Thursday, 30 April 2009

Food for the table .. seeds from under stones!

Dear Mr Postman .. thank you for coming today - and I see your letter tells us how important 'posting' became in the early days of exploration .. my mother will be really interested as she loves gardening and was an excellent cook ..

The Portuguese and Spanish were the early explorers, before the ingenuity of the French, English and Dutch started to take over and they were able with their new inventions to travel ever further round the world .. see my previous posts The Ages of Exploration. In the Middle Ages as settlements grew up, herbs and plants started to be cultivated and understood .. so that those settlements could be sustained through the growth of their own produce and the domestication of animals for food, power and transport.

After 1492, a global exchange of previously local crops and livestock breeds occurred. Key crops involved in this exchange included the tomato, maize, potato, cocoa and tobacco going from the New World to the Old, and several varieties of wheat, spices, coffee, and sugar cane going from the Old World to the New.

The most important animal exportation from the Old World to the New were those of the horse and dog (dogs were already present in the pre-Columbian Americas but not in the numbers and breeds suited to farm work). Although not usually food animals, the horse (including donkeys and ponies) and dog quickly filled essential production roles on western hemisphere farms.

By the middle of the 1600s the Dutch were the leaders in trade around the tip of Africa and had opened up trading routes to the Dutch East Indies and needed a place where they could restock their ships on the way through. The great Dutch maritime and trading company, popularly known as VOC (Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie) despatched a party of officials to the Cape under the direction of jan van Riebeeck with orders to establish a revictualling station for passing ships.

Within 14 days of their arrival these early settlers had laid out a vegetable garden, and a month later, Commander van Riebeeck wrote home to the Lords Seventeen (his masters) requesting them to send out more sweet potatoes, pineapples, seeds of watermelon, pumpkin, gourd, cucumber, radish, as well as vines and fruit trees for cultivation. In particular, he asked for young orange and lemon trees for the value of fruit, especially lemons, in treating scurvy among sailors was recognised even then.

The locals - the "Strandlopers" - was the very descriptive name given to the indigenous peoples of the Cape in the 17th Century. Theirs was a care free existence: they neither cultivated crops nor tended cattle, and since they depended entirely on the land ('veld') and ocean for their sustenance, there was no stable food supply available for the voyagers who called at Table Bay at that time.

But success for van Rieebeck was certainly not instantaneous and at first the gardens proved disappointing, for rigorous winter storms destroyed one vegetable crop after another. All the same the Commander's refreshment station progressed to such an extent that within six months of his arrival he was able to treat the officers aboard a trading ship to a farewell dinner at which they were served produce and livestock grown and raised locally.

On the menu were chicken, peas, spinach, asparagus and crisp, firm heads of lettuce, as well as chervil - which was used to flavour soup, sauces, salads or boiled vegetables!!

The Company's gardens flourished .. and Cape Town soon became known as the 'Tavern of the Seas' - as well as the produce above, they grew endives, cabbages, cauliflowers, turnips, radishes, beets, carrots, parsnips, horseradish, pumpkins, artichokes, fennel, chillies, cantaloup melons .. including varieties of beans and peas .. and by the time van Riebeeck left ten years later, the inventory included over 1100 citrus trees, ten banana plants, two olive trees, 24 chestnuts, 19 plums and 70 other fruit trees, including walnuts, quince, apple, cherry, apricots, guavas, medlars, mulberries and all the varieties of berries and currants available!

The Cape Town Botanical Garden now occupies less than 6 hectares of the Company's vegetable garden - while the change from an agricultural to a pleasure and botanical garden occurred gradually as produce became available from newly settled farmers.

As with other cities Cape Town has been developed and had land reclaimed from the sea .. the Castle of Good Hope was built on the edge of the Strand .. the seashore .. and when they were excavating a superbly preserved postal stone was uncovered dated 8 April, 1635. Seamen left their letters under such stones, as mentioned in yesterday's post, to be delivered by later seamen to appropriate destinations, indicated by the carvings on the stones.

Once the trading post and the Company Gardens had been established a more permanent system of sending letters and requests for seeds, trees, plants etc was developed. The postal system was starting to become more permanent and used around the world: seeds appearing from stones!
Thank you Mr Postman for that story .. my mother will enjoy it .. she woke up in a foul mood today - she told the Staff Nurse, who laughed with me .. but wasn't awake earlier when I went in ..

Hilary Melton-Butcher
Positive Letters

Wednesday, 29 April 2009

Letter delivery 1501 ... tell me a story via a Positive Letter

Dear Mr Postman - another letter how wonderful .. my mother so enjoyed Catarina's letter yesterday, with the 'Have some Madeira m'Dear' song by Michael Flanders .. she wanted me to sing it .. sadly that's not one of the characteristics she bequeathed to me! However .. another patient enjoyed my readings and went home with this website and I hope she'll enjoy her family reading the letters to her .. she seemed genuinely interested in the snippets of information. My mother loves the stories .. and as they are for her - that's probably a good thing!! Let's see what today's story letter is all about ..

