Friday, 26 December 2014

My peace I give to you

This time last year I wrote about 'celebrating a future that had yet come to pass', it was busy time and I was running here and there, looking after my parents, travelling to see my loved one in Yorkshire, working in a busy school - but, amidst all of this, there was peace. My reflections revolved around a quote from All This Life and Heaven TooFaith is the bird that feels the light and sings when the dawn is still dark. I was rejoicing, quietly, in anticipation of a time to come..

This year I am fortunate, peace has been easy to find - not in the past, or the future - but present here and now. 
In January of 2014 Mr Cloister proposed marriage. There have been many Christmas' when he and I have been unable to be together but, this year we have been resting in each others love. And, I was grateful for it. On December 21st we made a short journey to the local village of Fingest, where, in the 12th Century Church we sang traditional carols with the congregation before retiring to the The Chequers pub for free mince pies and mulled wine. So began our first Christmas.   

Christmas Day Mass was at Stonor Park House. The chapel of Holy Trinity, Stonor, is currently being restored, but for the last few weeks Lord and Lady Camoys have been kind enough to invite the congregation into their home. I love turning into the long driveway leading to the house, there are deer in the parkland that surrounds the property, and most specially at the moment, a white hart grazes distinctively amongst the herd. Mass is celebrated in their Hall, a space large enough for 40 people to sit comfortably beside a great roaring fire. It is an historic setting for the celebration on Mass: Edmund Campion hid there, and had his printing press in the attic in 1581, from where he printed his 'Ten Reasons' why people should keep to the faith. Mass has been celebrated here every Sunday, without exception, for 800 years.In contrast to last year, instead of sitting on hospital wards with my parents, we invited them to dinner for Christmas Day. Roast Goose with damson jelly, spiced braised red cabbage, brussel sprouts and  bacon, honey roast carrots and parsnips, roast potatoes, bread sauce and lashings of gravy donned our table; Christmas pudding I prepared in October, served with brandy butter and cream; Irish Coffee; wine, sherry, brandy - all were taken and enjoyed. Red striped candles, homemade napkins, and paper crackers decorated the table. It was beautiful.

The crib took pride of place in our sitting room, two candles lit before it to show the faces of the holy family, the shepherds and their animals; the wise men travelled on the high road, on top of the bookcase. Sometime ago I wrote about a moment, kneeling next to the crib in church I had wondered, as the Christ child reached out a tiny hand, what would happen if I had the courage to hold on? Well, I have an answer now. My peace I leave with you, my peace I give to you.

This year, with a mind to pass on that peace to those I love, I got creative in the kitchen. Not, this time, to make tasty treats, but to indulge in another luxury - the hot, bubble bath! Mixing together essential oils from those herbs which had graced my wedding bouquet I made white solid bubble bath, decorated with rosemary from the garden, and lavender seeds from a hen party gift. Rosemary oil is excellent for beautiful skin, curing headaches, healing bruises, cuts and scratches; thyme oil appeases chesty coughs and helps you to breathe easy and lavender oil cleanses, eases tired muscles and restores. By crumbling a little bar of this deliciousness under hot running water a fragrant heaven in which to contemplate the season was conjured up, and a compulsory hour of solitude and heaven was prescribed. Happy Christmas to everyone!
7ml Rosemary Essential Oil
7ml Thyme Essential Oil
7ml Lavender Essential Oil
50ml Castor Oil
210ml Liquid Glycerin
285g Bicarbornate of Soda
210g Cream of Tartar
75g Cornflour
20g Tapioca Flour
165g Sodium Laurel Sulfoacetate
Dried Lavender Seeds
Sprigs of Fresh Rosemary
Rubber gloves 
Greaseproof paper

Pour all the liquid ingredients into a bowl and mix them carefully until they are thoroughly blended (this can take a little while). Sieve each of the dry ingredients into a large bowl, in order. End with the Sodium Laurel Sulfoacetate - this is very fine, and very light, it easily gets down your throat. I did not sieve it, but place the measured amount on top of the other dry ingredients all at once. Put on your rubber gloves, lay out a large sheet of greaseproof paper and dust it with bicarbonate of soda, as you would dust a surface if you were making a pastry. Gently mix the dry ingredients together. Make a well in the centre of the dry ingredients, and pour the liquid into the centre. Gradually, and gently bring together the dry and wet ingredients until they form a soft dough. This does take a little while, use your gloved hands to knead the dough. Turn out the dough onto the greaseproof and continue with your kneading. Use the greaseproof paper to roll the dough, as if it were sushi. Keep rolling it tighter and tighter, until you have a compact sausage shape approximately 8cms round and 40cms long. When you are happy with the shape, use a sharp knife to cut the roll into attractive slices. Place each slice on a greaseproof paper covered baking tray. Decorate each slice with dried lavender seeds and a sprig of fresh lavender. Place the tray of solid bubble bath bars into the 'hotpress' (airing cupboard) for 4 - 5 days. Once they are dry they are ready to use. Crumble them under running warm water to create a bath of fluffy bubbles. Light some candles. 

My peace I give to you. Happy Christmas!

Sunday, 16 November 2014

A sojourn in Wales

We got married in the rain. I adore the sound of heaving drops tapping on the roofs when I am warm and cosy inside. Rain, I have always felt, brings many blessings. 

This is just as well, since for the second week of our amazing honeymoon we journeyed into Snowdownia.

