Being expectant…

This may not be the most colourful image that I’ve posted on the blog – but Jen and I think it’s much the most exciting…

The ultrasound scan of the baby last week

Yes – we’re expecting a baby! We went for the first ultrasound scan last week, and all seems well so far.

The due date is the beginning of July.¬†We’re both thrilled but also aware that we’re about to learn an awful lot in a short space of time! I’m led to believe – based on what we’ve heard from a variety of people – that our sleep patterns might get affected… ūüėÄ

Christmas refreshment

Jen and I have been enjoying a week of refreshment with our families over the last week.

Jay from Mum’s kitchen window in Cheltenham

After the Christmas services, we packed the car and went off to Cheltenham to spend a few days with my mum. She was keen to cook the Christmas lunch for us, which she did on Boxing Day. We had a restful time enjoying Mum’s generous hospitality!

We had a nice surprise on the Wednesday morning (the 27th) when we found it had snowed overnight. As we were keen to enjoy this weather, we went for a walk up Leckhampton Hill on the Thursday.

View from the top of Leckhampton Hill to Cleeve Hill.

Jen at the trig point on Leckhampton Hill.

Just before Christmas we had the sad news that mum’s great friend (and my godmother) Chris Baines had passed away. We went up to Willaston in Cheshire for the funeral – for which the church there was packed out. Over many years she’d made a major contribution to the area both as the head of a local secondary school and later chairman of the magistrates, as well as being a stalwart of the church. I remember her as a most generous godmother, and have many fond memories of her.

George’s cake: or maybe it’s a construction site? Rebekah, George’s cousin, watches him blowing out the candles.

After this we spent a few days in Devon with Jen’s family, in a couple of rented cottages near Moretonhampstead – partly to celebrate the New Year but also to celebrate George’s 3rd birthday the previous day. We were joined by Rachael’s family who were over from New Zealand (her mum Lesley) and from Australia (sister Sara and neice Rebekah).

Having the holiday in Devon was particularly convenient because Jen’s wider family were able to join us for George’s party and most of the New Year’s Eve celebrations.

A break during George’s present opening: Katie, Charlotte, Jeffrey, Mary, Rachael with George, Claire, Austin, Margaret (Louie in the foreground)

Pass the Parcel: Tasha (with the parcel) shares a joke with Claire (in the pink).

Most people were able to stay for the New Year’s Eve meal. As it happened it was Jen’s and my turn to cook, so after a starter with Sara’s pumpkin & apple soup, we served a beef stew followed by Jen’s apple crumble.

New Year’s Eve meal. Clockwise from left: Claire (Jen’s cousin, in the pink), Jen, Andrew (Jen’s brother), David and Christine (Jen’s uncle and aunt), Margaret (Jen’s mum), Tasha (Claire’s daughter), Lesley, Sara, Rebekah (Rachael’s mum, sister and niece) and Rachael (Andrew’s wife).

George (Jen’s and my 3 year-old nephew) quietly getting on with his own activity.

Although George was often in the thick of things, he also has an ability to get on with his own playing while others are being distracted elsewhere. In fact, he was so concentrated that he was oblivious to my photographing him.

It was one of those holidays where even the bad things worked out well. We meant to go to the Lost Gardens of Heligan on New Year’s day, but Andrew’s car developed a problem, so we abandoned the trip half way. Instead we decamped to the Liskeard tavern and had a leisurely lunch there, while waiting for the breakdown service. It was actually a most relaxed and enjoyable lunch: we couldn’t have planned it much better if we’d tried.

On our way back we stopped off at Burrow Mump, to admire the heartland of King Alfred’s Wessex – Athelney lies a short distance away. The nearby fields of the Somerset Levels were flooded, which gave a good feel for the area – and what it might have looked like in Alfred’s time, before the drainage ditches had been put in. Then we had a final lunch in the King Alfred Inn at Burrowbridge.

Looking over the flooded Levels from the top of Burrow Mump.