I was thinking about how letters started and how important they were and still are to humans - once the art of reading and writing started to be available to be learnt, with the introduction of the printing press assembled in Germany by the goldsmith, Johannes Gutenburg, in 1440, it meant that initially scholars' ideas became disseminated through journals, newsletters, books - although they still cost a fortune. The actual process of writing letters to and from individuals as a common function of life was still some centuries away.

The Portuguese had started their era of exploration and by 1488 Bartholomew Dias, attempting to find a sea route to the East, became the first European to sail along the Garden Route of South Africa and land at Mossel Bay on 3rd February (see below the reason for mentioning this date!). For Dias and other early Portuguese navigators, the perennial spring near the shore was an ample source of fresh water - and thus ensured Mossel Bay as a stopping off point. It became renamed Mossel Bay from the fresh supplies of mussels along the shore - by the Dutch explorers who had started to supercede the Portuguese during the late 1500s and 1600s.

When Vasco da Gama visited the bay on his way to India in 1497 he called the bay "Aguada de Sao Bras" (watering place of St Blaize) ... I find this quite interesting as St Blaize is the patron saint of throats .. so a watering place for throats. (Mum and I discussed him earlier in the year .. as his Saint's Day came up on February 3rd .. but we decided to give his historical details a miss - they are really rather gruesome - I know it's history .. but ..... enough is enough!! Surprising though that this was the day Dias 'found' the bay?!). Da Gama was the first European to trade with the Hottentots - by bartering cattle for some of the goods they had on board - so now the seamen had fresh meat too.

After a fierce storm in 1500, Pedro D'Ataide ran his fleet into the shelter of the bay and after writing up an account of the storm and in particular the troubles he'd found in India, near Calcutta, left the 'letter' in an old shoe, which was hung on a milkwood tree .. for the next navigator to find!! Joao da Nova visited Mossel Bay in 1501 and found the report and the warning of troubles ahead in India in the shoe: he was so grateful that he erected a small stone hermitage to be used for religious purposes.

For centuries it served as a clearing house .. letters, in packets, being left for seamen to take on to the appropriate destination, if that's where they were heading. Now-a-days a letter box has been erected in the shape of a seaman's boot, and letters posted there are franked 'Old Post Office Tree'.

The large tree on which it was hung still stands and has been declared a historical monument - the provincial heritage site also encompasses a museum and a wooden cross where it is thought the chapel or hermitage was built.

According to Wikipedia the Guinness Book of World Records Mossel Bay has the second mildest all-year climate in the world. The first is Hawaii. The weather station at Cape St. Blaize holds and records the various climate details.

Thank you Mr Postman .. I don't know how you do it .. so many interesting thoughts to think about - I know my mother will be really interested as we visited Mossel Bay together and we'll laugh together remembering the post office shoe .. also so many new questions arising .. for another day and another letter or two ..

Hilary Melton-Butcher
Positive Letters

Tuesday, 28 April 2009

This is a story for Catarina ...Have some Madeira m'Dear?

Dear Mr Postman .. how lovely to see you today .. and I see you've brought a letter for Catarina .. this should be interesting ...

Dear Catarina - my mother loves seeing you when you visit your great-grandmother, Olinda, who is also in the hospital .. and it is really kind of you to wave back! I thought a little story about your homeland (except you're so English now) and some other little points of interest that I've found out or remembered ... Mum and I call these - Hilary's snippets! .. might interest you.

Dear Readers - Catarina is 9 .. and loves school .. and loves animals - she has a cross Labrador-Alsation and cat here in England, while they also have two dogs and some kittens in Maderia - where the family have a home. She was reading a story about a cat .. (bad Hilary cannot remember the name of the book!) .. I wonder if she's read the story of the Mousehole "Mowzal" Cat I mentioned recently? ... I'll print her a copy out. Her grandmother, Maria, takes care of her after school .. and they visit and bring great-grandmother some treats - to ensure she gets better soon.

Madeira .. conjured up memories from our past .. my own grandmother had visited Madeira quite often on her way out to India from the 1920s onwards .. as it was the scenic route .. via Cape Town and the tip of southern Africa. So we remembered the embroidery, the magnificient scenery of this tiny island ..the fantastic flowers, the butterflies .. apparently the biggest European tarantula spiders live on the Desertas islands - and can be as wide as a normal man's hand .. while the islands have more than 250 species of land molluscs (snails and slugs), some with very unusual shell shapes and colours - they are only found here and are also in need of protection.

My mother loves butterflies and we have them flying around her room .. painted lady, swallowtail, large skipper, male orange tip, small copper, common blue .. such wonderful evocative names .. Catarina - you can almost visualise them from their descriptions - can't you? Your Madeiran Large White butterfly is extremely rare .. and needs protection too - have you ever seen one?

We talked about Madeira .. and did not know much .. so my mother suggested that I 'google' it .. and see what I came up with .. Madeira was discovered by the Portuguese in their exploratory phase in the 1400s .. finally it became independent on 1 July 1976. The population of Eastbourne where we live is 95,000, while the county of East Sussex has a population of about 762,000 .. Madeira falls somewhere in between with a population of 246,000.

Funchal is the capital and is named after the funcho (fennel) growing there. For us .. both areas have important tourist industries .. Eastbourne claims to be the sunniest place in Great Britain .. it is pretty good!! .. while Madeira basking in the Atlantic Ocean south of Portugal and off Morocco can definitely claim to have a sunny climate.

