And At The End

Dear Readers, it’s taken eighteen months, but on Saturday we finally said goodbye to my Dad, Thomas Reginald Palmer. We were blessed with one of those glorious days that Dorset does so well: soft sunlight on green fields, the glow of old stone, finches singing in the hedgerows and a great calm over everything.

The church had been dressed for the harvest festival, and the flowers looked as if they were illuminated from inside.

Dad’s sisters arrived and I showed them to the grave. I hadn’t seen them since the start of the lockdown, and I think for them Dad’s death hadn’t been real until they’d seen the headstone. I left them to spend some time with Dad on their own. How hard it is to lose someone of your own age, and because Dad had moved to Dorset they hadn’t been able to see him as much as they would have liked. But how much time is enough, when someone you love is gone?

The service itself went in the blink of an eye: I managed to deliver my eulogy with only a few tears, something that I don’t think I could have done if the service had been closer to Dad’s death. We listened to some Spanish guitar music, to ‘The Lark Ascending’, and to the Celtic Blessing

May the road rise up to meet you.
May the wind be always at your back.
May the sun shine warm upon your face;
May the rains fall soft upon your fields and until we meet again,
May God hold you in the palm of His hand.

 

And then there was home-made cake and sandwiches, and a lot of memories shared. Lots of people came from the village and it was lovely to catch up with people’s lives. I wondered if this would be the last time that I’d come to Dorset – all the tasks related to Mum and Dad are now done – but Dorchester and Milborne St Andrew are so imbued with their spirit that I think I’ll still come to visit, to see my Dorset friends and to enjoy this beautiful part of the country.

Before we headed home, I walked out to the grave on my own to say goodbye, and God bless, to Mum and Dad. What remains for me, now, is an immense stillness, filled with sadness but also with so much love.

Thomas Reginald Palmer 5th December 1935 – 31st March 2020.

Getting Ready to Say Goodbye

Dear Readers, at the end of a long day in Dorset there is something so comforting about the chacking of rooks and jackdaws as they roost in the trees in  Dorchester. There are some venerable horse chestnuts and beech trees right in the centre of town, and these act as beacons for the corvids who fly in from all directions. When they land, they talk away to one another for a few minutes before falling eerily silent, as the sky turns from mother-of-pearl to sapphire. Their ancestors have probably been roosting round about here since before the Romans came. 

Earlier today I caught the bus back to Milborne St Andrew, where the service for Dad will be held tomorrow. I love sitting on the top deck of the bus and peering into the fields as we speed by. Today I noticed that three of the big fields on the outskirts of the village are now full of sunflowers. They must be a special variety grown for their seeds, because the heads are so huge that they hang shyly down, and the petals are insignificant. Is this for vegetable oil for human consumption, I wonder, or is it for biofuels? There’s a lot of maize around too, as noted yesterday, and I suspect that this isn’t because the people of Dorset have developed a taste for corn on the cob..

I meet up with a friend who is doing the cakes for the refreshments tomorrow – E made the beautiful cake for Mum and Dad’s 60th Wedding Anniversary Party, and although she is 88 years old she is up to her ears in coconut cake and lemon drizzle.

Cakes from Mum and Dad’s 60th Wedding Anniversary Party in 2017. Note the freesias!

Then we walk down to the church. It’s harvest festival on Sunday, and there are sunflowers everywhere,  proper ones this time. Fruit is piled on the window ledges and there’s a distinct smell of apples.

Outside, Mum and Dad’s grave is a little overgrown – my brother, who lives nearby, has been self-isolating after his family got Covid, one after another, until he got it too. But someone has some secateurs, and so it’s easy to neaten it up, and tomorrow E will bring some dahlias from her garden to brighten it up. I am reminded again of what a lovely village Milborne St Andrew is, and how lucky Mum and Dad were to live their final years in a real community.

By the time you read this, I will have given my eulogy, and the Memorial service will be over, and I’ll be back home. I will share how it went with you on Monday. It feels as if we’re coming to the end of one stage, and the beginning of another. It’s time to come together and to remember, grieve and celebrate.

