PROSOPAGNOSIA or who on earth are you?

The Perils of Face Blindness

I have a T-shirt, given to me by a colleague, which says:  “I’M PROSOPAGNOSIC. WHO ARE YOU?”  An article in The Times by Mary-Ann Sieghart in 2006 had finally given a name to a condition that I’d suffered from all my life, but assumed, like other people with prosopagnosia, or face blindness, that my inability to recognise people  — even, on occasion,  friends and family – was just a sign of social ineptness.    

For someone with face blindness, I couldn’t have chosen a worse profession. Or professions. As a publisher attending (oh, the nightmare) Frankfurt Book Fair, I would have to cope with a steady flow of unrecognisable faces, their name-badges hidden or absent, or so low-down that I had to perform a sort of curtsy to see them, who would want to talk business. I wanted to talk business too – that was why I was there – but who the hell were they? How long could I bluff my way through the conversation waiting for a clue to their identity? Janet, the ever-obliging colleague who gave me the T-shirt, was primed to whisper their name as they approached but didn’t always have the opportunity .  Then there were the publishing events where I’d fail to recognise our authors, or travel fairs where Bradt’s most loyal fans said sadly “Well I expect you meet so many people” when my face didn’t light up at their approach.

If publishing events were bad, tour leading was dreadful.   I’m not sure, looking back, which was worse: the meet and greet at the airport or breakfast the next morning.  At the airport I would identify the members of my group and ask them to wait together while I assisted with luggage or met the last stragglers. Then I had no idea which of those little groups of foreigners were mine.  But I think, on reflection, that breakfast the first morning was  worse. How was I to recognise the group, all sitting at separate  tables? Different clothes, washed hair. It was hopeless.

Perversely, however, I have my prosopagnosia to thank for my biggest break-through into writing.  More than 20 years before that Times article that broke the news that I wasn’t alone, I was incensed to hear a scientist on Radio 4 say that  “recognising faces is as simple and automatic as making footprints in the sand.”  I dashed off a short article on the subject to the Sunday Times, inventing the name Dyscognosthesia for my condition.  A couple of days later I had a phone call from the editor saying she found it “very funny” and would like to publish it that weekend.

I felt that I’d arrived.









The Creative Process

Working on two very different projects, writing and sculpture, it’s occurred to me how similar the process actually is – at least for me. Both involve a significant amount of procrastination followed by some very happy productivity.

The first squirrel

The sculpture was only delayed for four years, which is pretty good for me. When I lived at 1A Hoo Cottage I carved a squirrel/house number for my driveway. When I moved to number 10 in Seaton I had a stone wall built and specified a plinth-like gate post for the adapted squirrel. It wouldn’t take me a moment, I thought, to change the A to an 0. The squirrel stood outside my office window on my stone-carving bench under a tarpaulin. And I did nothing.  Each summer I removed the tarpaulin so I could see it every day – and still did nothing. What was revealed was that the squirrel, which I thought was finished and beautiful, was not right. Its eyes lacked prominence and the tail was too bushy, even for a grey. So although the basic shape was correct the detail wasn’t.

I can only carve outside, in fine weather, but suitable days passed and  no carving. There was always something more urgently needing my attention in the garden. But I’ve learned that it’s no good planning for a long-neglected task, the enthusiasm to do it has to ambush me so that suddenly there is nothing else I want to do more. So it was with the squirrel, which is now mounted on my wall end. On a fine autumn day I found myself getting  out my chisels and rasp and working with enthusiasm over the next few days until I was happy with the result.

No 10 squirrel

Revising Connemara Mollie and now Dingle Peggy has taken me 27 years, but the insidious process has been the same though I had more excuses. First I lost the manuscript, and when I was reunited with it and read it through I realised that, like the squirrel, although the shape was OK it was unfinished.  It needed a thorough revision.  Then the thought of retyping  the original pencil manuscript put me off for a decade or two. So I paid someone to do it for me. No more excuses, but I manufactured them until the ambush came and I started the revising Peggy at the beginning of this month. At first sluggishly, with no inner feeling of creativity, but as the effect that I wanted emerged from the page I’ve worked with increased enthusiasm and now it’s all I want to do each day.

So just like the squirrel, I’m cutting away all the unnecessary stuff and working on the detail. I hope I’ll end up with the Real Thing.  It’s the same creative process.



Olympic horse nostalgia

Remember the Good Old Days when show jumping was one of the most popular sports on TV? How many other elderly ladies, I wonder, remember fondly those black-and-white scenes when Pat Smythe and Tosca thrilled us at the Royal International Horse Show and the Horse of the Year Show.  With the help of commentator Dorian Williams, we knew as much about the horses and riders as we did our own families.

I was 11 when the 1952 Olympic Games were held in Helsinki.  Ponyless, passionate about riding, and devouring every word of Pony and Riding magazines, I immersed myself in the story of Colonel Llewellyn and Foxhunter and how he won us our only gold medal (in the team show jumping) that year. On the last day, I believe.

1956, I remember, was a strange Olympics since the equestrian events were held in Stockholm while the main Games were in Australia. Pat Smythe rode in that one (Flanagan), and Wilf White on Nizefella who delighted audiences with his extravagant kick-back as he cleared each fence. But the horse I remember best is Halla, who won the gold medal for Germany. I know more about Halla and Hans Günter Winkler than the bronze-medal winners from Britain because I went to stay with my German pen friend the following year and her mother gave me Winkler’s book Meine Pferde und Ich. I then learnedjust what an achievement that gold medal had been. Winkler pulled a muscle in the first round and in the all-important second round could only steer Halla round the course, screaming with pain at each jump. The mare jumped a perfect clear round.

