Digital Champion

Having spent a lot of my working life helping students to access and use electronic information, I was aware through the press and social media that many adults in our community lack basic digital skills. So I volunteered as a Digital Champion in Dorset.

There are indeed a lot of people who need help in our increasingly digital world. In Dorset alone there are 150,000 adults with no digital skills, this number includes 70,000 adults of working age,  and 41% of over 60s are offline.

The people I’ve seen so far are people who have been given a device such as a tablet or phone and have no idea how to use them. For some people the partner that has always done the online banking etc has passed away and left them dealing not only with the pain of bereavement but also a feeling of helplessness as they struggle with digital resources.

Many people are, rightly, wary of being scammed and this fear inhibits their use of the internet. So helping people use resources safely is another element of the role.

Online shopping, managing resources, Universal Credit, keeping in touch with friends and family, selling a lawnmower, the list of questions Digital Champions are asked are varied and challenging. I wonder what I’ll be asked when I go to one of the public access PCs in Verwood Library for my next Digital Champion session?



China Through the Lens of John Thomson

The Russell Cotes Museum in Bournemouth is currently hosting an exhibition of photographs taken by the Scottish born photographer John Thomson between 1868 and 1872. The photographs in the exhibition are a moving and evocative record of his travels in China, a country that was scarcely known to Europeans in the 19th century. He travelled through extremely challenging countryside and conditions, carrying with him the heavy and unwieldy equipment, as well as the chemicals, needed to take photographs at the time. It is amazing that the glass negatives survived not only travelling around China, the long journey back to the UK and then the extensive lectures and talks Thomson gave on his return. They are now in the care of the Wellcome Institute.

His pictures of the people are simply stunning. He persuaded an Amoy woman to allow him to photograph her bound foot, unwrapped to allow him to contrast it with the foot of an Amoy woman whose feet had not been bound. There is a portrait of a Manchu bride, maybe 14 or 15 years old, elaborately dressed and decorated. But underneath the white paste make-up, and allowing for some distortion in the glass negative, it looks as if her face is bruised. There is a picture of a recently married couple. They are clearly uncomfortable, not wanting to look at each other or the photographer. The caption explains that it was culturally inappropriate for the couple to face one another.  Thomson admits that he had to pay ‘handsomely’ for these images.

In contrast, there are photos of wealthy merchants, proudly surrounded by servants, sitting outside substantial houses. There is a man proudly holding a fine camel and an old Mongol woman with her mule.

As well as portraits there are images of places. I was fascinated by the 14th century Buddhist arch at Juyon Guan, the interior is sculpted with inscriptions in six languages and on the inner arches are the four heavenly kings. The arch outside is framed  with a Garuda bird; the outside and inside is covered with inscriptions and symbols. I liked the photograph of stone animals guarding the approaches to the Ming Tombs, approached through an avenue of pairs of animals carved from limestone.  There are two pairs of each animal, while one pair stands the other pair squat and they are supposed to change over at midnight. Sadly Thomson did not record the changeover.

Alongside the photos are objects collected by Merton and Annie Russell Cotes during their travels in China during the 1880s. These objects include tiny shoes for bound feet, delicate porcelain, and intricate jade carvings.

As a writer I found these photographs and associated objects inspiring, a glimpse into a world that has either disappeared or been sanitised for the 21st century. The exhibition is on until June 2019, I expect I’ll go again. But meanwhile I’ve got the book!




Coincidences and Virgins’ Crowns

It seems to me that a lot of my writing is about coincidences, collisions and near-misses. A recent visit to a small church in Hampshire made me think about this and the many different ways that give me some sort of connection to this church. Some of these connections are tenuous to say the least

The church in question is St Mary the Virgin at Abbotts Ann, a pretty village just outside of Andover. My parents-in-law (I don’t think I’ve ever referred to them in that way before!) lived there.

Although they were not church goers, they loved the church and its beautiful setting; their names are recorded on a memorial stone in the peaceful churchyard.


Some forty years ago I went to St Mary’s for the wedding of my sister-in-law on a bitingly cold March day. A couple of years later I was working for a small company in Bath and one of my colleagues was the son of the Rector who had conducted the ceremony. Going further back in time, I had an uncle who played the organ in St Mary’s, I believe in the 1920s. The poor man had a heart attack and died while playing the organ at the church in Goodworth Clatford, just a few miles away. Recently I was talking to a friend in Verwood who told me that her cousin is (probably was) a churchwarden at St Mary’s. When she told me his name I recognised it as someone my in-laws knew.

