Tuesday, 30 December 2014

I’ve tried walking sideways…

Figures often beguile me, particularly when I have the arranging of them myself; in which case the remark attributed to Disraeli would often apply with justice and force: “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics.”

Despite the Tysoe Parish Plan 2010 only incorporating a smattering of “suggestions” and “requests” tied to each section; over five pages of comments were included as an appendix in the 2012 Tysoe Housing Needs Survey; and, although I am not suggesting that these form some sort of substantive precedent, I do think that – considering that other aspects of our village’s governance (e.g. submissions to planning applications; as well as most county, district and parish council decisions) are subject to full disclosure – the Neighbourhood Plan has to follow suit: and allow residents to ascertain the current ‘mood’ of the village; and to understand how their peers feel about both the status quo and our possible futures.

I believe, therefore, that the preliminary version, released online a few weeks ago, is unfit for purpose, because of its astounding brevity. And, if we are to take comfort from the final version; have confidence in it; and be convinced that we have been listened to (and understood), it is a prerequisite of such a significant publication that – rather than simply jumping straight to the answer – it shows (as many maths teachers have instructed) its ‘workings out’, line by line by line. This means that any future – and certainly the final – version of the Neighbourhood Plan, to gain validity, must be extended to include both the full quantitative results (i.e. the selections made against each question) and the full qualitative results (i.e. all the views expressed pertaining to specific questions; as well as those freeform ones under Other comments at the end of the survey). This is not a request – it is surely a democratic obligation.

The Survey Results publication dropped through letterboxes – which was described as a selection of “Highlights” – was itself quite parsimonious (and more than by definition, I suspect); and the large font used meant that very little information was included. It would therefore be interesting to learn what the criteria used for selecting the contents – “results [chosen] where 70% or more of respondents expressed the same view or similar preferences, together with the highest scoring elements” – actually signified (as it is natural to suspect a strong element of subjective sifting); as well as how the full dataset of responses was transmuted into the draft Plan.

As I have said before, “I know how difficult it is not to ‘reflect’ your own loves and hates… – especially if you are not aware of your own innate biases; and these are not caught in the review process…” – and I am concerned that such presentational bias has crept into (or perhaps invaded?) the analysis of survey results; how this is promulgated; and how it is used in an attempt to drive (rather than gently guide) the village forward. Not only do I worry that the analysis is “prescriptive” – but also quite selective (and not just because of its meagreness…).

Looking at this from the other side, for a moment: perhaps it doesn’t help that, according to this first draft of the Plan (on page 37), the “next steps consultations” that were arranged at the end of November were so poorly attended (only seventeen people at the first; and thirty-five at the second). Were these merely held at inconvenient times, or (more likely, at this time of year) without enough notice; or do they reflect the same apathy that resulted in only a 43% response rate to the survey? And what is at the root of this? Is it that – with this being the third such exercise in four years – like me, many people wonder “how much meaning… the [Neighbourhood] Plan will have; and for how long”? Or – having seen, for example, very few of the Parish Plan “Actions” come to fruition (for a multiplicity of reasons) – are people not only survey- and action plan-weary; but also – witnessing how a bunch of privileged toffs currently run national government purely for the sake of themselves and their monied chums – demonstrating little or no faith in any kind of establishment or authority (earned or not); and doubting that it has their best interests at heart, anyway…? Or, is it just a simple side-effect of poor local Internet access? [As I write this, an email pops up – and a flyer pops through the letterbox – with notification of another meeting on 5 January 2015. Will more of the same make any difference, I wonder?]

I honestly don’t know the answer to any of the above; and it doesn’t seem worth (jumping to conclusions) polling the village to discover if this is true…! All I know is that the people I discuss this with have very little faith in the Neighbourhood Plan realistically achieving anything meaningful – especially with suspicions already emerging that, whatever the outcome of the planning inquiry, Jabba the Cut will just rubber-stamp Gladman’s plans, with no regard for the village’s needs and wants – which returns me to what I said earlier: that this appears solely to be “yet another time- and money-consuming exercise: designed to keep us ‘plebs’ occupied”. What looks like an open consultative process, on the surface, appears – on paper, leastwise – to be producing discriminate and, not unjustified, but perhaps slightly opinionated, or (sub)consciously desired, conclusions. I can’t put my finger on it, yet: but something, somewhere, seems awry.

“Full disclosure” would remove many – if not all – such suspicions. It would certainly, notwithstanding my scepticism, lead to the Neighbourhood Plan – even if it doesn’t fulfil its core, designated purpose – being valuable in other ways: even if that is only to capture the Tysoe Zeitgeist, as do the previous Parish Plan and Housing Needs Survey – thus contributing to an expanding and evolving picture (modern history, even) of village life.

Sunday, 28 December 2014

The Wastage of the Willows – Branch II; Leaf III

New morning…

It was very late the next morning when the Mole awoke – startled to find himself actually in bed for once! The seduction of the now head-shaped, indented goose-feather pillow; the snug mattress with just-enough give; and the embracing eiderdown he had cocooned perfectly around himself, almost smothered his natural instinct to rise. But then, as his whiskery nose slowly started to twitch – entertained by a streel of smoked bacon, a babble of buttered toasted teacakes, and a cascade of coffee, severally wiggling energetically under his bedroom door, before linking arms for a feisty, literally in-your-face collective smiting – the piquant temptation pull of a full, and filling, brunchfast, quickly waxed utterly irrepressible. (“The lure of Morpheus wanes; and smitten I most certainly am by the sweet-and-savoury odours of Tantalus!”) It therefore did not take long for him to shamble unthinkingly into his slippers, before interleaving what remained with the dressing-gown dangling from the door-peg. Lifting the latch, those persuasive pungencies were completed by all the necessary sizzles, frizzles, spits, sputters, hisses and crackles that should always accompany the assembling of the model first meal of the day: food fit for fighting whatever it has to fling at you.