1960 and Rome was memorable for Sunsalve. Did he or didn’t he have a foot in the water?  My horse magazines kept up the discussion for weeks. In those days, I think, there was just a tape at the edge of the water jump, not plastecine, and judging was done by eye. We so wanted David Broome to have ridden him to a clear. He was a crazy horse, head held irresponsibly high and always seeming on the verge of running away, but a brilliant jumper. The d’Inzeo brothers won gold and silver (remember that beautiful grey, The Rock?); David got the bronze.

I remember nothing about 1964 (although records show that Peter Robeson won the bronze medal on Firecrest) but 1968 was something else — I was there! Not only did I go to Mexico for the Olympic Games but I had a ticket for the eventing, where the British team won a gold medal in torrential rain. But I hadn’t been successful in getting a ticket for show jumping and was desperate. I went to the stadium and somehow managed to talk my way in (or to be accurate, a Spanish-speaking friend did the talking – I just hovered). We got in, ticketless, and sat down in the best seats in the arena. A posh English group advanced on ‘our’ seats and said: ‘Oh, I thought we were sitting there. Never mind, we’ll take these ones.’ It’s one of the wickedest – and best – things I’ve done in my life. Because this was the year that a pony competed in the top test of show jumping in the world – and won a silver medal! Stroller was only 14.2hh. Think about it – that’s literally a pony and a good hand smaller than horses considered tiny in these days of massive stallions. I get quite teary thinking  about it even now, remembering how tiny Stroller looked behind those enormous jumps, and the skill with which Marion Coakes got him round. Silver is not gold, but what an achievement! And David Broome on Mr Softee got bronze.

Until this year no other Olympic equestrian event lived up to that day in Mexico. How lucky I was to be there, and how wonderful in London to see the British team back in the realm of gold.

Connemara Mollie



Mollie was my Connemara pony on whom I fulfilled a childhood dream to do a long-distance ride with no set route and no support. Sounds surprising for a 70 year old? You’re right. I took a “career break” back in 1984, when I found myself unexpectedly single again. I reckoned it was now or never. I was publishing a couple of titles a year then, and spending several months in South America leading tours. So I went to Ireland and bought a pony. But after 400 or so miles, the Mollie part ended in heartbreak. To know what happened you need to read the book (Connemara Mollie will be published in July). But why wait 27 years to publish it? Here’s why.

When I got home from my two-part adventure in 1984 I could hardly wait to start writing. Although I hadn’t set out with the intention of writing a book, I’d kept a diary which I wrote up each evening in my tent, listening to my tape recorder play-back to catch the immediacy of the moment. But on my return I had books to publish and correspondence to catch up on, so it wasn’t until the following spring when I found the opportunity to start my book. My parents went on holiday, leaving me to house sit. I sat at the scrubbed kitchen table on which I had spent so many childhood hours drawing, painting and modelling horses, and started writing. I wrote in pencil on thick A4 pads of lined paper.

I worked steadily, checking my route on the maps I had carried with me, and listening again to the tape recorder to catch bits of dialogue, absorbing the cadences of the Irish accent and hearing the clip-clop of my horse’s hoofs as we covered the miles. When my parents returned three weeks later I had got it all down, but it needed a lot of revising and polishing, and for this I needed another period of isolation away from my desk. A house-sitting opportunity came up again, this time in Harringey. As well as solitude it had another advantage: an African grey parrot. I adore parrots.

I packed the two blue writing pads into a cardboard box, along with some maps and photos, put a few clothes into a suitcase, and drove my ancient car to north London, arriving at Julian’s house at dusk. He had already left, but I let myself in and started unpacking the boot, putting the box containing the manuscript on the garden wall so I could take my case inside. There were lots of written instructions to absorb and a very cross parrot.  The phone rang, Polly escaped and started walking determinedly down the stairs, and by the time I had got her back into her cage and found a sticky plaster for my finger where she’s bitten me, all I could think about was a nice cup of tea and then supper.

Next morning I cleared the table, cleared my mind, and prepared to start work on the book. But where the hell was the manuscript?  It wasn’t in my bedroom, nor in the kitchen. Nor, to my increasing dismay, in the car.  As I traced my actions back to unloading the car, I felt that awful sinking feeling all too familiar to absent-minded people. I’d never picked the box up from the garden wall. And it was no longer there.

I was distraught. Remember, this was pre-computers, and the only copy of my precious book was the one I’d lost. I couldn’t, wouldn’t write it again. I cried for about an hour, and then found a sheet of white paper and a black marker pen. “£50 reward!” I headed it. Yes, a huge amount of money, but someone must have taken the box, been disappointed at the worthlessness of its contents, and could be persuaded to return it.  I went to the photocopy shop and had 100 copies printed. These I put up on every telegraph pole and lamp post, and posted through all the neighbouring letterboxes for several blocks around. I was sure that someone would phone within a matter of hours, and certainly the next day, but I heard nothing. My despair deepened. I was alone in a strange house with a hostile parrot, and my whole purpose for being there had disappeared into thin air.  Soon I had to leave not only London but England, being due to lead a trip to Peru where I would be out of communication for over a month.

Enter my knight in shining armour. Two knights. My friends Tanis and Martin Jordan heard about my loss – everyone I knew heard about my loss – and stepped in. “We’ll find a dowser” said Tanis. “There’s one who advertises in our local paper.” I was easily convinced to leave it in their hands – I had run out of both time and options.