Return to Dorchester

Dear Readers, I am back in Dorset for a few days for my Dad’s Memorial Service in MIlborne St Andrew. He died in March 2020 but apart from a brief visit for his interment a year ago, I haven’t been back. And so, today, I am almost overwhelmed with memories. Every shop, every restaurant, reminds me of when I was visiting every few weeks while Mum and Dad were in the nursing home. The walks through the fields were taken at Christmas, when Dad was still alive. I turn to the natural world to take me out of myself, to remind me that life goes on and that every thing is both beautiful and temporary. In fact, maybe the beauty comes from the transitory nature of things.

But first, I am delighted to see these two moggies asleep in one of the windows on the High Street.

And then, look at these sunflowers!

And I love these woodpigeons, up to their shoulders in meadow grass.

And there is a Himalayan Honeysuckle down by the old machinery that used to flood the meadows.

I am pleased to see that there are sheep out on the field.

And I didn’t even realise that I’d seen a heron as well until I got home and uploaded this photo.

There is some lords and ladies….

and the harts tongue fern looks glossy and somehow primeval.

I believe that this might be our old friend wild angelica, though I have to say that it hasn’t done as well as the one in my garden.

And then I was distracted by the snails…

The field that was pasture last year is now full of sweetcorn, though the magnificent oak trees don’t seem to mind.

So by now I’m starting to feel a little less distressed. On I go along the bridle path.

I am passed by three runners – apparently there’s a charity road race on on Saturday in aid of MacMillan Cancer nurses. But once they’ve passed, silence reigns. I spot a new plant – this is red bartsia, which is apparently partially parasitic on grass and has its very own bee species. I sense a Wednesday Weed coming on….

Red bartsia

And then there is a single patch of rosebay willowherb which is abuzz with common carder bees – these little ginger critters are amongst the last bumblebees on the wing.

And how about this henbit deadnettle, another new plant for me (though very common). The whole plant seems to be exploding with enthusiasm.

And then I turn for home, and pause by the sheep because something catches my eye.

The swallows are circling and diving, catching the insects that the sheep have disturbed, fuelling up for their long flight back to Africa. And it might sound strange, but it makes me weep because the year is turning, and the swallows are going home, and maybe Mum and Dad have gone home too, but they’ve left me behind. Grieving can be so lonely, and that’s why grieving collectively is so important, and why I sense that I’ll feel better once we’ve gathered to say goodbye to Dad properly.

Bon voyage, swallows. Travel well, until the world turns.again.

Friday Quiz – Random UK Wildlife Facts!

Title photo by Michael R Perry

Dear Readers, this week is a miscellany of random animal facts for you to test your wits against. Answers in the comments by 5 p.m. UK time on Friday 10th September, and as usual, I will disappear your replies as soon as I see them, but please do write them down first if you are easily influenced by other people’s brilliance (like me :-).

So, here we go!

  1. What do we call a baby alpaca?
  2. What is the most dangerous animal in England, in terms of deaths?
  3. What is Britain’s fastest land mammal?
  4. Which four groups of animals technically belong to the Queen?
  5. What is a group of pheasants called?
  6. Owls are zygodactyl. What does that mean?
  7. The puffin’s scientific name is Puffinus puffinus. True or false?
  8. How many species of UK mammal hibernate (closest answer gets a bonus point!)
  9. Fieldfares and redwings migrate to the UK every year, but where from?
  10. Which UK thrush is named after its favourite food?
  11. James II paid over a thousand pounds for a pair of which birds?
  12. Which species of bird, first seen in the UK in 1956, is now the 7th most commonly seen species?
  13. What is Britain’s commonest bird of prey?
  14. Which is the only UK snake that lays eggs?
  15. The UK has only three native lizard species. Can you name them?

 

Wednesday Weed on Thursday – Sea Buckthorn

Sea Buckthorn (Hippophae rhamnoides)

Dear Readers, Bank Holidays always get me confused, and this week was no exception, so, for one week only, the Wednesday Weed will be on Thursday. Normal service will be resumed next week (with any luck).

