Who’d marry a soldier?

Guess who?
… Makes friends easily, adaptable, well travelled, independent, decorator, gardener, mechanic (when necessary), single mum (frequently), tough, fiercely loyal, wry sense of humour, expert gin & tonic maker, resilient, always hopeful – a lover of life.

My dictionary definition of an army wife, in case you hadn’t guessed.
I’m proud to be one of this diminishing breed, whose other characteristic is being a ‘pack animal’. Army wives are there for one another. When the going gets tough they stand alongside each other’s families supporting one another, sometimes emotionally but also practically.

Some of my best friends are either army wives or ex-army wives. The experiences we went through together as we waited anxiously for news from war zones or coped with being a lone parent far from our families, drew us close. Those bonds aren’t easily broken. That’s why writing a book with one particular army wife was the natural thing to do.

I first met Brenda Hale when she was a Sergeant’s wife while we were posted in Germany and our husbands were on an operational tour in Northern Ireland. Our children were born within a few months of each other. Brenda put me to shame in exercising back to fitness after giving birth and supported me in trying to run chaotic Sunday school sessions at the church on the barracks. In those years, although we worried for our husbands on operations in Belfast and Bosnia, I could never imagine what lay ahead.

One sunny August morning in 2009 I found my husband hunched at the foot of the stairs, shocked by the sudden death of a great man and a good friend. Neither of us could believe that this giant of a man had been taken away and his family left devastated. The harrowing news stories on the death of more soldiers in Afghanistan had become more personal than ever.

Some days later sitting at a table in an airport I still couldn’t take in the fact that the woman beside me had lost the love of her life, the father of her children and her best friend. How could this have happened?

It’s been a privilege to retrace the journey which the Hale girls have been on, through writing I married a soldier with Brenda. As she says, we’ve shared both tears and laughter as she has recalled wonderful moments, along with the most painful times.

If you’re looking for an inspirational read that gives you a real picture of life for army families, you’ll enjoy I married a soldier published by Lion Hudson. It tells the true story of how one very special army wife found a way through an event that threatened to crush her. This is a story of hope and faith beyond grief.


What’s in a name?

I never liked my own name when I was growing up. Other friends’ names seemed much ‘cooler’ and less old fashioned. I knew Rachel was a name in the Bible and that didn’t help. I wished I had a name like Mandy, Sally or even Jackie and worst of all I didn’t even have a middle name. I guess my parents ran out of ideas by the time they got to number five! So upset by this omission, I gave myself a middle name and for a few years I was ‘Rachel Mandy Reay’ – if anyone asked. To cap it all one teenage boyfriend told me my surname didn’t have enough syllables to be respectable. His was Buchanan!

Giving out or choosing names is a big responsibility. As I grew up Rachel didn’t seem such a bad name – I got used to it. Over the years I have puzzled over names for pets, followed by the joy of picking names for our own children. This was even more complicated as the names had to be agreed by two of us and they mustn’t include names of former boyfriends or girlfriends…

One thing I’ve never done until recently is give a name to a house. All our homes had numbers, although the last one also had a name. It was called ‘The White House’ – not because it had large pillars or an American flag but because it was painted white. But after we’d sandblasted the paint back down to red bricks the name didn’t fit anymore, so we just stuck with the number.

This Spring after a long search we bought a new home in Devon. It’s not a new house, but it’s new to us. It isn’t even a house really – it’s a barn. After several weeks of trailing back and forth and working on the garden and setting up the furnishings, we often referred to it as ‘the Barn’ and we could have simply called it that. But we wanted to invest a little more of ourselves, our hopes, dreams and history into this home, which we hope will be a place to welcome friends and family and even strangers.

We had several evenings of brainstorming names and batting them around for views from the family. ‘Farmer’s Den’ was ruled out early on and so were many popular ‘seaview’ options. After all it is a barn so we decided that should be in the name. We talked about our dreams and what was at the heart of all the journeys we’ve been on so far as a couple and as a family. We love wild places and wild activities, we like space and freedom and we love God. When the name was first mentioned it was so obvious, we knew it was right. Wild Goose Barn was chosen.

