Blue skies and unexploded bombs

It’s not the noise of gunfire I’m bothered about, it’s the unexploded bombs …

Our new home at Lulworth Camp in Dorset has been full of surprises. There’s the occasional rattle of gunfire, but with a sea view from almost every window, I’m not complaining. I’ve also nabbed the room with the best view as my study – so no excuse about lack of inspiration for writing.

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_194aThe night before we moved in we enjoyed a stay in a local hotel overlooking Lulworth Cove. It was a real treat. We were even upgraded and that never happens to me. The suite had its own colour coordinated settee and tea and proper coffee and an enormous bed. The trouble is moving house and all the excitement didn’t equal a peaceful night’s sleep… At 4am we were discussing a nightmare about a crab (something to do with what we’d eaten apparently), when I was unnerved by something and let out a bit of a scream. Moments later there was a knock on the door asking us to, “keep it down in there.” One of us shouted that we were all right, convinced they would think there was a murder happening. Breakfast was a little awkward. Moving scrambled egg around the plates, we wondered which of the other couples had banged on our door and did they know we were ‘the screamers’?

We’re in Thomas Hardy country now, so exploring should be done on foot, or at least by bicycle. The local ordinance survey map shows footpaths galore, with one small hitch; many of the paths crisscross the army ranges that surround us and live firing means they’re only open at weekends and during school holidays.

After the hazy days of unpacking boxes, painting rooms (because you can only take so much magnolia) and finding our way to a supermarket – the first free weekend arrived bright and sunny. Although the garage sort out was beckoning, we turned our back on it and joined two energetic members of the family pedalling east in search of a forgotten village and an almost deserted beach.

The long climb up Tyneham Hill made me dream of an electric bike, but the view from the top and the sausage sandwiches helped. It seemed strange to be cycling through a firing range where cows and sheep grazed in amongst rusted out tanks. There was really very little to show that this was army territory apart from some large florescent numbers that stood out from the gorse on the hillside.

The next surprise was Tyneham village – a place that time forgot. The deserted village is only accessible when the firing ranges are open and lies just up from the sea, nestled in a valley at the foot of a fantastic freewheeling hill. The cluster of stone buildings includes a church, a school, some tumbled down cottages and the remains of a vicarage. When we arrived there were small groups of people wandering between the buildings, but unlike many tourist spots, a hush had descended. People spoke in muted voices as if, Doctor Who-like, we had travelled back in time to the 1940s when the village folk had moved out to allow the army to prepare for D-Day.

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Tyneham Church by Ben Gamble  www.geograph.org.uk 

The story of Tyneham deserves a dedicated blog and I’ve vowed to return for longer next time and soak up that palpable history from the beautifully preserved schoolroom to the church with its colourful tiles and walls lined with photographs from the past. A remembrance service is held there each year, which must be very poignant. Part of the sign left on the church door by parishioners in 1943 read: “…We have given up our homes to help win the war to keep men free. We will return one day thank you for treating the village kindly.” Sadly, they never returned.

After a tough cycle, for some of us, and an exceptionally hot day for October, we were looking forward to a dip in the sea. There was a slight hitch as no-one had brought a bike lock and a zealous ranger told us we couldn’t even push our bikes on the range path to the beach. Undeterred we hid the bikes in some bushes and hoped for the best.

Warbarrow Bay emerged around the corner glistening in the sunshine and we all stripped off and plunged into the very cold crystal clear water. Five minutes was long enough for me to say I’d had a swim to the anchored boat and back. It was amazing to think we were swimming in the bay we could see from our house.

The next weekend wasn’t quite as warm, but we decided to explore the other end of the bay on the range walks and battled our way up a very steep hillside on the cliffs, while a sharp northerly wind made me pull my woolly hat down over my ears.

We spotted a sign warning us to keep off the barb wired beach due to unexploded shells, which we dutifully obeyed. Further up the cliff the path broadened out and with no-one about one of us decided it was safe to venture off the path a few metres into some shrubbery to… you know, call of nature. It turned out this was a bad idea. Catching up with me a few minutes later I heard how he’d spooked himself after kicking over a piece of metal, only to read the words: ‘Danger unexploded shells – keep out’. At which point he looked around and spotted dozens of pieces of metal poking out from the undergrowth in all directions.

Oops!

Lesson 1: Use the facilities before you venture out on the ranges. Unexploded anythings deserve respect.

cliff walk lulworth

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The ghost of Thorney Island

I’m not afraid of ghosts. These past few weeks I’ve been living with a very lovable one and I don’t think he’ll disappear until all the boxes are packed and the removal van chugs off down the road.