However ... Madeira has one claim to fame that we here in Eastbourne do not have .. though my mother's favourite 'wish' tipple now is champagne, which they're starting to being able to produce in the UK due to global warming ... I deviate .. Madeira wine .. that wonderful fortified Portuguese wine .. have you tasted it - Catarina?

The islands have a long winemaking history dating back to the Age of Exploration when Madeira was a standard port of call for ships heading to the East Indies or the New World. Once when a shipment was returned after a voyage being tossed on the high seas, exposed to excessive heat and changes of temperature .. it was found that the wine flavour was transformed. A similar process is utilised today .. however the wine "vinho da roda" does not now make a round trip in a ship!! .. and Madeira has become a very robust wine that can be quite long lived, even after being opened.

Madeiras have been known to survive 150 years in excellent condition .. and it is not uncommon to see Madeiras pushing the century mark for sale at stores that specialise in rare wine!! Before refrigeration Madeira wine was prized in areas where it was impractical to construct wine cellars, e.g. in the southern States of America, because unlike other fine wines it could survive being stored over hot summers without deteriorating.

Some other interesting notes for our American readers .. apparently the American leaders - founding fathers and presidents - all appreciated the Madeiran wine. Thomas Jefferson insisted on it being used to toast the Declaration of Independence - 4 July 1776. As well as the "vinho da roda" wine, there is another style called "Rainwater" - it is rarely produced today and, when it is, is usually shipped only to the the US. A possibility for the name 'rainwater' is that rain somehow got into the casks while sitting at the docks .. so the merchants decided to offer this 'new' wine .. and were surprised to find that it was very popular with the local Americans!!

My mother and I remember the name 'Madeira' for another reason .. the wonderful song from Flanders and Swann "Have some Madeira m'dear!". It's available on Youtube .. they were wonderful songs with some brilliant lyrics .. so do please have a listen .. Youtube - Flanders and Swann - Michael Flanders is in a wheel chair, while Swann plays the piano: an inspiration .. bringing joy to my mother some 50+ years later ... we did used to laugh and still do .. they are just so light and touching .. stories told through lyrics and music ..

Have some Madeira M'Dear .. is a naughty but fun song - loved by all ages .. with its lyrics ..
and starts:

She was young, she was pure, she was new, she was nice,
She was fair, she was sweet seventeen,
He was old, he was vile, and no stranger to vice,
He was base, he was bad, he was mean.

It's been a pleasure to meet you Catarina with your family, and my Mum and I both wish you all the best at school and for happy times here in England and in Madeira .... lucky girl .. can you pack us in your suitcase please .. so we can come with you??!!

Thank you Mr Postman .. it's kind of you to say that you enjoyed Catarina's story .. and that she'll be happy to know about the Mowzal cat! .. she's a lovely girl - well mannered and very polite = a pleasure to have around!!
PS: Henry the Navigator, a Portuguese Prince, was instrumental in the Ages of Exploration .. parts 1, 2 and 3 ...

Hilary Melton-Butcher
Positive Letters

Monday, 27 April 2009

A Big Ben and the King of Clocks ...

Dear Mr Postman thank you for visiting today .. it's kind of you to ask after my mother - we had her moved next to the window .. so she can get some breeze, she feels the heat very badly .. she will enjoy this story of a London icon ...

As the world's most famous timepiece celebrates its 150th anniversary - a forthright statement of faith in a masterpiece of Victorian Engineering that was deemed so ambitious at the time of its inception that many clock-makers thought it could never be built .. - now .. "why should it not last forever?"!

Big Ben was born 150 years ago this year .. that it was ever completed was a triumph of perseverance and ingenuity over ill-fortune and acrimony. Lawsuits and cracked bells abounded .. the first bell cracked on testing -had to be broken up and recast. The second bell cracked too - but would be patched and turned a quarter-turn .. and so the bell behind the "bongs" was born .. and has given all but uninterrupted service ever since.

It has its own website .. any other bell you know has its own site?? .. and from here is described thus:

During 2009 Parliament celebrates the 150th anniversary of its world famous Clock Tower, Great Clock and Great Bell.

The name Big Ben is often used to describe the tower, the clock and the bell but the name was first given to the Great Bell. 1859 was the beginning for all three elements when the Clock Tower was completed, the Great Clock started on 31 May and the Great Bell’s chimes were heard for the first time on 11 July.

As part of the rebuilding of the Palace of Westminster after the fire of 1834, the Office of Works called for a "noble clock, indeed a king of clocks, the biggest the world has ever seen, within sight and sound of the throbbing heart of London". The Astronomer Royal also insisted on one that would be accurate to within a second, which was all very well for a small indoor clock, but a tall order for such a huge one, which would constantly be exposed to the elements. Most clock-makers at that time thought that it was impossible.

The man who proved otherwise was not even a professional clock-maker. Edmund Beckett Denison was a leading barrister and gifted amateur horologist who got himself involved in the selection of the final design, by the clock-maker Edward Dent. Denison's greatest contribution was to design a means of ensuring that the pendulum was separated from the movement of the hands, so that it was not affected by the weather. His ground-breaking invention, which is called a double three-legged gravity escapement, is the reason that Big Ben keeps such good time.

