Sacred space

Image result for dial house twickenham londonRambling house down by the River Thames where my in-laws lived and I spent much time.

A life – another instalment of my autobiography before I revert to my normal blogs

I loved the ordinariness of the countryside. It wasn’t spectacular country, but it contained all the elements of the things which are now becoming rarer. There were thick hedgerows, and wild flowers and long grass in the orchard where the fox sometimes slipped through, on his way to the field where the donkey grazed: little copses, with their bare, spare branches etched against the pale winter sky, or billowing with green foliage against a blue sky in summer: woodpigeons cooed, cuckoos called, thrushes sang, and the smells of cut grass and manure, of wet leaves and sweet lilacs scented the clean air.

There was no hum of traffic from a distant motorway and few  sounds apart from the occasional drone from a tractor, the creaking braying of the donkey, and contented cows mooing on their way to  milking.

There were other things which showed me the dark side of modem farming. Henry the farmer, who gently patted his thirty prize cows on their rumps as they slowly filed past to the milking shed, where they stood and gave up their warm, creamy milk to the strains of Viennese waltzes, showed me with pride, his solitary calves. Each one was alone and imprisoned in iron cradles where they stood unable to move, turn or lie down, trapped in compartments in pitch-dark sheds, preparing to become white veal. I’ve never eaten veal since.

The house had no mod cons – everything was as it had been since the Victorian aunt’s childhoods. We had never been able to afford a washing machine for the babies’ nappies, so the lack of one was no drawback for me. So, while each baby luxuriated in smocked viyella nighties from the White House in Bond Street and was aired daily in the expensive pram bought by doting paternal grandparents, their nappies were washed the old-fashioned way. In a boiler.

This was filled with a hose from the kitchen tap. I then switched on the heater in the boiler and let the water boil, bubbling and swirling the soap-sudded nappies. They always had the same smell, those boiled soap suds. At the end of the boiling operation which filled the kitchen with steam, I wheeled the pulsating monster to the kitchen sink, and gingerly prised the lid off. Then, with a pair of wooden tongs in theory, but in practise with a wooden spoon, I poked around the scalding nappies until one became hooked on the spoon. With a quick swing it was transferred from boiler to sink, and then the endless rinsing process began.

Nappy by nappy was hooked and swung from boiler to sink, steam misting up the windows, and billowing out through the kitchen door to the rest of the house. My fingers became so swollen that I couldn’t wear my rings any more. Some days I was only one dry nappy ahead of the babies. Now Newney Hall didn’t even have a boiler, but at least Napisan, (hurray,) had arrived on the market, and banished my boiling days forever, however un-hygienic the nappies may have been.

The amenities of the house began and ended with the calor gas stove, while the bathroom and loo were directly above the kitchen, presumably to economise on plumbing. Since the staircase was the other end of the house, this meant walking or running the whole length of the house twice to get upstairs to the bathroom, but at twenty- seven years old the inconveniences didn’t seem to matter.

Living so far away from the shops didn’t matter either. The village grocer delivered our food for the week on Friday afternoons. The butcher called in his van three times a week, as did the baker. The greengrocer called twice a week, and the milkman called every day to supply not just milk to use up the baby coupons, but also yogurt and butter.

My husband left first thing in the morning for the London train, taking the old Morris Traveller with him to the station. I found expensive purchases hidden in the back of that car – a hat from Lock’s, the oldest hat makers in the world, who’d been in business since 1676 – Nelson was wearing one of their tricornes at Trafalgar). There was a shirt from Gieves  (Nelson was wearing a suit made by the original Mr Gieves at Trafalgar too). I worried my extravagant husband was getting into debt again while I couldn’t afford a new lipstick). When we’d waved him away, toddler peeping over the stable door of the kitchen, the baby perched on my hip, we returned to the kitchen table to finish our breakfast.

After hastily scrubbing the high chair before the spat- out cereal set like concrete, polishing the chrome on the pram so my mother- in- law would not silently notice spots or rust marks, I handwashed cobweb-like shawls and lacy matinee jackets in cold water so that my mother-in-law could not suggest I’d turned them yellow by washing them in hot water.

And then more vacuuming, (why did I think it all had to be done every day? – ready for inspection, ma’am – my mother-in-law lived miles away ) sweeping, dusting, regular stoking of the fire, the acres of red and white tiled kitchen floor to be washed free of mud, all kept me busy till the baby woke and lunch loomed, and then the sieving and straining and mashing began, before more face-washing and bib-tying and strapping baby into his high chair and hoisting the toddler onto a cushion on a kitchen chair.

The slow routine of spooning and cooing to the baby and answering the toddler’s continuous eighteen- month- old chatter ended, with more face-washing and changes of nappies, before putting both children down for an afternoon sleep. This was the one hour in the day to myself. I ate my lunch standing at the draining board – cheese and biscuits – reading the newspapers –  Guardian and Telegraph from front to back – I’ve never been better informed. I didn’t dare read a book as I would have forgotten the time and my duties.

