Thursday, 31 December 2009

Christmas Day in the Morning

I saw three ships.
I opened the curtains and there they were -- on Christmas Day in the Morning at Druidstone. This pic might need a magnifier to see them, but they're there.

A perfect morning, a million miles from anywhere, with nothing more to do but contemplate the lunch menu and a stroll along the cliff top - or see if the tide was out far enough for a walk along the Newgale sands and watch the surfers - that is if there were any waves of the right height and strength coming in. At this time in the morning though, all looked calm and bright.

Last night the dining room had been packed. Not just with guests, but all the locals - people from Haverfordwest and many of the small villages around had gathered for the annual Carols-mince pies-and mulled-wine event. We sang our way through 27 traditional carols with ALL THE VERSES. I found the simultaneous swallowing and singing more difficult than normal, possibly because the lumps in my throat were not only caused by pastry crumbs, but arose from an unexpected sense of awe and magic.

In all the years I have taken part in this kind of
seasonal tradition, I don't think I have ever been so moved. The man on my left, a real Welsh baritone, brought the memories flooding back form childhood. Crammed into our small parlour, standing round the piano, we'd sing out hearts out in the very same manner. My father's voice, a baritone himself, gave a deep, melodious vibrato backing to hold us all together.

When I'd sung in those days, a school girl at my father's elbow and then a student at the piano, I'd contributed a treble descant. Now, decades later, with a Welsh baritone this time by my side I was surprised at how my voice had descended into the lower register parts which my father had once sung. I was also hearing the words as if for the first time; appreciating as never before the language with its descriptions of sparkling silences, of awesome starlight and the crystalline calm of a winter's night. Well known carols now coming alive, spinning their stories, depicting a past when Christmas was indeed a magical and spirit-filled occasion of bitter cold and loud lament. 'Sire,' pleads the page, 'the night grows darker now and the wind blows stronger. Fails my heart I know not how, I can go no-longer.' Then Wenseslas' voice comes in, 'Mark my footsteps good my page, tread thou in them boldly, thou wilt find the winter's rage, freeze thy blood less coldly.' And then the miracle, springing green from the place where his feet have trod, proclaims the act of loving kindness the two have wrought in the teeth of all that the rude winds could throw at them blesses both giver and he who receives equally.

And so to the feasting.

The most fantastic Christmas meal ever. Plate after plate, course after course, each as wonderfully conceived and presented as the one before. Staff from the kitchen and table servers joining us at intervals throughout the meal so we could exchange recipes and swap tit-bits of personal stories.

Here, on right, Jane presiding over the turkey carving.

Boxing Day morning, view from the window, the sea showing signs of the gale which was making its way across the Atlantic, and which hit us with some force during the night. Brrrr... Our bedroom overlooking the ocean felt like being on board some rather antique sailing ship. Rugs lifting off floor and curtails blowing to and fro all to an accompaniment of lightning flashings and a great deal of rude lamenting.

Morning after the storm the day broke cold and
crisp with blue skies again. Come nightime, the
temperatures dropped rapidly and we set up Ellis' our middle granddaughter's new, state of the art, telescope on the grass on top of the cliff. Mark computerised it to point right at the moon. A completely astonishing sight! Brilliant sliver-white light with mountains and craters clear and crisp and very mysterious. a bit of refocusing and there was the 'near by' Jupiter and her moons. This time the brilliant silver-white was shimmering with moving bands of jewel colours. It was perishing cold standing there, glittering frost forming under foot, it was hard to keep my balance on the sloping ground and some of the shimmering must have been due to me shivering. So, a quick dash for the cottage in the hotel grounds where Mark, Sandhya and the girls were staying. Finally several instalments of the U.S comedy 'Curb Your Enthusiasm', accompanied by glasses of a classy wine plus occasional dips into the Xmas choX boX before we grandparents retired to the big house for the rest of the night.

Sunday, 20 December 2009


Waking up and seeing the garden transformed by snow sends me looking back - it always snowed at Christmas in days of yore when I was a teenager - Honest, it did! Midnight on Christmas Eve meant hot mince pies and warm fruity non-alcho drinks after an hour or two's walking the sparkling pavements, stopping off at the doorsteps of our Methodist aunts, uncles and cousins who lived around this Shiregreen district of Sheffield. At each house we'd give a hearty rendition of Once in David's, Silent Night, or Come All Ye to the accompaniment of well shaken collecting tins. The heartiness and the vigourousness of the shaking all helped to keep us warm, and besides the hint worked most times, and thus encouraged we'd proceed to the next port of call, before finally ending up at Ted Wragg's the choirmaster's house for well-earned refreshments. Then back home with our chillblanes to H W Bs and hang up stockings in icy bedrooms.

And of course there were Yorkshire carols too.

On the run-up to Christmas the custom for many was to gather in local pubs and inns within the City for a good old sing song. But even better was to journey further out. With my father and a few friends we'd set off in the car, on snow chains, making sure the shovels and sacks in the boot were at the ready to dig us out of drifts and provide a good grip on icy patches. We'd zigg-zagg our way cautiously up to Bolsterstone, a village high in the Pennines just outside Sheffield. The pub lights would be blazing, but before entering into the warm beery atmosphere we would stop to inspect the village stocks, a remnant of an even more distant past. The brass band would be tuning up and orders taken. None of your swanky church hymns here, the mood was merry and ready for a full-on vocal 'let's wake up the village' Hail Smiling Morn, Smiling Morn, Smiling Morn followed by While Shepherds Watched bellowed out to the much older folk tune of Ilkley Moor. Sad to say I've forgotten many of the other old Yorkshire carols now, some of them only known in and around these outer villages, but heartened to hear on the radio only this week that they are being rediscovered and broadcast. Anyone remember, There's A Song for a Time when the Sweet Bells Chime for the Rich and the Poor to pray. Oh that Joyful morn when Christ was born. Oh that Joyful Christmas Day?

Carols belonged to the people. They came from a very ancient tradition, possibly pre-Christian. Round dances (Carole) along with hearty celebratory singing, performed in the winter season and maybe around crackling out-door fires where roastings and feastings were carried on, then later gradually incorporating Christmas themes.

Possibly though, the most memorable ritual of the Season was the annual trip to Bellvue Zoo Manchester. But not like you imagine. First we'd congregate outside the Sheffield City Hall, piling the whole of the Philharmonic Choir plus instruments and assorted members of the fan club, (wives, children, parents,) into a fleet of coaches. Then away we'd go across the Pennines to Manchester. Meanwhile a similar convoy would be crossing over from Huddersfield, the two fleets converging on Bellvue. Finally, all assembled, we'd be met by Sir John Barberolli and his Halle orchestra and choir to give the performance of the year, Handel's Messiah, in the great concert hall to the delight of the giraffes and baboons, and an audience of musically discerning humans. Performance over, the best was yet to be; The Bean Feast. Long tables draped in crisp white cloth and decorated with silver bells and holly displayed the Christmas Tea.

I seem to remember it all getting a bit out of hand towards the end after everyone, big-name soloists, Isabelle Bailey, Cathline Ferrier, and simple citizen alike, had toasted and teased and congratulated each other a few times. Barberolli climbed onto the table and strode down the middle waving his baton, glass in other hand, while his feet squashed and squished the left-over mince pies and jellies. I think the chimps had already been fed by that time and put themselves to bed.