Accurate Big Ben may be, but it is not immune to failure. Over the years it has been stopped by snow, mechanical failure and builders who have left paint pots where they shouldn't!; and on one occasion it was slowed down by a flock of starlings settling on the minute hand .

The man charged with looking after it - a Mr McCann, rejoicing in the title 'Keeper of the Great Clock' - checks Big Ben .. by, guess what?, ringing up the speaking clock!! It is wound three times a week by hand, as it is not possible to wind while it is chiming ... and if adjustment is required .. an old pre-decimal penny is placed on or removed from the pendulum: adding one speeds up the clock by two-fifths of a second a day!!

The famous bell in the Clock Tower (St Stephen's Tower) of the Houses of Parliament weighs 13.5 tons and was named after Sir Benjamin Hall, Chief Commissioner of Works in 1856, when it was cast - Hall himself was called "Big Ben" on account of his size!

The sound of Big Ben was first broadcast in 1923, and has since become a national institution. Dent clocks are still used on iconic landmarks of London .. one of latest ones being on the new St Pancras Station .. and can be seen in my post "Incense Sticks, Candles, HourGlass and Bells .. what's the Connection?"

It is an icon .. and I hope I've satisfied Giovanna's curiosity re Big Ben after her visit in 2007 .. her Imperfect Action was not finding out more about it!!

The information for this article came mostly from The Week - the last word 10 January 09, from the article first appearing in The Times: Bong! Big Ben still rings out 150 years on- written by Valentine Low on January 1st 2009.

Thank you Mr Postman .. that was most interesting .. my mother will have something to say about the story and we'll laugh .. as I'm sure she's heard its sonorous tones more often than most of us ...

Hilary Melton-Butcher
Positive Letters

Sunday, 26 April 2009

It's a marathon ...

Dear Mr Postman thank you for coming today .. I see the letter is about the London marathon .. a landmark in recent years and my mother certainly liked to watch and get to see the sights of London from the magnificent television coverage we get today .. bird's eye views, close ups, statistical analysis and all - so she'll be interested to hear that a British lady, who nows lives and works in Japan came 2nd.

Daphne from Joyful Days commented on yesterday's post "Another day .. are we in Tokyo?" that Mum and I are on a marathon together .. good timing as today is the 29th London Marathon .. frankly I'm glad ours hasn't been going since 1981!! A statement I read makes sense .."What today's marathon will show, above all, is that the human spirit is only healthy when it has a goal": I'm sure I've kept myself sane initially a) by providing some light and laughter to my mother b) by writing positive letters to friends and family including fun anecdotes which make people laugh, and now .. through repeating a) & b) - I've developed a formula for the future .. a goal that can continue when my mother crosses the rainbow bridge.

Just some simple facts .. the distance was an approximate length of 40 km from the town of Marathon to Athens .. on the introduction of the event in the Olympics in 1896 .. that was it .. approximately 40 km. The distance was finally established for the 1924 Paris Games based on the calculations and alterations made during the 1908 British Olympic Games .. which started at Windsor Castle .. I'd hoped to put an allegorical comment in here .. but don't really believe I can .. so please Wikipedia for the details!!

This is the Wikipedia article on The London Marathon was founded by the former Olympic champion and renowned journalist Chris Brasher and John Disley. In 1979, shortly after completing the New York Marathon Brasher wrote an article for The Observer newspaper which began:

"To believe this story you must believe that the human race be one joyous family, working together, laughing together, achieving the impossible. Last Sunday, in one of the most trouble-stricken cities in the world, 11,532 men and women from 40 countries in the world, assisted by over a million black, white and yellow people, laughed, cheered and suffered during the greatest folk festival the world has seen."

Inspired by the people of New York coming together for this occasion, he went on to question;
"...whether London could stage such a festival?" (
picture of the NY marathon!)

As we all know we could .. and this is the established course and the one that will be used for the 2012 London Olympics. It's a glorious day .. said to be reaching 20 degrees C in London, which is fairly warm .. the runners, all 35,000, of them gather on Blackheath and in Greenwich Park from where they set off, passing the Maritime Museum, the Cutty Sark - a merchant clipper ship built in 1869.

A great deal of the course follows the Thames on the south side before crossing over Tower Bridge, turning east into Docklands, round the Isle of Dogs, past Canary Wharf, turning west and on through the City past St Paul's Cathedral, and via the Embankment past Big Ben and Parliament Square, Bird Cage Walk and on to the finishing post in the Mall after running past Buckingham Palace.

So with 6,000 volunteers, 6,650 marshals, 25, 300 helping hands, 46,000 tons of rubbish!, 82 pubs on the way .. if you want to stop off?!, 1,500 St John Ambulance staff, 70,000 very sore feet, 100 lbs of petroleum jelly to treat those sore feet and 750,000 bottles of water .. it is estimated that an amazing £246 million pounds will be raised for charity. Apparently London is the largest charity raising event in the world .. and each year they have a particular charity that the marathon itself supports (The Children's Trust) over and above each individual's fund raising abilities. For more again please see Wikepedia.

