Brief visit to snowy Barry Island

Having a certain fondness for Gavin and Stacey, I was not unhappy to journey down to Barry Island in South Wales on a snowy Sunday recently. The primary reason for going was to transport my wife to a Philosophy4Children training session at one of Barry’s schools (such sessions are highly recommended, if you happen to be a head teacher). Normally she would drive herself, but the weather was uncertain – not to say threatening. One of us might have to push the other out of a snowdrift, we thought.

As it happened, a thaw set in, and the roads were easily passable – even more easily than usual, because most people hadn’t got used to the idea of getting their cars out after several days of being snowed in. We drove merrily from Herefordshire into Wales, with picturesque views on all sides and nothing to impede our progress.

Barry itself was something else. There had been heavy snowfalls here, with a lot of thick whitish stuff sticking on to the roads, many of which were effectively single-track. This was also picturesque, but required some determination to handle. Nevertheless, we made it to Gail’s Guest House in good time.

After a meal, and while my wife and her colleague (arriving from Devon) prepared for the following day, I took a stroll round the dark streets, which were pretty much deserted. We were at the high point of Barry, and I was able to get some nice views out across the Channel, all the way to Somerset, with lights reflecting off snow.

The next day I walked round the cliff and on to the shore path back into Jackson’s Bay, helped a driver get out of a snow patch and discovered the small ruins of St Baruc’s Chapel, which were not spectacular. Apparently Barry is named after the saint, who drowned in the bay.

No, it wasn’t very lively, but it was a cold March day. Yes, some parts of the town were run down, but I liked it. I don’t know why.

We drove back to Norwich the next evening, which was probably a mistake. Someone had put some traffic lights on a roundabout on the way up to the M4, and as usual with such an arrangement, it had brought much of the traffic to a standstill. Then it started to rain, and it poured for most of the way home. We should have stayed at Gail’s.

After enduring the madness of a perversely named “smart motorway” (more of which, I understand, is going to affect part of the M6 near Coventry and make life even more difficult for drivers – but hey, who cares about them?), we pulled into Corley Services and received a Kentucky Fried Chicken  and chips from a young lad who didn’t really seem to have come to terms with the concept of service, or chicken, or chips.

From there it should have been a smooth run with the rain easing off, but no – someone had decided to resurface part of the A11, which of course meant shutting the road. We were diverted through Shropham, I think it was, following two funereal heavy lorries. Oh joy.

Still, Barry Island was almost worth it. I may go again. Oh, Gavin and Stacey? It’s a television programme. Very funny, too. Sorry you missed it.

Billy Graham and the reality of faith

American evangelists don’t get as good a press nowadays as they did when I was young. Any kind of assurance, blessed or not, is now greeted with suspicion – which makes it remarkable that so many people still have such good things to say about Dr Billy Graham, who died this month at the age of 99.

He preached conversion to vast numbers of people over the years. I was one of them, and I remember wanting to respond to his appeal to “get up out of your seats” when I attended his rally at Harringay in 1954, when I was about nine. But I was too shy to move.

Nevertheless I did become a Christian not long afterwards – just before my father died when I was ten and our family’s life was turned on its head.

A little more than 12 years after that, through a series of strange events involving a holiday in Somerset and an apparently chance meeting with a Scotsman, I actually moved to London from Norwich – surprising myself as much as anyone – and began work for the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association.

No, I wasn’t an apprentice preacher. I worked for a newspaper called The Christian – a very old British national weekly that the BGEA had just acquired. I was an editorial assistant, and I met some interesting people, including a Birmingham typist called Stephanie Drew who I encouraged to leave and become a nurse. Not one of my more far-sighted moves, though it proved good for her.

I even met Dr Graham on a couple of occasions, and I have to say that despite being my employer, he impressed me. I also made some friends who are still close, if you can call Ontario and Leyton close. Roger Murray, our wedding photographer, emigrated to Canada and through hard work became wildly successful as a publisher, photographer, artist and graphic designer. David Coomes because a producer at the BBC: The Moral Maze was one of his best-known programmes.

I left The Christian briefly to complete a degree at Birkbeck College, and while I was away the BGEA sold the paper and made its staff redundant. I don’t blame Billy Graham: I doubt that he knew much about it. But it was a sad loss. Eventually I found a job at the Acton Gazette in West London and from there a few years later moved back to Norwich and a job on the Eastern Daily Press. The rest is history. In fact, it’s all history.