In the kitchen stood the Mouse: intent on prodding, stirring, checking, tasting, brewing, frying, grilling, buttering, pouring… – but, above all, singing!

Oh to be a mouse,
In a loverlee house,
By the kitchen stove,
With a pan, by Jove!

Oh to be a mouse,
With tons of nous,
A side of ham,
And pots of jam!

Oh to be a mouse,
And not a louse,

Oh to be a mouse…

For a moment, all the prodding, etc. stopped. “What ELSE rhymes with mouse?” he implored, looking to the ceiling for inspiration; and scratching his head with the wrong end of a wooden spoon (well, the right end for scratching, considering the other right end had been used to stir a pan of warming milk). “Howzabout ‘grouse’?” chuckled the Mole, quietly into his ear: causing the poor, startled Mouse to drop the spoon on his foot. “But THAT will have to wait for dinner!”

“Oh, Mister Mole, sir: I didn’t know you were there!” “I’m not – I’m HERE!” he replied, mischievously, taking a couple of steps back. “And ready for all of that FANTASTIC food! Well, when I say ALL, what I mean is that I’ll have a little bit of EVERYTHING, please!” And with that, he wandered over to the rarely-used dining table – which, today, pulled away from its usual resting place next to the wall, and both leaves extended, groaned with cutlery and crockery; pots of homemade raspberry jam and ginger marmalade; and piles of toast and currant teacakes – and dropped into a chair, after plumping up its gingham cushion. “But where’s Ratty?” he asked, looking at the two other chairs. “He NEVER misses breakfast, brunchfast, OR brunch.”

“I’m HERE!” came the distant reply. And a hint of an echo was joined by a crescendoing squelching and sprinkling of drips and drops: as the Water Rat – true to his name – made his way in from the passage that led to the front door in his stockinged feet, carrying a very muddy pair of Wellington boots in one paw, and a beading Stetson in the other. Water drizzled from his overcoat onto the stone slabs. “I take it that it’s still raining, then!” chortled the Mole, absentmindedly spreading his sleeve with butter.

Saturday, 27 December 2014

Hither, page, and walk by me…

Christmas walking seems to be what an American friend of mine would call a “thing”, nowadays: an increasingly habitual, or even traditional, way of burning off some of those excess seasonal calories; or just escaping from the usual rituals and infinite complexities. I even noticed that the wonderful Stratford Town Walk – a very useful and entertaining introduction to “Shakespeare’s Stratford-upon-Avon” – organizes a “Christmas Day festive guided walking tour”.

However, realizing I had not attained its lofty 184 metre summit even once, this year, I decided, bright and early, to ascend the north face of Windmill Hill. So I dug out a pair of fleece-lined walking trousers; clad myself in many, many layers; pulled on a fresh pair of woollen socks, and my still-Buttermere-soiled leather boots; donned my habitual hat; and set off – fortified by a hearty breakfast – companion staff in hand.

Forth I went, through the rude wind’s wild lament, treading boldly, etc.… – and, my goodness, it was bracing! (Once I reached the top, I measured the temperature at just over 2°C; and later learned that there was a windchill factor of at least 4°C!) But I am a hardy northerner: so was not deterred – not in the slightest… – especially as the sky was a beautiful rich blue gradation, and there was hardly a cloud (nor other foolhardy soul) in sight; and it felt that you could see forever. However, the large amounts of sticky Warwickshire tilth clinging to my soles must have increased my burden (and height) quite significantly!

Looking back from the achievement of the Windmill – being moithered by a pair of squeaking blue tits (the only wildlife I saw…) – it was so easy to be proud of our three little hamlets of brick and stone, slate and clay, peeking out between the many trees below, and guarded by the Edge Hills: a sight which should make the heart of any resident beat faster (although, if I am to be totally honest, this symptom may have been fuelled a little by the climb…), and care deeply about their future. I therefore lingered a while, until my face began to freeze; and headed back – albeit a little reluctantly – for home, and a well-deserved large mug of hot coffee.

Then, last night, as the Feast of Stephen faded, typically not being able to sleep, I went on one of my regular dark patrols of Upper and Middle Tysoe – suitably attired again. No snow lay round about, as in other areas of the country: but, as the church clock chimed half-past two, it did begin to sleet from the north-west. Luckily, I had then turned my back on the prevailing weather. The night was dark as Erebus, though, and the wind blew even stronger; but, having supped a preparatory dram or two of ‘Leapfrog’, I certainly found the winter’s rage froze my blood less coldly. Still, I was immensely grateful for the oak-logs flaming in the hearth, when I returned.

Thursday, 25 December 2014

Oh, morning, at the brown brink…

All I ask for, at the end, is a last long resting place by the side of Innominate Tarn, on Haystacks, where the water gently laps the gravelly shore and the heather blooms and Pillar and Gable keep unfailing watch. A quiet place, a lonely place. I shall go to it, for the last time, and be carried: someone who knew me in life will take me and empty me out of a little box and leave me there alone. And if you, dear reader, should get a bit of grit in your boot as you are crossing Haystacks in the years to come, please treat it with respect. It might be me.
– Alfred Wainwright: Memoirs of a Fellwalker

The north-western fells of the Lake District have a very limited colour range at this time of year: the dark green of the conifers; the almost-lime green of moss and grass; the rust of dying bracken, fallen leaves and pine needles; the grey-green of slate; and dark grey of the peaks, silhouetted against the steely sky – or, if you are lucky, glowing gold beneath emerging patches of blue – tinting the choppy lakes…. Green; orange; grey – with the occasional silver glint of vertiginous streams, or streak of snow. A gift to screen-printers; and absolutely beautiful to behold – even in a howling gale, when the sleet is battering your face at over 40 mph…! (I’m a northerner by birth, and by inclination: so am allowed such masochism.) Fortunately, the wind was blowing towards Wainwright’s beloved Haystacks: cradling Innominate Tarn, as it should… – but adding my face to to the local palette: a glowing, windburnt ruddiness.