French adventures

Jen and I have just returned from a lovely couple of weeks in France. We spent two half weeks in Ch√Ętellerault with John and H√©l√®ne, and the intervening week based in Gramat, in the Lot district.

We chanced upon the food festival one evening in Gramat.

Neither of us had been to Lot or the Dordogne before so it was a new experience – and the area more than lived up to the expectations we’d had!

On the afternoon of our first full day there, we went for a walk from about two miles west of Gramat to Rocamadour, largely along a forested dry valley, called the Vall√©e de l’Alzou. This helped us to appreciate the geography of the area – precipitous limestone cliffs looming over tree-covered valleys.

Hiking along the Vall√©e de l’Alzou: this couple happened to be walking along the track at just the right moment!

We explored Rocamadour itself the next day. It’s a town that used to be a place of pilgrimage but is now a tourist hotspot.¬†One of its legends¬†is that Zaccheus had ended up there. Rather more plausibly, a hermit called Amadour lived there in the fourth century; during the Middle Ages it was discovered¬†that his body had not decayed, and this¬†ultimately inspired the pilgrimages. Below the main sanctuary there is a lower chapel which is palpably a place of prayer,¬†which was frequented by some of the tour guides; later, we were impressed by our guide who was keen for us to know the gospel truth at the heart of the church.

Rocamadour. The chateau is at the top while the church is the large building halfway down the cliff-face.

Ice age art in the Rouffignac cave: mammoths and ibex. (Public domain image from Wikipedia)

We went on a couple of trips to see the astonishing Ice Age cave art: one of these was to Pech Merle, about an hour south of Gramat, and the other to Rouffignac, located an hour and a half away in the Dordogne. These are extraordinarily tantalising glimpses into another era: while the motivations of the artists were almost certainly spiritual, it’s hard to say more than that as to exactly what the artwork was there for – deep underground, visible only by flickering candlelight. I’ll probably reflect on this more at a later date.

Contemplating the walnut harvest – Jen with Sue and Jerry

On our way back to Ch√Ętellerault we were delighted to stop by¬†Nantille in order to visit Jerry and Sue Sellick, a couple of our neighbours in Shapwick. They have a second home there, and were battling the¬†vegetation that had sprung up since their last visit. To us, it seemed a lovely location, but they were keen to tell us that it was hard work to maintain!

With Helene, Jem and John at the Cafe Choquet in Bonneuil Matours.

Back in Ch√Ętellerault, John and H√©l√®ne were most generous hosts, in both the half weeks we¬†were with them. We visited the Pinail nature reserve on our first day, and then ended up at their favourite caf√© in Bonneuil Matours. On the next day, we went to a museum of prehistory, stopping by the picturesque chateau in La Guerche on the way.

The chateau in LaGuerche

John and Hélène, with Jen behind, in Amboise.

One of the highlights of the final half-week was a trip to Amboise. Situated on the banks of the Loire, the town is famous for its chateau, which was a royal hunting lodge in the 15th and 16th centuries. The other advantage was the variety of restaurants along the street opposite the chateau, where we had an excellent lunch!

Overall we had an excellent fortnight – and we returned the UK thinking that there were many places there which we would still like to see.

A multinational weekend – and a swing-seat

It was a privilege for us to be able to host some of Jen’s students and colleagues last weekend. We had Maryam (one of Jen’s PhD students) and her husband Mansur, both from Nigeria; Karla from Mexico and her boyfriend Nick (from Yorkshire!); Carmen, lecturer from Spain with her husband Enrique and teenage children Carmen and Tomas, and Mariia from Ukraine (a PhD student in Italy). We also had our good friends Debra and Geraint, who have just completed a ten-year stint as pastors of a church on Dine’s Green in Worcester, and are now looking for fresh fields in south Wales.