I recorded the tale of our best adventure there in the log book:

' After our wedding on the 2nd August Ty Uchaf was our own piece of paradise for the second week of our honeymoon. We spent our first week at St Winifred's Well, a Landmark trust property in Shropshire. Already recharged and full of energy our plan was to set out on some big walks and enjoy the views. We spent our first full day orientating ourselves, looking around Betws y Coed and walking from the house to Llyn Elsi. We weather was mixed on Wednesday and so we headed to Penrhyn Castle - a beautiful and interesting stop. 
Finally on Thursday the day for our adventure arrived. Following local advice we spurned the tourist laden Snowdon trail to Llanberis and drove the short distance to Moel Siabod. We parked at the Cafe by Bryn Glo and turned right onto the road, then took the left hand road over the bridge. Already the walk was beautiful as the path turned steeply upwards. we had been reassured that from the summit it would be possible to view 13 of the 14 peaks of Snowdownia, and at 2950ft Moel Siabod was a majestic challenge. Past an abandoned slate mining village and two beautiful mountain llyns the ridge we were to attempt still rose above us. Moel Siabod was not going to give in easily. 
The path, or route we had to follow, rose steeply upwards and large steps became bouldering challenges! We climbed, scrambled and helped each other along the way. When things looked very tough a man named John and his friendly dog Max appeared. Max only had four short legs so we helped him up a few of the rocks. the company of John and Max helped make a punishing ascent enjoyable. Sadly, not 10 minutes from the summit Max had had enough and he and John turned back. Graham and I soldiered on - and we made it! The view was immense and every bit as spectacular as it claimed to be. We could see clearly all the peaks of the Snowdownia range. We stooped for a short while to celebrate before descending on the shallower north side - not that it was that shallow. Moel Siabod had us scrambling and choosing out footing until we were only a mile from the car. We headed home happy and exhausted, fully deserving of our hot baths and cold wine.
 On Friday I could barely walk! We explored the amazing Swallow Falls and Fairy Glen - both well worth it. we had intended on taking on Snowdon via the Watkins Path on Saturday, but we finally chose a cosy day in admiring the cottage. Sunday came all too soon - we headed to Beddgelert - a beautiful little spot with stunning views all the way. now it is our final evening and Snowdon will have to wait for our return. Ty Uchaf is a special place and a wonderful setting in which to begin your married life. Moel Siabod we salute you!

11 - 17th August 2014'

Winter food was the fayre in Wales - for some reason it is always colder there than anywhere else! But, in the beautiful slate miners cottage 20 minutes hike from a forestry farm track and more than 3 miles form the nearest public road, the huge warm fire and big dinners made Ty Uchaf the cosiest place in all the world.

Honeymoon is, of course, a time of great blessing. It is a time to revel in each other and learn new things about each other. The challenge of Moel Siabod certainly ensured that we both knew what the other is like under pressure! And, we both helped each other. I remember feeling quite tired and scared at some points in the journey, and I am sure that my husband felt the same, but we laughed and joked, and sat and took a few minutes to reflect and recoup our energies to travel the next bit. For all the difficulties the mountain offered I would jump at the opportunity to do it all again. 

On our way to Ty Uchaf we visited the major shrine to St Winifred at Holywell. It was there I discovered that we would have to move home when we returned from honeymoon. I was alarmed by this, and prayed to St. Winifred that everything would work out. I was also nervous about explaining this to Mr. Cloister at first, but when I told him he looked up from his wine glass and said, 'Do you think we could stay here?'

Sadly, we couldn't stay there, but we do have a lovely new home in the country, and having a new place has been good for us. So, I thanked Winifred for he prayers and have made her the patron of our home.

St Winifred's Well

What a place of blessing this truly was!

This is what I wrote in the log book before we left:

'On our Wedding Day, 2nd August 2014, my husband noted that the one thing we had always done together was walk. One thing that we had both done, but separately, was make pilgrimage. Our stay at St. Winifred's marked the beginning of our pilgrimage together. You could not ask for a more beautiful and moving place in which to have the honeymoon of your dreams.  What a start to married life! There is little I could recommend this place that is not self evident from the moment you arrive. This holy well is bustling with life and it restores and refreshes anyone who comes and stays - the log books stand testament to that. Robin, Wren, Sparrow, Mouse and Frog all bid us welcome during our stay. Mr and Mrs Blackbird darted around merrily; and Mr and Mrs Songthrush dedicated themselves to the daily execution of snails - their demise heralded by the regular 'tap tap' of mollusc shells on the walls surrounding the cottage. 
When we felt the need to venture out, a hike up Rodney's Pillar provided excellent exercise astounding views, whilst a day in Shrewsbury illustrated the profound religious history behind St. Winifred, the beautiful Welsh Saint. It is a truly moving experience to see what remains of the Great Abbey in which St. Winifred found her final resting place. A day at home at the well provides the time needed to truly appreciate so special a home - there are deck chairs in the store cupboard and sitting out with tea and one of the many excellent books provided shows this silent retreat at its best. Both Graham and I paddled in the holy water and explored the spring and stream each day. This afternoon we might head to The Navigation Inn - until just soaking up the special atmosphere of a small chapel cottage in the woods is contentment enough. I am sure we will both be sad to leave behind St. Winifred on Monday - but she has lent us an amazing spell of happiness with which to begin our journey together, and so we must thank her and promise to return in years to come. 
4th - 11th August 2014.'