Such was an almost deserted Buttermere, early last Saturday (when everyone else – if the roads were anything to go by – was out, manically Christmas shopping). Pottering around a small lake is much more preferable, to my mind – whatever the weather: especially when you can count the like-minded people you meet on the fingers of one necessary glove. And my perseverance was rewarded. Even though the wind never dropped, it did clear some of the clouds away from the majority of summits – revealing their true glory, transforming threatening giants into warm-hearted friends: especially the “fell with the prosaic name”, Robinson.

The Buttermere valley is robbed of winter sunshine by a rugged mountain wall exceeding two thousand feet in height and of unusual steepness, its serrated skyline seeming almost to threaten the green fields and dark lake and homesteads far below in its shadow. No mountain range in Lakeland is more dramatically impressive than this, no other more spectacularly sculptured…. Here the scenery assumes truly Alpine characteristics, yet without sacrifice of the intimate charms, the romantic atmosphere, found in Lakeland and nowhere else….

As I walked, I found myself humming the perfectly-ambling-paced Prelude from Holst’s Brook Green Suite – used as the theme music for Eric Robson’s television series of walks with “A.W.” – and it’s difficult to think of a more appropriate accompaniment, even in such challenging conditions (although Brook Green, as a place, itself couldn’t be more different).

On a better day – better for my health, as well as the weather – I might even have hauled myself up Buttermere Fell through the welcoming Scarth Gap (as did one lonely, better-equipped soul – aiming to descend later past Green Crag… – who I met at the southern end of the lake, crossing Warnscale Beck at Peggy’s Bridge) to pay my respects to the man himself at Innominate Tarn. But the granite crest of Haystacks, today, and from this perspective, never looked anything other than its usual forbidding self: a suitable sentinel for such a private – and great – individual. As the man himself wrote: “The Buttermere aspect is the better known, although this side is often dark in shadow and seen only as a silhouette against the sky: here, above Warnscale, is a great wall of crags…. The only advice that can be given to a novice lost on Haystacks in mist is that he should kneel down and pray for safe deliverance.”

Once up there – and it isn’t that tough a climb, really, at around 400 metres – as I know from a youth filled with fellwalking: you will find nothing other than a rewarding, but tough, beauty – the perfect definition of grandeur – that will never leave you (and that you will find very tough to leave – as did Wainwright…).

Writing this, a few days later, on Christmas Eve, supping a pint of Wainwright “exquisitely lovely” golden ale, I can remember almost every step taken: beginning with the walk from the car park behind the Fish Inn; Rannerdale Knotts (“a mountain in miniature, and a proud one”) a perfect backdrop… – not just because the ground beneath your feet varies so much, in level, texture, solidity: ranging from smooth, manmade paths; the damp cushioning of moulding leaves; false friends of less-than-stable slabs of slippery rock; tree roots almost fossilized by the frequent tread of boots; and temporary waterfalls rushing across where the trail once was… – but also because of that allure: every short stride bringing a new perspective (as well as a new photo opportunity… – even with my iPhone battery dying halfway round, I took over one hundred photographs…!).

As I turned, at the far end of the lake, approaching Gatesgarth Farm, I had a real feeling of déjà vu… – Fleetwith Pike rising majestically above a small group of trees… – “Ah: so that’s where the cover of Wainwright’s The Western Fells is!” [And that’s where the majority of the quotations come from (being his last Pictorial Guide to the Lakeland Fells: “Thus a 13-year plan was finished one week ahead of schedule…”) – along with a smattering from The North Western Fells – as he uses the valley of the Cocker, “jewelled by the lovely lakes of Buttermere and Crummock Water”, as a convenient boundary between the two books.]

Returning along the northern shore of the lake (including the unique Hassness tunnel), you certainly look more down than up – and I never once forgot to watch where I was putting my feet, as Wainwright often prompts… – although Whiteless Pike, once cleared of cloud, was a great target: and stood as encouragement to keep up the pace (although I must admit to flagging terribly at Wilkinsyke Farm: using the excuse of a young border collie’s eagerness to stop and rest my legs, before the wobbly charge of the last few hundred metres; a change of boots and socks; and a final peeling of layers…).

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
     It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
     It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
     And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
     And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.
– Gerard Manley Hopkins: God’s Grandeur

Wednesday, 24 December 2014

Carol for Christmas Day…

Hurray! Hurray! Hurray!
The Lord is born today.
Come on, rejoice,
With heart and voice,
The Lord is King for ever.
Be happy and glad,
Be joyful, not sad;
He’s come to save us from our sins.
Hurray! And let us sing
Our praises to the King.

Hurray! Hurray! Hurray!
Sing hymns for Christmas Day;
Of shepherds and kings,
Of ox and ass,
Of Bethl’em’s lowly stable.
The star, on high,
Lights up the sky,
And welcomes Jesus to this Earth.
Hurray! Hurray! Hurray!
Sing hymns for Christmas Day!