But Dr Graham’s death brought it back. Am I as sure now as I was then? I think you get less sure of the details of life, the universe and everything as you get older, but I am just as sure of the essentials that Billy Graham preached and which I grasped firmly but often failed to live out. But that’s what Christianity is about: not being good, but being forgiven.

I owe as much now to another prominent Christian: the Bishop of Norwich, the Rt Rev Graham James, who I admire greatly for his intelligence, kindness and his deeply held faith. I think he, like Billy Graham, would echo the words of another bishop, Stephen Verney, as to what faith is all about:

“Faith is being grasped by a truth which confronts you and which is self-evident and overwhelming, and then trusting yourself to the reality which you now see.”

That’s not something that goes away.

Strange carvings at sunny Winterton

Winterton can be a bleak place, as the name might suggest. Placed strategically on Norfolk’s east coast at a point where the coastline finally decides to take the plunge and turn north-west, it is exposed to fierce winds, tides and storms, beating in from the North Sea.

The beach is open, and the village protected by an ever-shrinking line of dunes, sometimes transforming into a soft cliff, behind which hides a precarious but excellent cafe and open ground which serves as a car park. Oh, and some stern black fishermen’s huts – substantial and strong against the wind.

It is good walking country, those soft grass and sandy paths, and I have walked it for many years, going back to childhood holidays at the neighbouring village, Hemsby, more than half a century ago.

Bleak, yes, but often benign too. Last week, in the middle of many days of unpleasant weather (often very cold, often very wet), we woke to sunny skies and decided to drive from Norwich to Winterton – mainly to check on the damage caused by a recent storm.

We arrived to find that the expected wind was almost non-existent; what there was came from the ideal quarter – south-west. The January sun verged on the warm as we paid in the cafe for car parking and walked down on to the beach, avoiding the half-hearted tapes across the main paths.

We had seen pictures; so we knew what to expect. A recent storm had somehow created a wall of sand halfway up the beach, turning it into small cliff. Below the cafe, huge blocks of stone had been exposed, and holes carved out of the sand around and behind them. It was a startling picture because it was hard to see how it could have happened, but the power of wind and water can do strange things.

A mile or so further south the dunes have been gradually eroding, and holiday bungalows have fallen from their perches on to the beach. Like many beautiful places, it is fragile, on the edge.

We walked north for a while along the beach, and eventually the damage disappeared. Everything was back to normal: the sea dark but calm, with large gulls bobbing near the shore. Turning inland, we quickly reached the coast path and returned to the cafe for one of those excellent rolls and a surprisingly good cup of tea.

And we wondered how long it could all last.

The Pastons are coming. Oh yes they are!

This is Paston Year. You may have missed the announcement as the bells rang to usher it in, or maybe it was drowned by the sound of fireworks.

Perhaps you don’t live in Norfolk. Well, that is your bad luck. Norfolk has everything except mountains. Mountains, glaciers, penguins, deserts and … OK, the world is full of things that Norfolk doesn’t have. But we do have a beautiful coastline, lovely countryside, the Broads, a fine city, Keith Skipper and a very relaxed way of life. Oh, and the Pastons.

Exactly 600 years ago the first Paston Letter was written. The country at a literary level  was still steeped in French and Latin at the time, and the Paston Letters were among the first written in English, mostly in the 15th century. They were preserved in what might be described as a miraculous way – lost and then found, dispersed and then gathered together.

The Pastons themselves rose from being yeomen farmers in remote North-East Norfolk to court favourites during the time of the Wars of the Roses and beyond. They were often lawyers, and they married very astutely, gathering land and money, power and influence – often in the face of stiff opposition. Eventually they became Earls of Yarmouth and then – out of the blue – they lost everything. It’s a compelling story and one that will be told in many ways this year.

I have to confess an interest. I am a trustee of the Paston Heritage Society, which, together with the University of East Anglia, has been awarded a substantial sum by the Heritage Lottery Fund to run a three-year project involving nearly a dozen centres in the county.

This year the emphasis is on an extensive exhibition at St Peter Hungate Church in Norwich, which was the Pastons’ parish church when they lived in Elm Hill, perhaps the most picturesque street in the city. There will also be a prestigious exhibition at the Castle Museum – an exhibition shared with Yale University in America. It centres on the mysterious painting called The Paston Treasure.