I cannot come close to explaining the peace and beauty of that special retreat in the woods. Each day we were happy to be there, and enjoyed exploring, sitting quietly, reading, talking, listening, watching and walking. We feasted and drank cool wine in the sunshine. I loved it every day.

Of course, part of what made it special was the fact that we were there together to share the joy of it. We prepared our meals together - roast chicken, an amazing bolognese, a mild curry, fresh burgers with sweetcorn, salads and cheese. If we were not chatting quietly we listened the birds chirruping and the wind rustling the leaves on the trees. We sat in front of the crackling open fire, each engrossed in a book, Cadfael for me, The Morville Hours for him, sometimes stopping to read particularly gripping passages to each other. There was not a care in the world. The absence of television, radio, internet wifi and mobile phone signal was as much a welcome blessing as the sounds of the creatures stirring in the undergrowth.

Cloister Honeymoon

In August I married the man I love; we have been working together ever since to build our own family cloister! We have a new home, not far from my work but also close to a Guernsey Dairy Farm, fields and places to have adventures. We have kitted out the kitchen and explored the local greengrocers and butchers. The feasts have been celebrated, every one. And, although we have observed the Friday abstinence from meat, fasting has been non existent as we have settled into our new vocation to journey together till death do us part.

On honeymoon we stayed first in a small wooden framed cottage in the woods near Shrewsbury. It was called St Winifred's Well - the 15th Century hideaway was once a chapel and place of pilgrimage, built above a natural spring that pilgrims came to pray by and bathe in.  You can just see it in the background of the picture to the left. St. Winifred's body had been lain there, they say, when they carried her body from Holywell to Shrewsbury in 1138 - from that night onwards the spring water flowed, famous for its healing powers - most particularly bruises. I was very pleased about this, as I accidentally fell in whilst exploring and looking at Mr. Frog one morning! Winifred's Well was a place of tranquility where you could be with nature and nature could be with you. The bathroom was separate from the house, in the old pig-sty. As there was never anyone around you could run gloriously hot bubble baths and soak with the door open, looking up into the trees and making friends with Mr. Robin and Mrs. Songthrush. I wrote about our beautiful week here in the cottage log book, and you can read my entry a separate post.

After a week relaxing among the trees we were headed for the mountains of Wales. En route we stopped at the UK's oldest place of continuous pilgrimage - St Winifred's Well, Holywell. Since the 7th Century, through bad times and through good, pilgrims have gone to this place to pray and ask for the prayers of St. Winifred. And, well, having just spent a week in the woods learning about her, it would have been rude not to pass by. 

In Wales we stayed in an old slate miners cottage at the top of the mountain, surrounded by sheep. Neither of the cottages we chose to spend the first weeks of marriage in were accessible by road, and both had roaring fires. We had plenty of time to read, chat, cook, eat and explore. We climbed Moel Siabod in Wales - an epic climb you can read about in the diary entry I made to the cottage log book. You can read the entry in a separate post.

Marriage also seems to have brought out my creative side: I have knitted the blanket of my dreams, perfect for winter hibernation. It is made of pure wool from Suffolk sheep. I started the project on honeymoon and finished it only yesterday. Much of the wool was bought with John Lewis vouchers bought as kind gifts from relatives and friends. So, thank you to all of them. I am very proud of our blanket, and Mr. Cloister loves it too.

I attach some pictures, and will write separately about some of our bigger adventures. I hope to get back to writing some recipes soon.

All in all, although the last few months have been very busy, they have been blissfully happy. I hope that you enjoy reading the log entries.

In the meantime,

St. Winifred - Pray for us.

Monday, 25 August 2014

Blackberry Picking

Late August, given heavy rain and sun 
For a full week, the blackberries would ripen. 
At first, just one, a glossy purple clot 
Among others, red, green, hard as a knot. 
You ate that first one and its flesh was sweet 
Like thickened wine: summer's blood was in it 
Leaving stains upon the tongue and lust for Picking. 

Then red ones inked up and that hunger 
Sent us out with milk cans, pea tins, jam-pots 
Where briars scratched and wet grass bleached our boots. 
Round hayfields, cornfields and potato-drills 
We trekked and picked until the cans were full, 
Until the tinkling bottom had been covered
With green ones, and on top big dark blobs burned 
Like a plate of eyes. 
Our hands were peppered 
With thorn pricks, our palms sticky as Bluebeard's.

We hoarded the fresh berries in the byre. 
But when the bath was filled we found a fur, 
A rat-grey fungus, glutting on our cache. 
The juice was stinking too. Once off the bush 
The fruit fermented, the sweet flesh would turn sour. 
I always felt like crying. It wasn't fair 
That all the lovely canfuls smelt of rot. 
Each year I hoped they'd keep, knew they would not.

Tuesday, 17 June 2014


This week I went into the school chapel. I found there a large silver bowl into which I had poured sand during Lent. It had not been touched since and the sand had gone hard and heavy. The bowl had been intended as the receptacle of many prayers for family, friends and loved ones during the season of Lent. But, it had never been used.

In Lent, after a long discussion with those in charge of such things, it was decided that to have unsupervised devotional candles in Chapel was a bad idea. Instead, ordered to my pigeon hole, came small battery operated tea lights that could be neatly placed before the altar.

Fake Candles.

Something about this bothered me. But, I am not about to start a revolution. I can see the health and safety point. However, prayer for me is not electronic. It is elemental, real. The tools for prayer are tools through which I can reflect on the presence of the divine incarnate in this world: earth (posture), air (breathing), fire (inspiration) and water (reminder of my baptism, calling to serve). A fake candle was about as far from real inspiration as I could get. 