The Somerset Levels are a bit of a contrast to London, so instead of museums and art galleries we offered the wildlife of Shapwick Heath (with its replica of the neolithic Sweet Track) and Ham Wall. On Sunday, Jen was leading the café church in Shapwick, where Debra & Geraint gave the main talk. We had the reading in four languages: Russian (by Mariia), Spanish (by Carmen jr), Welsh (by Geraint) and English (Nick).

Testing the carrying capacity of the Sweet Track – the re-constructed Neolithic trackway: Debra, Geraint, Jen, Maryam, Karla, Mariia, Carmen, Tomas, Carmen, Stefan, Mansur, Nick

Sunday lunch at the Piper’s Inn in Ashcott… In front: Mansur, Nick, Jen, Debra, Carmen; behind: Maryam, Karla, Geraint, Mariia, Tomas, Carmen, Stefan

A couple of days later, Andrew and Rachael arrived with Sophie and George – and Andrew installed a swing-seat that he’d made for us! It’s now a rather magnificent feature in the garden.

Sophie enjoying the swing of the new seat with designer and dad Andrew.

A bedraggled buzzard and a flock of lapwings

My mother arrived for a few days at the end of last week so, as the weather was forecast to deteriorate, we decided to go for a drive around the levels for her to get a feel for the area. What I wasn’t expecting was much in the way of wildlife. I was wrong.

First of all mum noticed a buzzard on a fence post – nothing unusual in that, except that it didn’t move when we parked next to it and I got the camera out. Normally a buzzard would take one disdainful look at the birder and fly off magnificently: this one stayed close by for several minutes. Looking at the photographs it looks like it had had a thorough soaking from the recent rain storm, which explains why it seemed to be hanging its wings out to dry – and why for a bird of prey it looks oddly vulnerable.

A bedraggled buzzard near Westhay, hanging its wings out slightly

A bedraggled buzzard near Westhay, hanging its wings out slightly

Having said that, it still had a keen eye for potential prey…

It still wasn't going to miss a moment looking for potential prey...

It still wasn’t going to miss a moment looking for potential prey…

We drove on a little further when I noticed a field full of lapwings – I did a U-turn so that I could stop by the side of the road. Although I’ve seen large flocks of them in nature reserves, seeing them here was completely unexpected – and they chose a photogenic backdrop as well!

Lawpings near Westhay

Lawpings near Westhay

Lawpings near Westhay

Lawpings near Westhay

We then proceeded on along the Westhay Moor Drove, and a couple of the other lanes to make a circuit before going back to the Vicarage.

A couple of days later we had a more regular experience with birdwatching: seeing the starling murmuration at Ham Wall. Sunday’s show was much the best that I’ve seen.

Starling  murmuration at Ham Wall last Sunday.

Starling murmuration at Ham Wall last Sunday.

Starling  murmuration at Ham Wall last Sunday.

Starling murmuration at Ham Wall last Sunday.

Warning! Man-eating leopard!

There are three albums of photographs with the journals, all unlabelled - but this church appears to be Ndanda Abbey in Masasi. Ndanda Abbey

There are three albums of photographs with the journals, all unlabelled – but this church appears to be Ndanda Abbey in Masasi.

Recently I found my grandfather’s old travel journals, and in particular the ones he wrote when he went to East Africa and South Africa in 1951. During the trip he went to Masasi in Tanzania to visit Wilfred (Mum and Rosalie’s brother), who was a linguistics professor specialising in the languages of the area.

Each page of the journal is written meticulously. It fell open at the following remarkable entry:

Saturday May 12th

Last night the Liwale [governor] of Masasi sent a letter to the Jumbe [chief] announcing his coming visit on Monday. He asks if the man-eating leopard has been killed. If it hasn’t been killed by the time of his arrival there will be trouble.

All the men assembling - could this be the barasa my grandfather was mentioning?

All the men assembling – could this be the barasa my grandfather was mentioning?

This morning (9.15) all the men are assembling for a baraza [council].

Bird: calling ······ like a wood-pecker but higher pitch, longer continued. Tuft on head: warm brown cheeks, yellow breast, black over neck.

