2010: a year of Cranford, croissants, dogs, D’Arcy, knitting, finding missing persons & much more

7/12/10 Crystal Magic

Hoar frost has transformed the countryside into a beautiful world of sparkling white crystals. I stopped to take pictures near Beckhampton Stables looking across the downs where the horses exercise in the runs. If there were any there, they were lost in the early morning mist.

6/12/10 Call this cold weather

I’m beginning to understand what my friend Charles Waite felt like on his Long March home in 1945 from East Prussia, walking and sleeping out of doors in temperatures as low as -25c although this is nothing compared with that. Unbelievable. In my interviews with him for the book we are writing together, he tells me about trying to keep warm, sleeping in straw in stables, not taking your boots off at night for fear of their being frozen in the morning so you couldn’t put them back on. Fatal. He needed good boots to get through the 1,000 miles he marched.  In Calne it is  now about -4c, and our own weatherman, Mr Partridge, just up the road in Yatesbury has announced a record for the coldest inhabited spot in Wiltshire.

25/11/10 Not too far to go

Calne Heritage Centre is hosting the fabulous Hilmarton Knitted House again. It is on display until 23 December.

There are many more additions to the installation since it was last exhibited – to the interior and the garden. Take delight in the details of the allotment with bean pole and cauliflowers; the plum tree and pebble path; the Christmas tea and kitchen dresser.

10/11/10 Waiting to pounce

I know Hallowe’en is over but this extraordinary spider still lives on in its web strung across the front of the Black Swan, the early 18th century coaching inn, in the Market Place, Devizes. The date 1737 can be seen high up on the head of the cast iron rainwater pipe. Take a look through the arched entrance on the right which leads to the old stables. You get a peculiar sensation as you walk beneath the spider and look up at its giant hairy legs. It’s ready to pounce, so don’t dawdle. The hotel has a bit of reputation as the most haunted place in Wiltshire. I have visited the tunnels running underneath the hotel, part of huge network said to have been used by smugglers, and now acting as a draw to 21st century ghost hunters. And yes, it is kind of creepy down there but not as much as that giant arachnid on the outside.

Big Spider Devizes
Waiting to Pounce – Spider on The Black Swan Devizes

October Red & Green

What have you done with yours? I would love to be able to report that I have made litres of Nigel’s Green Tomato Chutney and Jamie’s Bolognese Sauce but apart from giving away a load, I seem to have been munching through my surplus for weeks, as an accompaniment to every meal.

A little further than ten miles … Visit to Oxford and a stroll around the covered market. Always a pleasure to see the old-fashioned stalls alongside the new and trendy. From Italian handbags to striped humbugs, pigs’ trotters to pumpkins the stalls and shops are brimming with goodies. Not so keen on seeing the rabbits, wild boar and a whole deer (au naturel) hanging outside the main butchers – not for the faint-hearted or for veggies.

But as a fan of TV’s Cake Boss which features Buddy and ‘mia famiglia’, I was very taken with this civil wedding cake in one of the bakery and cake specialist’s windows where you can also watch the girls working at their benches decorating the cakes.

Which seems to contrast nicely with this Meissen figurine I snapped at the Altes Museum in Berlin a few weeks’ ago while on holiday. I think it’s called The Scolding Wife or The Scolded Husband.

25/08/10 Dig 4 Victory

The Blitz Buddies at Whitehall Garden Centre Lacock, WW2 Day

Delighted to catch the Dig 4 Victory Weekend at Whitehall Garden Centre, Lacock, organised by the West Wilts Military Vehicle Trust and the Blitz Buddies. I loved the Home Front displays, the front room with Chippenham knitters Sylvia and Judy, and listening to the singing trio, the Miller Lites, a tribute to the Andrews Sisters.

I also managed to taste some lovely white tea at a talk and tasting given by Ian Green of the Wiltshire Tea Company. Thank you for the tips on different brewing times for the various teas. Loved the white tea. very delicate and fragrant.