It’s three years since we arrived to live on Thorney Island, in the heart of Chichester Harbour. I never expected to become so attached to this place, but it has a way of seeping into your soul. I’ll miss the rattle of the halyards from the boat yard, the whirr of planes overhead, even the noisy chatter from the squirrels.

Most of all I’ll miss the shoreline; its rhythmic beauty as the tide slides in and out, alternately masking and revealing the bright green grass and muddy banks that lie beneath. I’ll miss my walks to the beach, watching white sails glide past the fields and breathing in those big skies that stretch right out to the Isle of Wight. I’ll definitely miss the swimming at all heights of tide and in all temperatures – including Christmas Day – knowing a hot shower awaits just around the corner. I’ll also miss the serenity and the sound of nothing but birdsong, most of the time.

Today, as I wander through the empty rooms of magnolia walls and beige carpets, merging into one, it feels as if our time here has been sucked up with the final hoover. There is barely a sign that our family, and particularly our cat, ever lived here.

A couple of weeks ago, I saw him around every corner. I heard the rattle of the cat flap – even when it had been removed. I heard his meowing chatter as he arrived in from a night of hunting and saw his face at the window peering in. It has been like living with a ghost – the ghost of Simba past.

Simba was the Cypriot cat who arrived without warning in our garden in Cyprus one morning, and who for the past five years has been a big part of our family. None of us are keen on cats and yet he found his way into our hearts and it was very painful to see him waste away over the last few months and eventually succumb to his illness.

Simba was a character. He accompanied us on walks beside the sea, he scared off spaniels beside the sailing club with his massive mane spread out and back arched high, he stalked squirrels, caught mice, sunbathed on the decking and was the longest cat living when he stretched out on the settee. He was also very beautiful and loved to cuddle up close, nestling into your neck on a cold winter’s night. He was known as the ‘Lion Cat’ by our neighbours – knick-named for his fantastic mane and lion colouring.

Now it really is goodbye Simba and farewell Thorney Island. The two will stay together and when we return, as I’m sure we will, we’ll pause by his favourite pine scratching tree and remember our time here with one member of the family who is sorely missed, but not forgotten.

 

 

“We should have gone to Cyprus”

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This gallery contains 3 photos.

“Let’s have an adventure,” I said. “Let’s hire a car and explore somewhere hot,” I said. I turned my nose up at somewhere safe and familiar… I shook my head at the all inclusive hotel deals or the easy option … Continue reading

What about the weather?

Digging channels and building dams in the sand on the beach has always been a favourite pastime for our boys at the seaside. They also enjoyed tunnelling in a friend’s back garden, until the passage got so deep and long it was turning into a small mine. But the day before the wedding I wasn’t expecting to see them on their knees, plastered in mud, examining the route of a drainage channel diverting water around a marquee in the Shropshire hills…

If oaks grow strong in contrary winds and diamonds are made under pressure, then our son and his new wife have made a fine start to married life. Just five days before their wedding on Saturday they heard torrential rain had turned the field where the marquee would be pitched into mud. Their Festival style wedding reception was sounding more like Glastonbury every hour.

After an emergency journey from London to a very wet Shropshire to assess the damage they decided to go ahead in the hope the location could be salvaged. Two days before the wedding we arrived at the farm to help hoist the marquee and bang in pegs. The view of the Long Mynd hills was spectacular as the sun appeared at last. Although the forecast was mixed, there was hope.

Like every wedding there were a mountain of tasks to be tackled from arranging tables to cleaning toilets and stringing up lights. Later that night as we sat enjoying a home cooked meal we listened to the rain on the conservatory roof. Everyone was picturing the field and the marquee.

On Friday the sun came out and it was all hands on deck cleaning chairs, laying out plates and pouring water into jugs of flowers. The attention to detail and eco-friendly planning was evident in everything from the bamboo plates, each with a guest’s named soldered into it, to waxed wood cutlery bound with handmade pottery medallions with an initial on. The only thing we needed was for the weather to be kind. As forecast, the clouds gathered after lunch and the boys decided digging a trench around the marquee was essential to save it from being flooded. It wasn’t long before the ‘highly engineered’ trench was a fast flowing stream as the rain descended. The bride-to-be could be seen gazing out through a flap in the tent as water bounced off the canvas sides and ran in rivulets across the field. Everyone was praying for sun. But could it possibly dry out by the next day?