Set to music by Stephen R Ward (child genius), for unaccompanied SATB; dedicated to Keith Bond (the church musician’s musician); and first performed by the astoundingly accomplished Blackburn Cathedral Young People’s Choir (YPC) at Matins on Christmas Day 1976.

Thursday, 18 December 2014

And sweet to remember…

“We are nearer to Spring
Than we were in September,”
I heard a bird sing
In the dark of December.
– Oliver Herford: I Heard a Bird Sing

I first came across redwings (Turdus iliacus – and therefore a member of the thrush family), when I lived in Gloucestershire: where, not only were we on the edge of the countryside (I couldn’t abide anywhere else, of course), but we had an extremely large holly tree in the front garden – which, every winter (usually after we had taken some cuttings for a wreath for the front door, thankfully!), would get stripped of all its berries in a matter of days. It wasn’t difficult to identify the culprits: flashes of cream-and-brown mottling, then a lovely wine-red, as they flapped their wings for balance; accompanied by the occasional “tseep”, when the guilty parties had momentarily ceased packing their beaks, or were moving on (quite frequently at night). They were even more obvious as they gathered, each evening, in the bare apple tree in the back garden – oftentimes mixing with other similar-sized birds, if the night was going to be frosty – before huddling together in a neighbour’s large pine.

Where I grew up, in a large Victorian house in Lancashire, our front garden was a veritable forest of different sorts of holly: but I cannot remember them being ransacked quite so thoroughly, or picked at by anything other than mistle thrushes and blackbirds. According to the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO), this is probably because “their [UK winter] distribution is far from even. Key counties in the southwest, the Welsh borders and the Midlands support high numbers of birds and are probably very important to the conservation of the species.”

Sadly, despite their large winter gatherings (of up to a million) in the UK, these beautiful birds are on the RSPB’s Birds of Conservation Concern (BoCC) Red List because we have a very small, and decreasing, breeding population (of around a dozen), restricted to the north of Scotland. However, our local rural environment – as with our neighbouring county – is certainly to their taste for the winter fruit and shelter it provides: as each year, around Christmas, I have witnessed large flocks of them, in their Yuletide-appropriate plumage (much more subtle than a robin’s), plundering the local hedgerows; as well as feasting under our many apple trees on fallen fruit – gradually moving from the A422 down Tysoe Road, through Lower Tysoe, then through the rest of the village – before eventually devouring any berries on Upper Tysoe’s bushes; and, finally, relying, as winter worsens, on any earthworms they can find in the fields.

They seem to have touched down here early, though, this year (they generally arrive in the UK from Russia and Scandinavia in October: working their way across the country) – maybe prompted by the increased size (and appetite) of their cohort, caused by “more food than usual at their breeding grounds”; or, perhaps, in parallel, the premonition of a harsh winter?

Three years ago (at 15:00, on 17 January 2012), I wrote this in the family Birder’s pocket logbook

A flock of redwings has arrived: flitting between the rookery, the oak tree, and the holly tree – stripping it rapidly of all its berries! (I so love redwings: there is something particularly appealing about their transience and gregariousness; not to mention the fact that they also seem to attract other similar companions….)

…so they are currently a month ahead of their previous schedule (when the winter wasn’t as cold or as snowy as in previous years); and, this time – explaining some of the augmentation in numbers – they are accompanied by fieldfares (also now at risk in the UK) – going by the colloquial “clacks” that accompany the group. This has made their presence all the more obvious – and somewhat more clamorous. I will be sad to see them move on.

I had hoped that, somehow, the Redwings Horse Sanctuary Oxhill Visitor Centre – headquartered at Hapton in Norfolk – would have a connection with these winter visitors; but it seems that its name comes from another bird entirely!

Redwings was originally named by our founder, Wendy Valentine and actually has no equine connection at all, being derived from the type of chickens that had been kept on the site where Redwings was established!

Tuesday, 16 December 2014

A load of cobblers…

Oh shut up, Balders. You’d laugh at a Shakespeare comedy.
– Blackadder: Blackadder II

It’s been a long time since I’ve not been utterly gripped by a night at the theatre – the last occasion being a production of The Tempest, with the late Richard Briers (who had been one of my favourite actors until then…) as a somewhat wooden and uninvolved – and therefore quotidian and non-magical – Prospero. Sadly, it was also my young son’s introduction to live-staged Shakespeare (although he loved the retelling of the story in Forbidden Planet, with Walter Pidgeon) – but it doesn’t seem to have caused him any lasting harm!

But, at the Swan, this weekend, I found myself sniggering occasionally, rather than guffawing frequently; and clapping politely, rather than enthusiastically, before leaving the theatre less engaged, excited and involved than I usually am – and it wasn’t for lack of effort from either the actors, designers or musicians: all of whom gave their all (sometimes over-enthusiastically…).

To be honest, the play itself was probably the thing at the root of my disenchantment: especially as I had tried hard to read it beforehand; but found it laborious. Usually such a problem is then remedied by an imaginative production suspending any remaining disbelief – but I’m not convinced that this is possible in this case. Unlike the majority of Shakespeare’s dramas (and, it has to be said, all of the previous contemporary plays in the Swan, this season: including The Roaring Girl, co-authored with Thomas Middleton) – which somehow manage to stay permanently relevant – “One of the most popular Elizabethan plays”, The Shoemaker’s Holiday, by Thomas Dekker (this time solely (sorry)) – just opened, and on until 7 March 2015 – appears, to me, to have aged (and therefore dated) rather badly. (As it overran by nearly twenty minutes, perhaps things will have improved later in the season: and it will be panned in – as my mother would say – rather than simply panned….)