I haven’t been to Frome for years and was delighted to find, on a recent visit, the whole town rejuvenated with an interesting range of shops, galleries and eating places. Particularly liked the vintage clothes shops up Catherine’s Hill. I picked up a lovely 1960s Jacquard silk scarf at Make and Mend – the sort my auntie used to wear to keep the rain and wind off her perm. Had tea and cake at the Little Red Tea Room at the top – loved the decor, and I’ll try a bagel next time.

23/07/10 A little place in the country

Word has got round that The Knitted House will be dismantled this Sunday. So if I wanted to see what the knitters of Hilmarton and district have been up to. I needed to get down to the Heritage Centre in Calne and get clicking (not with needles) but with camera.

More than thirty local knitters started in February and finished the 6ft x 8ft house in early July. Hundreds of bricks were knitted and crocheted together. The thatch was made from thousands of strands of wool. The path and door were each knitted in one piece.

Hilmarton Knitted House veggie basket.

There are wonderful details – the birds’ nest, vegetables on the allotment, the tea-time treats on the table inside (the choccy cake looks scrummy) and the pebbles lining the path. You just want to pick one up and polish it on your sleeve before skimming it across a nearby stretch of water. The knitted garden pond, however, isn’t quite large enough.

The house and garden took ten hours to erect in the Parish Hall where it was first shown at the art and craft fair, and six hours to place in the Heritage Centre. I hope there’s an opportunity for it to be displayed again somewhere else in the county. As it’s still a work in progress, I’d love to see the further additions. Read more

22/07/10 If you go down to the woods today…

Went down to Southleigh Woods near Warminster to meet Ali Hollingbery (WILSAR volunteer) and her rescue dog, Archie. She had kindly set up a mini training exercise for me, along with friend Chris, who is a volunteer ‘body’ or misper (missing person). His last job was lying for three hours in a drainage ditch near a lake at Stourhead. It was very interesting to see how Archie has been trained and to see the enormous pleasure he gets from the ‘game’ of search and locate, and being rewarded with his favourite toy – squeaky ball (and a big puddle!)

7/07/10 Tasty Headgear

On the road again after my stint in Melksham as Writer-in-residence. And not far to go for a bit of news: the opening of Calne’s new police station

Calne Police
Opening Calne Police Station

Arrived just in time to get a slice of the celebration cake, made and donated by Trudy Mitchell of local company Jelly Cake, before all the helmet disappeared. Have a look at the fantastic flower pot and the delightful Dairy Milk bar cakes as well as the Trabant (with cats) wedding cake while you’re in the gallery.

The new Police Station in Silver Street in Calne is on the site of the old station which was built in 1929 and in use until 1999.

If you’re interested, according to my 1920 Kelly’s Directory of Wiltshire under Public Establishments is the entry: County Police Station, Town Hall, The Strand, William Frank Hillier, inspector, & 2 constables.

6/06/10 Meeting Mr D’Arcy

Visited the BBC audiobook studios off the Lower Bristol Road in Bath to photograph Maggie Ollerenshaw recording her 50th audiobook Martha’s Journey by Maureen Lee. Joined everyone in the Green Room when they all broke for lunch. Added bonus was meeting veteran readers David Rintoul (remember him as Mr D’Arcy in Pride & Prejudice, BBC,1980) and Steven Pacey (best known as Del Tarrant in Blake 7 – sorry folks, not my specialist subject) who have clocked up several hundred recordings between them. It’s demanding and exhausting work getting through an average book length of 80,000 words (300 pages) in three days.

13/06/10 It’s a dog’s life

Two dogs are better than one – Bowood Dog Show

Selling programmes at the Bowood Charity Dog Show on behalf of Age UK Wiltshire. Gorgeous warm, sunny day with thousands coming through the gates accompanied by dogs of all shapes and sizes. I wish I’d had my Observer Book of Dogs with me to help identify a few. I saw dogs the size of sideboards; ones with rastafarian leanings (in the coat couture department); tiny, trembling handbag accessories; snarly and snappy; bonkers (usually some breed of spaniel, I’m afraid); the dozy or nervous or just plain docile. And some of the humans really did match their pets in temperament or appearance.

