full effect to resounding gales of glee and applause.

The Guru-ette had fooled us all by saying that she was anti-Fancy Dress, and planned to take her cue from the Nirvana song “Come as you are”. She bowled us all over by turning up as Kelly McGillis’ leggy, blonde character from the quintessential 80s movie, Top Gun!

The other surprise was Auntie D. and Uncle C. representing "the definitive couple of the 80s”: Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher.

Even so, top prize had to go to The Guru who struck terror and admiration in the hearts of all the guests as a frighteningly uncanny Gene Simmons.

There is an old proverb that says: “In birth, we have the family we are given; in marriage we acquire the family we deserve.” I’m happy to say, beyond a shadow of a doubt, this proverb is true!

My family, ladies and gentlemen, my family:
'Ronald Reagan', 'Gene Simmons' (from Kiss), 'Graeme Souness' (legendary Liverpool Footballl captain), 'Kelly McGillis' (from Top Gun) and 'Mrs. Thatcher'

Cyndi Lauper in full voice - "Girls just wanna have fun!"

The DEB and I had an "Anniversary First Dance" (to the appropriately 80s theme from Starlight Express); and I “performed” the ‘Like a Virgin’ video for the DEB, in front of everyone…well, after the Vicar had gone home, of course!

(NB. The Vicar came dressed as "Blackadder", Mrs. Vicar won the "Most Creative Costume Idea" award for coming as "an extra from the film Ghandi; Their Son thrilled us all with his impression of Freddie Mercury from the group Queen.)

“The first year of marriage is often considered the year of adjustment. As you celebrate this special 1st wedding anniversary, reflect on the both the delicate and hardy aspects of your marriage and of your love for one another.” – Sheri & Bob Stritoff

According to tradition, first wedding anniversary gifts are of Paper. However, more moderns trends are for practical gifts that reflect, as marriage gurus Sheri & Bob Stritoff put it, “the delicate and hardy aspects” of one’s marriage and love.

The DEB and I attempted to capture a bit of both traditional and modern aspects in our gifts choices for each other. We gave each other 'hardy', practical gifts: I bought the DEB a pair of (sexy to me) Hunter wellies for men; and he gave me a pair of (sexy to him) women's Craghopper trousers for our holiday adventures, and the Robert Welch 'Fish service' I have been coveting for over a year!

My 'delicate' gift from the DEB was a precious bouquet of a dozen, long stemmed, red roses. I combined the delicate concept with the traditional 'Paper' idea by buying the DEB an antiquarian book of old English ballads and folk tunes.

I have found the one whom my soul loves.
- Song of Solomon, 3:4

02 June 2010

A passing

This past week saw the passing of a wonderful man in our little village. Last Monday, St. Peter’s Church was filled to capacity and overflowing with mourners paying tribute and bidding farewell to the man loving known as “The Doc”.

The DEB and I had had the very good fortunate of meeting and becoming acquainted with Chris, his wonderful wife, Maggie, and his delightful family. Our blossoming friendship was a meeting of kindred spirits and like minds.

As we sat in one of the makeshift extra rows at the rear of St. Peter’s, the DEB and I shared a deep sense of regret, as we listened to tales of the Doc’s remarkable life from those who had known and loved him best.

How longed and wished we had had more chances to know him better; to have shared more stories, theories and philosophies with him; to have heard more of his travels and his spiritual quests.

Previously, I would never have thought of describing a funeral as “beautiful”, but that is precisely the best word to describe the celebration of Chris’ life. It seemed to me that this, his final journey, was a true encapsulation of his life path as a whole; and so very like him: moving, inspiring and deeply meaningful. Every moment of the service was a reminder of his incredible magnanimity and largess of spirit.

It seemed to me that this celebration of Chris' life was in a way itself like one of the many provocative conversations one could have with him. I left the service, with a saddened heart, but a prompted mind and spirit; inspired by what, whom and all that this great man has left behind. His was a life well lived and well-loved. A challenge to us all.

Chris’ funeral was the first such service I have attended here in England. The elegance and grace of the service and its customs, including a formal procession led by a stately and somberly clad funeral director/undertaker, was fitting tribute to this dignified and soulful man. He shall be sorely missed.


During Victorian times no funeral was complete without some degree of pomp and ceremony provided by undertakers with black-plumed horses, elaborate horse-drawn hearses, funeral coaches, and attendants. Dickens immortalised an image of the grim, money-grasping undertaker with Mr Sowerberry, in his classic tale Oliver Twist, but the reality was that undertakers became essential to the community because everyone, irrespective of status, wanted a decent burial for their kinfolk. – Ian Waller, “Undertakers: A Decent Burial”, Your Family Tree magazine, 7 Oct 2005)

Pictured: Louise Ryan (aged 20) in Newport, South Wales, believed to be Britain's youngest, female funeral director

(Daily Mail, 23 April 2009)