So, this week’s plant was spotted in my local cemetery, but Sea Buckthorn is by nature a plant of sand dunes and coastal areas. It is quite an impressive-looking plant once the berries come out, but the rest of the time it’s just a mass of long, narrow, silvery leaves and rather nasty thorns. It’s a native plant, Nationally Scarce in its wild state, but becoming increasingly common both as an ornamental and as a method of stabilising sand dunes. Here, though, I must quote from my pal Liz Norbury who lives in Cornwall and has first-hand experience of the plant:

Much of our local sea buckthorn was planted around 30 years ago to help stabilise the sand dunes, but it can be extremely invasive, and in recent years, our conservation group, Friends of the Towans, has been cutting it back. It’s not the most pleasant task – I’ve found sea buckthorn to be even more vicious than gorse! We’re now involved with the national Dynamic Dunescape project), which aims to restore life to dunes by encouraging natural movement – a complete reversal of the old stabilisation policy – https://friendsofthetowans.co.uk/archive/funding-boost-for-west-cornwalls-dynamic-dunescape/

In fact, it’s the extensive root system of sea buckthorn that makes it such a boon in the east and such a pest elsewhere – the roots bind the sand dunes together, and also enrich the soil with nitrogen, a fairly unusual attribute as the plant is not a legume but a member of the Oleaster family.

The genus name Hippophae means ‘shining horse’, and comes from a belief that feeding horses with sea buckthorn would improve their condition and give them glossy coats. The plant was also believed to be the favourite food of Pegasus, the flying horse. One particularly gruesome bit of folklore comes from the time of Genghis Khan, when boiling your enemies alive in oil was apparently a popular entertainment. Recommended oils were olive oil and animal fat, but not sea buckthorn oil which was supposed to have such an array of curative powers that any enemy brought to a simmer would be healed rather than fried.

Sea buckthorn is remarkably hardy, capable of withstanding temperatures of -43 degrees Centigrade, which is handy when you consider that its native range includes the Baltic Coast and the chillier parts of Russia, Ukraine and Mongolia.

Now, as I’ve mentioned previously, anyone who watches ‘The Great British Menu’ will remember the sharp intake of breath when a chef mentions that they’re going to incorporate sea buckthorn into their dish.

“The judges don’t like sea buckthorn”, some clever-clogs will say, and they will usually be proved right. Having never tasted it, I suspect that the berries are probably quite astringent, though Liz says that they remind her of passionfruit. What do you think, Readers? I am happy to be educated, and indeed I would taste the ones in the cemetery were it not that they are right next to the North Circular Road and therefore probably dripping with pollutants, poor dears.

There can be no doubt about the food value of the berries, though – they are richer in Vitamin C than citrus fruits. However, they are notoriously difficult to harvest – the bushes are thorny, the berries are reluctant to disengage from the branches to which they are attached, and the crop is small. One for the dedicated forager, I suspect, though apparently if the fruit is frozen (as it frequently is) it could be removed by a ‘trunk clamp-on vibration harvester’, whatever that is. Even then, there is a danger of leaf and wood contamination and so the berries need to be cleaned by hand.

When pressed, the berries separate into three layers – a thick orange layer, an oily middle layer and then the juice. The top two layers are frequently used for skin lotions and cosmetics, and the juice is popular in some countries, though presumably mixed with something to offset the sourness.

The berries do, however, make for very pretty, orange-tinted food. No wonder the chefs love them.

Medicinally, sea buckthorn has been used for slow digestion, stomach malfunctioning, cardiovascular problems, liver injury, tendon and ligament injuries, skin diseases and ulcers.

Sea buckthorn is also loved by a variety of animals. Fieldfares love the berries, and are not put off by the thorns.

Fieldfare munching on sea buckthorn – Photo by Sandy MacLennan at https://www.flickr.com/photos/16732277@N05/38454558615/

A surprising variety of rather splendid moth caterpillars feed on the plant, including the Oak Eggar (Lasiocampa quercus), who you might reasonably expect to prefer oak.