Bowood House and Gardens looked magnificent with the shimmering lake as the backcloth to the show. Families were having picnics, enjoying the views while watching the trials and competitions. Pooches were pampered with oohs and ahs and cuddles from passersby, and spoilt with titbits from their owners’ meals from the many food stalls – from sausages and chips to veggie burgers and paella.

3/06/10 Reading Aloud

Dee with Maggie Ollerenshaw, Devizes Library

Very lucky to catch a talk at Devizes Library as part of the Wiltshire Words celebrations. Maggie Ollerenshaw, Open All Hours, House of Elliott, Lovejoy, Last of the Summer Wine and veteran reader of fifty BBC Audiobooks, took us behind the scenes at the recording studios. We learned how a book gets from hard cover to CD case and the process of reading and recording. With colourful excerpts, including her initial audition piece from David Copperfield nearly twenty years ago, and anecdotes about producers and fellow actors, Maggie gave us real insight into this over-looked side of the acting profession. Our appetites were whetted to hear more of her audiobook work, including reading the works of writers such as Peter Lovesey, Joan Jonker, Josephine Cox, Katharine Kincaid and, a particular favourite of hers, Jane Gardam. I’m hoping to visit the recording studios in Bath to photograph Maggie reading her fiftieth book.

14/05/10 Lost in Atworth

A brilliant week, starting on Sunday on exercise with WILSAR (Wiltshire Lowland Search & Recsue) in Atworth looking for a misper (missing person) and ending with meeting Poet Laureate, Carol Ann Duffy, after her wonderful poetry reading at the Swindon Festival of Literature. In between: saw a performance by exciting all-girl dance theatre group SWERVE; gave a talk to Melksham Townswomen’s Guild about my writing; and met with the Town Project and Development Officer to the Town Council about my upcoming role of writer-in-residence at the Melksham Food and Drink Festival 25 June – 4 July.

WILSAR Volunteers on Exercise
WILSAR Volunteers on Exercise

There’s a long tradition of writers-in-residence in schools, libraries and prisons. I recently read A Week at the Airport by Alain de Botton who was WIR for BAA at Heathrow’s Terminal 5, and also came across Sarah Butler’s Central Line Stories produced from her six months residency on the Central Line for London Transport. This made me think: I I could do that – find somewhere unusual to offer my services.

4/05/10 Use it or lose it

I haven’t been to Melksham Local History Centre in the 18th century Roundhouse (former wool drying room) in Church Street for a long time. It’s only open on Tuesday afternoons but I was in town today looking at art work on display for the Cloth Road Arts Week. I popped in to say hello to Tony, a volunteer from the Melksham & District Historical Association, which runs the centre. Not easy, I gather, to find people willing to give up their time to support this wonderful little place.

Like post offices, you’re very lucky if you have a heritage centre near you, and it needs continued support from the public to ensure its survival, and funding from councils and other bodies. Why aren’t more Melksham people visiting the place or willing to help run it? Thanks heavens that people have saved and donated things like the 1860 rare, unnumbered post box from Semington Road and 1946 hair salon price list from J Boddington’s (53, Bath Road, now Lidls), the railways signs, brass plaques from businesses, advertising material, photos et al … numerous reminders of home and work life in the town. Local history for local people.

26/04/10 Boats, buttons and bun

I’ve been pounding the pavements of Trowbridge this week talking to people in shops and cafes and taking photos for an article on the town in the next issue of the Wiltshire Magazine. It’s good to reacquaint oneself with a place one thinks one knows well and try to see it through new eyes.

