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Slightly Foxed Editors’ Diary | 21 August 2020

Slightly Foxed Editors’ Diary • 21 August 2020

Notes from Town and Country

From Hazel, Highbury, 21 August 2020

It’s true that I’m writing this in Highbury, but mentally I’m in Suffolk. We came back yesterday from a week’s family holiday, and after months of being confined to London and seeing very little of our grandchildren, I’m finding it hard to make the transition. In my mind’s eye I’m still on the harbourside at Walberswick grasping the back of my 7-year-old grandson’s T-shirt as he crouches above the water, his small body tense with excitement as he strains over the edge to see if there’s anything in the net he’s dangling into the murky depths below. ‘Shall I pull it up now?’ ‘Well, wait a little bit, you’ve only just looked.’ ‘But there’s something in it. I know there is. I can see it!’ We peer down. Something seems to be moving, and yes! Oh joy! ‘Granny, it’s a crab! It’s huge. It’s gigantic. Quick, come and look!’ We all cluster round as he pulls the net up to reveal a small crab. It’s certainly large compared to the others in our bucket of seawater, which are so tiny they’re almost transparent. (‘Be careful not to hurt it,’ I hear from our granddaughter, aged 9.) The bait smells disgusting, and we’ll be throwing them all back soon, but for the line-up along the quay – Dads included – this is a competitive business. For the children it’s heaven. In a little while we’ll walk back along the sandy turf to the motor boat which plies the few yards from one side of the creek to the other, to stop off at the Sole Bay Fish Company, where you can sit outside and eat crab or lobster or any other kind of fish that takes your fancy. The pleasant thing about this waterfront is that it’s still a working place, with crab and lobster pots piled up between the wooden sheds, though when the harbour began silting up in the seventeenth century the herring industry gradually died, and the huge prosperity it had created departed with it.

Crabbing | Slightly Foxed Editors’ Diary

Unfailingly we wake to skies of unbroken blue, so on other days it’s buckets and spades into the car and off through the lanes to Southwold, along the pretty little main street, now in these anxious days organized into an efficient pedestrian one-way system, up one pavement and down the other, through the seaside terraces set back behind open greens to the car park near the beach. Then up and over the dunes to the golden stretch of sand so broad and long it looks as if there’s hardly anyone else on it. ‘Thank goodness there’s a breeze!’ we gasp as we dump our things and pick our way gingerly on soft town feet over the pebbly bits to where the waves are licking the shoreline, and out in the distance a white ship is making its way slowly across the far horizon.

With temperatures rising into the mid-30s, it sometimes feels too hot even for the beach and we go blackberrying along the shady lane beside the cottage that leads up on to heathland where rabbits scurry about among the bracken. We’re staying on the outskirts of a village a few miles inland from Southwold, and one morning we go down to the church to see the unique 500-year-old painting known as the Wenhaston Doom. This has survived because it was painted on wood rather than on a wall, and whitewashed over as being suspiciously Catholic during the reign of the Protestant king Edward VI. In 1892, during the usual Victorian ‘improvements’, it was dumped out in the churchyard where overnight rain dissolved the whitewash to reveal the painting beneath.

The Doom would originally have been above the rood screen between the chancel and the nave, but now it’s directly opposite the entrance, where a nice lady in mask and rubber gloves welcomes us in. We all stand silently in front of this medieval vision of the Day of Judgement, somewhat overcome. Christ presides, seated on a rainbow, while below the Archangel Michael is busy weighing the souls of the just and the unjust, watched by a fabulously evil-looking Satan. To their left naked sinners are led cringing into Hell by horned demons and to their right four of the just stand waiting complacently with St Peter who holds the golden keys to Heaven. The children are impressed by the uncompromising message, though the weighing of souls causes initial confusion.

‘Do you believe in Hell?’ our grandson wants to know.

‘Well, no. Not that kind anyway.’

‘But a lot of people still do,’ interposes our granddaughter.

‘Why do they?’ (our grandson again).

‘Um. It’s a bit complicated.’

Perhaps it’s time for lunch.