Oak Eggar – photo by Ben Sales

The Sharp-angled Peacock moth (Macaria alternata) is something of a coastal specialist, often feeding on tamarisk as well as sea buckthorn.

Sharp-angled Peacock moth, photo by Ilia Ustyantsev from Russia

And, finally, here’s a poem. It’s a bit lateral this week:there is a  lovely poem by Helen Cruickshank called ‘Sea Buckthorn‘ which is in Scots dialect, and very fine if you can understand it. But I was also very taken by this poem by the Irish poet Frank Kavanagh, called ‘Pegasus’. When I was a child, Pegasus was easily my favourite mythical creature – when we went out in the car I would often imagine him running and jumping and flying alongside us, leaping over motorway bridges and outrunning police cars. So here it is. See what you think.

Pegasus by Frank Kavanagh

My soul was an old horse
Offered for sale in twenty fairs.
I offered him to the Church–the buyers
Were little men who feared his unusual airs.
One said: ‘Let him remain unbid
In the wind and rain and hunger
Of sin and we will get him–
With the winkers thrown in–for nothing.’

Then the men of State looked at
What I’d brought for sale.
One minister, wondering if
Another horse-body would fit the tail
That he’d kept for sentiment-
The relic of his own soul–
Said, ‘I will graze him in lieu of his labour.’
I lent him for a week or more
And he came back a hurdle of bones,
Starved, overworked, in despair.
I nursed him on the roadside grass
To shape him for another fair.

I lowered my price. I stood him where
The broken-winded, spavined stand
And crooked shopkeepers said that he
Might do a season on the land–
But not for high-paid work in towns.
He’d do a tinker, possibly.
I begged, ‘O make some offer now,
A soul is a poor man’s tragedy.
He’ll draw your dungiest cart,’ I said,
‘Show you short cuts to Mass,
Teach weather lore, at night collect
Bad debts from poor men’s grass.’
And they would not.

Where the
Tinkers quarrel I went down
With my horse, my soul.
I cried, ‘Who will bid me half a crown?’
From their rowdy bargaining
Not one turned. ‘Soul,’ I prayed,
‘I have hawked you through the world
Of Church and State and meanest trade.
But this evening, halter off,
Never again will it go on.
On the south side of ditches
There is grazing of the sun.
No more haggling with the world….’

As I said these words he grew
Wings upon his back. Now I may ride him
Every land my imagination knew.

 

Tuesday Quiz – Crumble or Crumple? – The Answers!

Hawthorn Berries – Edible but astringent.

Dear Readers, it seems that you are all pretty reliable on the foraging front – even where people didn’t get the species right, you had a pretty good eye for what was edible and what wasn’t, which is a relief.  So, to the scores, which are out of 28 because I forgot to include Number 5: Christine got 22 out of 28, Rachael got 22 1/2 out of 28, and Claire and Mal at FEARN both got a perfect 28 out of 28, so well done everybody! I am going to open up the comments with your answers, and there are some great suggestions for how to use the edible berries – Mal mentions using sea buckthorn as a topping for cheesecake and Claire tells me that they are used for hand cream. Plus, Claire says, holly berries, though inedible, are macerated in alcohol to make brandy in Alsace. Who knew?

1) Edible – Sea Buckthorn (Hippophae rhamnoides)

2) Edible – Dog Rose (Rosa canina)

3) Not Edible – Bittersweet (Solanum dulcamara)

4) Not edible – Holly (Ilex aquifolium)

6) Not edible – Cherry Laurel (Prunus laurocerasus)

7) Not edible – Yew (Taxus baccata)

8) Edible – Elder (Sambucus nigra)

9) Edible – Himalayan Honeysuckle (Leycesteria formosa)

10) Edible – Guelder Rose (Viburnum opulus)

11) Not Edible – Ivy (Hedera helix)

12) Not Edible – Black Bryony (Tamus communis)

13) Not edible – Deadly Nightshade (Atropa belladonna)

14) Edible – Bramble/Blackcurrant (Rubus fruticosus agg.)