I was so tired I didn’t dare sit down either, or I would never have got up again. I hadn’t had an unbroken night’s sleep since the first child was born, and now, with the baby’s night feeds and the other’s broken nights ever since her father had returned from Cyprus, I was so ground down that I couldn’t imagine what it felt like to be normal. Staying for Christmas with the in -laws, my mother- in- law told her son, who told me – how plain I had become. She was right!

The newspapers only lasted till the first child woke, and then their faithful slave would bound up the stairs or rush outside to the pram, checking the nappies, and freshening up their faces before we got dressed for our walk.

Living in a northern climate one becomes accustomed to the hours spent preparing to go outside into the cold or the rain. It must have taken twenty minutes or more to swathe each child in coats, hoods and zip-up jackets, ease tiny, bunched feet into warm boots, and wriggle fat, plasticine-like fingers into gloves or mittens. Then the strapping into the pram, buckling the harness, propping baby up on the pillows, tucking in the rugs to keep out the draughts, and finally, flinging on my sheepskin and gloves, wandering out at snail’s pace or toddler-pace, to gasp fresh air in lanes where the pram would go.

We never met another soul, looking across the frosty, bare, ploughed fields. We were five miles from the village and buried in primeval privacy. Back home, we watched the cows go past for milking, which was the signal for our tea-time. This meal, composed of much the same ingredients as lunch, but including any cakes I might have found time to make during my lunch break, began around four- thirty. This I know, because I switched on the radio when we started, to catch the five ‘o clock news, and so as not to disturb the children’s concentration by leaping up to switch on during their meal.

So I became a captive listener to ‘Mrs Dales’ Diary’, as I waited for the news to come on, and spooned food and baby talk into thrush-like, open mouths around the fireside. I listened with stilled breath to the Congo disasters, the Rhodesian Declaration of Independence, the bombing in Vietnam, the mistakes and injustices of authority all over the world, it seemed, yet these were almost incidental. The pressing reason for listening to the news was for the sheer pleasure of hearing another adult voice, to break the boredom and monotony of the endlessly repeated trivial tasks.

In summer, at twenty- past five every day, we watched the goose spoon water with her beak over her two goslings at the duck pond, before climbing the stairs for our baby bath-time and bed- time. It was always early – because they were ready for it, I said, and needed their sleep. So by six o’clock every night silence reigned. Perhaps they did need it – they certainly never argued and fell asleep straight away – but the real reason was that I needed it. People used to comment on how beautifully behaved they were – because they were always attended to – instantly!

Before the words ‘suburban neurosis’ had been coined, I’d have been ashamed to admit the boredom to anyone, but a wave of relief swept over me, unacknowledged every night, as I walked downstairs and poured a drink into a civilised, crystal sherry glass, for my one leisurely tot before beginning the cookhouse stint for my husband’s  dinner.

My marriage was breaking down already though my husband refused to go for counselling with marriage guidance. But before we left for Hong Kong, I had made a life for myself and found a circle of friends, Margery, the farmer’s wife who wrote poetry and read her poems aloud with a group called Poetry in Pubs. My nearest neighbour, was the Hon Jean, who had children the same age, which was the only thing we had in common, but she seemed to need me. Lady Selina, who divided her time equally between her painting, the stables and her children, and was both a Quaker, and a sort of enfant terrible was stimulating, while sweet Jennifer, whose children always fought with mine, shared a passion with me for interior decoration and gardening.

Eventually we left that enchanted house to go to Hong Kong, where the hectic life and chaos of those times almost obliterated the memories of that year in the country. But for years I have dreamt of that beloved house. In my dreams it’s bigger, and there are many more rooms. The furniture is more elegant and the rooms more beautiful.

There’s one room which is filled with such treasures that I only go into it sometimes… it feels sacred. I have no idea why I dream so often of this house I lived in for a short year so long ago. I don’t know what it symbolizes. I’ve lived in other houses and places just as magical…  no doubt a psychologist would mine some profound Jungian theory from these dreams, delving into the unconscious and maybe coming up with an archetype!

We spent the last few weeks in England with the in-laws at their rambling red brick Georgian house down by the river Thames. Built by Thomas Twining of the tea family in 1722, a big sun dial told the hours on the front of the house above the front door. Inside it was decorated with glorious colours and filled with treasures and exquisite antiques and china collected by my deaf, difficult, demanding mother- in- law, whose creativity and taste taught me so much.

The night we left, as we sat in a big car lent by friends of the in-laws to accommodate all our luggage, we four and the in-laws who were seeing us off on our plane, I looked up at the old house, illuminated by the street lights and wondered when I would see it again. No presentiment warned me it would be twelve years before I saw that sun dial again, after what had seemed like a life-time of heart-break, adventure, life in a far country, second marriage and extraordinary experiences.