If you are interested, you can read all about this elsewhere, primarily on the Paston website and Facebook page. You can get involved. In fact, please do. I mention it here because it is one of those important and fascinating things that sometimes don’t get the publicity they deserve.

You know – like Norwich City.

All not well with dire Bancroft

Television can be a dreadful waste of time, but good television is worth its weight in gold. This is what is known as a bad metaphor, because you can’t weigh broadcasting in the physical sense, but I think a bad metaphor sometimes says exactly what you mean. So there it is.

What television does really well, in a golden way, is drama. A good story told and acted well is a joy, and pretty much the only thing that makes me cry. There, I’ve said it.

I don’t cry out of sadness, but usually for one of three reasons: because someone has behaved in a way that is profoundly good; because love has triumphed against the odds; or because something unbelievably beautiful has occurred. As Lady Julian of Norwich almost said, we suddenly see that all is well, all will be well and all manner of thing will be well.

You may think that is a pretty high mark to aim at, but all good drama does this to a greater or lesser extent. Which is why I was so disappointed by the much-hyped Bancroft, recently aired on ITV.

“Disappointed” does not really get across the emotions I felt when the last episode reached its dire conclusion. Maybe “intensely annoyed”, “furious” and “very, very angry” come closer.

As human beings we have some basic needs. We need to see good triumph over evil, love and forgiveness conquer fear, and innocence prevail over corruption. Because this does not always happen in everyday life, we need to see it happen in our stories. That is what stories are for. It is what the Christmas story – the kernel of all stories – is about.

Bancroft turned that on its head (I would say spoiler alert, but if I stop you watching it, I’m doing you a favour) by allowing corruption to triumph, a double (possibly triple) murderer  to succeed and those doing good to get trampled into the dirt.

In case you think this is a neat twist and rather clever, let me disabuse you. It is OK for evil to succeed for a while if there is something redemptive in it. Peaky Blinders is an example, and there are many others. It is OK to portray a realistic, corrupt world as a setting for the story. It is OK for wicked individuals to have some success if underneath it all the universal virtues are clearly visible.

Bancroft herself (played by Sarah Parish) has almost no redeeming features and does not suffer for her machinations, other than to have her son reject her, which seems to have little effect. I’m not sure what the author was trying to achieve. Someone suggested that he was setting up a second series, but as far as I and many others are concerned, all he’s made sure of is that we won’t watch it.

Things I could do without for Christmas

Call me Scrooge, but there are certain things I could do without at Christmas time.

One is companies who try to persuade me to buy things I quite obviously don’t want, just so that they can be delivered in time for Christmas.

They and others of similar ilk might like to know that I do not consider 12 December to be “last-minute shopping”. Last-minute shopping is the afternoon of Christmas Eve which, incidentally, is quite a good time to shop because there’s no-one about.

One company (one?) warns me that time is ticking, and I should therefore check out last-minute deals. Time may be ticking, but time always ticks, unless you mute it. That’s what it does. I do not want a last-minute deal, last-minute flowers, last-minute accommodation or half-price gifts.

And just because it’s Christmas, it doesn’t mean I want to book up next year’s holiday. In fact it’s probably the last thing I want to do.

Almost the last thing. The very, very last thing I want to do is go to Santa’s Grotto for Dogs. I am sad to say there is one in Norwich, my home town, and a lot of people seem to think it’s a good idea.

What is this all about? There are no dogs in the Christmas story, and there were no dogs at the birth of Jesus. Come to that there there was no Santa either, no grotto and almost certainly no cows. I just throw that in in the interests of accuracy. There were definitely sheep. I have a lot of time for sheep.

What else do I find irritating? David Attenborough. But that’s another story.

If I were Scottish, I might be a little annoyed by the courier service. Apparently the people living in Moray, north-east Scotland, have been reclassified as islanders by a certain delivery firm.

This is not a marginal point. There is no causeway involved. It’s a bit like saying South Wales is an island or, if you happen to live in Norfolk, North Norfolk District Council.

Customers ordering online from the north and north-east of Scotland apparently pay up to four times for delivery compared to the rest of the UK. And you can see how that could be useful to certain people.

“North of Edinburgh? Must be an island, mate. Special needs. I mean rates.”

Unsurprisingly, Moray’s MP has suggested that geography lessons may be required. Last-minute ones, I suggest. Time is ticking.

Into and out of Nowhere

We approached Little Gidding across the Fens, through Ramsey and into the middle of nowhere.