15) Not Edible – Cuckoopint/Lords and Ladies (Arum maculatum)

 

 

 

At Golders Green Crematorium

Dear Readers, today we decided to take a look at Golders Green Crematorium, and its memorial gardens. This is the first crematorium to built in London (it was opened in 1902): cremation only became legal in the UK in 1885, with the first crematorium being built in Woking in 1878 as part of the cemetery there. Cremation was championed by the Cremation Society of Great Britain – it was believed that the burning of remains was much healthier than burial, and as many city cemeteries were full, it was seen as a more practical way to deal with the dead. A declaration stated that

We, the undersigned, disapprove the present custom of burying the dead, and we desire to substitute some mode which shall rapidly resolve the body into its component elements, by a process which cannot offend the living, and shall render the remains perfectly innocuous. Until some better method is devised we desire to adopt that usually known as cremation.”

Some of the undersigned included Anthony Trollope, John Everett Millais and the illustrator John Tenniel, along with the president of the Cremation Society, Sir Henry Thompson.

Since it opened, Golders Green Crematorium has held more than 323,500 cremations, more than any other crematorium in the country. In an average year there are 2,000 cremations, with three chapels being available for the services. The crematorium is secular and open to people of all faiths and none.

I was struck by how different the memorial gardens are: without any graves, people are remembered by plaques which might accompany rose bushes, or trees, or shrubs. The gardens are remarkably peaceful, even on a Bank Holiday.

The Lily Pond in the Memorial Gardens

I loved this purple magnolia, its flowers just about ready to open. At least, I think it’s a magnolia. Enlighten me if not, readers!

I liked this statue of G.D. Birla, an Indian businessman, writer and philanthropist who was a close associate of Mahatma Gandhi.

Statue of G.D. Birla

And here is a memorial bench to Marc Bolan, who died in a car accident in 1977 at the age of 29. For those of you too young to remember, the swan refers to the T-Rex hit ‘Ride a White Swan‘, a big favourite when I was, ahem, 10 years old.

There are some stunning acers…

…some fine Japanese anemones…

and a very fine pond, with a magpie happily trawling for titbits on the plants.

I was very taken by this sculpture by Henry Pegram, called ‘Into the Silent Land’. It was gifted to the crematorium by the Royal Society of Arts in 1937, the year of Pegram’s death.

This extraordinary building is the Philipson Mausoleum, designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens and built  in 1914. It was built originally to house the remains of Florence Philipson, and when her husband RH Philipson died, he stipulated that his money should be given to a home for boys in his birthplace, Newcastle, with any remainder being used to preserve the mausoleum. It’s an extraordinary design – roses were to be planted between the inner and outer walls, and originally the oculus in the dome was open to the sky (like the Pantheon in Rome), with an upturned basin underneath to catch rainwater. Sadly, today it’s padlocked, and the dome (the oculus is now glazed) looks increasingly like the hanging gardens of Babylon.

The Philipson Mausoleum, designed by Lutyens

Intriguingly, there is a ‘Communist’s Corner’, where the plaques of communists past and present are collected together.

‘Communists Corner’

What a wonderful vista along the cloisters!

One feature that I hadn’t seen before is a columbarium: this is a room that stores the funerary urns in niches. The range of choices that have to be made when someone dies can sometimes be overwhelming – to cremate or to bury? To scatter or to store?  The variations on each theme multiply like a particularly complex flow chart. It’s really helpful to know what the loved one wanted in advance, so thanks to Mum and Dad for their foresight.

And finally, on the way out I was much taken by this plaque. ‘Mors janua vitae’ means ‘Death is the Gateway to Life’. Historic England describe it as ‘a plaque in Art Nouveau style’, which indeed it is, though I can’t find out if there is anything that links those who are commemorated on it. Nonetheless, it’s another sign of how much there is to explore at the crematorium and the memorial gardens. I shall certainly be visiting again. For one thing, I completely missed the ‘Freud Corner’, where the funerary urns of Sigmund Freud and his family are held, and it would be good to find and pay my respects to Joyce Grenfell, one of the funniest comedians of her (and any) generation.