To be continued


Food for threadbare gourmets

 A friend who has her mahjong foursome to stay here in the forest for a weekend once a year, usually brings them to my place for afternoon tea and we have a great girls natter. They always love my scones and want the recipe. This is it, so quick and easy: eight to ten ounces of SR flour, pinch salt and two to two and a half ounces of butter – I simply grate it cold from the fridge. Mix this altogether with an egg beaten in a cup of milk until it all comes together. Use more milk if you need, to make a soft dough.

I don’t bother to roll it or use a pastry cutter. Just gently knead it into a square, about an inch thick, cut it into small squares, and place with a space between them on a greased baking tin. Some say leave it in the fridge to cool… sometimes I do – if I don’t have time – que sera sera. Bake in hottish oven for fifteen minutes or until risen and done. Serve hot with butter, strawberry jam and whipped cream if you have it. If there are any left over (not often) I fry them with bacon and fried egg… nice…

Food for thought

You can never get a cup of tea large enough or a book long enough to satisfy me… CS Lewis – a man after my own heart.





Filed under army, babies, beauty, cookery/recipes, environment, family, life/style, The Sound of Water, Thoughts on writing and life, uncategorised, Uncategorized, village life

37 responses to “Sacred space

  1. Juliet

    Your description of the activities-packed day, the nappies, the food preparation, the boiler . . . and I think of my mum who used a copper each day to boil up the nappies. She had 5 children and rheumatoid arthritis and how she did it, I can’t imagine. But like you she went on to have a creative life (as an artist in her case). I think of the longing that builds up during those years of slavery, until it becomes unstoppable. Your narrative is spell-binding.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Juliet, you are so encouraging … I had wondered if anyone would find my account of nappy duties even faintly interesting! Thank you, it’s lovely to be in touch again and read your always perceptive comments… I’ll be following up your links ….

      Liked by 1 person

      • Juliet

        It’s the detail and your vivid remembering that brings even nappies to life Valerie!

        Liked by 1 person

      • Dear Juliet, have been enjoying myself reading your posts, but alas, I will have to remain invisible as the comments I’ve written have not surfaced in spite of me filling in all the required boxes… not sure what hidden belief system is tripping me up !!!!
        Love, Valerie


  2. Dearest Valerie,

    I am captivated with your descriptions of the grounds around your country home. I”m also taken back to the days of toddlers and infants and longing for adult conversation. I can remember being drawn into soap operas (which I loathe) just for the company while holding my colicky son for hours on end. Although, we did have a washing machine and dryer for nappies or diapers as we say in the States. 😉 I had to boil them when my second son developed a horrid rash. The reality of motherhood isn’t so glamorous, is it?
    You’ve left me in anticipation of your life in Hong Kong.
    As always, my love and affection for you and himself.




    • Hello Rochelle,
      So good to hear from you… motherhood is a very universal experience, isn;t it ! Thank you for sticking with me on this — had wondered if nappy boiling would be even faintly interesting to anyone !!!
      Himself sends his life as well… we are listening to the wind swirling around and reminding us of last night’s reading aloud about the terrible storm in Henry Beston’s, classic, The outermost House – have you read it???
      Love, Me…


  3. Up to speed now, Valerie! Can’t wait for the next installment…as Juliet says, it’s spell-binding!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Jane Sturgeon

    Gosh Valerie, I feel every part of your story and this one was heartfelt. So tired and isolated, you showed up every day and did it though my lovely. Here’s to your Hong Kong chapter. Xx hugs x

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jane, thank you, I love your understanding and perceptive comments – even when it’s about a boring topic like boiling nappies !! you make me feel so good…
      With love, Valerie

      Liked by 1 person

      • Jane Sturgeon

        I remember the days of twin tubs and wooden tongs Valerie and the smell of hot sudsy water. Do you remember the smell of Sunlight soap? We used to get it in long green bars in Africa and all our clothes were washed with it in the bath. I know we’re older now, but all those memories and flexibility to deal with things are layered up in us aren’t they? Hugs and much ❤ for you. Xx

        Liked by 1 person

  5. It is a curious fact that over time we begin to view experiences and events when we have toiled and laboured like slaves with feelings of nostalgia. It was a good thing for you, Valerie, that you had a few good friends and neighbours to lend you support in those difficult times. This was for me also a mini lesson in the use of British English. I guess a nappy is what they call in Canada a diaper. Best wishes! Peter


  6. It is completely extraordinary that you look back on that period of slavish drudgery with nostalgia. The house and the environment do seem idyllic, and I love your descriptions, but that routine would be enough to drive anyone to more drink than only one tot per evening!
    Having sampled three weeks of mothering while MBH was indisposed after childbirth, and with a model baby that didn’t often get colic after the 2 a.m. feed, I don’t know how women survive. I was in raptures when my leave ended and her spell in hospital did, too.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Well, I do admire you for holding the fort and coping with a newborn baby, Leslie – no mean feat, and one I think few men would have been capable of – you are obviously made of stern stuff and have great resources!