Why Wild Goose Barn? Here’s a bit of thinking behind the name, with thanks to a diligent researcher Simon Farmer.

Wild geese are inspiring birds. They can live to 30 years or more. They travel huge distances in migration and are often seen in ‘V’ formation. Geese are flocking birds reflecting a sense of community. This is something we’ve been enjoying in this special part of Devon with the local village, the church and the friendship in the Dolphin Inn. It was here we met a friendly agricultural engineer who came to help us with our ageing mower, while others passed on tips about the best wild swimming spots and generally made us feel at home.

When a Goose flies, its wings create ‘uplift’ for the bird following. By flying in a ‘V’ formation the whole flock actually adds 71% greater flying range than if a bird was on its own. Whenever a Goose falls out of formation it suddenly feels the drag and resistance of trying to fly alone and so quickly gets back into formation to take advantage of the lifting power of the Goose immediately in front. When the lead Goose gets tired it rotates back into the formation and another Goose flies at the point position. Finally, while geese fly in formation they make quite a noise sometimes as they honk from behind. This isn’t just a random noise but these sounds are their way of encouraging those up front to keep going and keep up their speed.

Devon has wild geese passing through and shortly after choosing the name we spotted a flock of geese flying in formation one evening. We watched as they changed course and flew directly overhead to continue their journey towards the sea into the setting sun. It was almost as if they were giving us a fly past of approval.

In the old days domesticated geese would have been kept around the barn. The Greylag is the ancestor of most domesticated geese. It is the largest and bulkiest of the wild geese native to UK and Europe.
‘Greylag’ either means “grey-legged” or “grey-laggard”, that is late, last or slow to migrate, or in other words, a loiterer or as we like to think just plain ‘laid back’.

Living near the sea, we’ve become accustomed to a deep sense of rhythm, especially the daily ebb and flow of the tide. And in the surrounding countryside the changing seasons are a part of life too, as farmers plough the fields, scatter seeds and gather the harvest. Migrating birds, nesting swallows all lead to this same sense of rhythm.

The Wild Goose is a symbol going back to Celtic times. In 500 AD the Celts developed a strong sense of spiritual rhythm living by the sea in places like Lindisfarne on Holy Island in Northumberland, Iona in the western isles of Scotland, parts of Wales, Ireland and the South West. And it was here in Iona and then Lindisfarne that Christianity first came to the British Isles. The Wild Goose in Celtic Christianity is traditionally aligned to the Holy Spirit although it can’t actually be proved. It is said, “The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.” (John 3: 8). In Celtic tradition unlike the dove of peace, the wild goose fired up the mind and soul with song and dance and reveries of beauty. The Wild Goose is all about a spirit of adventure.

We hope Wild Goose Barn will live up to its name and be a place for coming together while offering a base for exploration and adventure. We’d like everyone who stays to receive a renewal of inner strength or ‘uplift’ as they gather with friends and family for adventures along our beautiful wild coastline.
To find out more or if you want to book a stay click here.

4 Mugs and a mix-up

If you’ve ever fallen out with someone over something pretty insignificant, you may sympathise with my weekend and smile.

The love of my life has been away a bit lately. Nothing unusual. It just means that there isn’t always time to fill him in on the little details of the previous week. Scanning through a bank statement he wondered about a larger than average amount spent at Laura Ashley. The largest item had turned out to be unsuitable and would be returned, but the other four I was very pleased with.
“I bought some mugs.” I announced.
“Mugs? For £18…?”
Yes, the four mugs did cost £18 in total, but they were in fact half price and had a further 20 per cent off in the sale. Why couldn’t he see they were a bargain?
“But we don’t need any more mugs…”
How can anyone have too may mugs? It was a lost cause – I thought. And these were particularly pretty ones. It wasn’t a decision I was going to regret, but we weren’t going to agree. Not that evening!