Still there were other elements I could include in a safe environment that could bring the beating heart back to prayer: wood, salt, bread, wine. Therefore, Lent passed without me making too much of a fuss. I was touched by the number of small flickering electrics lights were turned on each day, and even had to change some batteries.

Soon we will arrive at the Feasts of the Sacred Hearts. I am reminded of it by the turn of the liturgy to Pentecost and Trinity, and by my dreams. Perhaps you will remember an odd dream I had of a party, with Jambalaya and Rose, music, dancing, good company and a green ring. That dream was about friendship, love and vocation I suppose, although I never really understood it. Well, the ring is back in recent dreams, shiny and green as it ever was. Last night I was travelling on pilgrimage (walking), and then by bus with a group, some were friends, but others i did not know. There was a man there wearing the ring (no longer Timothy Radcliffe TBTG), but I did not know where he was leading. I was happy and content to follow along, not afraid anymore. I was sometimes silent and taking in the view, sometimes talking to others, always keeping my eye on the diamond green.  My dreams are like a serial novel, I am always waiting for the next episode. I look forward to the next instalment.

Ironically, I do not put great stock by dreams. I would rather write about reality, the way things are in flesh and blood, than hark on about the imaginings within the dark recesses of my mind.

I am haunted by the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary. Do not run away. I am not mad. But, in my dreams and day dreams I often see them in my mind's eye. On the occasions when I struggle to sleep, in my mind, it is to the chapel of the Sacred Heart I walk, stand, wonder, pray. None of this is that unusual I do not suppose, some people lie awake and count sheep, some stare at stars, I go walking. All my little mental trips to the heart of the divine have the same theme: God and faith occupy messy everyday reality. Hearts beat in flesh and blood, they need earth, air, fire and water to begin; bread and wine to continue. If the Feasts of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary are about anything they are about how special the love of Christ and His Mother is. Special not because they are separate from the fundamental basics of everyday living, those elements that make us real, but because they are part of them.

I suspect that is way I was bothered by the fake candles. Fire is elemental. You cannot deconstruct it, take it apart, turn it off and on again. For me, prayer is elemental too. Basic, not complicated: 'My heart is restless, O God, until it rests in you'  - Augustine

Thursday, 12 June 2014

Truth (a repost)

Wisdom to learn
Knowledge to reason
Judgement to listen
Courage to speak
Understanding to love
Reverence to worship
Wonder to live

I wrote this some time ago, and this is the third time I have posted it on this blog. It is the season of Pentecost and so these gifts have been on my mind. Do I use them well? Pray for them when they are lacking? 

Tuesday, 10 June 2014

Be good to yourself, be good to others

I have been trying to be more healthy of late. This has led to me looking up and experimenting with new and exciting recipes, ones with less of everything that is meant to be bad for me and more of everything that is meant to be good for me.

I am reluctant 'dieter'. In fact, I hate the word. I find it positively offensive when people refer to certain foods as 'sinful', 'naughty' or 'bad'. If I were to use the word 'sinful' to describe food it would be because the way in which it was produced was in some way evil. For example, I recently read the tragic case of Burmese slaves being kept on board ships and forced to work, under the threat of violence and death, so that their bosses could be part of the supply chain that brings us in the UK prawns. Prawns are delicious, but they are not worth that. Under those circumstances, with the knowledge I have, eating prawns produced in Thailand, likely to have been produced in one of these supply chain lines, would be sinful. 

Tonight I ate Peach and Chickpea curry. It was an experiment, a first. And, it was delicious! The recipe came from the lovely, inspiring Jack Munroe. A woman who has single handedly brought the issue of food poverty to the attention of political leaders. Recently Jack has been feeding herself on just £5 per week in order to demonstrate the reality of trying to live below the poverty line in the UK. You can read about here campaign here

So then, food can be good, and food can be bad, but none of that has anything to do with the harvest of good and beautiful nature itself. Food in it's natural state is good, good, good. The work of divine and human hands. Food is one of the many things that completely unites the human family, we all need it. So, food is also one of those things through which we can be fair to, and conscious of others. Everything I cook in my kitchen has been sown, grown, picked, packed, transported and sold by a neighbour. Knowing that, thinking that through each day, helps when it comes to remembering to buy fair and waste not.

Here is Jack's recipie. It is amazing. Try it.

250g tinned chickpeas
1 onion
1 clove of garlic
1 chilli
a splash of oil
a shake of ground cumin
1 vegetable stock cube
1 x 400g tin of peaches
1 x tin of chopped tomatoes
a handful of fresh coriander

(I measured nothing, used an extra sweet red bell pepper, and replaced coriander with spinach, but there you go)

Drain, rinse and boil your chickpeas in fresh water for 10 minutes. Finely chop the onion, garlic and chilli, and fry this gently in a pan. Add cumin.

Drain the tin of peaches, reserving the sweet juice. Chop the peaches into generous chunks. Add these to the gently simmering onion mixture and sprinkle the stock cube over. Add the sweet peach juice mixture. Add the chopped tomatoes and coriander. Cook gently for about 30 minutes, until all the flavours have blended.

Serve with plain boiled white rice.