This particular Nowhere, in case you should stumble into it, is a stunning piece of countryside away from the bustle of suburbs and motorways, – a distance measured not so much in miles as in degrees of reality.

It is not far south-west of where my great-grandfather – and probably his father – lived and died. That was Norman’s Cross, and it has been pretty much brushed out of the landscape by the A1(M). But it nudges up against Folksworth, which is where those two ancestors are buried, the wording on their tombstones fading visibly in the short time since I had seen them last.

We ate Sunday lunch there, in the Fox – which I can recommend highly.

I had been rather embarrassed about originating from an area I had regarded as “near Peterborough”, which seemed about as boring a bit of Middle England as you could get. Having spent a couple of days at Little Gidding, which my ancestors must have known, I feel rather differently.

Some of this comes from reading the poem of the same name – the last of T S Eliot’s magical Four Quartets, which contains the same quiet beauty as the place itself. We read it right through on the Sunday morning in Ferrar House, a matter of yards from the beautiful little church dedicated to St John, with whom Eliot had much in common. Use of words, most obviously.

From the same house the previous day we had watched a rather haphazard attempt at a hunt, with horses and dogs milling about and another fox racing across the middle distance. Not my choice of Saturday afternoon leisure, but it reinforced the “nowhere” feeling. Or maybe it was “somewhere else”. Maybe it didn’t happen. Who knows?

The following day we took the short, slightly muddy walk up to Steeple Gidding, with its empty, pewless church and wonderful views. And after lunch in the Folksworth Fox we slipped on to that destructive A1(M) and headed south towards Cambridge.

A quicker route, but cruel: sadly, and without warning, Nowhere vanished.

The year of the bully is at the door – or is it already here?

A list is doing the rounds of what might make the news in the year 2030. You know the kind of thing – “Baby conceived naturally: scientists stumped”; “Average weight of a British male drops to 18 stone”.

Chaos is clearly on the way, as it has been for so long. I suspect, however, that it is nearer than we might have thought.

Already the police have more or less abandoned their traditional roles. I understand that ordinary, untrained people with plenty of axes to grind are sporting video cameras with which to trap unwary motorists and others – even cyclists and, in some cases, actual criminals. Evidence from these cameras can in some cases be accepted in court. Technologically speaking, it can only get worse.

No-one ever sees a police officer on the beat nowadays, unless there is a football match or concert in the vicinity.

Parliament is apparently about to fall apart because no-one can tell the difference between flirting and inappropriate touching. I once asked a female friend about this, and she said it depended on whether the man was attractive, which seems unfair, but I’m not sure who on.

This is not to excuse anyone who actually assaults a woman sexually, which is despicable at all levels. I know a few women who would leave such a perpetrator with serious injuries – and good luck to them. Bullies are pathetic, which is sad, as there are so many of them, and most of them are in positions of power.

Which reminds me of the old quote: “The wrong people are in power because they would not be in power if they were not the wrong people.”

Meanwhile it will not be long before the world is ruled by lobby groups. I am constantly being asked to add my name to an online petition – often one where I cannot possibly know whether or not it is justified. I am sure many people sign such petitions purely because they sound right, or because it makes them feel better.

As I write, Avaaz – perhaps the most vocal such group – is crowing that “we could be about to beat Monsanto, crumbling the cornerstone of its billion-dollar empire”! Why? Because Monsanto produces “toxic mega-killer glyphosate”.

Obviously toxic mega-killers are bad. Anyone could tell you that. And if enough people sign a petition, politicians terrified by popular pressure will ban glyphosate, which is a rather successful herbicide, improving our ability to feed people.

Why don’t Avaaz like it? Well, it’s been classified as probably carcinogenic, on the same level as – wait for it – night shifts, alcoholic beverages and solar radiation (sunlight).

I’m not a scientist; so I don’t know whether glyphosate is more or less dangerous than sunlight. But I do know that getting gullible people to sign that kind of a petition is simply attempting to bully your way to getting what you want.

And that is what chaos is all about. No rule, no law, no love. Just bullying.

Pressure, pressure, nothing but pressure

I have obtained a blood pressure monitor. Whenever I feel the urge, I strap it on and take a reading.

This can get quite compulsive, although I am not sure why. It does not make me feel better: there’s no rush of adrenaline, or sudden warmth, or a mysterious, inexplicable calmness.