The production itself, though, was – as it was designed to be – gloriously staged: “full of modish costumes: not only fine shoes, but also hoods, farthingales, and periwigs”, as its latest editor, Jonathan Gil Harris, points out, underlining “how the commercial playhouses relied on expensive stage properties… to lure spectators”; and this was exemplified by the foppish Hammon: wonderfully, beseechingly, played by Jamie Wilkes. The RSC’s wardrobe department (under costume supervisor Nicky Fitchett) certainly and skilfully went to town (a bawdy very, very late 16th-century London): at one point dressing the nouveau riche David Troughton’s Falstaffian Simon Eyre as Henry VIII; complemented by Vivien Parry, as Mrs “Lady Madgy” Eyre – the twin of ‘Queenie’ Elizabeth I, from Blackadder II.

The evocative stage design (by Max Jones; lit beautifully by Tina MacHugh) took many of its cues from Westminster Hall (and the rose window from Westminster Abbey?) – suiting the Swan’s wooden galleries and brick walls extremely well; although the deep, stained turquoise flagged floor seemed a little out of place.

Although there were true moments of great comedy (and occasional farce – which I’m not a real fan of…), these, to me, were spread too thinly, and too far apart, and some of the jokes – such as Josh O’Connor’s scripted over-Dutch-accented disguise (in the mould of Officer Crabtree) of Hans the shoemaker; and obvious puns on journeyman Firk’s (Joel MacCormack) name – too repetitive. It also felt (my hearing aids were turned down two notches) like much of the dialogue was shouted, rather than projected – as if the actors (and director Phillip Breen), in trying to authentically recreate the periodic effect, were aiming for the rafters of the original Rose playhouse. For something billed by artistic director Gregory Doran as a “a glorious festive comedy” (featuring the poem The Merry Month of May…!) there was, sadly, very little whole-audience-involved mirth.

The acting (apart from being frequently loud, like a lot of the garb…) was of a uniformly high quality: with many of the company making their RSC debuts. The star of the show, though – from perfectly and authoritatively delivering the prologue to actively taking part in some very vicious morris-dancing – was young Sebastian Dibb: who was a lot more than incidental to the play, and seemed to be on stage as much as any member of the shoemakers’ gang: helping them party like it really was 1599. You could say, I suppose, that they really gave their awl.

I can’t stand all that shouting in the evening.
Patrick Troughton

Tuesday, 9 December 2014

A walk on the mild side…

Just a quick email to say how useful I've found the blog, particularly as a prospective Tysoean (or Tysoenese, I defer to your experience in such matters). I’m moving your way, you see, and was wondering if you had any tips on where to wander first, what to look out for etc? Local intelligence and any advice much appreciated. No obligation, of course, but my wife and particularly poorly behaved collie want to put the right foot first, if you see what I mean.
Kind regards and keep up the good work,

Dear Tom –

Many thanks for your wonderful email – which I’m pretty sure is the first piece of ‘fanmail’ that I’ve received, in a year of writing (mostly) about the place I live; the place I love. You’re obviously possessed with excellent taste – both in writers and in villages – so feel free to give yourself a pat on the back; and why not treat yourself to a pint, the next time you find yourself in one of our local pubs!

Seriously, though, I’m glad the blog is both useful, and being read by people who don’t already live here (“Tysoeans”, I think – although that makes us sound vaguely mythical or mystical; inhabitants of an almost 21st-century Shangri-La: which, of course, isn’t too far from the truth…). I’m also pleased that it hasn’t dented your attraction to the place.

You may have to go elsewhere for “local intelligence”, though… – but, as to “advice” on where to wander: well, you’ll be spoilt for choice! When we moved here, we ordered an OS Select map from Ordnance Survey, centred on our new home: and we immediately discovered that there are footpaths galore spiralling out from the village, connecting us like a beautifully-designed walker’s web to our neighbouring villages, and beyond. Alternatively, you could grab yourself a copy of the local OS Landranger Map (151: Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwick & Banbury) – which will give you a wider range of places to explore.

So, where to go first? Well, although it currently lacks both its sails and its stocks, the windmill – on the appropriately-named Windmill Hill, between Upper Tysoe and Compton Wynyates – is an obvious landmark; and it’s up a hill (d’oh): so good exercise for all three of you! At 181 metres above sea-level, it is also a great place to survey your new domain – with wonderful views particularly north (overlooking the three Tysoes) and west (towards Shipston-on-Stour and Chipping Campden) – or, on a warm day, to have a leisurely picnic. (What do you mean: you left the wine chilling in the fridge?!)

Should you wish, instead of returning to the village, you can then wander over the far side of the hill – with your rucksacks lightened and tummies filled – down past the stunning Compton Wynyates house (sadly no longer open to the public), and across the fields – on the flat – to Whatcote or Oxhill: both of which have the requisite pub – the friendly Royal Oak and my favourite (especially for fine food), The Peacock, respectively.

If you take the path to Whatcote, you will eventually join the Centenary Way (which leaves Upper Tysoe via Tysoe Manor, one of the village’s many listed buildings). This path is well worth exploring in both directions: and, if you don’t mind the odd gradient, clambering up by Old Lodge Farm is the best way to get to our nearest National Trust property, Upton House – which has wonderful gardens, a great restaurant, and one of the best interiors of any stately home I know (especially if, like me, you’re a fan of interesting art and comfortable chairs!) – or even further along the Edge Hill ridge (famously overlooking the first pitched battle of the English Civil War).