Congratulations to all who enter and put 'mind over their sore feet' .. all the way round ..and who raise awareness of the various charities for which they are raising monies for.

Thank you Mr Postman .. it is really interesting and so inspiring what can be achieved by normal human beings with a desire to achieve and raise money for their loved ones, lost ones or passion for a cause .. may they all be happy with their achievement today .. and these facts will interest my mother .. as there's lots of talk about ..

Hilary Melton-Butcher
Positive Letters

Saturday, 25 April 2009

Another day ... are we in Tokyo?

Dear Mr Postman .. thank you for coming today so I can give you another few stories and then I'll ask you to start delivering our letters again ...

Today - we're not so good .. I need to go back and see how Mum is later on. However a couple of quick stories to give you a little more background .. the kind of thing I encounter on a daily basis when I visit ...
The ward is noisy .. there are only 5 beds, but what with nurses, doctors, care workers, cleaners, tea trolleys, visitors and patients - it's somewhat busy .. in fact positively terrible .. no peace at all. Poor Mum .. she wasn't too happy .. and eventually said "are we in a brothel!!??" I just burst out laughing ... no, I don't think so!! "where are we .. are we in Tokyo?" No .. unfortunately not .. we're still in Eastbourne.

Another couple of stories are in previous posts: Palm Sundays, Strokes and Reminiscences and She's Gone Cuckoo

Today though I wanted to thank some of you who are being so kind to me and supporting me through my mother's journey, while also guiding me on the positive letters blog:

Giovanna Garcia, of her Imperfect Action blog, together with her husband Craig Garcia .. have been my role models and guiders through this process. I couldn't have got where I am today without their support, their wisdom and their humility within the online community - I embrace them.

Tess came over from The Bold Life (as a guest speaker for Lance on the Jungle of Life) - and she talked about treats - appropriate for my Ma and brought me a few memories. I love her quote at the beginning of her post "If a child smiles, if an adult smiles, that is very important" -how true in my present journey. I think there's a conspiracy here .. they both completed their tax returns and disappeared off the planet for a while ...??!! I just hope they've had or are still enjoying a well deserved break - it'll be good to have them back.

Daphne from Joyful Days has been amazing .. and actually wrote me an open letter on her Joyful Days blog .. for which I feel truly honoured - entitled "A Positive Letter for Hilary" - I used her lovely picture for yesterday's post.

I am overwhelmed .. and so blessed by you all .. I haven't forgotten Positively Present, Liara, and all my blogging buddies who've been so supportive since we started with Gio .. - I will be back with some more endorsements. Forgive me - I need to get to the hospital ..

Thank you Mr Postman .. it's really nice to have someone who listens and who understands our life at the moment ..

Hilary Melton-Butcher
Positive Letters

Friday, 24 April 2009

Giving my mother something to live for, while she moves on ...

Pearly Gates: Please enter your PIN ... this picture and caption will amuse Mum ...

Dear Mr Postman .. this is a letter for you .. so that you can get an idea of the sort of amazing days I have with my mother ..

Yesterday was an incredible day with my mother .. only an hour and a half – but so uplifting and thought provoking. My mother is quite extraordinary .. and has been throughout this whole process. She originally had her strokes 26 months ago .. was stabilised in the Acute Brain Injury Unit and we eventually got her down her to Eastbourne 19 months ago.

The doctors realised that her stroke had not affected her cognisance or her ability to communicate and so were happy to let her have a PEG feeding tube fitted – initially she had a small intake of food and tea ... but since she’s been in Eastbourne .. she’s been nil by mouth.

She’s been in hospital now for over 3 weeks – she’s well! – but unfortunately her feeding tube had come out and the Nursing Centre were not able to put it back within the 2 hour window of opportunity there is for these things. For 11 days she was only on a drip .. then they tried to reinsert the PEG feed using a camera .. that failed & it was Easter.

At this point the doctors decided that she had to have a nose feeding tube .. so she could get nourishment and her drugs. This week, 2 weeks later, they tried again to fit the PEG with an Xray – sadly her stroked leg got in the way & that failed.

Wednesday night Mum obviously got irritated with the nose tube and it came out – so now needs to be reinserted. The Staff Nurse and Sister were with us during part of the following conversation ... – which she was wide awake and bright for: she’d been fairly subdued for most of the 3 weeks .. which is not like her. So this is my report back to my mother ..

Darling Mum .. you never cease to amaze me .. yesterday we needed to get your agreement to having the nose feed reinserted, which you didn’t want! Fortunately the Sister had had one and understood that it’s irritating – I haven’t, I agree – but we want you to have it put back.

The choices are pretty limited .. we need to ensure that you keep your strength up with the feed, and the nurses need to be able to give you your drugs, so that next week they will give you an anaesthetic and operate to reinsert the PEG.

If we can’t give you your feed – then you’ll die. Well I’m going to die anyway sometime soon aren’t I? Yes – but are you ready to die now? No! Will you have the nose feed reinserted – Yes ... with an anaesthetic! Well I’m afraid we can’t do that.. the PEG operation will be with an anaesthetic.