Enough of all this! Of much more interest in this Grade 1 listed building is the continuation of the medieval tradition of Virgins’ Crowns or Maidens’ Garlands. I’m going to quote from the informative leaflet that I picked up in the church on my recent visit.

The Virgins’ Crowns were made of black and white paper rosettes on a framework of hazel wood with the collar, gloves or handkerchief of someone recently deceased. Relatives could request a garland if the dead maiden had been born, baptized and lived in the parish and dies unmarried. Males qualified if they met the criteria.

Many of the males were boys, but not all. I wonder whether it was disease or accident that caused the deaths of Robert and James Perrett.  Maybe brothers or cousins, they were aged 30 and 33 respectively when they died in 1842.

The last funeral with garlands took place in 1973. I wonder if there will be any more. Changing social mores, and vastly increased mobility have probably spelt the end of this tradition. Meanwhile the crowns hang in varying states of decrepitude, custom does not allow any that fall to be replaced. In this picture you can see the crown of Lily Annetts, whose funeral was in 1973.

Virgin crowns 2

There is more information about this custom on the church’s excellent website.

So to get back to where this blog post started, how important are coincidences in my writing? There are times when they are just too remote to be plausible and run the risk of undermining what could be a good plot. Conversely a chance meeting, an overheard conversation, the discovery of a lost acquaintance or relation, even an unusual surname or forename that links people and places can inspire me. Not sure if I can use any of my fragile connections to this church, but it was a great place to visit.


Crab Apples

The last few days have been a little bit warmer, and we have seen some sun. I noticed that our crab apple tree is at last producing some buds, and this reminded me of some words I wrote a few years ago about this tree, and the wonderful fruit it produces.

Springtime buds erupt into flowers, pink and white dancers in a chilly wind. In summer green leaves shade the growing fruits from sun. Shortening days trigger the transition, bright red apples shine through yellow and orange leaves. Making crab apple jelly is not difficult but it takes time and care to ensure it is clear and set. On cold winter days it melts; jewel-coloured, fragrant and redolent of last year’s bounty, into freshly made toast.

To remind myself that warmer days are not far away, and the buds on the tree are a promise of fruits to come, I found a picture of some of our crab apples taken last summer.



Zog post: Queen Geraldine of Albania


Queen Geraldina

Geraldine Apponyi on her wedding day to King Zog of Albania in April 1938.

Geraldine was Queen of Albania for just a year before her husband King Zog was deposed in 1939. In many ways she was a footnote to the history of the shake-up of Europe, briefly Queen of the final bastion of the Ottoman Empire.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        During  the last couple of weeks, aided by the snow I was able to read a bit more than I usually do and I got through two fascinating books. In both of them there were short references to Geraldine. I was intrigued.

I’ll start with The Accursed Mountains by Robert Carver. I really enjoyed this book and found it quite unputdownable. Published in 1998, it recounts a journey through Albania made by Carver in 1996, at the end of the brief hiatus between the collapse of communism and the civil war of 1997. There are brief, but interesting, references to Geraldine. Hitler sent a duplicate of his own car, a scarlet super-charged open Mercedes Benz, as a wedding present. A year later when they went into exile following the Italian invasion, they made in Carver’s words ‘a royal refugee’s progress through eastern Europe’ in this car with its white leather seats. At one point they were dive-bombed by German planes but Zog refused to leave the car believing that the pilots would not dare to fire on the Führer’s car. What Geraldine and her new born son, Crown Prince Leka, did while this was happening isn’t mentioned.

Eventually the King and his family arrived in London. They had escaped from Tirana with the Bulgari and Cartier jewels that had been Zog’s wedding present to Geraldine. He had also given her a miniaturised gold plated pistol. They also took strong boxes containing gold napoleon coins. Initially the royal family stayed at the Ritz but their money ran out and after the war they moved to Egypt before making their way eventually to South Africa, leaving a trail of bad debts.

To my surprise Geraldine made a another brief appearance in A Constant Heart, the War Diaries of Maud Russell 1938-1945. I bought this at Maud Russell’s home at Mottisfont, now a National Trust Property, where I went a few weeks ago to see an exhibition of Heath Robinson paintings. Though nothing to do with Queen Geraldine, this exhibition is well worth a visit.