Tuesday, 13 May 2014

Be gentle when you touch bread

Be gentle, when you touch bread,
Let it not be uncared for, unwanted.
So often bread is taken for granted.
There is so much beauty in bread,
Beauty of sun and soil,
Beauty of patient toil.
Winds and rain have caressed it,
Christ often blessed it;
Be gentle when you touch bread.
Be loving when you drink wine,
So freely received and joyfully shared
in the spirit of him who cared;
Warm as a flowing river,
Shining as clear as the sun,
Deep as the soil
Of human toil,
The winds and air caressed it,
Christ often blessed it,
Be loving when you drink wine.
Attributed to David Adam, a former miner and Canon of York Minster.

Sunday, 11 May 2014


Spring has sprung. My herb garden looks wild and very healthy. Everything is growing and growing so fast I can almost see it. 

I wish I had time to stop and watch it. 

I have been busy. Not, I'm so self-important and stressed out busy, but wonderfully busy. Like a bee.

That reminds me, since it is still the Easter season, of what took my attention at the Easter Vigil this year. It was the bees. 

The Deacon sings the Exultet at the beginning of the Mass. In the second half of the hymn he presents the Paschal Candle, or Easter Candle, which burns in the Church all through the Easter Season, and through the year on Solemn occasions such as Baptisms. This is what he sings. 

On this, your night of grace, O holy Father,accept this candle, a solemn offering, the work of bees and of your servants' hands, an evening sacrifice of praise, this gift from your most holy Church.  
But now we know the praises of this pillar, a flame divided but undimmed, which glowing fire ignites for God's honour, a fire into many flames divided, yet never dimmed by sharing of its light, for it is fed by melting wax, drawn out by mother bees to build a torch so precious. 
O truly blessed night, when things of heaven are wed to those of earth, and divine to the human. 
Therefore, O Lord,we pray you that this candle,hallowed to the honour of your name,may persevere undimmed,to overcome the darkness of this night. Receive it as a pleasing fragrance,and let it mingle with the lights of heaven. May this flame be found still burning by the Morning Star:the one Morning Star who never sets, Christ your Son, who, coming back from death's domain, has shed his peaceful light on humanity, and lives and reigns for ever and ever. Amen.

Although I have heard the Exultet many times, this year was the first year I have ever paid any attention to the bees. But, here they are in a starring role, honoured for their hard work and dedication in the greatest hymn of praise and thanksgiving the Church has to offer! I thought that was very cool indeed.

I am getting married this summer (*glee and joy*), and recently I was visiting my husband-to-be and his family in Yorkshire. We found a very sleepy bee sitting on the window sill. Honey was fetched and the little chap took his fill, then he was gently carried to the back door and laid down outside. It was dark and chilly, and we all waited to see what he would do. After a few moments of recollection he took off high into the air, straight up! Then, after hovering for a few seconds he flew off, hopefully to home. Maybe, when he got back, he did a special dance that said, go up the hill to that house fake a sleep and you get fed honey. Soon there will be a steady stream of bees snoozing on the windowsill. 

Bees are so little, but we cannot live without them. They dance around, barely noticed by us, but without them we would have no food, no flowers, no candles. The things of heaven are wed to those of earth, so it is an easy jump, in my thought anyway, to go from bees to the little things I cannot live without, things no one else might notice: a hug, a touch, an 'I love you'; a 'thank you', a phone call, a message, a letter; time with family, time with friends, a meal shared together. Such are the things I thought about when the Deacon sang about the honey bee at Easter. Such are the things I am still thinking about now.

Wednesday, 9 April 2014

A herb garden explained

I should be marking Year 7 projects. I've been meaning to do it all day, but procrastination has won again.

Yesterday I raided my Ma's garden, and adding to some herbs I had bought previously that week and some plants generously bought for me by my twin sister, Gemma, I made a herb garden. I was so happy. I only have a small pavement covered space at the back of my flat. I miss terribly my two great allotment fields in Bedfordshire. One day I am going to have an allotment again, or better still, a garden of my own. In the meantime, paradise has to spread its rays from terracotta in the yard, and it does so as if it were the sun shining after rain. Most of my 'lost time' today was time spent sitting and looking at my newly loved herbs and flowers.

Let me tell you about them. First, by the door in a macrame pot hanger I made (it keeps the '70's vibe), is trailing verbena, tumbelina and surfinia. Verbena, medievalists amongst you should know, wards off ghosts, goblins, vampires and other evils. It brings good fortune and is called the 'holy herb' for its gifts of healing, compassion, gentleness and love to the household. Tumbelina and Surfinia are both types of trailing petunias. I know of no great tales to tell of their significance, but their purples and pinks will be beautiful next to the gentle gold of the verbena flowers. Above these great specimens, also in the hanging baskets, are violas - the symbol of the ancient city of Athens and of constancy. The Romans made wine from their flowers, and later wound the blossoms into great garlands to cure hangovers, but I am not convinced that is either tasty or effective!

Next, in the pots, there are two Rosemary plants, one a bush planted into a blue strawberry planter, and the other standing tall in a terracotta urn. The flowers of the Rosemary bush were said to have been white until the Flight into Egypt, then the Blessed Virgin dried Christ's clothes upon the shrub and ever since they have been blue; or, perhaps, she cast her cloak over the bush and hid from passing Romans? Either way, Rosemary is said to ward off evil: a sprig under the bed cures bad dreams, a sprig in your bridal bouquet brings faithfulness and, a sprig on the doorstep keeps thieves at bay.