This went on .. but interspersed in all this ..which was repeated a few times .. we were laughing or smiling .. as soon as Mum said ‘yes – but with an anaesthetic’ we started laughing .. and she was belly laughing .. it’s so good.

Did you say you saw that Granny is here? Yes – she’s still alive isn’t she? Well – no Mum .. she died about 37 years ago .. perhaps she’s here with you waiting to go with you through the pearly gates? Why don’t they give her a key then? .......

You tell me – how you couldn’t laugh .. and we laughed and smiled round the problem .. she eventually consented to the nose tube .. which I hope has happened over night.

During this I read a couple of cards we’d received from friends .. including one from an employee of my mother’s .. regarding, her own mother’s, Lorraine’s 90th birthday party .. Margaret said she used to cringe when Lorraine and my mother argued over whose kitchen it was ... Mum owned a Care Home in Cornwall – we reminisced a bit about the old days.

Then I mentioned the two recent posts .. on Asparagus and Rhubarb ..”what a mix!!” and we talked about growing asparagus .. and making rhubarb fool with our new Kenwood mixer! Then I told Mum about St George’s Cross .. and how St George and the Dragon came about .. she was most interested.

Darling Mum – I am honoured to have been able to share so much with you over the last two years .. and to have been able to laugh with you, smile with you .. and watch your belly ratchet up and down laughing uproariously .. bringing others into our room to see what’s going on!

You’ve been an inspiration to me .. in that you’ve never complained, never worried, never whinged or moaned .. we’ve laughed our way through your adversity, our trials and tribulations ..we seem to have settled into a wonderful existence and have two minds that have met enjoying each other's company, while also appreciating the snippets of information or things that amuse us

I don’t know where your brain is .. but it never ceases to amaze me at what you can remember .. you may be muddled occasionally .. but it doesn’t matter you’re just so pragmatic about everything and ready to join in the fray – you are most definitely extra special .. and I love you.

I love you photo from Daphne and her "A Positive Letter to Hilary" post written for me at Joyful Days blog .... I am just grateful for everyone's support ... THANKYOU!!
Mr Postman thank you for laughing with me over this incredible tale .. it is so wonderful to have such a positive mother .. I am so lucky .. someone so spunky and not giving up on things ..
Hilary Melton-Butcher
Positive Letters

Thursday, 23 April 2009

The saint and the dragon - St George's Day: 23 April

In the rich pastures of the Vale of Evesham on this bright sunny morning .. the Church bells rang out, the bunting celebrated St George - the Patron Saint of England, the brass band readied itself, the villagers put the last touches to the exhibition of the first of this season's cut asparagus .. and a quintessential English festival on the village green has begun to celebrate the crop of 2009.
The legend of St George and the Dragon appears to be a tale of two parts .. George or George of Lydda appears to be have been of the Christian faith and a Roman soldier, who rapidly rose to the rank of general. He left the army in 298AD, when only those who worshipped the gods of Rome were allowed to remain in the armed forces. However he subsequently spoke up on behalf of beleagured Christians and as punishment for his temerity was murdered in 303AD for his Christian faith.

The legend of St George and the Dragon is simply an allegorical expression of the triumph of the Christian hero over evil. The patron Saint of England was adopted by Edward III (1312 - 1377)after the myth was brought back with the Crusaders (1095 and on) and retold in Court in the theatrical medieval style of the era .. perpetuating these exploits. This George was a knight who on encountering a young woman about to be sacrificed (they'd run out of sheep!) by the people of Silene in Libya to a fierce dragon in order to appease its fury; George wounded the dragon, and brought it to the town, but would not kill it - until the terrified townsfolk had consented to be baptized as Christians!

Today St George is honoured as the patron saint of England, Portugal, Genoa, Spain and Venice. His flag, a centred red cross on a white background, was carried by knights fighting in the Crusades and is now considered our national flag: his emblem is a dragon.

St George's Cross as a flag is the national flag of England - however numerous other provinces and cities have utilised the main centred red cross on a white background as a flag basis and appended other symbols within the quarters. The flag of the city and seaport of Genoa, in northwest Italy, uses the same design - taken from its days as the Maritime Republic of Genoa. This Republic and its rival the Maritime Republic of Venice (on the eastern shore of Italy) were two of the most important powers in the world.

The flag was adopted by England and the City of London in 1190 for their ships entering the Mediterranean to benefit from the protection of the powerful Genoese fleet. The English Monarch paid an annual tribute to the Doge of Genoa for this privilege. The Doges selected from wealthy merchant families in Genoa who ruled the Republic as an oligarchy, were a small elite segment of society.

The St George's Cross subsequently became adopted for the uniform (surcoat) of English soldiers during the Crusades of the eleventh, twelth and thirteenth centuries, particularly by the Knights Templar and from about 1277 it official became the national flag of England and Wales.

For centuries the flag carried by the Crusaders had become known as "God's Flag" and this interpretation of the Flag of St George was carried to America by the early members of the Church of England and Anglican community. Provisions were made in the US Flag Code that the flag of St George is the only flag allowed to fly higher in a superior position to the US national flag in certain circumstances .. usually religious occasions and is generally in pennant form - for more information please see Wikipedia.

