Friday, 31 October 2014

A Halloween ghost walk in Bridport

The mist swirls down from Dorset's highest point as I drive along dark country lanes into town.

It is appropriate weather for the Bridport Ghost Walk just two days before Halloween.

Clouds dip and dive around a slip of a crescent moon in a black sky. And there they all are, waiting in Bucky Doo Square for the walk to begin.
We'd hoped our guide would be dressed, Ripper-style, in a top hat and cloak. But he makes up for this lack of drama by his detailed knowledge of Bridport and its history. It's a town I know well, really well, but tonight I'm seeing it from a totally different perspective.

Who would think, when sitting on a bench in the square enjoying a sandwich in the daytime and listening to the town band, that executions and disembowelling took place here centuries ago? And that women were made to wear terrible scold's bridles and pelted with rotten food and human waste.

The town has a dark past. Playing a starring role in our ghost walk are tales of the Black Death, when eighty percent of the townsfolk died, the grisly killings in and after the Monmouth Rebellion of 1685 - a dark time in the Westcountry's history and a subject close to my heart with ancestors on both sides of my family having been part of the rebel army - and the hangman's noose, or the Bridport Dagger.

On our ghost walk, we weave in and out of the streets, following Adrian, our guide, down lanes and alleyways, the ghosts of the past ever-present.
We stop outside the museum, with its pair of ghosts...
 ...we gather on a street corner to hear the sad story of Silvester Wilkins. We move on, around the town to the boutique Bull Hotel, which is rich in ghost stories...
...up the dark, creepy alleyway where the rotting corpses from the Black Death were left to be picked up by the plague cart and where a grisly spectre is said to haunt this cold, narrow lane.
And then suddenly, a figure, dressed all in white, emerges from a doorway halfway up the lane and then promptly disappears. An angel of death perhaps?

Hearts beating faster, the smell of freshly-baked bread in our nostrils, closer inspection reveals it to be the baker from Leakers, wondering what the hell's going on.

So we move hurriedly on, tales of the plague pits nestling under the iconic Colmer's Hill ringing in our ears, and head south, towards the churchyard where Silvester Wilkins is buried in the corner in an unmarked grave.
And in possibly the most eerie part of the trip, our guide regales us with tales of the big black dog, a Grim, a Shuck or whatever you like to call it.
The clock strikes eight as we hope and pray not to see the beast, which is a portent of certain death.
So we edge out past the west and south doors of St Mary's Church to reach the sanctuary of a street lamp and the pavement. And then the whole party collectively jolts as the clear sound of a dog barking right next to us chills us to our bones.

'Don't worry,' Adrian says. 'It's a golden retriever.'

He should know, it's in his car, which is parked outside the church.

That's about it.

Love Maddie x

Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Mirror, mirror, on the wall...

Just close to Halloween, the time of year when the threshold between our world and the next is oh-so- thin, there is a new addition to the Lush Places square.
In between the plaque for the children's play area, in memory of two Bernards who were killed in two World Wars, the sign announcing and sponsoring the village fireworks, the notice campaigning for a 20mph limit through the village and a board pointing to the community shop, a circular mirror has appeared.
It's been installed to help motorists easing out of the junction, which, at times, can seem like the starting grid for Wacky Races.
I swear I've just seen the Creepy Coupe with the Gruesome Twosome just heading the wrong way up the one-way street.

Everybody is talking about the new mirror (conversation can be limited in these parts). It's large, it's orange and it's even more clutter in the middle of the village.

But it works. You can see what's coming when previously you couldn't.

Not that it's a clairvoyant mirror or anything. And I can't see into another other world through the looking glass (give it time, it has magic powers for sure, being on the site of an ancient sarsen stone which is reputed to have once stood here, where the ley lines cross on a five-pointed crossroads. That's not passed me by, believe me, or the fact we have a shop in Lush Places selling crystals . Anyway, that's another story).

But I can now see what's happening down the road without leaving the comfort of my own home.

That's about it.

Love Maddie x

Sunday, 19 October 2014

The sound of music in Lush Places

We slipped out of the hallway, Martha the dog and me, edging past baskets of logs, boxes of things for a village event, a dog crate and musical instruments.
We were heading for Bluebell Hill, which was shrouded in mist.

A crow sat on a fence post and coughed rather theatrically as we walked past.

'Ahem,' it said. 'You're up bright and early.'

Back home, Mr Grigg was rustling up a cooked breakfast for our guest, talented Canadian singer songwriter Ian Sherwood, who spent the night with us after a gig in Lush Places, part of a tour of south west England.

He rocked our village hall. Like a male Joni Mitchell, his many-layered songs dipped and dived, entertained and got us all joining in.

This man is going places.
Today, he's heading for Dartmoor. The sun's shining, it's squelchy underfoot but the sky is a beautiful pale blue.

It's been a busy old weekend. A grandchild's fourth birthday, Harvest Festival, the church smelling of apples and chrysanthemums, tinned and packet food piled up in the children's area, ready to take to the food bank in the next town, a sad indictment of how tough times can really be for some people.

And then the harvest supper, with entertainment by a young woman with the most beautiful voice but nervous as anything, and so ably supported by music producer and 'coach' Eddie Adamberry at her side.