The weekend in Devon sped on and what with gardening, window cleaning and a swim in the sea. The mugs had almost been forgotten. We enjoyed a trip to the Dolphin pub and a take away fish and chips with our lovely new neighbours. Still, the mugs kept getting a little mention here and there.
“It would be good to buy a new x… but we can’t now because you’ve spent all the money on mugs…” You know the score.

The morning we were due to leave and just as the final bit of hoovering was being completed ready for our first holiday guests, the door slammed and someone emerged with a very dark look. Surely no mugs had been involved? Whatever it was – the news looked bleak.

The water meter for our house, which is on the main road two fields away, had been checked and it seemed either there was a leak or we were using an incredible amount of water. The lone private water pipe hidden beneath the field of wheat beside the barn suddenly seemed threatening. If it had sprung a leak there would be no way to fix it until after the harvest… What if there was no water for our guests? How would they find the leak? Would our insurance cover us? What if it happened again?  How much would it cost?
The journey home was grim. We were both convinced the previous reading two months earlier had been in the 500s, although we didn’t have it with us. The new one registered more than 700 and we felt sure we were clocking up a phenomenal reading. That amount of water was going to be very expensive. We might as well have been filling a swimming pool. Neither of us could see a happy outcome. I didn’t even mention the mugs.

A few hours later we arrived back home and began to unpack. As I reloaded the fridge a joyous face emerged round the kitchen door waving a piece of paper. He’d found the water bill with the last reading at 700 and something! Amazing! What a relief. Time for gin and tonics all round. Neither of us could believe how we’d got in such a mix up over our figures and convinced ourselves of the worst. Everything was looking rosy.

Finally it was time to show off the new mugs… after all what’s £18 between friends?

Sometimes all we need is a little perspective!


A visit to the Dolphin

I’m always a little wary about walking into a pub alone… silly I know, but it dates back to childhood and being told that nice girls didn’t go to pubs and definitely not on their own. However, tonight I decided to brave it.

The sun had been in and out and mostly in all day, but by about 6 o’clock it finally made up its mind and decided to stay. The fields all around our barn were bathed in that golden light that descends at the end of the day and on the horizon a deeper band of blue was beckoning me. I hadn’t been down to the sea since arriving a couple of days ago and decided with the tide up, it was time I paid it a visit.

It was almost 7pm by the time I set out for the half hour walk across the fields, through the village of straggling thatched cottages and past a ‘dangerous’ herd of cows (apparently they had chased my daughter a week or two earlier) and then down a path through the woods to the mouth of the river Erme. I reckoned it would still be light by the time I got home and I was right – just!

I had slid a £5 note into my pocket just in case I wanted a drink at the pub on the return journey… that is, if I was brave enough to go in on my own.

At the slipway onto the beach a young couple were walking barefoot across the sand and the sinking sun was glistening its rays across the rippling water of the incoming tide. Gentle rollers were crumbling onto the beach and the slate and rust coloured rocks were gilded with sunlight. I was pleased I had come down, even at the last hour. This was Devon at its most superb. After soaking up the scenery and talking to God about it all, a Fisherman arrived and then two canoeists, followed by a couple who perched on one of the rocks to watch the sun go down. It was time for me to head back before it got dark.

When I arrived in the village, I thought I deserved a drink. After all, I’d climbed the hill through the dusky wood and disturbed a dear and I’d boldly marched past the fearsome cows and all before supper.

Inside the pub was packed with diners and I shuffled my way round to the ‘locals end’ where two men had pulled up stools, one reading a paper the other engrossed in his phone. I recognised the barman from a previous visit and we chatted briefly until he plonked a welcome pint of cider on the bar in front of me. .. so far so good. No one had asked me to leave because I was a woman on my own.

A man with a ginger beard and a lumberjack shirt appeared from the side door and ordered a pint and I shuffled up not wanting to hog the bar. Then another older man with glasses jostled past and placed a plastic box on the bar beside me, while he struggled to remove a jumper. I stared at the box and then glanced round at the blackboard… ‘Fridays open mic night… fish Sundays… Mondays darts…’

I looked across at the man next to me and surprised myself by saying out loud, “Is it darts tonight?”