I’ve talked to Deborah Fox at Ann’s Trimmings in the indoor market about her buttons and laces. Droolled over cupcakes at Intermezzo in The Shires and had a magical mystery tour with Michael Lojko around his wonderfully crowded Aladdin’s cave of antiques and collectables in The Old Sweets Works, Castle Street. Clocks, axes, cheese domes, boats, telephones… you name it…you’ll find it. Oh, yes, and saw some chic ‘handbags’ made from old vinyl LPs & EPs in Cloudberry Interiors next door. Groovy! Check ‘em out.


18/04/10 A funny thing happened on the way to..

Roman Testudo – tortoise formation

Lots of lovely Roman soldiers, members of the Ermine Street Guard, charging about on the Royal Crescent in Bath on World Heritage Day. Here forming the testudo or ‘turtle’ defence. Members of Past Pleasures Ltd were acting as historical interpreters at No 1, Royal Crescent. Henry Sandford and Lady Helen Mountcashell greeted visitors and chatted about the latest gossip and the political unrest of the 1790s.

16/04/10 On the Write Lines

I accepted an invitation to the launch of the first Marlborough Literature Festival (24-26 September 2010). Thanks to a fellow writer I met at Barbara Flynn’s jewellery stall (see below) who told me about the event. It was your usual booze ‘n’ schmooze, attended by the great and the good of the town. The only faces I recognised were Elinor Goodman, former political editor of Channel 4 News, who lives in Pewsey, and Jo Batchelor, who owns and runs Devizes Bookshop where I buy tickets to the Wharf Theatre productions – and the odd book, of course.

I joined in on a few conversations and met Sir John Sykes, trustee and chairman of the Merchant’s House Trust who mentioned that he was looking for a volunteer archivist for the House. I also chatted to Tom Mellors, freelance writer, who was covering the event for Wiltshire Magazine.

To the business: the Mayor, Cllr Nicholas Fogg, and his trusty mace bearers welcomed local author, Mavis Cheek, who is the driving force behind the festival. The star-studded prgramme, including appearances by Margaret Drabble and Lynn Barber, was unveiled – well, the new website was projected from a laptop, displaying pages from A splendid achievement: to launch such an enterprise in these difficult times. Good luck, everyone.

10/04/10 Jewellery goes centre stage

To the Marlborough Spring Fair held at the College, in aid of Cancer Research UK. Looking for stand 44 where I find actress Barbara Flynn on her stall selling her own jewellery. The stars of the show are the gemstones, crystals and glass.

How could anyone resist buying a necklace made from Roman glass from the Nimruz province in SW Afghanistan, stranded together with silk thread?

Yes, dear reader, I bought it. And an absolute bargain to boot! No Knightsbridge prices down ‘ere in Moonraker Country.

31/03/10 Road Behaviour

1946 Highway Code

I picked up a 1947 edition of the Highway Code in The Shambles Market in Devizes yesterday. I have been practising my ‘signals to be given by drivers and cyclists to indicate their intention, where a mechanical indicator is not used’ since reading it. I remember learning them for my driving test in 1975: up and down to show intention to slow down or stop; anti-clockwise circle for turning left.


I did use them occasionally when my Morris Minor indicators got stuck and failed to pop out on command. Fortunately I never needed to learn how to use my whip to signal my intentions in a horse drawn vehicle, although the drivers of the Wadworths Brewery dray horses, which still deliver to local pubs and hotels, don’t seem to need to do it. Even when they hold up the traffic, it is a small price to pay for the marvellous sight of these fine animals maintaining a local tradition of delivering to local pubs.

18/03/10 Shopping, thatching and threshing

Early start to get to the former Somerfield car park in Melksham for the opening of the new branch of Waitrose. At 8.30 the Mayor, Richard Wiltshire and wife Pam, along with Town Crier, Peter Dauncey, store manager, David Reid (rt) and Robin Smales of Waitrose, cut the green ribbon. First shopper through the doors was Jenny Minshall of Bowerhill. She had just come off her shift as a night care assistant and had popped in for a few items on her way home. She was surprised to be presented with a bouquet of flowers and a bottle of champagne.