Thyme sits in the first large blue pot. It is an ancient symbol of courage and was worn sewn into the shirts of the Crusaders with this in mind. Marjoram, called 'joy of the mountains', grows next to it, a symbol of happiness in the home and life everlasting. Cats love it, and the medieval herbalists used it as a treatment against fleas. Actually, modern flea treatments use it too (not that I have a cat, or fleas!). I planted 'forgetmenots' in one of the terracotta pots that is decorated with the shell of St. James. I did this just because I am an old romantic, long more that anything to return to the Camino and hope I will never be forgotten in prayer by good old St. James. But, the forgetmenot has a history in folklore too: Somerset travellers would not leave the door without it, for it imbued them with fortitude for the road ahead.

Sage comes next with its' peculiar tale. Sage is a symbol of fertility and fecundity. It is said that where it grows daughters will be born to a family. It brings a spirit of rejuvenation and eternal youth, 'he that would live for aye, must eat sage in May'. In the pot next door Oregano lives, an ancient symbol of honour and happiness. Chives and flat leaved parsley grow in the same tall pot beyond that. Chives have a dual symbolism of dreams and practicality, the essence of their message being, 'why do you weep? Get up and live'; Parsley is another symbol of fertility, an aphrodisiac with many superstitions surrounding its' transplanting. It should only be moved on Good Friday, I read. I hope a Tuesday in Lent will do! Mint is the final herb, and according the folklore it invades every corner of household life. Where mint flourishes, so does love, health and happiness within the home. Plant it in pots though, for if it is out of control so is everything else!

There is one more pot, and in it are tiny trailing lobelia plants. Lobelia is used to 'call the butterflies', through it comes the rare, transitory beauty of the seasons. Lobelia is a symbol of 'the moment', and a call to appreciate each day as it comes, looking neither to the past nor the future.

So, there it is: my herb garden. It doesn't look much yet, but it will. And, if it reaps all the fruits of its' symbolism it will be the most amazing herb garden ever planted. I will use every herb in that garden, and will be sad when the season is over and I must let the plants sleep. In the meantime, I am going to make the most of it every day, and if that means a few hours are lost watching the plants grow, so be it.

Monday, 24 March 2014

A blog of thankfulness

Back in October my school held its Staff Retreat. This only happens once every two years, but it is always a happy occasion. This year Fr. Roger Dawson SJ came and spoke with us. His talk was inspiring, and it felt as though he has planned it knowing I would be one of his listeners (perhaps everyone felt like that). He spoke about life's journey, the ups and downs, and he used his experience of walking the Camino de Santiago as his guide. 

Well, as you can see, he was on my wave length, for I too have great memories of that pilgrimage, and learnt many things through my own journey. Fr. Roger drew many lessons from the pilgrimage. He spoke about Ignatius of Loyola's 'Consolations of the Spirit', little moments in which you know you are on the right path. These 'consolations', he explained, are moments in which you receive energy from the place, time and task you are in. We recognise such times easily when we are happy in our work, or with our friends. But, such energy and strength can also come at sadder times, such as when you are in the right place at the right time, grieving with a friend or nursing the sick for example. Fr. Roger likened these 'consolations of the spirit' to the yellow arrows which mark the way to Santiago de Compostela. You never know when they might appear, or on what they might be painted, but when you need them, they'll be there, pointing you in the right direction.

I have had cause to think about what Fr. Roger said recently. I remembered he encouraged us to keep a daily notebook and in it record, at the end of the day, everything we are grateful for. Little things, he said, like the bus driver who waits for you, or the children that help you move your classroom desks; a delicious meal prepared by a loved one, or a kind word from a colleague. Keeping such a diary, he said, would change the way you see and experience the world around you. I loved this idea, and tried it for at least a month. It worked, and really did help me to see things rightly.  But, after a while I began to forget to stop still in the evening, was too busy marking, cooking or reading to be writing in my little book of thankfulness.

Then the school retreat came round, Lent was beginning and I was going to be asked to lead a workshop on 'Faith and Journey'. Fr. Roger's idea came back to me. As part of my session I would ask my students to use post-its to decorate a huge wall with all the things in their lives they were grateful for. It was a really touching exercise, we had a few laughs and a few tears. But, after a week or so, the board was taken down and I forgot about it. Maybe my students did too.

The other day a fellow blogger, Mulier Fortis, was looking for inspiration, and I tweeted 'how about a blog of thankfulness?'. I didn't even think about it much, but a while later my phone went 'Ping!' and I noted she had 'favourited' the tweet. I was happy.

Today I found my little book of thankfulness from October. There are simple things recorded in there that make me smile, like the time I saw seven rainbows on a day out walking in November, or game of scrabble in which I laughed and lost. I am delighted to have found this little book today, and I will take up writing in it again. I'll try not to forget this time. It has been a brilliant month in many ways, and I should be grateful for the many happinesses there are in my life, but too often I worry about the work I should be doing, or the money I do not have. Life is too short for such nonsense.

I calculated I only have £10 left 'til payday, but in my new spirit of thankfulness I found I had some great ingredients for dinners for the rest of this week. I am grateful for:

Butternut Squash Risotto (made with Chillies and Parmesan)
Cauliflower Cheese (Smoked cheddar)
Homemade bread (with an apple in it)
Carrot and Parsnip Soup

And the fabulous things I am going to make with potatoes, mushrooms and bacon (to be confirmed). I think I'll save the £10 for wine on Friday. :-)

Monday, 17 March 2014

Love life, love spring

I returned again to the Peak District this weekend. We walked from Hathersage up Stanage Edge via Denis Knoll. The sun was shining, and there was warmth in its rays if you hunkered down into shelter. By a small brook called 'Old Sheep Dip' we ate a feast of hot roast pork sandwiches, with crackling and apple sauce. We sipped hot coffee. It was tempting to stay there all afternoon, to curl up in a grassy hollow, bathe in the sunlight, snooze and watch the clouds whizz by. 