Each day we learn something new ..

Dear Mr Postman it is good to see you on this our Saint's Day and I see that you have provided us with some interesting information, together with reminding us that this is the start of the asparagus season....
together with some typical Hilary Snippets in .. which my mother will enjoy - we do laugh at some of the extraordinary facts we unearth .. thank you for coming today Mr Postman .. and we look forward to tomorrow .. Happy St George's Day and enjoy your asparagus if you get some for supper or dinner tonight?
Hilary Melton-Butcher
Positive Letters

Wednesday, 22 April 2009

Rhubarb and Asparagus ..

Dear Mr Postman .. thank you for dropping by again .. this is the time of year for spring delights, which my mother and I have always thoroughly enjoyed .. she was an excellent gardener and cook .. so we’d have forced rhubarb before leaving the plant to crop for later on; the early rhubarb would be followed by asparagus .. the season, which is short anyway – six weeks – stretches into early – mid June. I seem to remember the asparagus beds needing to be extended .. as we were rather partial to it! I thought I'd find out a little background to the crops, which my mother will find interesting and we can chat about rhubarb crumble, rhubarb fool .. and asparagus with oodles of melting butter ....

Rhubarb is one of the earliest fruits available .. the Victorians originally brought it over from Siberia so that fresh produce could be put on the table at a time when nothing else fresh was available. Rhubarb had however been around much longer – in ancient times it was revered for its mysterious cathartic powers, while the Romans, who bought the dried roots from the north Asiatic caravan traders supplied the apothecaries and herbalists with a root considered of value for various ailments.

Each winter - rhubarb flourishes in Yorkshire’s cold damp soils and is then tricked into triggering growth –being transferred by hand into long dark nursery sheds to be ‘forced’. The stalks grow at an accelerated rate in the light-free hothouses (originally heated by the coal from the new coal fields of the 1800s) – they are harvested by candlelight!! as the dim light will not spoil the conditions .. light and heat within the sheds.

The harvested stalks are tender, sweet, and a distinctive bright pink in colour with tiny curled yellow leaves that makes forced rhubarb instantly recognisable. Now-a-days –the Yorkshire triangle of Leeds, Bradford and Wakefield produce this champagne rhubarb, as it is known.

While it is also being promoted as a good accompaniment to high-fat meats, such as duck, and to oily fish .. – it is also a taste of today ... as its sharpness makes it an ideal companion as a savoury ingredient, people are developing a taste for the sharper flavoured fruits such as cranberries, blueberries and fresh pink rhubarb.

Asparagus has over the years had many elaborate growing instructions given out .. trenching, dressing with salt and seaweed .. not sure what we did 30 miles to the west of London! However we too followed the experts and made raised beds and made sure the earth was raised in mounds over the roots. We also gathered wild asparagus on our walks .. whenever we were lucky enough to come across a patch ... free food was a gift – even then.

Asparagus was appreciated by the Egyptians, Greeks and the Romans .. being used as a vegetable and medicine owing to its delicate flavour and diuretic properties.; it was eaten fresh in season and dried for use in winter. Apparently there’s a recipe for cooking asparagus in the oldest surviving book of recipes – Apicius’ 3rd century De re Coquinaria – book 3.

Asparagus is known today as not only tasting exceptionally good but is one of nature’s super foods ... helping fight cancer, heart disease as well as boosting your immune system .. and is really low in calories .. another secret benefit

Rhubarb festivals and Asparagus festivals abound in the English counties .. particularly in the Yorkshire triangle for the champagne rhubarb season.

Thank you for letting us have our letter - it's always so nice to see you .. we enjoy our memories together .. today it was about the early delights of the year .. I'm sure you too had rhubarb at home - did you have asparagus too?

Hilary Melton-Butcher
Positive Letters

Tuesday, 21 April 2009

Happy Birthday: Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

Dear Mr Postman - what a wonderful day for Her Majesty .. bright sunny and warm - it is glorious down here in Sussex by the sea .. the birds are singing and we all feel better!! That was good timing .. to conclude the four letters on Heraldry - our British historical past - so that the next post could be about her Majesty.

We are extraordinarily lucky to still have our Sovereign Queen, which gives us a reason to maintain our wonderful heritage with all its pomp and circumstance - it would be so sad if we were to lose it all. So Happy Birthday your Majesty .. have a bright and wonderful day with your family and friends. The official website of the British Monarchy can be found here.

The Queen is 83 today, and has been our Queen since her Coronation on 2nd June 1953, albeit her reign started on 6 February 1952 when her father, George VI, died. Her father had been very ill for a while and Princess Elizabeth carried with her a draft accession declaration, which came into force when she was in Kenya on an official tour on her way to Australia and New Zealand.

This was the first television I had ever watched .. we had to travel from our home to a friend of my father's in order to watch the event - the Queen had expressly requested that the BBC cover the event using the relatively new technology of television! An estimated 20 million people watched the entire ceremony, while 12 million more listened on the radio. Radio was launched in 1922, the BBC was incorporated in 1927, while television commenced in 1932 - and during this time we had the war years in between.