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It was time to leave for the church rehearsal. The digging brothers, who were the groom-to-be and a best man, were caked in mud from head to toe. All around their posse of digging friends leaning on spades began to laugh.
“I better wash my hands,” said one. His brother looked uncertainly down at his now brown jeans.
“Are we Ok going like this?”
Even if your father is the vicar, the answer is ‘No’.
Fresh clothes were borrowed from a faithful friend and they arrived at the church in slightly unconventional and ill fitting outfits, which included climbing trousers and board shorts.

We do believe in miracles. The morning of the wedding the sun was shining and the field had dried out enough to be transformed. A band of willing friends, along with the groom, his best men and ushers, charged around tossing grass clippings and hay in the air and generally having fun (without mud).

The field that was brown turned green and within a couple of hours it looked like the most wonderful country wedding reception venue.  Hay bales and fire pits were scattered around and pots of flowers and pretty lanterns lining paths of straw completed the scene.

Some hours later when the flower power Morris Minor chugged up beside the marquee and the new Mr & Mrs Farmer stepped out there were cheers and tears of joy as the bride saw the transformed scene for the first time.

 ‘Real love’ may be about weathering storms together, but sometimes that’s easier to see after the clouds have parted and the sun has broken through.

car flowers

Footnote: This blog isn’t aimed to thank everyone who helped make the day a success and there were so many of you! Neither can I cover all the highlights from moving and hilarious speeches to the service, the sermon and the flowers, but I must mention the members of Popup Opera who gave an amazing performance in the church – it was funny, it was beautiful and it was epic. Please do support this very special team and go to a performance soon https://www.popupopera.co.uk

 

 

 

 

Lighting fires

You may not have a bucket list, but you must have a top ten of ‘stuff you like doing best’. Last week I ticked one of these off for 2018.

It was a belting hot day in Devon and we decided to cycle to the sea. It seemed a good idea at the time; it was down hill all the way. The beach was deserted, the sand was warm beneath our feet and as you might expect the water was flipping freezing.

The downside of the easy ride to the beach was the journey back. Cycling up hill isn’t one of my favourite things, nor is pushing my bike, or even falling into a bank of nettles on a narrow lane as a car squeezes past. The hill from the beach seemed to go on forever and there was a lot of panting and stopping and swigging from water bottles and gasps of “I’m not doing this again!”

The lanes levelled out eventually and the hill was forgotten. Back at Wild Goose Barn the sun was still shining and it seemed a perfect night for a BBQ. So, without much hesitation we dropped the bikes and jumped in the car, heading back to the beach laden with the essentials – beer, sausages and matches. Half an hour later after a stroll across a field and down through a wood, we were sitting on our own private beach beneath the trees, while the sea lapped at our feet and the BBQ sizzled and cracked.

It was practically perfect as we munched on charcoal sausages, baby tomatoes and crusty bread. But the best was yet to come.

As the sun began to sink and biting midges appeared we scavenged bundles of sticks and lit a fire above the glowing embers. Birds calling to each other in the trees and the lap of water were the only sounds. I sighed, what could be better than a summer night and a fire on the beach with someone special at your side?

Then across the channel on the other bank of the estuary two men appeared. They were in the shadows and looked like they were picking things up on the beach. We wondered if they were smugglers who had waited for the cover of darkness. What could they be doing? A few minutes later a glowing light appeared in the trees and a curl of smoke rose up into the sky. They’d lit a fire. Now there were two fires on the beach – it was beginning to look like a signal.

fire on the beachAs dusk settled into darkness and the tide had begun to ebb we let the fire die, bundled up what was left of the food and followed the sandy banks of the estuary towards the sea and the lane where the car was parked. As we rounded a ruined tower we saw yet another fire set back on the sand. A lady in a long skirt was fuelling it with sticks, while her dog wandered in the shadowy undergrowth. Now there were three fires on the beach.

“How many more fires do you think there are?” I pondered. Sure enough, further up towards the cobbled slipway, yet another fire was smouldering on the beach with a young couple crouched over it.

There were four fires on the beach that night… there may have been more.
We’d thought we were all alone, tucked away in our secret rock and tree-lined bay, but  fires had been springing up all around us.

I can’t wait for our next fire on the beach – who knows what will happen or who will appear?

 

What kind of legacy?

What an incredible man and what an incredible legacy. The internet has been flooded with glowing tributes following the death of Billy Graham yesterday. The black and white images of a man with a distinctive hairline and a smart suit brought back memories of my childhood, where Billy Graham was something of an icon.