I went to check out if my Yum Yums and doughnuts were proudly on parade. I now feel a personal responsibility for their welfare, having seen them made locally at Hayden’s.

Yes – beautifully arranged along with all the other mouth-watering goodies. Yolande Bush of Bowerhill, one of the first customers, helping herself to some almond croissants said, ‘I saw someone with them and thought they looked really scrummy.’

Sun still shining, I went in search of more things to photograph. I met Gary Sugg, master thatcher, working on a cottage in Sandy Lane, Lacock. He had nearly completed the work on the block cut pattern ridge roofs on combed wheat which usually take about 10 weeks. You can see other examples here. Although Dale gets his traditional Wiltshire-style long straw from grower Philip King in Lacock, he told me about another grower over at Box, who was in the middle of threshing. Arthur Woodvine brings his monster machine round to local growers. Worth a flying visit on a sunny day I thought, to see what goes on in preparing the straw for thatching.

I tracked down Slades Farm where I found John Best and his gang, working with Arthur on the thresher and baler. Wheat is usually harvested mid-July and stored all year to dry. In October, March and May, Arthur arrives with the threshing machine and they prepare the straw sheaves for the thatchers. The by-products – the bales, go for horse bedding and the grain, for animal feed.

5/03/10 Croissants and Crinolines

Hayden Bakery doughnuts on the production line.

I visited Hayden’s Bakery in Devizes and watched squiggles being iced onto doughnuts, croissants and Yum Yums being twisted into shape for Waitrose and M&S, and gateaux being made and cut by laser blades into perfect slices for Costa Coffee. I met people peeling apples for pies, dredging doughnuts in sugar, and ‘backroom boffins’ in the product development department who were cooking up new lines for Christmas (very hush hush). I was relieved to get out of the white coat, blue hair net and safety boots which I wore for the tour. Not a pretty sight!

Filming Cranford in Lacock

I’ve been talking to some ladies of Lacock who were extras in BBC’s Cranford. One, Gillian Ballinger, was picked out of the crowd to stand in for Julia Mackenzie for an extra shot. She was the same measurements and height for the costume, and the same shoe size. I met another resident, Sharon Lovelock, whose house featured as Miss Pole’s (Imelda Staunton) in the series. The BBC set department had to build a front garden and laid an artificial lawn and flower beds and added a picket fence.

February – Please Release Me

A little bit further afield, I’ve been trying on handcuffs. Not guilty, me lud. At the Tetbury Police Museum which is fortunate in having the Alex R Nichols Collection of Handcuffs & Restraints, relocated from the National Museum of Law in Nottingham. I saw some monstrous examples, both in weight and intention. The Taiwanese thumbcuffs, German ‘Claw’ grip and South African leg grips were particularly noteworthy, and the American Smith & Wesson model 1800 belly chain handcuffs looked the business too. The curator, Sanchia Webb, kindly allowed me to handle items.

January 2010  – Featherweight Research

I have been studying the 1926 -30 handwritten log books, lovely leather bound ledgers, of the travelling salesmen at B Sawtell & Sons, Down and Feather Purifiers, of Melksham, held at the Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre (WSHC) I have been researching the feather trade for a while for a book.

Entry 1928 RPK

I also talked to an 86 year old former employee of the feather works, who helped identify a vehicle in an old photo of the delivery shed which someone sent me after my plea in the Wiltshire Times for information about the company. It is, if you’re interested, a GWR Thorneycroft motor van– just introduced to replace the horse drawn delivery cart in 1926.

Not sure if I really need to know this but I’ll store it away for some rainy day writing or a pub quiz round on railway history.

Bertram Riggs driving GWR lorry
Bertram Riggs driving GWR lorry delivering to Sawtells 1926

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