Depending how new you are to the wider area, it contains a plethora of local National Trust properties (although not many will welcome a “particularly poorly behaved collie” I’m afraid – otherwise I would have raved about Charlecote Park: which is home to a herd of fallow deer and a flock of Jacob sheep); and Stratford-upon-Avon itself is good for gentle strolls down by the River Avon, or up into the Welcombe Hills. (Have a look at my online Warwickshire photo gallery, if you need further inspiration; or take a peek at my list of Local links.)

But you don’t always have to leave the village (Mrs Bard particularly enjoys exploring the area around the Epwell Road): as there are byways through, and connecting, all parts of it – and all pretty much on the flat – so, when I’m feeling less energetic (which is pretty much my default mode, at the moment), I’m happy just to toddle along the back lanes to the church and back; or, following the footpath beyond the church and primary school, stretch my legs as far as Lower Tysoe. As I’ve said before, “the three hamlets – from Tysoe Manor to Lane End Farm – are less than two miles from end-to-end (and that’s using the roads; not cutting corners with our frequent footpaths, or as the numerous crows fly…)”: so it’s no great strain, and there is much to be enjoyed (including a wide selection of wildlife) – whichever direction you head in!

Hopefully, this will have given you a few ideas, for once you’ve settled in (or just can’t be bothered unpacking the twentieth box of the morning…). Welcome to Tysoe! I hope the place brings you many happy times and memories.

The wheel of heaven turns above us endlessly
This is all the heaven we got, right here where we are in our Shangri-La.
– Mark Knopfler: Our Shangri-La

Monday, 8 December 2014

Further comments…

Like many others in our village, I was initially delighted to see that the surveys, carried out during the summer, have already begun to morph into a concrete first draft of our Neighbourhood Plan. I really do hope that this itself continues to evolve, though, as is promised – “to reflect the ongoing feedback we receive from further consultation” – before a final version is issued; and that the opportunity is taken to reflect more of the three Tysoes’ special character, arresting qualities, distinctiveness and realities – their true “spirit of place” – rather than producing something almost generic: that could apply to any such group of hamlets, anywhere in the country, as it currently stands (well, apart from self-righteously demanding that “All new dwellings must contain an element of local stone” – which is, of course, impossible, as I have stated before). I also hope that, in its final form, it will pay more than lip service to environmentalism and sustainability – especially with regards to energy and its generation – and not continue to be so proscriptive.

Before I go into these issues in more detail, I do think that one of the two most obvious problems with the Plan, as it stands, is that it only captures – as with most modern voting systems – the views of a minority of the parish’s residents; and it would be worthwhile, I think, therefore, to use the street champions in one of the rôles they were originally created for – that is, going door-to-door – to discern the views of people who didn’t respond to the survey; as well as perhaps ascertaining why they didn’t respond. This may also help to gain stronger ownership of, and investment in, the Plan (if that is what people want); and, subsequently, to deliver a more substantial and decisive vote in the referendum – scheduled for early next year – which decides whether or not villagers accept its recommendations, and allow it to come into force as a statutory instrument.

The second major issue is how much meaning – presuming it actually gains a majority vote – the Plan will have; and for how long. As the current draft states (on page 4): “…all Neighbourhood Plans must be in line with… local policy, in particular Stratford [sic] District Council’s Core Strategy.” But how can this be? In all probability, the Plan will be completed well before the Core Strategy sees the light of day (if it ever does). And I remain to be convinced that the Localism Act (which this Neighbourhood Plan is derived from) will ever hold much sway, anyway – in a political climate where the goalposts seem to have discovered how to thwart the impossibility of perpetual motion – especially when previous surveys and plans produced by the Parish Council have been superseded again and again (through no fault of their own). I am concerned that this could just simply be yet another time- and money-consuming exercise: designed to keep us “plebs” occupied, and therefore from being able to interfere in, or protest against, Tory diktats.

Green crap
Under Getting Around, on page 5, the draft states that “The Plan… looks at a wide range of issues, including: encouraging Tysoe to become a ‘greener’ village [and] how we should protect our natural and built heritage assets” – but I don’t see much evidence of this, even under Environment & Sustainability (on page 13). For example, on page 7, it says: “Now, being one of the most remote settlements in the county, residents have to rely heavily on private motor car usage” – but I do not see much in the draft that addresses this. It even mentions, on page 8, that “Cycling is possible…” – and yet it was strongly argued, when fighting Gladman’s proposals for Oxhill Road, that cycling to local employment was almost impossible because of the distances and gradients involved: something I would concur with. We are not all Bradley Wiggins or even Lance Armstrong!

I also find it astonishing that the draft states that “Wind turbine generators that require planning permission will not be permitted unless it is possible to demonstrate minimal impact on the amenities of the village of Tysoe” (repeated on page 22). Why so draconian and narrow-minded? What are the reasons for this: when it has been proven that onshore wind power is one of the cheapest and most sustainable forms of energy; does not impact nearby house prices; and can be used to create meaningful UK-based employment? How are we “to ensure that developments which include affordable homes do not contribute to future fuel poverty; given Tysoe has no mains gas…” if we do not consider all forms of power? When we are supposed to be drastically reducing our dependence on fossil fuels, this seems extremely short-sighted and prescriptive. I presume, under these rules, that Tysoe’s most famous landmark – evidence that wind power is also quite reliable in this area – would never have been allowed? We are no longer living in the 17th century… – but perhaps the authors will change their tune when we suffer from frequent and regular power cuts. (Wind power could also provide the village with great financial returns, as well as cheap electricity, were we to invest in modern equivalents to the windmill – as I have previously written.) This, to me, smacks of politics and authoritarianism, rather than aesthetics or common sense; and is in direct contravention of the draft Plan’s own “Objective ES2: Encourage energy efficient and sustainable development”.