I wanted to write a post about how I felt to to be free in the outdoors. Those who know and love me know the relief I feel once I can escape into the freedom of the wind, sunshine, rain, snow. I adore my job, I really do, but I long to be outdoors all the time. I wait, looking longingly out of windows. I am patient. Then at the weekend, I spring.

This weekend, spring had sprung, but the cold was still with us. I stood up from our blissful picnic spot and the cold breeze caused me to zip up both fleeces and a raincoat. March: the sun is warm, but the wind is bitter. As the saying goes: 'March comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb'. By the end of the month even the most delicate of buds will have braved the fresh air.

We turned to face the wind and, bent double to shield our chests from the cold, walked down the road. In a ditch by the roadside something moved in the water. I stopped, went closer. There, in the sunshine and shelter Mr and Mrs Frog had been busy. There were millions of tiny eggs bustling in groups on the surface. Underneath little black tadpoles teemed. And, hidden amongst it all, the industrious mother and proud father. No predators had yet found their home. They looked happy.

A hat was called for as we reached the top of Stanage Edge. The wind was strong enough to knock me from my feet. There were many people up there, but all was quiet. Conversation isn't free flowing in a gale. We stopped and looked out at the view, the village from which we had come, the tiny matchstick people down below. Once you see how small everything is from on high worries disappear on the breeze. There is nothing more relaxing and nothing more breath taking than looking at an expanse of beautiful, amazing, awe inspiring creation.

I met a hairy caterpillar on the way down. He seemed out of place. Perhaps had been dropped by a bird that did not think he was going to be tasty. He was in the middle of the path. I hid him in the bracken. He curled up when I touched him, furry defences poking out. I loved him. I hope he lives to be a butterfly.

Now it is Monday, and the weekend seems far away already. My tea is in the oven, it is a simple sausage casserole with onions, carrots and chicken stock. I'll eat it with crusty bread and a glass of wine (Feast of St. Patrick). I found a poem that explains how heaven and the outdoors share a space in my psyche. Here I share it with you.

In The Fields

Lord when I look at lovely things which pass,  
Under old trees the shadow of young leaves
Dancing to please the wind along the grass, 
 Or the gold stillness of the August sun on the August sheaves;
Can I believe there is a heavenlier world than this?  
And if there is
Will the heart of any everlasting thing  
Bring me these dreams that take my breath away?
They come at evening with the home-flying rooks and the scent of hay,
Over the fields. They come in spring.

In the Fields: Charlotte Mew

Friday, 7 March 2014

Simple supper?

Friday night. The first Friday in Lent. I am exhausted. School has been madness. I thought this evening would never come.

On Ash Wednesday I had all sorts of bright, pious ideas of what I could give up in Lent. By Friday, heading to open up chapel at 7am this morning, simple things were enough. The chocolate, the cake, the pastries - all those creature comforts I rely on to get me through the day....they were staying. I'll pray whenever you want me to, all the time if you please. I'll support charity fundraisers and give to those in need as much as I am able. But, to do those two things, I need chocolate to keep me going. And cake. And wine. Happily, to some extent, Isaiah was with me (check the readings for today).

And so it came to supper of the first Friday in Lent. Present in the fridge were:

500ml cream
wholegrain mustard
smoked and peppered mackerel
rocket salad.

With a little salt and pepper, a meal could not go wrong...unless, of course, you were on a diet. I sliced the potatoes into pound coin slices, mixed milk and cream (all of it) with mustard, salt and pepper. I layered the potatoes into a small pyrex dish, and ripped apart a smoked mackerel fillet, layering it on top. More potatoes, more mackerel, more potatoes, more mackerel, more potatoes. I poured the cream, milk, salt and pepper over the top, until it covered the top layer just a little. The whole lot was in the oven for 1 hour at 200C. I served it with a handful of rocket and a cold glass of wine. It was heaven.

Yeah, anyway, spider plants

So, Ash Wednesday came and it went. In school we had the 'Whole School Retreat'. I have written about that before. It was beautiful, and at times moved me. I am often amazed at the strength of faith students have. There were touching moments of us together as a school community; I will never forget distributing the ashes. I remember the experience from two years ago. There is nothing more powerful than first receiving the ashes, 'Repent and believe the Good News of the Gospel', and then distributing them to the school community. This year there were several moments I will remember. The line of stylish Year 8 students, one after the other, grinning and sporting excellent side slung fringes I needed to deftly flick out of the way; the faithful Sikh student who approached pushing his turban a little higher so as I could reach his forehead; the cradle Catholics who looked doubtful; the Muslim students who adjusted their veils; the embarrassed, the faithful, the grinning, the meek. And, to each and every one, the words, 'Repent and believe the Good News of the Gospel' or 'Remember thou art dust and to dust thou shalt return'.

After all that 'turning back', all that refocusing and readjusting, what should one do with one's evening? That was my question. Tempting as though it was, wine was out of the question. So, I came home and walked about my tiny flat. The spider plants were bursting at the seems to be let out. I headed to B and Q, they would be open after 5.30pm, surely? And, surely they were. I bought huge wooden pots, homes for life. Then, when I returned, I gently rehoused my little pets. They were given to me, of course. Gemma gave her spider plant babies to me, she had received hers from Emma, a friend of ours. Perhaps now my spider plants are happy in their new home, they will have little ones I can give to others.