What’s Going On? – Raccoon Bank Robbers and Octopus Athletes

Photograph: Peninsula Humane Society & SPCA (PHS/SPCA)

Dear Readers, I was completely devoid of inspiration for today’s post until I came across this little gem in The Guardian. It’s actually nearly a year old, but then I’m often the last to know anything exciting. Two raccoons apparently crawled through the air ducts (eat your heart out Tom Cruise) and broke through the ceiling into the bank. I love the photo above – one of the raccoons seems to be checking the coast is clear while the other is acting as lookout. They were spotted by a customer who was withdrawing some money, and after ten minutes the Humane Society was able to usher the animals outside. I just hope nobody had left their lunch around in their desk drawer.

Photograph: Peninsula Humane Society & SPCA (PHS/SPCA)

And there’s more! Scientists from the University of Sydney have been studying a population of octopuses who live in Jervis Bay, off the coast of Australia. This is a small area of sandy, silty soil suitable for den building, and so octopuses gather there in unusually large numbers to make their homes. This can lead to social friction, as you might expect. Scientist Peter Godfrey-Smith had observed the animals ‘throwing’ silt at one another, but wasn’t sure until recently if the behaviour was intentional. However, after a lengthy study Godfrey-Smith is sure that it is, and that the females in particular hurl silt at males who are irritating them.

In 2016, for instance, one female octopus threw silt 10 times at a male from a nearby den who was attempting to mate with her. She hit him on five occasions. “That sequence was one of the ones that convinced me [it was intentional],” says Godfrey-Smith.

On four of these occasions, the male tried to “duck”, though he didn’t always succeed. In two cases, he anticipated the throws from the female’s movements and started dodging before the silt was propelled at him”.

Normally the octopuses just squirt out the silt, but I absolutely love this.

On one occasion, the researchers did see an octopus throw a shell at – and hit – another octopus by flinging it with a tentacle like a frisbee, rather than by propelling material with its siphon”.

And it’s not just other octopuses that are getting walloped.

“On two occasions, an octopus hit a fish, though one of these collisions appeared to have been accidental. The animals also seemed to target the camera on occasion, hitting the tripod twice.”

The scientists also believe that the octopuses might throw things about when they get frustrated.

What’s more, some throws that happen after intense social interactions aren’t directed at another octopus but into empty space, suggesting the animals might be venting their frustration.

In one case, after a male’s advances to a female were rejected, he threw a shell in a random direction and changed colour.”

A Sydney Octopus (Octopus tetricus) (Photo from Nature Picture Library / Alamy)

There is nothing about this story that I do not love. It sounds as if we are only at the very start of our understanding of the emotional lives of these remarkable animals.

Read more: https://www.newscientist.com/article/2287879-female-octopuses-throw-things-at-males-that-are-harassing-them/#ixzz74waRCYpj

A Bank Holiday Walk in St Pancras and Islington Cemetery

Dear Readers, it was extremely quiet in the cemetery today. I’m guessing that lots of people are away, what with it being the August Bank Holiday and all, but it meant that I spotted two handsome foxes (though they dashed away too quickly for me to get a photograph), and also saw two buzzards circling overhead, mewing to one another. I expected the crows to rise up in umbrage, but they didn’t for once – maybe they’re all on holiday too.

Some Japanese anemones are just coming into flower in the woodland grave area, along with some most unlikely-looking plants – they remind me of one of my house plants. Let’s hope they survive.

Look at the swamp cypress, people! I am waiting for the first hints of rust to appear. There is a definite increase in tempo this week, with the coal tits and blue tits cheeping and the robins starting to announce their winter territories. I love autumn though, it’s probably my favourite season – there is strangely more of a sense of possibility and new beginnings for me at this time of year than in the spring. Maybe it’s all those years of education, when the school year started in September, but it’s always been pivotal for me – I got married in September, as did my mother and father, and I started my most recent job in September too.

The swamp cypress

Anyhow, I’m starting to see a lot of wasps drifting about. I wonder what this one was after on this conifer? Maybe there’s something sweet and resinous being produced.

The Cedars of Lebanon are looking particularly magnificent, and several of them are producing their female flowers, which will be shedding pollen and irritating the noses of hay fever sufferers for the next few months.