 

Billy_Graham_My parents both discovered a life-changing Christian faith in their twenties. They both attended a church youth group and my father made his commitment at a big rally in Kent, along the lines of a Billy Graham gathering, but on a smaller scale. A British evangelist and author, called Roy Hession, gave an alter call and my father responded. Meanwhile, my mother decided to follow Jesus Christ after reading that famous booklet ‘Journey into Life’, handed to her by a Christian friend. Thank God for that. They went on to have five children and brought us up in a loving Christian home. Billy Graham and his sermons stood in stark contrast to the popular culture of the 60s and 70s. Our home reflected similar values, yet as a child I sometimes struggled with this.

Growing up I had the sense that our family was different… even a bit odd. We dressed up and went to church on Sundays, while other friends were out in the park. We were often told we couldn’t do things or shouldn’t because “we’re Christians”. Instead of going to ‘Brownies’ I went to Scripture Union Bible classes in a nearby village – they were actually lots of fun, but I thought at the time I was missing out and there was no uniform! Early in the mornings we’d find my mum and dad praying together in the room beside the kitchen before dad went to work. I’d hover or tiptoe through, making sure I heard my name being mentioned, along with my brothers and sisters. They prayed for each of us by name every day. What a legacy they left. They weren’t perfect, but they certainly created a solid Christian foundation for us all to build on, if we chose to.

I know I didn’t appreciate what they gave me at the time. I fought against it and rebelled in countless ways and yet somehow I couldn’t shake it off.

It was quite a few years later, when I shared my story of faith with its ups and downs that I realised how privileged I was to have parents who taught me to read the Bible and pray and set me on a Christian path. I grew up knowing the God of the Bible as a friend and a personal saviour. This was their greatest gift to me.

I wonder what legacy we will leave for our children and others? It probably won’t be like Billy Graham’s, but I hope we have given our children a Christian foundation to build on, wherever that path leads.

Today I’m feeling thankful for my parents, who went ahead of Billy Graham to that heavenly address, and who shone for Christ just as brightly in the Reay household.

mum & dad

Mum and Dad on honeymoon

 

True stories

If someone asked you to tell a story, what would it be? Would it be a well-known fairy tale, a mystery or perhaps a thriller? It might be a heart-breaking tragedy or a love story with a happy ending… but would you choose something that really happened or would you make it up?

Once-Upon-a-Time

As a child I loved stories. I read them and I wrote them, so it was no surprise I ended up as a journalist. That has involved listening to other people’s stories and re-telling them in an interesting way, or sometimes piecing together a story from lots of different viewpoints and sources. I can’t forget some of the best newspaper stories I’ve written including the sad ones like the toddler twins with a rare and incurable disease who died holding hands or the funny ones like the vicar on a run with his dog being tossed into the river by an overprotective cow.

Stories captivate us. We want to find out what happened next or understand why something has happened. We get drawn in by the characters and if it’s a good book they become important to us and we think about them even when we’re not reading the story.

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I’m in the process of making up a story… writing fiction. The trouble is the characters aren’t behaving quite as they should and there’s a problem in the plot. Hopefully, I’ll get it sorted soon. But as I pour over my plans and struggle with sentences and speech marks, I’m realising the best stories are playing out all around me.

Working for Scripture Union International over the past year I’ve heard many moving and inspiring stories from around the world. These are true stories of how lives have been transformed through an encounter with God. One was about a 14-year-old girl who fled from the fighting in South Sudan into Uganda. She lost her parents, saw terrible violence and just escaped with her life. On the road into Uganda, she was helped by a woman from her village who agreed to adopt her as part of her own family. They moved into one of the huge displacement camps in Northern Uganda. But because of the girl’s terrible experiences and the way she had to work so hard to look after the woman’s younger children, walking miles to fetch water, she became bitter and angry. She blamed the woman for her hardship and all that had gone wrong in her life. She decided to take her revenge. She made plans to poison the woman or one of her children. Before she could put her plan into action she wandered into a meeting in the camp being run by Scripture Union (SU) volunteers. They were talking about forgiveness and about God’s love and they sang songs too. As she listened something amazing happened to this young girl. She realised what she’d been planning was wrong and she began to cry. She didn’t go ahead with her deadly plans. Instead she asked for forgiveness and her life was transformed as she began to see her situation in a new light.

It’s so good to know that God’s ‘Big Story’ is also ours and there really is a happy ending!

You can listen to more stories from SU Uganda and other parts of the world here.