It is also stated, in this section, that “Residents can access the local services by walking. The services are within an acceptable walking distance of the majority of dwellings.” So what is to be done to dissuade people from – or penalize them for (as this is where we really need a little proscription) – driving half a mile (or less) to the shop, to collect their morning paper or a loaf of bread; from driving their ill-exercised children short distances to the school or pre-school; or even, astonishingly, from transporting their dog in their 4x4 – which I have witnessed far too many times – to a nearby field for a short walk (and so that their pet can defecate all over some poor farmer’s crops, as well as the local footpaths), as they currently do…? I am quite badly disabled, and yet make the effort to walk – albeit much slower, and in much more pain, than the “average person” – far beyond the distances outlined on page 20 of the draft: including regularly from Upper Tysoe to Lower Tysoe and back.

Money’s too tight
Under the Housing objectives (page 12), I do not see any mention of affordable housing (although it appears, in passing, under Environment & Sustainability, on page 13; and again on page 19) – either as defined by law, or – preferably – as defined by local salaries. Prioritizing “1, 2 and 3 bedroom dwellings to encourage younger households to locate in Tysoe” is all well and good – but our local house prices are well above average for the region; and certainly not truly affordable to young people who would wish to stay here. (I know that the previous, superseded, Housing Needs Survey showed that there wasn’t much demand: but that is, I believe – from talking to residents with older children – only because they are conscious of the fact that “affordable” is a label, and does not reflect their, or their children’s, financial reality.) Do we not want to encourage local families to stay together? Surely the Town Trust could set an example, here…?

Stone the crows
In Development Strategy (on page 15), the draft states that “All new dwellings must contain an element of local stone”. Why? The current village contains a wide mixture of building media; and such variety is a big part of its aesthetic and vernacular. Again, I state that “We are no longer living in the 17th century” – and modern building materials can be much more environmentally-friendly and cost-effective than stone; as well as ensuring that the village does not end up full of unimaginative, identikit buildings (which is the direction it is currently heading in). They can also “contribute to local character by creating a sense of place appropriate to its location” – providing, of course, that we think of “sense of place” much more widely than the materials delivered on the back of a lorry from the local builders yard.

What is “an element”, anyway? Will a foundation stone, suffice, or a doorstep? And what is “local”? The nearest ironstone – as I have written before – now comes from over the border, in Great Tew.

Finally – although going back to the Foreword, on page 3 – the draft states that “The development of the Tysoe Neighbourhood Plan, being led by the Parish Council, started back in February 2014.” This is not correct: as the initial meeting with regards to the establishment of Tysoe’s Neighbourhood Plan was between a representative of the Tysoe Residents (Neighbourhood Planning) Group and “Fiona Blundell and Simon Purfield at SDC”, and was held on 14 November 2013 – as part of that group’s sterling work (which also included, of course, defeating Gladman Developments at the initial planning hearing). But this, to me, is just another attempt to disassociate the perceived success of the still-nascent Neighbourhood Plan from Keith Risk’s Tysoe Residents (Neighbourhood Planning) Group – which, as I say, kicked the whole process off… – an act I think both sad and unnecessary; and which speaks volumes about its purveyors. It would seem that not only do the draft’s authors seek to write our future, but that they also wish to rewrite our past.

Wednesday, 3 December 2014

The Wastage of the Willows – Branch II; Leaf II

Walk out in the rain…

And one young mouse was so much braver than the rest; although only just as wise. However, what drove him to such courage, currently, was so much more than a need to protect his brethren – he was in love! Every week, therefore, he left his country burrow behind, and trekked the miles – so very far, for such tiny legs – to the nearest village, to ply his favours. But such distance only added fuel to his avidity: and he always reached his destination stronger, and more vital. (“Oh, to have a BUSHY tail!” he exclaimed, one day, upon arrival.) The long walk home seemed dreary in comparison.

Until one day, after his habitual trudge through the fields, roadside ditches, and then back gardens, he had been rewarded, not just with the embrace from his beloved, but her leading him by the paw to a room not unlike the Mole’s study – only on a much grander scale. “Why have you brought me HERE?” he asked, impatiently. “Well,” she responded: “wouldn’t YOU like to know!”

And soon he did. For on the circular table that filled the room lay the same heavy, dark-blue sheets that decorated the Mole’s desk – but plastered with stuck-on notes in a squiggly script that was, as yet, hard to unravel. “We haven’t got long. The Master will be back, soon. I just wanted you to see them; and see if they could help.”

He held her harder and longer than ever before, leaving her cheeks a becoming shade of rosy perfection. “What a wonderful, wonderful mouse you are!” he almost sang. “A genius above ALL other mouses… – as well as the most BEAUTIFUL, of course…” he added, hurriedly. “Why, I could…” – and then they perceived, over the tapping of the rain on the window, which wanted to come in and share the warmth with them, the sound of heavy boots, slightly muffled by the thick wooden door and threadbare kitchen rug, growing, growing, until the handle of the door was turned, and a slightly round, authoritative-looking giant of a man entered, with a mug of steaming coffee in one hand. By which time, of course, they had concealed themselves hurriedly in a dark corner of the room, under a tired, leather, tub-shaped chair.

“I must go home and tell Mister Mole”, whispered the young mouse, torn between staying and going, going and staying. “This might be important….” His already quiet voice faded, as he realized the sacrifice he must make. But he knew his partner’s discovery was BEYOND important. “Come with me. PLEASE…” he pleaded: holding her fading face in his outstretched paws. “I can’t. But you’ll be back soon. You HAVE to be. For me; and for the sake of your home.”