The Jordans contacted the dowser and visited him the day before I left for Peru. “Well, he was old and scruffy, maybe a gypsy”. Tanis reported. “He had a pendant, some sort of crystal, and a grubby map of London. We found the house on Rokesly Avenue, and he dangled the pendant over the area and moved it slowly in all different directions. It started to go in a circle over a school, just at the end of that road. We watched. It was extraordinary – it just went round and round and he said ‘That’s where it is.’  There were other possibilities that we circled on the map, then we paid him and off he went. My sister-in-law’s going to help me with the search next week. I’ll write to you in Lima.”

I still have the letter. “First, no luck so far. Ginny and I drove over to Hornsey, located the spot on the map and parked the car. The one thing I’d been dreading loomed in front of us – a builders’ skip overflowing with rubbish. However, a quick check of the map showed it to be on the wrong road, plus the fact that it had probably only been there a few days made it an unlikely chance, we convinced ourselves, but we gave it a quick once over just in case. We then located the exact spots on the map and these proved very interesting. One circle was over the school. The other was a long, shrub-lined drive leading to some barrack-style buildings. The sign at the end of the road said ‘Rokesly Road Kitchens. No Entry’. So we went in. The place seemed perfect for our search, full of rubbish under wildly overgrown weeds etc. Of course, being an explorer, I’d failed to bring a stick to poke around with and was wearing flip-flops. A few nettle and one bee sting later I waded out of the jungle, found Ginny, and peered through the windows of the buildings which were locked and deserted. So that’s still one possibility.

“After that we decided to knock on some doors. I think they thought we were selling something since most people seemed to be out. And when they did answer the door they couldn’t understand what we wanted. But one lady not only believed us but was very helpful. She suggested the YMCA round the corner. The woman there was the most unhelpful person I’ve ever met. Her only comment was ‘Have you any scientific evidence to back this up?’ She did allow us to put a message on the notice board, though.

“We were having too much fun to stop, so worked our way back to where we’d started from, searching drains and gutters, and paid particular attention to the school. We now had long sticks so went round the perimeter pulling out rubbish and examining it (fortunately it was quite a clean school).  It was closed for the holidays but where the circle on the map was, we peered through the windows and saw – kitchens! So maybe there’s a link with those buildings we looked at earlier. We managed to find the caretaker – a large, black lady from Trinidad – who was the first really helpful person we met. She even knew what a dowser was. She insisted that we memorise the names of all the schools in the neighbourhood, including ‘Tottenham High at de back of de church’.

“So I’ll follow up with some phone calls tomorrow. And who knows…?”

I was sure that this exhaustive search would be rewarded, but when I returned home there was a message from Tanis saying they still had no news. Weeks passed, then months. I stopped thinking about the missing manuscript every day and came to terms with my loss. Sort of. I didn’t want to write it all again so that was that.

Six months after I’d set that box upon the wall I was having dinner at my parent’s house and the phone rang. “She’s here if you want to speak to her” said my mother. “It’s Julian” she whispered.

“There’s a young man here with your manuscript.” said Julian “He wants to know if the reward is still on offer.”

“What? How? When?”  I spluttered. “I think it’s better not to ask any questions” said Julian carefully.

So I got my manuscript back. And when I read it, after the six month gap, I realised it needed a lot more than simple polishing. It needed a thorough revision and another visit to Ireland. So I put it in the loft and got on with other things…

Receiving an MBE

December 17 2011

Oops! This morning I think I heard a presenter on Radio 4 say “..and that was XXX, CBE in the New Year’s Honours”. Well, it brought it all back, the strain of keeping quiet about one’s honour because otherwise “it’ll be taken away”. No doubt that’s a carefully nurtured rumour, but nevertheless I was very careful to tell only a very few people who were sworn to secrecy.

 But it reminds me that all over the country there will be hundreds of people who’ve received That Letter, and will have gone through the same period of disbelief that I did, and then will look in the paper on January 1 (or in my case June 16) and see it in print and think, “Well it really must be true!”. So, for those In Waiting, or just idle blog browsers, I thought it might be useful/entertaining to know what it’s actually like. Or what it was like in my case in 2008.  

 I’ll begin at the beginning with the arrival of an envelope in mid May that looked like a tax demand, except that it was from the Cabinet Office which frightened me; I wondered what I’d done to upset Gordon Brown. Inside was a letter from a man who signed himself my Obedient Servant, suggesting that “The Queen may be graciously pleased to approve that you be appointed a Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE)”. The Prime Minister, he said, would be glad to know if this would be agreeable to me (I wonder how many people say no?).  If so I needed to fill in a form stating my ethnicity, disability, background… The rest of the sentence had stuck to the envelope flap and torn off. Since I had to admit that I was neither black nor disabled, I thought I might hear no more about it. I did phone my MD, Donald, and ask if it was a joke. He thought not. The citation was “For Services to the Tourism Industry and to Charity”.

 Well, you don’t know when you’re going to get the thing, so my first mistake was to rush out to the charity shop and buy a really nice summer outfit. I finally heard, in October, that the investiture would be at Windsor Castle in December, which meant I had waited seven months with the wrong clothes in the wardrobe.