That was all it took… he smiled and asked if I was on holiday and I explained we’d recently moved in locally… all of a sudden the other man with his nose in the paper came and introduced himself and started chatting, then a taller man walked in who I had met at the pub once before. Miraculously I remembered his name and we began chatting about his visit to see his new granddaughter in the Midlands and then someone else was telling me about the church and the parish boundaries and another about what was going on next week and by the way, did I play darts?

I decided not to take up the offer of joining in the darts.
1. Because I had no money left to buy any drinks – although they all offered.
2. Because I am very bad at throwing – darts especially.

Walking back up the lane and the along the fields ‘home’ I was hungry but warm. I was warmed by the open friendship I had experienced in that short time in the pub. Never mind the most wonderful scenery, what made me feel most at home is the fact that I had been welcomed by some of the community and this summer I hope we will be making new friends and taking our first steps into life in Devon.

It turns out going to a pub on my own was the best thing I’ve done in a while!




The wrong pier

It had all been going swimmingly until the tuk-tuk driver dropped me at the Pier…

Finding myself in Bangkok last weekend, with one and half days to explore the world’s hottest city, I had decided against an organised tour. This was partly because I don’t like being organised and I also because I reckoned I could do this ‘city visit’ thing all by myself – after all I had an app and I was due an adventure.

Having found my way to Chatuchak market – Bangkok’s biggest weekend market – via the sky train, I entered the maze of more than 15,000 stalls. And it really was a maze. As I squeezed down the narrow passageway where the gaps between stalls were hardly wide enough for two people to pass, I soon lost my sense of direction and which way was out. Picking up a Hawaiian shirt which I couldn’t decide about, I realized I’d probably never find it again and so it was a case of buy it now or buy it somewhere else! After I’d exhausted the never-ending clothing section, I browsed around some of the crafts, while I took in the sizzle and scents of the food stalls, where everything was being tossed, fried and boiled under umbrellas in the heat of the sun.

Several hours later I left clutching a bag of bargains and feeling content but footsore.

I decided to head for the river next, vaguely aware there were sights to see and it might be a bit cooler. As I approached the peer I could see a number of boats of different sizes and sorts negotiating a passage between the bridge and the pier, with chugging engines and shouts reverberating under the concrete pillars. One was an oriental wooden boat with a curved roof, while others were more modern.

“You want boat trip lady?” A small man approached me.
“Am I too late?” I said, wondering if they had all finished because it was after 5pm – shopping had gone on longer than I’d planned!
He would fit me in, he said, for a sunset cruise up the river and around the smaller tributaries. I didn’t quite know what I’d let myself in for, and hoped it would be on one of the pretty coloured long boats, that looked a bit like gondolas with engines. After plenty of shouting and maneuverings with a giant engine and massive tiller, a long wooden boat with red and orange canopy and side panels approached the peer. It was completely empty and I was told to jump in quickly with urgent hand gestures from the man on the side. Seconds later, almost before I was seated, we were off with a roar of the engine.
“Sit in the middle!” the man at the pier shouted as the boat tipped and bounced through the water.








The little boat went very fast and although I’m not a fan of speedboats, this was fun. The bows of the boat slapped into the water with loud bang and spray rose up either side. I looked down at the polished wooden planks beneath me, hoping they wouldn’t split. Occasionally I was soaked, but I didn’t mind, I was hot. Pulling out my phone to take photos, I momentarily considered what would happen if we capsized and made a mental note to put my phone in my shoulder bag if I thought the boat was going over – after all it was waterproof and I could swim. It wasn’t until much later I noted the lifejackets decorating the seats… it felt a bit late to one on at that point!

We dodged other boats and barges with hoots and whistles and eventually turned off the main brown river to a series of even browner side streams, where we passed wooden houses on stilts that looked like they were about to slide into the murky waters beneath them. A group of boys fishing off a rickety pier waved at us and a small boy feeding fish with large orange pellets stared as we passed. I felt a bit like the Queen, waving serenely, all alone in the boat with garlands of bright flowers draped over the bow.