The Wenhaston Doom | Slightly Foxed Editors’ Diary

From Gail, Manaton, 21 August 2020

After months of peace and quiet down here, life has speeded up. The lanes are full of Lycra-clad cyclists and there have been long tailbacks on the M5 as families head south for a staycation in the West Country, our own children and grandchildren among them. Suddenly the kitchen floor is awash with Lego, and a ‘house’ made out of a large cardboard box, and assorted dressing-up clothes, while outside the water-filled granite trough has become the scene of a naval battle and the grass banks under the cherry tree are full of soldiers defending their positions.

My reading habits have changed too. For the moment I’ve given up trying to read Hilary Mantel’s wonderful third volume in her trilogy about Thomas Cromwell, The Mirror and the Light. The house is just too noisy to concentrate. She’s been supplanted by Hairy Maclary from Donaldson’s Dairy and Captain Pugwash and the adventures of Percy the Park Keeper. Meanwhile my husband has nobly been trying to read the Tintin books to a grandson – reading cartoon books aloud requires the patience of Job.

The office dogs, Chudleigh and Stanley, have mixed feelings about the arrival of small people. Their diet has suddenly become much more varied as they sit beneath the kitchen table, waiting for the inevitable fallout from meals, but they also run the risk of being hugged to death, sat upon or chased round the house.

Impossible, amidst all this, to get any work done. My mind is on what’s in the larder or fridge, whether there are enough runner beans for nine hungry people, and what to cook for supper. We’re a long way from a shop so planning in advance is vital – no popping out for an extra onion or pot of cream.

Veg patch aside, though, there is one source of food which manages to combine walking the dogs, entertaining the children and providing pudding – blackberrying! So off we set with a bag full of freezer boxes. Of course the children eat at least as many blackberries as they put in their boxes, and of course Chudleigh (who has learnt the art of helping himself from the lower bushes) gets caught up in brambles and has to be released, but still, an hour or so later we’re heading for home with five or six pounds of fruit and much talk about how to make the best apple and blackberry crumble.

Clare Leighton, Blackberries | Slightly Foxed Editors’ Diary

Clare Leighton


Now the family have left and I’m back at my desk, checking the proofs of our winter Slightly Foxed Edition, Laurie Lee’s incomparable Cider with Rosie. His memoir of growing up in a Cotswold village just after the First World War records the end of a particular way of life but I did stop in my tracks on reading this:

Our village outings were both sacred and secular, and were also far between. One seldom, in those days, strayed beyond the parish boundaries, except for the annual Choir Outing. In the meantime we had our own tribal wanderings, unsanctified though they were, when a sudden fine morning would send us forth in families for a day’s nutting or blackberrying. So up we’d go to the wilder end of the valley, to the bramble-entangled Scrubs, bearing baskets and buckets and flasks of cold tea, like a file of foraging Indians. Blackberries clustered against the sky, heavy and dark as thunder, which we plucked and gobbled, hour after hour, lips purple, hands stained to the wrists. Or later, mushrooms, appearing like manna, buttoning the shaggy grass, found in the mists of September mornings with the wet threads of spiders on them.

Our mushrooms have yet to appear but it won’t be long. Yesterday I saw my first shaggy inkcap.

Shaggy inkcap | Slightly Foxed Editors’ Diary

Comments & Reviews

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  1. Chris Wheeler says:

    Lovely, lovely notes from both editors today, reflecting my life for the last couple of weeks so accurately. Our visitors came down to us in Devon from London, after isolating for two weeks, so as to ensure they just brought themselves and nothing else down from London. The joy in meeting our new grandson (born 2/4) for the first time, and seeing his slightly older big brother (3 next month) for the first time since Christmas was amazing! The house was strewn with toys from dawn to dusk, and there was always a story that needed reading, or a knee to be sat upon, and we loved it. We are very lucky that we have two very precious granddaughters living relatively close for weekly hugs and gifts of hand drawn pictures, and sometimes surprise cakes made by the girls (6 1/2 & 8 3/4).

    We didn’t go out much, sadly the beaches here were inundated, and none of us felt comfortable, but there were always games to play in the garden, and plums, figs and vegetables to pick. The wonder of a nearly 3 year old when he helped to dig up a carrot for dinner, and then ate it was superb. The house is now very quiet, but nearly back to ‘normal’ – whatever that is, but part of me misses that lovely mess!