 As I explained in my Christrmas letter, “I’m worrying. Mostly about clothes and my finger nails. I’m borrowing Inge’s red jacket and Daphne’s black trousers. And I’m hiring a hat with a huge brim (everyone I speak to say that it should be a small hat) so I’m sure I shall knock Her Majesty over with it. Or fall over myself when I try to curtsy. Or fail to recognise HM. Or…   And the fingernails! I painted my new fireplace today with heatproof black paint. I should have worn gloves, or at least not smeared permanent black paint under my nails. So I’m going to have to ditch the red jacket and hat, switch to faded black, and go as a Goth.”.

 The investiture was on December 17, and here’s how I described it at the time

.“So, it’s happened. I got invested and it was literally awesome. My guests Kate, Janice and Inge and I were ushered up a magnificent staircase past a line of household cavalry chaps all dressed in silver, red and gold and at least 7ft tall. Then the recipients were separated from the guests and herded into a room with refreshments (wisely non alcoholic) and we mingled. I talked to a jolly woman who got hers for Services to Netball and a conspicuously caring woman who’d done 30 years atGreatOrmondStreetHospital. And a woman who will have intrigued the Queen since hers was for Services to The Caterpillar Club. Disappointingly she turned out not to be an entomologist but connected with parachutists in the War. And there was a man called Dr Drain who got his for Services to the Environment (bet HM had a giggle over that). Then a beautiful Mr Darcy-like man came in, all hung about with plaited gold braid and wearing spurs, and talked us through what we’d have to do. My brain immediately went into No Memory mode and although I could hear the words they didn’t seem to refer to me: walk to Mr Foster and stand at his chest (what?) then turn 45 degrees and walk towards the Queen (oh Lord), stop and curtsy (demo of a curtsy, with spurs clanking), then forward to HM who would say a few words. We were to address her as Your Majesty the first time and Ma’am to rhyme with jam the second time. Then step back three paces, another curtsy, and leave the room. “One warning” he said, “Don’t forget to let go of the Queen’s hand”. Nervous giggles as we visualised hauling HM along the floor.  At that point a dishevelled young woman arrived, hat askew, panic oozing from every pore. She told me she thought the investiture was atBuckinghamPalaceand had turned up there at10 o’clock. Can you imagine the awfulness? But she made it – I suppose by taxi.

 Far too soon, I found myself at the head of the queue. I could see this little blue figure with white hair, and I became rooted to the spot. “Go on” said the gold-braided man giving me a little push. I couldn’t remember how legs are supposed to move to create a forward propulsion. Kate said I looked like Mrs Overall in Acorn Antiques, weaving my way across the floor in the rough direction of the Queen. But I did my curtsy and wobbled forward. She popped the medal onto me (they pin a hook on beforehand to make it easier) and said “Is it children?” I couldn’t think what to say. “No no” I blurted out “I publish guidebooks. For adults”. Then I realised she was talking about the charity part. “Oh yes, Children.Madagascar” and did a huge gesture to encompass theIndian Oceanand the children thereon. At that she looked rather frightened and held out her hand. I managed the second curtsy and fled, realising that I hadn’t addressed her as Your Majesty nor Ma’am.

 “Then photos and a lovely lunch with the lovely people who nominated me. The photo of the actual medal pinning arrived by email that evening. And I saw why people had said I should wear a small hat.”



 Things I wish I’d known:

 1)     Don’t decide what to wear until you know the date of the investiture

2)     Wear a small hat or fascinator

3)     Double check the location

4)     Arrive early! The instructions said don’t arrive til 10 o’clock. We got there at 9.30 and waited in the car park until 10.00. We were almost the last to arrive and my guests were stuck at the back of the hall.

5)     Relax! Everyone is extraordinarily nice to you and it is an occasion to savour for ever.



Dervla Murphy – a birthday tribute

Dervla Murphy – a birthday tribute

My interview with Dervla, who will be 80 on November 28 2011, will be published by Wanderlust in the next couple of months, but I could have written twice as much about this delightful and wonderfully eccentric travel writer, so I’m jotting down a few additional quotes and memories here, while they’re fresh in my mind.

Many people have stayed with Dervla, or been host to her, during the 48 years that she’s been a writer, and any who visited her during the winter will remember the challenge of keeping warm (“I wonder if it would be possible to have a bath?” I asked on my first visit. “The river’s down there” she responded. It was while bathing in the same river some years later that a frisky bull charged her and broke some ribs – or possibly her back, I can’t now remember). Her hosts remember the challenge of keeping up with her questions:  “When we emerged blearily for our morning coffee, Dervla was already, after having listened to BBC since 5am or so, fired up and full of questions we barely felt we could answer. We’re not economists or politicians but Dervla’s questions demanded that kind of substantial response.” (Wendy Woodward, Cape Town.) And we all remember the 5am starts. I recall carefully unfolding myself from the foetal position that I had held all night to conserve heat to see Dervla, bare-armed, carrying child-sized boulders across the patio to build a rockery.

Readers of her books will know that a sleeping bag is always a “flea-bag”. More accurately than they may realise. Jock Murray, her beloved publisher, wrote me a note in 1984 to report that she’d just stayed at his house. “Unexpectedly Dervla passed through Cannon Lodge on her way to a British-Irish Conference at Oxford for which she had to wear evening dress – an alarming prospect for which we had a dress rehearsal after she had a bath to get rid of a flea she had picked up in Dublin.” I can just imagine how alarming the evening dress requirement would be. Dervla is not known for her fondness for clothes and she detests formal occasions. Jon Lorie successfully invited her to take part in his annual travel festival. “For a world-famous author, Dervla Murphy is one of the most modest people you’ll ever meet. She hardly ever accepts speaking invitations, and when we persuaded her to be a keynote speaker at the Travellers’ Tales Festival, it was on condition that there would be two literary friends on stage with her, to keep the conversation flowing. We were also advised to provide a bottle of Guinness to help proceedings along – which we did, at 11 o’clock on a Sunday morning! In the event she was delightful, if a little shy, sitting on stage at the Royal Geographical Society in her walking boots, with the bottle in one hand, rather amazed at all the attention. She loved talking to the crowd, but more about the many places she has visited than about her own life and work.” I was there and remember the affection welling out from the capacity audience. 