He knew she was right. And sooner than soon, he was deep in the Wild Wood, yoyoing up and down on that familiar bell-pull with all the might he had left, both feet well off the ground, listening to the deep-toned knell responding far, far away. This was no time to be sneaking in through the back, that was for sure.

“Not AGAIN,” said a weary and suspicious voice. And the heavy door creaked open, slowly, followed by the appearance of a stern-looking cudgel (not that there are many friendly ones), and then a sleepy-looking, shimmering, candlelit Mole, in his oversized dressing-gown and shuffling slippers.

“What, Mouse, my dear little fellow!” exclaimed the Mole, now brighter and awakening.“What ARE you doing in such foul weather? You look EXHAUSTED – and look at the state of your feet, all muddy and sore. Well I never! Ratty – it’s MOUSE!” he called, down the long corridor. “Come in with you,” he encouraged his young visitor, turning back to face the doorway. “Come IN with you; and have a wash and a warm-up. And then you must tell us why you are out on such a HORRID night. Ratty – put a pan of water on, won’t you, good fellow; and see what we have to eat…!”

An hour or so later, the Mole was lying back in his snug chair, next to the revivified fire, still chuckling at the appearance of their young guest; and the Water Rat and the Mouse were together on one of the settles in front of it, scarfing down the remains of some hastily assembled cheese, chutney and gherkin sandwiches, crumbs flying everywhere. The Mouse had not taken well to the proffered whisky: coughing like a dying steam train; and, therefore, a cooling mug of half-finished hot chocolate sat next to him, adding to the interlinked and overlapping circles branded into the ancient varnish: evidence of many previous toe-toasting callers in many previous storms.

“So, what brings you here, on such a terrible night?” asked the Rat, turning to his young friend, his eyes glistening with the reflected flames. “It’s the plans, sir; the PLANS.”

As the lightbulb switched on inside the Mole’s head – with remembrances of absent dust and thoughts of present tidiness – its glow emerged in his eyes as a bright tickled twinkle. “The PLANS?” he proclaimed, raising himself up a tad, and trying to sound as stentorian as possible for such a small furry animal (“and one with creaking bones”, he thought) – whilst looking a great deal less serious than he had intended: as that twinkle spread to his whole face, and the corners of his mouth began to curl. “The PLANS? WHAT plans?”

“Oh, sir, sir, just like the ones in your study, sir….” The Mouse’s voice faded as his shoulders drooped: realizing what he had revealed. But the Mole was desperately trying to stay in character, and thoroughly enjoying the sensation of power. “Do you mean to say – young Mouse – that YOU have been in MY study?”

But it was all too much: and, catching sight of the Rat – almost bent double, trying to suppress the shaking that comes with deep-seated laughter, then looking up, with tears of joy streaming down his face – the Mole let go of the last vestiges of pretence, and both he and the Rat exploded with paroxysms of shared merriment.

Knowing that he had been found out, and that this was Not A Bad Thing, the Mouse finally relaxed; and, when they had all wiped their faces of tears, and their small earthquakes of glee had subsided – and after being told never to call either of them “sir”, ever again, or to suffer the extremely ill-defined consequences – the Mouse explained – his words and phrases tumbling over each other in his haste to get the story out – how his family had been cleaning Mister Mole’s study (“we couldn’t ENDURE leaving it…”); found the blueprints; realized their significance; then their mistake in cleaning them; then their mistake in leaving them dusty; then seeing the same plans (“the same numbers in the corner, Mister Mole; the same strange shapes…”) at the old man’s house (“…and he’s as hairless as a newborn!”), where he had been visiting his umpteenth cousin, so many times removed; how very clever she had been; and how he had realized this was important, as well; and that maybe the two of them had chanced upon some sort of help, or ally; and then that he had rushed here to tell them. Immediately. Of course.

“Except I don’t remember anything between leaving her, and ringing the doorbell,” said the Mouse, bemused. “It didn’t even go by in a rush, like sometimes. One moment I was there; next, I was here. All I could think of was Mister Mole. I didn’t know YOU were back, sir… – sorry, Mister Water Rat, sir, Mister Rat, Mister RAT…. I’m sorry if I woke you both up…. But… did I do the right thing?”

“Of COURSE you did,” replied the Rat, soothingly, placing his paw gently on the young animal’s shoulder, and a big comforting grin on his own increasingly happy face. “You did BRILLIANTLY!”

“Although I’m not quite sure”, pondered the Mole, stroking his chin, “what to make of it all. A little cogitation; a little more sleep; and, when the sun rises, maybe it will shed a little light on it all. We… shall… see….”

Monday, 1 December 2014

In memoriam Joseph Ashby…

If this field…

If this field could cry, then it would;
If this field could cry, it would cry
For hare, for badger, for silence,
As the owl cries, but not for care.

If this field could weep, then it would;
If this field could weep, it would weep
For unity, for history,
As the cloud weeps, but not for rain.

If this field could grieve, then it would;
If this field could grieve, it would grieve
For tilth, for furrow, for the plough,
As the horse grieves, but not for ease.

If this field could pass, then it would;
If this field could pass, it would pass
For myth, for symbol, for tribute,
As the days pass, but not for night.

What once was plenty was all our fathers’
And our mothers’ too; was shared in labour
And enjoyment; was permanent and firm
As the ridges and footsteps they planted:
Knowing never to cry, weep, grieve, or pass
By this field that grew them, formed them entire.

If this field could cry, then it would;
If this field could weep, then it would;
If this field could grieve, then it would;
If this field could pass, then it would;
But it will not lie easily
Entombed beneath base usury.

If this field could live, then it would;
If this field could live… it would live.