  2. Virginia Bunker says:

    Dear Editors, (as a new subscriber, I do not have your names on the tip of my tongue yet!) I just wanted to write to let you know that – as an British person “offshore” in the USA – how much I look forward to receiving Slightly Foxed and also the blogs! I appreciate & love your combination of wide reading + appreciation of the byways of literature. I love your eclectic attitude. In this time of Coronavirus all this this is especially welcome!

    I live near the city of Charleston in South Carolina, USA with my American husband. We also have a very small summer place in Wales, but have been unable to go there this year . . . So – Slightly Foxed – especially the Editors Diary in today’s newsletter – has served to connect me with home and the English countryside . . . (It has also made me a little homesick!)

    Thank you very much for all you achieve, especially in these times of Virus, Smart Phone reading, instant gratification, and internet browsing! Thank you for the connection with home! Best wishes to you all, Virginia.

  3. Alan Bradley says:

    I’m delighted that other people still go blackberrying. I always enjoyed the outings as a child and then the smell of blackberry jam cooking the next day. My grandmother used to keep the froth from the jam in a saucer and it was a treat to be allowed to spoon it up once it cooled down. I never see any sign that anyone else has been harvesting the hedgerows and thought I might be the last survivor!
    I also recommend elderberries for a sorbet, though the sieving is a bit tedious, but necessary.

  4. Patricia Oley says:

    Once again just to thank you for your lovely news letters. I do look forward to reading them and getting to know more about you all. I begin to feel Slightly Foxed and all of you as a sort of extended family including the dogs of course. Also love your podcasts and particularly enjoyed the last one. I loved Roger Deakins books and also have read several books by Robert Macfarlane. I think they are magical so will be reading some of the books recommended in your latest podcast. Best wishes to you all and thank you.

  5. Caroline Lowton says:

    I so enjoyed your editorials about lockdown holidays with the family – it echoes what’s going on in my own and my family’s households, and also brings back many happy memories as my children were growing up! Blackberrying made me smile, our dog loves picking blackberries too!

  6. Robin says:

    Lovely entries, you two. Hazel’s reminds me very much of a book I recently read that would make a lovely Slightly Foxed edition, The Fortnight in September by R.C. Sherriff (better known for writing the screenplays to Goodbye, Mr. Chips and Dambusters). It is a forensically detailed recounting of one lower middle class English family’s holiday in Bognor Regis in 1931. It is every bit as dull and uneventful and delightful and perfect as it sounds.

  7. Rosalind Pearson says:

    Thank you, Gail and Hazel, for such exquisite descriptions from wherever you are. I was taken right back to my childhood with the looking for blackberries, the expedition across fields to wonderful impenetrable hedgerows that were then still in evidence . . . I remember the stains on my hands, the taste of the blackberries, the apple and blackberry crumble my mother would make afterwards. Plus the blackberry jelly . . .

    I also remember happily catching crabs with bacon rind attached to a string, in the muddy Blackwell River estuary, we were intermittently successful and competition was fierce.

    I am in Mexico where lockdown continues and contagion is awful and so your descriptions are very nostalgic for me but also, and more importantly, sustaining. It’s good to know that people still do what I used to do all that time ago. In my case, in the depths of agricultural Essex, near Colchester.

  8. Sheila Waters says:

    Just love reading the notes from the Editors. They keep alive the wonderful positive views of town & country that is to be found in Britain and lets us know there is another side to the grey accounts that seems to arrive here in NZ in the form of ‘news’.

  9. Nina Holton says:

    How lovely to read Gail’s description of her family’s visit – and how fascinating to learn she possesses a copy of Hairy Maclary From Donaldson’s Dairy, a book owned by one of my grandchildren! 🙂 Seven-year old Elena has a copy of it on her bookshelf, which she’s insisted I read to her about once a month for the last four years (even though she’s perfectly capable of reading it by herself). Sigh. I will be so delighted when our physical distancing is over for good, so I can read it to her again.

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