But even such a distinguished writer is perceived as an old lady and treated according to cultural custom. I asked her if travel was easier now “you have grey hair”. “What I do find is that the old woman in our world, in the west, is just disregarded. In other countries you get more respect. In those countries – Africa and Cuba – I definitely noticed that life was easier. But in the west it’s the total opposite. It’s as if you’re simply not there”.

Dervla Murphy has inspired so many travellers to push the boundaries of adventure and courage. The Guardian, Sept 2011, asked travel writers to choose the book that most inspired them. Robert Penn chose Full Tilt. “I started reading Full Tilt on a grey morning, wearing a grey suit, in a crowd of grey faces on the London underground. Several stops later I had raced with Dervla Murphy and her bicycle Rosinante from Dunkirk to Delhi and made the decision to quit my job as a lawyer and cycle round the world.

“Funny, ingenuous, gently erudite and intrepid, Full Tilt is the best kind of adventure story, and a clarion call to travel ‘for travel’s sake’. I realised that you don’t need a wealth of knowledge and experience to embark on a journey like this. If you believe that human wisdom may be measured by the respect we pay to the unattainable, the mysterious, or simply the different, and have a flair for getting on with people, you’re ready.”


Hear hear!  Happy 80th birthday Dervla!



My skydive: plummeting down to Devon

It’s something I’ve always wanted to do, that’s all. But in the Olden Days you went solo, like my friends Tanis and Martin, so the decision to jump out of a plane at 15,000 feet was left to you. And if you hesitated, that was it. No second chance. And, I was told, you needed to be able to jump from a 10ft wall, because that’s what landing was like, and I didn’t think I could. But these days oldies like me go tandem. No skill, no risk, so a perfect 70th birthday present.

I knew it was going to be fabulous because God had organised the weather and Janice had organised the jump. The forecast was for one fine day between grey, wet ones. And so it was on the Friday, clear and sunny. And I wasn’t nervous. At least not until I tried to check in and – the usual thing, everyone else seems to know by instinct that they had to enter their details on the computer. I queued at the desk for about 15 minutes to be told that. So then I was sure I would miss the training. Kate and Richard duly arrived, jovial and relieved not to be doing it themselves. We watched the planes go up and the parachutes come down. Nobody called me for training. I was sure I’d missed the briefing and would be put in a plane without having a clue what to do.

After two hours my name was called, along with a few others including Sue who was wearing a sprig of white heather on her shoulder. I realised I’d forgotten my “World’s Greatest 70 Year Old” button. The trainer told us to watch a video and to remember to raise our legs as high as possible when we landed.  He explained that the “freefall” was slowed somewhat by a little parachute “It slows you to 150mph from 200mph” which we think is too fast. So did I.  

More coffee and a game of Bananagram to pass the time. A shaken-looking woman greeted her friends and told us still-to-jumpers: “It’s a hell of a jerk when the main parachute opens. I wasn’t expecting that.” Then I was called to meet Neil. Neil was comfortingly big. Simon had told me of his jump in New Zealand where he was given a tiny little woman as his tandem partner, so small that once she was lashed to him her feet didn’t reach the ground so he had to totter around with her stuck to his back with her legs waving in the air.  I was given a jump suit – a real one, not something to go jogging in – and a fetching hat like an acorn cup. And Neil explained again about legs and how they must be high in the air or I’d break one. He made me demonstrate that I could lift them, one at a time, high in the air. And he explained the various signals he would give me. I was to begin with my hands tucked out of the way in my straps, then when he tapped my shoulder I was to spread them wide. “I’ll make this sign with my fingers”. I had to make my body like a saucer. And not my usual hunched concave saucer, either. Convex, with a nice arched back.

I was introduced to the video man and asked to say something “for my friends”. I said “I’m doing this for a nice charity – oh no I’m not actually, but I would… well I’m…”

Looking a tad worried...

A small black plane was waiting with a very large open door. We got in, about 12 of us but only two other tandemers, with Neil just behind me. He had bare arms, for heaven’s sake. I had lots of clothes under my jumpsuit but the straps were so tight that I felt my intestines being squashed flat like penne pasta. I gasped out my request and Neil loosened them a little. The plane took off. I felt sort of numb although the photos show me looking decidedly worried. Neil showed me his altimeter: 7,000ft – the height the main parachute opens – 10,000ft, the height I was originally going to jump from before Janice changed it to 15,000, then shuffle forward. Oh God, this is it. Oh shit. Kneel at the entrance, see the green patchwork fields far, far below. Then – whoosh!

The video shows my mouth open so perhaps I screamed. Neil pulls my head back and I remember that saucer shape. He keeps tapping on my shoulder so I saucer and saucer. I’m almost a bowl by the time he has wrenched my arms out to the proper flying position. The video shows his lips set in a grim line as he prises them away from their tight grip on the straps. Well, there’s such a lot to think about. There’s the video man leering below me asking me to do a thumbs-up, and he’s circling around getting different angles, and I’m grinning like a lunatic and feeling: Wow! What does it feel like? Extraordinary! The wind is so strong, its roaring so loud, and the knowledge of what you’re doing is so weird. And there are the little fields below getting ever closer, and the video man appearing in odd places so you keep smiling, but I think my head was empty of thoughts, just sensations.