And then a comic turn by Adge and Madge, a couple of local yokels with a rather limited Wurzels repertoire which, nevertheless, got the audience singing along.
Although when Adge and Madge left the stage - for it was me and Mr Grigg, dressed up in a mob cap and gurt big hat - there was a glare of doom from a professional musician in the audience.  How could we? How dare we?

Life is too short not to have fun. And, in my book, it doesn't pay to take yourself too seriously.

We're off to Barrow Gurney now, for to see my brother Ernie.

That's about it.

Love Maddie x

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

A walk back through time in Plymouth, Devon

They say you should never go back.

But I did at the weekend, going back to where my grandfather was born in 1891 and where, in 1979, I began my training as a journalist.

Gramp was an adventurer and a spinner of yarns. I imagine him as a small boy gazing out across Plymouth Sound and wondering what lay beyond it. He ended up in Australia where he was a sheep drover and tamer of horses before becoming an ANZAC, fighting at Gallipoli and the Somme.

Plymouth's not everyone's cup of tea but I like it very much.

Five years ago, my old trainee colleagues had a thirty year reunion, which I wrote about here. There's even a picture of me on that blog post at my New Romantic best.

There were fewer of us this time round, with various people bottling out and giving excuses, but it didn't matter, I enjoyed every minute of it, starting with the train journey to Pymouth.
And then a feeling of euphoria as I alighted from the train.
I checked into the hotel and then took a brisk wander around the streets I remembered from my late teenage years and the area my grandfather would have known as a child.
The disused Palace Theatre, Union Street, Plymouth, which opened as a music hall in 1898, not far from the pub my Gramp's family ran near the docks.
Bomb damage means there's not much left of Martin Street, where the family pub was.
Plymouth Hoe looking towards Smeaton's Tower and The Barbican
Drake's statue and the Naval Memorial
The national Armanda monument from 1888
My grandfather always said he sent these cannon balls rolling down towards the sea. But they're fused together. Another tall tale.
I went down this drain in 1981, intentionally, and then wrote about it. Fact.
My earliest childhood memory is climbing up inside Smeaton's Tower with my mother and looking from the top down at my Gramp on a bench below.
At the age of seven, my Gramp was runner-up in a swimming competition in Plymouth Sound
Most likely out to this breakwater
Looking out across to the city centre
The coffee shop in Dingles was one of my hang-outs
I didn't take the poor turn-out personally (I organised the reunion). It was the others' loss, not mine. It also meant more food to go around.

That's about it.

Love Maddie x

Thursday, 9 October 2014

Monday, 6 October 2014

Verity: a walk past truth and justice in North Devon

It's the annual village outing and we have left the womb-like bay of Woolacombe for a day trip around the headland to Ilfracombe.

We're walking past the harbour and then we see her, a striking figure with sword held high. A kind of modern-day Statue of Liberty looking out across the Atlantic from this pretty and quirky seaside town in North Devon.
I've been out of the loop for a while, what with living abroad. But when someone said there was a Damien Hirst statue here, I didn't really know what to expect. A giant skull made of crystal, perhaps, or a cow pickled in formaldehyde

But from here, the statue looks beautiful. It's clear from this angle that she's pregnant, controversial for some perhaps (but not to me, power to the sisterhood and all that) but so far so good.

She gets better as we draw closer. The scales of justice are tucked behind her backside and the skin on her right leg is peeling off, so she looks like she's wearing one thigh-high boot.
She strides, Egyptian-style, across great big law books and against a backdrop of an autumn sky.
And this is the point where the jaw begins to drop and people walking beside me are either silent, saying 'ugh' or 'what's all that about?'

I begin to notice not only the muscles in her skin, but a womb exposed to the elements with a curled-up foetus inside. And then I look up at her face, and see half of it is pared to the skull.

The positioning of this statue is brilliant. As I walk down past it, the woman looms even bigger in my field of vision, making the shock even greater. 

We stand open-mouthed, wondering what to make of it. Is it as repulsive or horrible as the men in our party say it is? Or is it as interesting as the women in our party think?
The 66ft bronze colossus provokes a response. It's clearly to do with truth and justice, but is there more to it than that? Is it an anti-abortion statement (we don't think so), a call to look at what lies beneath or a representation of Margaret Thatcher, sword held high but scales of justice hidden (and someone suggests there is another foetus, perhaps, curled up on her left hand side, Carol or Mark)? 

Or are the controversial bits there just for the shock factor, to get people talking about it?

The statue, which I later learn is called Verity, a name so loved by the Puritans because it means 'truth', has divided opinion in Ilfracombe.

Personally, I found her fascinating. It transpires that Hirst, who lives locally and has a cafe in the town, has given Verity to Ilfracombe on a twenty-year loan.
As we sit down outside Hirst's cafe, having a coffee and discussing the merits or otherwise of this strange statue, a bearded old man leans over to talk to us.

In a Devon accent as thick as one of my mother's scones, he says: 'When Verity gives birth, my doctor tells me I have to go in for a DNA test...'
And then he sits back down again and gazes wistfully out to Verity and to the sea beyond, a Captain Cat for the modern age.

That's about it.

Love Maddie x

Batten down those hatches, it's recycling day

It's blowing a hooley out there.  The wind is lashing against the windows and the dogs are play fighting in front of the Aga before...