A Constant Heart is a fascinating read. Maud was in contact with many writers, (she was almost certainly Ian Fleming’s lover), artists (and certainly Boris Anrep’s lover), musicians and politicians. Many influential people stayed at Mottisfont before, during and after WW2.

The Geraldine connection to the Russell family is through Maud’s sister Kitty who was married to a Hungarian, Count Anton Apponyi, who was related to Geraldine. After the royal entourage left the Ritz, the family Zog lived in Buckinghamshire until the end of the war. Maud Russell’s diary tells us that in January 1943 Geraldine and Maud were the chief Godmothers to Kitty Apponyi’s grandson, Anthony Stephen Michael. Maud informs us, ‘It wore the christening robe we had all been christened in and which comes from Mama’s family.’ This wartime christening took place in a ‘little house in Hampton Court Road’. I wasn’t at all sure what Maud, and certainly Geraldine, would have classed as a ‘little house’!

The only other reference to Geraldine is the help given to her by Maud’s sister. Kitty Apponyi worked for the Red Cross, helping people displaced by the war and it would seem from the reference in Maud’s book that the fugitive family of Zog were among those she helped.

This is all a bit sketchy, two books with brief, almost passing, reference to the first and only Queen of Albania. Geraldine died in 2002, in a military hospital in Tirana; she had been allowed back into the country a few months before she died. But I suppose that as a writer it is these odd coincidences, the serendipity, that cajoles and inspires me.

Verwood Pottery

My most treasured possession is a Verwood jug, or pitcher. Probably made during the early 20th century it stands about 36 cm high and has the low slung, bellied shape that is typical of the type. This jug was given to my parents in about 1960 by an elderly neighbour. She in turn had been given it by a friend of hers, who lived in Bournemouth. My parents always referred to the jug by the name of the original owner, Miss Metzgar.


The pottery industry in Verwood has a long history. Clay from the area around what is now Verwood was used in Roman potteries that were scattered around Hampshire. The sandy soil in the Verwood area lies above a layer of clay, and this layer rises to just below the surface as the ground undulates. This makes extraction relatively easy and it is thought that the industry became established in a number of sites across the East Dorset heathland during the 11th and 12th centuries.

The pottery produced was simple and practical; earthenware jugs and bowls for everyday use. Some more unusual vessels were made , for example a jug with a handle on both sides of the neck to allow the container to be tied around the waist or slung across the shoulder.  These were known as ‘costrels’ or ‘Dorset owls’, and were used to carry liquids, perhaps cold tea, beer or cider as refreshment in the fields. Posy bowls, flower pots and vases as well as commission pieces were also produced. As can be seen in the picture of my pitcher above, some pieces were partially glazed. Others were fully glazed and a few were decorated. Today the most valuable are the decorated items, and they are the most rare. There are examples of Verwood pottery in many places including Salisbury museum, Poole Museum, the Priests House Museum in Wimborne and also in the Heathland Heritage Centre in Verwood. This is on the site of the last working pottery, Crossroads Pottery, that closed in 1952 and it is opposite our house.

Early in 2017 we visited Lincoln where we found an artisan pottery on Steep Hill. We mentioned that we came from Verwood. The potter said ‘I’ve got a Verwood pot!’ and to our surprise he delved through storage cupboards before emerging triumphantly with a beautiful Verwood bowl. He was intrigued to learn where we lived and our proximity to the last pottery, and also that during redevelopment of the pottery site a few years ago we were able to ‘liberate’ a few shards from the building debris.

The Crossroads Pottery the last of the businesses, but in its heyday there were potteries all over the area. Most of them have vanished completely, while some survive as mentions in Ordnance Survey maps and the records of the Dorset Natural History and Archaeological Society.

Until recently we had friends who lived in what had been a pottery until about 1906. The house and the garden are now ‘Scheduled monuments’ which meant that they were unable to alter the building or even to dig most of the garden. This was to protect a kiln mound, 20 metres in diameter and 3 metres high. They were allowed to mow the grass, so most of the garden including the mound was laid to lawn. There are known pottery sites under developments such as Black Hill in Verwood, and probably the remains of others are hidden under houses, roads and industrial sites across the area.

Here is a short film made in 1912 showing the potters at work in the Crossroads pottery.