Wheee!!! Managing a thumbs up at 150mph

Neil probably indicated to me the main parachute was going to open, I’m not sure. But the woman was right – it’s one hell of a jerk on the thigh straps and really painful. I thought briefly “I can’t stand this!” but Neil said “Put your feet on mine, it’ll take some of the weight”. And it did, and we were upright instead of face down, floating gently through the air, looking around at the scenery. “Do you want to go through a cloud?” asked Neil. “Yes please”. Then say “Hello cloud!”  “Why, hello cloud!”. “And what do you do for a living?” It was a bit surreal chatting about travel writing and publishing while suspended under a red parachute.

“Where are we going to land?” Neil pointed to a little square of green not far from the spectator area. Goodness how precise. “Now lift those legs!” And I did, but I couldn’t hold them there. They should have been straight out in front of me, at right angles to my hips, and I couldn’t do it. For a split second I thought “Damn, I’m going to break a leg!” and then I was down on my knees, light as a feather, with Neil saying reassuringly “You’re all right, you’re fine”. And I was, just blithering an apology about the legs. One of the other instructors heard and asked Neil if he’s done such-and-such a manoeuvre and he said yes.  I bet they give him all the little old ladies who can’t be trusted to do things right. “I broke a woman’s leg last week” he said ruefully. “That felt really bad”. “You broke it? She didn’t do what you said, I bet.” Then he told me about the 81 year old that he’s taken down last month. “She was brilliant!”. 

So there’s the challenge. Back in ten years’ time.

Going Particularly Slow in Devon

Yesterday I went to look for Devon. I’m working on the chapter ‘M5 Escapes’, and wanted to check out the region’s ‘prettiest village’ which has a popular castle, a ‘Simon’ church (England’s Thousand Best Churches by Simon Jenkins has been my touring bible for years), walk part of the Exe Valley Way, eat lunch in a pub for which I’d read a rave review, and visit Devon’s first Quaker Meeting House which The Shell Guide (1975) calls ‘a treasure’.

First to the Quaker Meeting House. The address was ‘Spicelands’ which sounded more like a shelf in the supermarket than a village – and which I couldn’t see on the map – so I found the post code on the internet. Lydia, my SatNav, loves a challenge and was almost bouncing with enjoyment as she took us up ever narrower roads ‘til proudly saying ‘You have reached your destination’. And, after several stints of driving backwards and forwards, reversing haphazardly into muddy gateways, there it was. A woman holding a basket of washing looked at us in dismay and said it was only open on Sundays for a service and one day a year for the general public. But she kindly showed us its simple interior and indicated where the graveyard was. It’s a very chocolatey graveyard full of Frys, and Cadburys, and Rowntrees; all Quakers.

A baby bank vole, we decided

A baby bank vole, we decided

The real excitement here was what we found in the garden. A tiny ball of fur, smaller than a golf ball, on the lawn with trembling whiskers, closed eyes and little pressed-in ears. Not a mouse. Not a shrew, we collectively decided, and not well. But as we watched, it started to recover, wash its face, and look around. A few minutes later it was scampering to the safety of the rose bed. Our British mammals book suggests that it was a baby bank vole. It was one of the cutest little animals I’ve seen for ages. The question is, what had happened to shock it into immobility? I think maybe a bird of prey had grabbed it and dropped it as we rounded the corner.

The Meeting House won’t go into Go Slow Devon.

Lydia next took us to Cruwys Morchard — don’t these Devon villages have wonderful names? But in this case I found myself disagreeing with Simon. The church is quite dull, and the revolving lychgate that he mentions turns out to be painted mental-hospital brown, and be utterly unremarkable. But then I’ve discovered the unremarked and unpraised revolving lychgate at Rousdon, near my home town of Seaton, which is beautifully carved and has a ‘coffin slab’ for resting the coffin on while opening the gate. I feel smug about that find, specially since Hoskins, the Devon authority (1954), said the church ‘has nothing to commend it’.

But I digress. Cruwys Morchard won’t go into Go Slow Devon; it’s not worth the diversion.

Then to Butterleigh for lunch. A niceish village and a good pub with a lovely garden. But worth the diversion? No. Bickleigh, a few miles away, was the main focus of the day. It’s in all the guidebooks, described as ‘a very pretty village of thatched houses’, ‘picturesque’, ‘a well-known beauty spot’ and ‘suffering from coach party fatigue’.

Flowers Arch

The main draw was the castle. Well, the village is indeed quite pretty, though the thatched houses are spread out up steep hills which must challenge the coach parties, and the church was more interesting for the very jolly women decorating it for a wedding than for an exceptional interior. The castle was closed. For good. The owners have found that being a venue for weddings is more profitable.

We asked a woman to point out the start of the Exe Valley Way. ‘It’s very muddy’ she said, looking doubtfully at our trainers. She was right. And so many walkers have tried to avoid the mud by deviating from the path that… well, you guessed it, we took the wrong path, nearly fell in the Exe, and decided to come back another day properly equipped. But I found some chanterelle mushrooms which I ate for supper. Delicious!

Bickleigh and the Exe Valley Way will go in the book, but only after a return visit.