Now my Spider plants are happy, I love them more than ever. They are going to grow and grow, and I will watch them do it. I am looking forward to the day they have many offspring, and hang out of their pot looking fruitful and abundant.

For me, this Spider plant business was a good start to Lent. I am not very good at giving things up. I am quite good at taking things up though. Looking after my house plants might be a start, taking care of those around me might follow, praying for others follows that, and doing good comes as a result. If my Lent grows as fast as my Spider plants, I'll be happy.

Friday, 28 February 2014

In need of a good Lent

Ash Wednesday is around the corner. I have to say, I am looking forward to it. I am, although to many ears it may sound strange to say it, in need of a good Lent.

You know when your house gets all messy, begins to look tired around the edges, and is generally in need of a good spring clean? I reckon that is how I feel, spiritually, as I approach this Lent. There's a lot of junk that has been collected that should be recycled or thrown out; there's some new essential items that would make my heart a more welcoming place to be; and, a good clean and a lick of bright new paint around the place would not go amiss.

The question is, how to go about this 'spring cleaning' operation over the next 6 weeks. Today I prepared a retreat workshop for our Whole School Retreat on Ash Wednesday (I have written about this event before, here). In it I have thought of a thousand little graces to offer each day. My suggestions range from ringing someone you love but with whom you are out of touch, to experimenting with prayer, to writing a daily list of everything you are grateful for. I suppose I am asking students to look at the contents of their heart, examine them and tidy them up

I wish my advice were as easy to take up as it is to dish out. I've been trying to work out what my own spiritual practices might be for this season. 

The truth be told, I've turned a little lazy. Now I do not have to be out of the house until 7.30am, I rarely wake before 6am and I never take the time I used to for prayer in the morning. I guess when I had the long commute I needed the strength of mind prayer gifted me to get through the day. I still do, but these days I neglect it. So, the morning routine has got to change, somehow, someway, and in it I need to make some space for God, faith and me. Confession will form part of this change in relationship with God, and as GK Chesterton put it, I'll go through that process which will make me 'five minutes new', a new creation free of past mistakes and blunders.

In school we fast on Ash Wednesday by asking students and staff to make the most delicious soup known to all mankind and scoffing it down with bread a cheese. It is so excellent a lunchtime meal I look forward to it all year round. But, perhaps, there are other things I could give up / refrain from during the season: Friday night wine, for example. There's a challenge. I was talking to students about the rationale behind fasting during Lent today. They thought is was all about self discipline and control. I acknowledged that point of view, but also spoke about the need for us to make room. If I give up wine this Lent it will not be a pitched battle between temptation and self control so much as it is a way of making room for duties and responsibilities that might otherwise go unnoticed, for example, writing letters to loved ones, planning and preparing for the future, reading a good book.

There will be a thousand initiatives to raise money for those in need during this Lent. I will make sure I support one of them in a generous fashion, giving just more than I feel comfortable giving. The funny thing about living, as I do, in the richest 5-10% of the world's population is that I fret about giv
ing too much away. Then, once it is gone, I hardly notice because I already have enough food, heating, wine and entertainment to keep me satiated. I am more aware of this fact in Lent than I am at any other time.

That's it for me then, prayer, fasting and almsgiving. A time to clean up and get the priorities right. A time to weed out distractions, and focus on that which brings vitality. A time to wake up, and in the cold, biting wind of an early March prepare for new growth.

I must recommend that you cook up leek and potato soup with smoked applewood cheddar. It is great for the season. I'll scoff it on Ash Wednesday. If I locate the recipe soon, I'll post it here.

Sunday, 23 February 2014

The Real Pilgrim Journey

'We'll walk this one through together, like true pilgrims'

I have been on some amazing walks of late. It is part of the reason my writing here has been so lax. Instead of pondering around at home thinking about where life is going to lead, for the last few months and years I have been quietly walking the real pilgrim journey with the man I love.

At the break of the New Year we set out on a stroll up Buckden Pike. Buckden Pike is a majestic looking mountain at the head of Wharfedale in the Yorkshire Dales. The summit is at 2, 303ft, and on a cold January day, with gale force winds that could pick up up and throw you down again, golf ball hail stones flying horizontally in the breeze, and climbing steeply and slowly past disused mine shafts, this walk cannot be described as 'easy'. But, sheltering crouched behind an old stone wall, sipping sweet coffee and appreciating every small mouthful of a warm sausage sandwich saved from breakfast, I was happier than I have ever been. We had decided, a few days previously, that for the rest of our born days we would walk together. 

Last week we were up at 2, 087ft, walking Kinder Scout in the High Peaks. Once again our journey was no walk in the park. The steep ascent up Jacob's Ladder had me gasping for breath and begging for mercy. On the other hand, the warm thrill and relief of a picnic at the top, followed by jumping and skipping across the lunar landscape of the winter moor summit was a bliss that cannot be compared. Returning to the valley floor we took the steepest path I have ever faced, and cautiously crawled, putting one exploratory foot on the ground whilst holding the other back, hooked sideways into the land to prevent a tumble. On several occasions one or other of us would have to reach out to ensure the steady footing of the other. On reaching the level path our normal pace seemed like a jog, and weary bones felt light.

Walking it through, together, like true pilgrims.