As we passed more and more dilapidated homes on the banks of the backwaters, I could see people preparing their evening meals, washing vegetables or just collapsed on a chair beside the river after a day at work. Skeletons of houses which had sunk into the water stood out like ragged spikes on inlets where even smaller long boats and crumbling vessels were moored. A gang of lads were draped over the wooden rails of a platform just above the water, all in swimming shorts, laughing as one of them hauled himself up a ladder dripping with water. I shivered at the thought of swimming in such grimy looking water. A giant water lizard (which I thought was a snake) and a shoal of catfish were the only wild life we spotted, but life in Bangkok’s waterways looked busy and the water was a welcome relief from the incessant heat of the city.

My first day exploring had been fun. I ate freshly cut mango in a bag from a street side stall and later enjoyed a long cold beer in little café near the guesthouse.

The next day I returned to the river and made my way from one glittering temple to the next, with my ‘hop on hop’ off river boat ticket. After soaking up as many gold statues as I could cope with, the last being the giant reclining Buddha, I decided to take my chances in a tuk-tuk instead of walking back to the Pier for my return boat trip.

The tuk-tuk driver suggested I go to another pier which would be quicker – it seemed to make sense. Happy to be back on solid ground after dodging taxis and cars at speed in the tiny tuk-tuk, I walked onto the pier where a handful of people were waiting. Eventually a blue flagged boat appeared and I walked down to the edge of the floating platform and watched it chug past without stopping.

Oh, you obviously have to flag them down to stop, I thought… Another boat appeared with an orange flag and dropped off passengers, but my ticket wasn’t valid apparently. Then a blue flagged boat appeared again and I held out my arm… thinking it must be like a ‘request bus stop’. The boat didn’t slow and the man on the back just shook his head as they slid past, just out of reach.

It was very hot, my feet were tired from three different temple visits in the heat of the sun, but it eventually dawned on me, that although this pier was marked on the boat’s map… it didn’t stop there. I had no choice but to walk to the next one. The riverside pavement came to an end after a few hundred yards and I began trudging my way through a maze of little streets knowing that if I kept turning right, eventually I must come to the one leading down to the next pier. There were no tourist here and the side streets were quiet. Several roads to the river led to dead ends or bike shops… then just as I was wondering how far I would have to walk I spotted the pier entrance.

When a blue flagged boat eventually arrived I was quite happy to sit and watch the world go by as it bobbed up the river from stop to stop. I would be doing a round trip and going all the way back to the bottom of the river… I thought. Unfortunately as the we approached the final pier where I was expecting the boat to turn around and head back, the guide announced this boat was not going back to where I could catch the sky train… they were stopping for lunch and we would have to get out here and wait for another boat.

It was almost half an hour later, after at least two orange flagged boats had come and gone, that a blue flag appeared on the horizon and I was heading back in the right direction.

As my eyes started to close and the sun was sliding towards the skyscrapers on the horizon, I realized I had spent quite a bit of the past 48 hours snaking up and down Bangkok’s brown river by boat. It wasn’t such a bad way to spend a weekend.

You can’t turn the clock back

I’ve watched a lot of films over the past 48 hours – five to be exact. All of them had their appeal, but only one of them has been haunting me. Now lying in a strange hotel room in Brisbane, when I should be catching up on sleep after flying half way around the world, flashbacks and snippets from the story keep flooding back… I suppose that means it was a ‘good’ film.

Crunched into an aeroplane seat for more than 24 hours, I found myself watching a string of movies. Faced with so much choice I picked:

  • a cartoon, because I like the music
  • a thriller because the story is clever
  • a comedy because I wanted to smile
  • a family film because I love sailing and the Lake District
  • and finally a film that I thought might be a sort of romantic drama… it wasn’t.

But it was this particular film that has kept me awake since I landed.

‘Manchester by the sea’ caught my eye a few weeks ago when I mused over the poster promoting the film on the station platform. There was a man standing by the water, with boats in the background looking at a girl. That’s a strange title, I’d thought, at the same time saying to myself, but Manchester’s not by the sea! This particular Manchester is a fishing town in America where the story is set. I won’t give away the tale, although it’s nothing complex or particularly mysterious. In fact I almost decided to stop it more than once because it felt quite slow and I wasn’t particularly enjoying it… it’s hard to enjoy watching someone suffer and becoming almost robotic with the pain that’s buried so deeply no one sees it.