Hazel teapot topiary in Culmstock

Hazel teapot topiary in Culmstock

So to the last village, Culmstock. There’s a tree growing out of the church tower which I wanted to photograph. Otherwise I didn’t think there was much there. It turned out to be the best visit of the day. We passed a garden with a hazel bush clipped into the shape of a teapot, a bridge over the delightful River Culm, and some attractive but unpretentious houses. Teapots made me think of tea, and the pub was closed, so we headed for The Strand Stores which had a welcoming sign saying ‘Shop Now Open. Café’ and a blackboard showing their specialities: Sheppys cider, Bottle Green, Fresh cheeses. Inside you could see that the goods had been selected to reflect what people in the village actually want to buy, rather than what the shop owner thinks they want to buy. There were tins of organic tomatoes and chick peas, gluten- and wheat-free brown flour, and ethical plain white flour. Our coffee and cake were properly prepared and of high quality.

The former post office was a victim of the post-office closures two years ago, much to the dismay of the villagers, and was reopened in its new guise early this year. It’s a perfect example of village initiative and how to turn a disaster into a triumph. One of the local vets who was shopping in the store when we were there said that everyone who lives or works in the village does their best to support it. ‘We bring reps here for breakfast meetings,’ she said ‘and I come here almost every day for something’.

The feeling of serving and being served by the community was strengthened by the rows of home-made jam on the shelves. ‘Sometimes local people will buy up the tail end of our fruit, when it’s starting to go soft’, said the assistant, ‘and then sell us the jam they’ve made.’

This is just how a village shop should be; Culmstock, and The Strand Stores, will definitely go in the book. Oh, and the church tower was covered in scaffolding. I only hope they’re not removing the tree! Something else I have to find out.

Doddiscombsleigh and Ashprington

I promised Exmoor on my last blog. Yes, I’ve been there (several times) but there’s a bit of detective work still to be done, so back again to Devon villages to teasing out truths about churches, and the people who are commemorated there.

St Paul in stained glass at Doddiscombsleigh church

St Paul in stained glass at Doddiscombsleigh church

Let’s start with Doddiscombsleigh (sometimes just pronouncing these Devon villages is a challenge!). I went there because it has the best medieval stained glass windows in the county, but then my attention was caught by an explanatory sheet by a Dr Tisdall. He pointed out that a medieval face carved at the top of one of the stone capitals is unusual. It has funny pointy ears, unusual foliage, and there’s something strange about the mouth. Now Dr Tisdall is a medical doctor with a passion for the unusual in Devon churches, so he has teased out the (probable) truth here. This carving is at the west end of the church which is often called The Devil’s End (indeed, some old churches have a little opening through which the devil can escape during services), and he has a hare lip.

The "Devil's bite" carving

The "Devil's bite" carving

As a young doctor studying children’s diseases, Dr Tisdall came across the expression ‘devil’s bite’ to describe a hare lip. And the foliage isn’t the usual rose leaves, it’s Succisa pratensis, or Devil’s bit scabious. So there we have it. A medieval carver portrayed the Devil in an instantly recognisable form – to the villagers of his day – but for us it takes the detective work of a knowledgeable enthusiast to get to the truth.


Carved snail

Carved snail

Moving on to Ashprington, near the River Dart, to a church which goes unremarked in other guidebooks. But it’s always worth popping into a village church – you never know what you’ll find. And indeed, there was a lovely carved pulpit with a cute little snail attacking the vine leaves (well, Sharpham vineyard is just down the road and they probably have the same problem) but what attracted my attention – how could I avoid it? – was a memorial stone to three generations of Bastards. Not a common surname these days so I did a bit of research. The character who emerged was Captain Philemon Pownall.

Three generations of Bastards

Three generations of Bastards

This captain made a fortune at sea. The first references I could find were that he received ‘prize money’ for capturing a ship full of treasure. That seemed like simple piracy to me, but my fellow researcher, Janice, dug deeper and found that he literally struck gold. Only three months after war broke out with Spain in 1762 he was captaining a warship that captured the Spanish man-of-war Hermione. What they didn’t know was that she was no simple warship: she had set sail from Lima before the outbreak of war and was carrying bags of dollars, gold coin, ingots of gold, silver and tin.

So ‘prize money’ was, in those days, the government reward for the prize of a captured ship: in Pownall’s case, £64,872. Seldom has a lottery winner put their money to better use.

Capt Philemon Pownall painted by Joshua Reynolds in 1762

Capt Philemon Pownall by Joshua Reynolds, 1762

Pownall and his fellow captain Herbert Sawyer, had earlier been courting the two daughters of a merchant from Exeter, who had refused their suits because their financial status didn’t meet his standards. Now they could marry their sweethearts.

Pownall continued to spend his money lavishly. He commissioned the making of a delicate miniature gold gazebo, called ‘Love’s Triumph’ for his wife Jane, had his portrait painted in full naval uniform by Sir Joshua Reynolds, and commenced the building of his manor at Sharpham. The estate has a river frontage of nearly three miles, with gardens designed by Capability Brown. It was his daughter, also Jane, who made the unfortunate marriage to Edmund Bastard. They had no sons.

So there are two things I didn’t know before I started doing this book.

Go Slow

From time to time people have mentioned to me that it’s not really good enough to start a so-called blog in August 08 and then put nothing on it. I was too busy then and too busy now, but clearly that’s no excuse so, a year later, here goes.

I’m writing Go Slow Devon and Exmoor, and am absolutely loving doing the research. One thing leads to another. Like my visit, with a friend who was visiting from Guildford, to Berry Pomeroy. There’s a ruined castle, and Val used to bring her children there to walk backwards round the ‘Wishing Tree’. They all came specially one summer when all three children were about to take exams. I thought that sounded interesting, and that I would get a couple of paragraphs at the most out of the trip.