It is more like a driving curiosity: trying to work out what time of day gives the best results. I have not managed this yet – the readings vary alarmingly. Should I take it just after having a bath, just after getting up, just after a meal or while watching television? Should I try to catch myself by surprise? Not easy.

Of course there is the additional complication of not knowing what it means. Say I have 130/97. I have no idea what is 130, or what is 97, and why one should be above the other.

When it comes down to it, I am simply trying to get both as low as possible, because I know that is what doctors like. I guess there is a point below which is advisable not to venture. Zero blood pressure does not sound good.

I like to try to keep my doctor happy (I should say doctors, because one rarely sees the same one twice in succession: the appointment system seems to prevent this). As it is well known that doctors are obsessed by blood pressure, especially if you are over 60, getting it right sometimes allows you to mention any other problem that you might have, like feeling lousy all the time. As the latter does not involve statistics, doctors tend not to be too interested.

I met a nurse the other day who took my blood pressure. She took it twice, actually, and it was much better the second time. Possibly this was because she had been chatting to me about how I felt. It did make me feel a bit better – or a bit more optimistic.

Of course there is a limit to what nurses can do. Doctors don’t like them to get above themselves; so they can’t diagnose or prescribe anything, even though they’re probably good at both those things. What she did do was make an appointment for me to see …well,  a doctor.

This does seem an awful waste of NHS resources. But I shall continue taking my blood pressure in the hope that the doctor will be distracted enough by my good results to listen to my symptoms without realising she’s doing it. At the moment I feel I’m more likely to die of feeling lousy than high blood pressure. But don’t try telling a doctor that. She (or he) will laugh in your face.

Could have complained, but glad we didn’t

In these days of TripAdvisor and other websites that carry reviews of people’s holiday experiences, I may have become a little blasé about what I expect to find when I reach my  destination. It must be pretty good, mustn’t it, or no-one would go there? If it wasn’t close to perfect, it would have been exposed by dissatisfied customers, wouldn’t it?

In just such a frame of mind, tinged by the tiniest touch of trepidation, I travelled to Wales – to a cottage that I had found on the net but which did not seem to figure on the usual websites. I will not say exactly where in Wales, because I don’t want to put you off, or upset anyone.

The information online was a bit limited; so I rang to check exactly how far up the ramblers’ path it was situated. No distance, I was told – about two minutes – and I could park at the hotel.

In fact it was less than two minutes, if you were fairly fit. What wasn’t mentioned by anyone was that the narrow ramblers’ path in question ascended steeply from the main road, with loose stones and deep steps, some of them uneven and made of slippery slate. Oh, and the hotel car park was small and usually full; so you often had to park on the busy main road.

My wife had just twisted her knee; so progress was a bit slow, and I had to haul all the baggage up and down myself. I didn’t mind that – at least, not until the day we left, when it rained very hard throughout the process. Still, it was an interesting experience, and by then we had bought some on-offer walking poles.

The cottage itself was cold and a bit damp on arrival, but a girl from the hotel quickly explained the central heating to us, and we had no trouble from that point onwards. The bedroom closet was musty, but then it was Wales, wasn’t it?

The mirror in the bathroom had fallen off the wall and seemed to have lodged behind the taps. It lurched frighteningly towards me when I turned a tap on. Still, no problem. We moved it to somewhere safer. There were a few small holes in the outside door, but other than that the main room was comfortable and had everything we needed, though three of the lights didn’t seem to work.

The view was almost lovely, and would have been if you liked scaffolding. The hotel roof was being repaired, though I’m glad to say no work was done while we were there; so there was no noise problem. No WiFi either, and no phone signal. But to be fair, no-one had said there would be.

The ramblers’ path continued past the cottage and within a metre of the bedroom window, which was a bit worrying at first, though I don’t think a single rambler (other than us) used the path while we were there.

All these things made an impression on us in the first hour or so, and we were a little worried. It all seemed a bit edgy. What might go wrong?

But here’s the thing: nothing did. Electricity and water worked perfectly, as did the bath and shower. The kitchen was well enough equipped, and the bed was comfortable. The TV worked on various channels, and played DVDs. (Tip: Do not watch The Lady Musketeer. Ever.)

I am sure those who enjoy complaining could have had a field day here, right from the outset, but in fact we had a great week, and it was with a sense of disappointment that we negotiated the descent of the ramblers’ path for the last time. We had dinner in the hotel twice, and that was good too. We also reached the summit of Snowdon, but that’s another story.