 

The conkers are filling out nicely, and there are plenty of berries on the holly.

And here’s a holly-blue butterfly, sunning itself. This one is a female (you can tell by the black edges to the wings).

I always stop and give the Tibetan Cherry trunk a little rub as well, to keep it nice and shiny.

There is a definite meadow-ish feel to some parts of the cemetery at the moment – the gardeners are out with their strimmers and, I regret to say, their leaf-blowers, but it’s been such a wet summer that everything is springing up as fast as it’s trimmed. Some grave-visitors have taken to bringing in their own strimmers. Still, I thought I’d try to take a couple of grasshopper-eye views of the plants while they’re still around.

Red clover and ribworth plantain

Other notables today were the hedgerow geranium, with its intensely mauve flowers..

…the common toadflax…

…the bristly oxtongue…

….the nipplewort…

…and the Japanese Knotweed in full flower. Just as well it doesn’t spread by seed in this country, there’s quite enough of it in the cemetery as it is.

And in other signs of autumn, there’s the tarspot fungus in all its glory on the sycamore leaves…

and the hogweed seeds, which are rather pretty close up. I’m sure someone on Masterchef actually used these in a dish recently, I shall have to check (though the umbellifers are a tricky family with several, such as hemlock, being extremely poisonous).

And finally, it’s funny what you don’t notice, until you do. I walk this way every week, but never saw that the ivy had covered a whole row of graves just by one of the woodier parts of the cemetery. It’s amazing the way that ivy just reclaims things. Was this part of the cemetery once pristine and neat, I wonder? I know that I prefer it the way it is now. Although a lot of the wilder parts of the cemetery are being dug over for new graves, I imagine that there will always be older parts where it’s just not economical to cut down the trees. I hope so, anyway.

Graves disappearing under the ivy.

The Lark Ascending by Ralph Vaughan Williams

Dear Readers, I have been hard at work this week planning my Dad’s memorial service, which is taking place on 4th September. I want to have a combination of music and spoken word, and while some pieces are non-negotiable (some Spanish guitar, the theme from Last of the Summer Wine), it felt important to have something both contemplative and uplifting. Unlike at the cremation, where it was just my husband and I and the vicar, this will finally be a chance for people who knew and loved Dad to gather together to remember him, and so while it will be sad, it will also be a chance to consider his whole life now that we are not all still reeling from shock.

I chose this piece to play midway through the ceremony, for several reasons. One is that it brings back memories of holidays in Dorset when we were children. We walked around Maiden Castle, a huge earthwork, on one hot, sunny day, and the skylarks were everywhere, rising into the blue sky as if they were powered by the volume of their song. Up and up they went until they were tiny specks, their song drifting down like rain.

Maiden Castle in Dorchester (Photo by Ray Beer)

Secondly, the piece manages to combine both a wistful sadness for loss of innocence with a sense of hope, for me at least. It was composed in 1914 but extensively reworked by Vaughan Williams after the First World War. Although in his forties by the time the war started, Vaughan Williams served in the Royal Army Ambulance Corps, driving ambulances through the mud and rain. He later served in the Royal Artillery, and his hearing was damaged by the continual sound of the guns, leading to deafness in his later years. I wonder if, like other veterans of the war, he also heard the birds singing when there were moments of quiet between bombardments. In any event, there is a wistfulness about ‘The Lark Ascending’ that always makes me feel thoughtful.

And finally, I can’t listen to ‘The Lark Ascending’ without thinking of Dorset, and how much it meant to Dad and Mum. Although there was a lot of sadness in the last years of their lives, it was made easier by their living in such a peaceful and beautiful part of the country. Even when they could no longer explore, Mum would stand at the bedroom window and look at the view of the fields and trees at the end of the road. Sometimes, the moon would rise and paint everything silver. Once, we even saw shooting stars. My parents felt safe and well-loved in Dorset, and although nothing could save them in the end, they were at least surrounded by people who cared about them.

Have a listen here, and give yourselves a well-deserved rest.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FaO0432Gl18