  7. Wonderfully vivid writing again Valerie – I wonder did you keep diaries and write all this down or do the memories just come to you? I love the idea of being so captivated by a house you lived in for such a short time.

    Liked by 1 person

    • So good to hear from you Andrea, thank you so much for commenting.
      No, I never kept a diary until much later in my life, but I do have what my partner calls an eidetic memory,,, I remember so much, and in brilliant colour, smells, conversations and so on… he also says I am an anomaly – I remember screeds of facts, know where things are on the pages of books I’ve read years before, and recognise pictures of the same rooms in magazines, twenty years or so apart, even with furniture carpets etc changed… can recite the family trees , marriages, children etc etc of the Royals right back to Elizabeth 1 and before !!! ( and much of their jewellery !) and a whole lot of other irrelevant stuff- yes, I suppose I’m a bit of a nut case !!

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Although, there is heart-break, exhaustion here…I am also finding beauty and such love that you had/have for your children. I am so enjoying this peak into your life!


    Liked by 1 person

  9. Hi Valerie. I am so enjoying your autogiographical posts and don’t want them to end. The grind, the boredom, the isolation of your time as a young mother in the country mansion in those days with so few labour-saving devices … oh it makes me tired and desperate just thinking of it. No wonder feminism (and technology) became so important.

    Also thank you for your scone recipe: to my mind (from evocative childhood experiences) all “proper” scones are square and a bit uneven … made by quickly cutting the dough with a knife. I’ve never enjoyed circular “stamped scones” quite as much!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Elly, so lovely to hear from you… I hope all is well with you…
      Thank you so much for your encouragement about my autobiographical series, I really appreciate that you’ve stuck with me – even through the boiling of nappies !
      Love your perceptive remarks and insights into that time… and also love that you agree about scones !!! Vive le square !!!


  10. The nappies episode has won the day, I see from many comments. The undisputed drudgery of motherhood in those days makes our experiences pale by comparison. I do recall we were one of the few people we knew who actually still used real nappies in the late 1980’s. Most people were using the disposable bought ones, which in the sub-tropics of Darwin were an instant recipe for nappy rash. My prince of a husband made it his job to wash the nappies for me most of the time, though I doubt if he’d had to boil them he would have volunteered! Another entertaining instalment Valerie, see you next week! xx

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hello Ardys… isnl’t it funny how something like nappies is imprinted indelibly in the mind, or resonates even with men !!!
      Your husband sounds a prince indeed…
      I was interested in what you said about disposables and nappy rash, because I was fascinated with my four grand children to see that none of them ever got nappy rash in their disposables, and had supposed that this was one good reason for using them… another riddle !!!


  11. Your stories take away the fiction we all read about the wonders of youth! The reality of life as it was then is no panacea of endless parties and fun. On the other hand, without youth I can’t imagine how such exhausting work could be managed. There are some advantages to getting older.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hello Ronnie… the good old days were only the good old days for some, weren’t they !!!
      You’re right about youth… I don’t know how all these older mothers today manage, even with their mod cons…


  12. Joseph Campbell’s quote came to me when I read your thoughts on sacred spaces. “Your sacred space is where you can find yourself over and over again.” I believe our dreams signal a deep need to seek sacredness in all that we do – in so doing the ordinary becomes extraordinary. You life story is a testament to this thought. Hugs.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Dear Rebecca – what an exquisite quote and comment from you, thank you, thank you… what a man Joseph Campbell was…. did you ever see the extraordinary six part series of one or two hour interviews with Bill Moyes and Campbell? I used to get high just listening to him…( think I might try to find them on Youtube and listen again…
      I was very relieved to see your glorious flaming titian hair, I had planned to write to you as I felt I hadn’t seen you around our blogosphere (usually seem to get to blogs where you’ve already ticked ‘ like ‘, and get to tick just after you!) I had wondered if you were okay, or absent because you were on holiday… so good to see you anyway !!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Dear Valerie, I have just returned from Shetland and Orkney. Isn’t it interesting that when you stand before an immense ocean, you realize that you have been given the privilege of being a part of earth’s narrative. We have walked this world along with fellow creatures, breathed the air, felt the wind, the warmth of the sun, the fellowship of kindred spirits. These are abundant gifts. Thank you for your friendship. Hugs and love coming your way…


  13. Your writing captivates, Valerie dear,
    And I love the details surrounding the daily chores – not at all mundane – as you weaved the narrative so well.
    Another good and revealing read, from a long line of writing/recollections.
    All good wishes,


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