9.45 The Jumbe has just returned from the funeral of his sister – killed by leopard. A goat was sacrificed. Probably ceremonies went on all day yesterday. Now preparations for baraza: possibly some arrangements for leopard hunt.

I was amazed by the drama contained within these short paragraphs. I also love the fact that he interrupted his narrative with a description of a bird that caught his attention! (With a bit of sleuthing, it’s possible he might have seen a crested barbet).

One of two particularly atmospheric pages in the album.

One of two particularly atmospheric pages in the album.

The second of two particularly atmospheric pages in the album.

The second of two particularly atmospheric pages in the album.

My aunt, Rosalie Whiteley

A couple of weeks ago, I had a phone call from Mum that was far worse than I’d expected: my aunt had been due to go to hospital for an urgent scan, but hours before she was due to go she had collapsed at home. She was dangerously ill and the hospital summoned Mum from Cheltenham. I arrived in Oxford at about 4: she was alive but unconscious, and passed away peacefully an hour or so later.

Rosalie's favourite photograph of herself, taken by a passer-by in Oxford's botanic gardens.

Rosalie’s favourite photograph of herself, taken by a passer-by in Oxford’s botanic gardens.

Rosalie enjoyed photography and had a good eye for a picture. This one from the Thames near Oxford was published in the Methodist Recorder

It’s very easy to have a one-eyed view of one’s relatives – but Rosalie was someone who made a big impression on her community in her dedication to serving others. This sprang out of a deep but uncomplicated faith: throughout her life she was committed to the Methodist church. One lady wrote in a card: “I have lost a very dear friend. When I went through bad times – operations and the death of my husband – she was always there for me”.

She’d been a primary school teacher in Birmingham, and later became the head of Donington Infant School on the edge of Oxford. This was a job which seemed to have more than its fair share of challenges! In 1972 the school moved to a new site, and was renamed Larkrise (because of the skylarks which used to sing over the school fields early in the morning). A year later large parts of the school were burned down in an arson attack. It was two years before the school was back to normal.

We recieved a lovely tribute to her from Jenny Hood, the lady who was her administrator for many years.

It was my privilege to work closely with Rosalie until her retirement in July 1988.  Throughout those years I learned to respect her as a person of total integrity and absolute commitment to the work she had to do. She was devoted to the children in her care, and set a wonderful example to her staff.  She was a person who demonstrated amazing energy and unbelievable humour even when life was very challenging.  She demonstrated care for the children, their families, her staff and those people in the wider community whose paths crossed hers.  It was a privilege to work with her.

Rosalie was inspired by the botanic gardens in Oxford and took many photos there.

Rosalie was inspired by the botanic gardens in Oxford and took many photos there.

She served as a steward (aka church warden / elder) in Kennington Methodist church for many years – but for her it was much more than an administrative role. She took prayer very seriously: when Jen and I visited her in the summer she was enthusing about John Pritchard’s books on intercession.

Rosalie also had a prayer wall in the entrance of the church which she took great pride in creating and maintaining. The one that she’d most recently produced epitomised her outlook on life. On the left were newspaper cuttings about the recent flooding in Haiti; on the right were her own photos of autumn colours.

Rosalie's most recent display board for prayer - showing the floods in Haiti and autumn colours.

Rosalie’s most recent display board for prayer – showing the floods in Haiti on one side and autumn colours on the other.

I’ll always remember Rosalie as someone who was very generous (she gave me my present car at a time when I had very little spare cash), who took a great interest in what I was doing, and who often liked to have a laugh about the silliness of life. One of her neighbours wrote, “She had a good sense of humour and many times I can remember her trying to stifle her giggles.” Mum and Rosalie were very close and although they were quite different in character, they were always there for each other. She will be greatly missed.

Rosalie in reflective mood, while on holiday with mum in Norway.

Rosalie in reflective mood, taken by Mum while they were on holiday in Norway.