Berry Pomeroy Chruch

Berry Pomeroy Chruch

We stopped at the church – as I always do, since our country’s little churches give a better feeling for an area’s history and current sense of community than any other source. In the porch was a request for a wheelbarrow so battered that ‘even an idiot wouldn’t steal it’ and inside was a stone commemorating ‘John Prince, author of The Worthies of Devon’ (who’s he?) and a splendid memorial to three members of the Seymour family. What intrigued me was a description of one of the children with Elizabeth Campernowne who is described as ‘an imbecile child’. Val and I peered at her face and could see, we thought, Down’s Syndrome features. But I wanted to know more…

Then to the castle where Val recognised the Wishing Tree but there was no sign suggesting it had magic powers. And most of the roots were exposed so walking round would have been difficult. Though Val said her children used to fall over while doing the circuit in their wellies, so it was not easy, even 20 years ago.

The "Imbecile Child"

The "Imbecile Child"

Back home I Googled the church, found the contact details of the vicar, and asked him about ‘the imbecile child’. A reply came promptly confirming that it was thought to be Down’s Syndrome (I’m waiting to hear from the local historian for more details) but he asked me if I wanted him to email a copy of the Seymour section of The Worthies of Devon. This turned out to be pure delight. Written in 1701, when, if you were a vicar under the patronage of the baronet or duke at The Big House, you were careful what you wrote. Here’s an abbreviated biography of one of the Lords of the Manor which I am quoting in the book.

Sir Edward Seymour, a Worthy of Devon

"Worthies of Devon" titlepage

"Worthies of Devon" titlepage

John Prince was vicar of Berry Pomeroy from 1681 to 1723, during which time he researched the history of Devon’s noble families. His book The Worthies of Devon was published in 1701 and makes delightful reading. Here are some extracts from his description of the life of the third Sir Edward Seymour.

‘Sir Edward Seymour Baronet, was born in the Vicaridge house of Berry-Pomeroy (by this Gentleman’s generous Presentation, the Author’s Present Habitation) a mile and quarter to ye East of the town of Totnes in this County, about the year of our Lord 1610. The occasion of his being born there (as I have heard it from his own mouth) was this, for that Berry Castle (the Mansion of this Honble family) was then a rebuilding: and his Lady-Mother, not likeing the Musick of Axes and Hammers (this Gentlemans great delight afterward) chose to lay down, this her burthen in that lowly place.

He was the eldest son of Sir Edward Seymour of Berry-Castle Baronet (antiently belonging to the Pomeroys, now a ruinous heap) about a mile East of the parish church of Berry-Pomeroy aforesaid…

Berry Pomeroy Castle

Berry Pomeroy Castle

He had no sooner passed the care and inspection of the Noursery, but that he was put abroad to School (it enervates youth to keep it too long at home under the fondling of a Mother) first at Shireburn, after that at Blandford in the County of Dorset. At which last place, he met with a severe Master, tho a good Teacher: the Memory of whom, would often disturb his sleep long after he was a Man. However, he met there with Excellent Improvements in School-Learning; Especially in the Classicks. Which were so deeply rooted in his Memory while a youth that he rememberd much of them, even in his old age. Insomuch upon occasion, not long before his Death he would repeat you 20 or 30 verses of Virgil or some other Author, Extempore, as if he had connd them over but just before.

… it pleased almighty God, in just Punishment of a Nation whose sins had made it ripe for Vengeance, to let loose upon it, a most dreadfull Civil Warr. A War founded upon the glorious pretences of Liberty, Property, and Religion: which yet in effect soon subverted them all. And when matters brake out into open violence between the King and Parliament, this Gentlemans native Principles of Loyalty soon instructed him which side to take.

Sir Edward Seymour

Sir Edward's son of the same name was Speaker of the House of Commons, a Privy Counsellor and Treasurer of the Navy

[Sir Edward, then a colonel, was taken prisoner at Modbury] …the noble Colonel, was carried by Sea to London: and Committed to Winchester House in South-Wark. Out of which he made a desperate Escape, by fileing Off the Bars of the Window, and leaping down, upon the back of the Centinel that stood under; who being astonished by so unexpected a rancounter, the Colonel wrested his Musket out of his hand, and gave him such a sound Rebuke as hindered him, for the present, from following after him, or making any Discovery of him.

…This Honble Barronet submitted to the Arrest of Death on the fourth of December in the year of our Lord 1688 and near about the Seventy Eighth of his Age. And lyeth interrd in the north Isle of the parish church of Berry-Pomeroy among his Ancestors, without any Sepulchral Monument.’

Pure delight! Don’t you love ‘the musick of axes and hammers’ and the enervating effect on children of a mother’s fondling?

The Wishing Tree in the early 1980s

The Wishing Tree in the early 1980s

And the Wishing Tree? I finally found this reference in a guidebook published in 1963:

‘According to local tradition, to walk backwards round this tree three times will bring the fulfilment of any desire… [but] as the earth has fallen away from the far side, the slope is now too steep to admit of perambulation round the tree – either backwards or forwards.’

Which is odd, because as you can see from this photo taken in 1983, the sign is still there. The tree is considerably larger now, but we tripped and stumbled around it three times (forwards) just in case.

Now to Exmoor…

a Privy Counsellor. He also held office as Treasurer of the Navy

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