When bad things happen and something or someone hurts us, it’s a natural defence to shut up tight like a shell and block out all the painful emotions so that we can’t be hurt anymore. Grief can do that to us and so can loss or rejection. Guilt can also tie us up in internal knots. But grief and guilt together seem to be a cocktail of emotions that have the potential to destroy someone.

I suppose no one would want to watch ‘Manchester by the sea’ if you told them it was all about guilt and grief – it wouldn’t sell cinema tickets. If you do watch it, you may not feel ‘good’, but you will be made to think. The very ordinariness of the story, the day-to-day plain boringness of life from fixing blocked toilets to shopping for food and fishing, is part of what gives this film its power. It’s an honest, down to earth, depiction of what happens to someone after a terrible tragedy…no more than that, after a devastating accident.

We never really know what’s going on behind someone’s expression – their real thoughts and feelings can be completely hidden. And the film shows that the way someone reacts, whether it’s blanking out emotion or picking a fight, can mask internal battles raging just below the surface. It’s what the director has left out that is most effective. The dialogue is sometimes sparse and there are those very real moments when people speak over one another and stumble in trying to say what they mean. There are awkward silences and clumsy hugs for the moments when there simply are no words.

If you do go and watch it – be prepared to be haunted by the face of a man who wishes every day he could turn back the clock and do one thing differently.


turning pages

A pair of white gloves was draped beside an open picture book. I didn’t notice them at first because my eyes were drawn to the startling colours on the satin pages. I slid my hand across the expanse of paper, enjoying the silky texture beneath my skin. It was a giant picture book laid out on a stand in the hallway of the old house and there were no words. As my fingers twitched at the corner of the page, I paused – what if it ripped?

The other night we were invited for a meal at the home of a couple we had met briefly a few weeks earlier. We’d been welcomed in warmly and had sat by the open fire sipping Prosecco with brandy and nibbling canapés. It had been time to move to the dining room, and as I followed one of our hosts along the passageway I hadn’t been able to resist a closer look at the book. Each leaf was about the size of a television screen.

The gentle voice of the owner flowed over my head as she noted my interest and told me something about the origins of the book, which I instantly forgot. “There are gloves to turn the pages,” she said. That was all I heard. I stepped back and smiled. I thought she’d been joking. But no, there really was a pair of white gloves on the dark wood table beside the book. I realised my ‘crime’ and snatched my hand away. I’d dared to touch the book without the gloves.

During the meal and in the few days since I’ve wanted to go back to that hallway and slip on the gloves to turn those giant pages, soak in the colours and images and find out what the book was about. It was obviously very precious. So precious that it couldn’t really be touched.

I have some precious books of my own. But they come in two kinds. Some are precious in a valuable and historic sense, which means you have to be careful when you handle them and they must be wrapped away and stored in a safe place. Others are precious in another way. They are my favourite books from childhood and so well read they have become torn, dog-eared and stained. My all time special – More adventures of Caroline – has no cover at all, just the inside pages are left. I haven’t a clue what happened to the cover.

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When we love something very much it inevitably gets used, moved around, packed and unpacked and so it gets worn and sometimes damaged. (Readers of the Velveteen Rabbit will have heard this before!)

And that’s because when we’re attracted to something we want to touch it – we reach out our hands to see what it feels like. It’s an important part of the experience and so it seems alien to put on gloves to turn a page. Touch is one of the reasons I prefer reading a book to a Kindle. I like the feeling of turning pages and in the same way I enjoy flicking through magazines or rustling a newspaper. Touch connects me with objects, ideas and stories in a way that just looking doesn’t cut it.

So here is my Advent thought… God knew we needed someone who could physically be there, who could touch us and hold us, demonstrating love in a way we could feel it.

Isn’t that what we’re all waiting for?

#adventword #touch