We watched the University Boat Race from Mr Blake's house too .. probably in the same year - my father used to row for Worcester College Oxford before the war .. see my previous post. I do believe that I remember Mr Blake's house .. it backed onto the Thames and we were able to access the slipway to watch the race .. so it would have been an ideal place for two small children (5 and 2) to play, while at the same time to sit and watch this incredible box which had these moving pictures of the Procession, the Gold Carriage, the Ceremony, the pomp and circumstance after the deprivations of war ... we still had rationing!

On Saturday, April 18th, another milestone was reached .. Prince Philip has become the longest serving royal consort in British history ... overtaking the record of 57 years 70 days set by George III's wife Queen Charlotte - who died in 1818. The Queen must live until 10 September 2015, when she would be 89, to claim the record of the longest serving monarch -presently held by Queen Victoria (63.5 years).

The Queen has always appeared extremely aware of her responsibilities and has a deep sense of religious and civic duty, and to take her coronation oath seriously - and for that we admire her in this day and age of spin and celebrity .. she maintains her pride in all things Constitutional.

Happy Birthday Your Majesty!

Thank you Mr Postman for bringing us this letter reminding us of a few snippets of information regarding the Queen and a few personal remembrances to stimulate and trigger some discussions with my mother - we will enjoy these and no doubt laugh at two tottering children .. who are distinctly older now!

Yes - I do remember the film The Queen detail from Wiki; and perhaps the YouTube clip of

President Obama meeting the Queen this year is another link worth having here .. for a quick reminder. Some of the information came from Wikipedia: (The Queen or BBC), while others are personal memories.

Hilary Melton-Butcher
Positive Letters

Previous letter on "the Beast"
Heraldry - part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4

Monday, 20 April 2009

Heraldry .. "a shorthand of history" - the floral border - part 4/4

Dear Mr Postman .. it is good to see you back and it will be wonderful how all these parts of the coat of arms can make a "floral garden" .. and we can see history develop over the years ..

We've been reminded that most people couldn't read or write a 1,000years ago, the surname hadn't evolved and that the permanency of settlements was only just beginning .. the Black Death in 1347 wiped out a large number of villages; fishing villages probably remained stable, while new villages - eg pit villages would have grown up where new developments occurred; or in medieval times based around the palaces, castles and manors of the nobility and wealthy merchants.

The combination of pictorial emblems symbolic to that area of military allegiance or sovereignty, geometric shapes and colours served as an identification of the bearer, and as the entitlement of inheritance was introduced in the early 1100s this necessitated that some form of 'rule' was established and in 1483, under Richard III, the Herald's College was chartered. It's purpose is to assign new coats of arms and to trace lineages to determine heraldic rights and priveleges. It has also collected and combined the rule of blazonry into a system.

In my first post on Heraldry the Coat of Arms of Garter Principal, held by the senior Officer of Arms, shows - the chief blue band at the top of the shield contains the Order of the Garter surrounding the Crown, to its right is the lion of England, to the left the Fleur de Lys of France, and the Sovereign's crown; while the most important part of the shield is Argent (white) with a Gules (red) English cross on it.

The magnificent coat of arms above is held by the Duke of Norfolk - and shows his fiefdom .. ie the four parts to his land: 1st quarter - upper right the Duke of Norfolk arms with the white bend, superimposed with the demi lion rampant, with an arrow through its mouth - reflecting his title as the first Howard; 2nd quarter shows the three gold lions (with a three point label - argent) -reflecting his entitlement to the Brotherton name; 3rd checkered quarter shows his entitlement to the earldom of Surrey (Warenne .. a norman name of ennoblement encompassed within English history); the 4th quarter of a full lion rampant shows his entitledment to the FitzAlan lands. The Duke of Norfolk is the Premier Duke in the peerage of England and also, as Earl of Arundel, the Premier Earl. The Duke of Norfolk is, moreover, the Earl Marshal and Hereditary Marshal of England.

The art of heraldry dazzles and delights, with stunning colours, crests in gold and green, brilliant and exotic birds, exquisitely rendered borders of dog rose or fleur de lys, fields of wheat sheaves with unicorns or deer amongst the trees; its menagerie of creatures, real or fanciful, its symbols and sometimes bizarre choice of charges (an object or a figure used in the coat of arms) cannot fail to inspire admiration and bemusement.

Animals such as bears, bees, camels, eagles, Griffin (part eagle, part lion), lions, unicorns, snakes; - symbols such as crescents, moons, star shapes, suns, towers or castles, crowns; - common design features include chevrons, chief (broad stripe across the top of a shield), ermine (a white fur pattern), bend (a diagonal stripe); - other geometric designs .. including hatchings - all add to the possibilities of this incredible system of heraldry.

Other important design details - besides the simple fields of colour - are the quarterings of the shields ... so each part of a nobles' entitlement is easily identifiable. Over time these can be marshalled so that the whole family's armorial bearings are correctly arranged. One of the most magnificient of these is the Grenville Diptych containing 719 quarterings ... for more information see the Marshalling section under the Heraldry section of Wikipedia.

Mr Postman - you have surpassed yourself with telling us about this floral kingdom of history .. it is an involved process .. but we have learnt a lot .. and my mother has certainly enjoyed it - we've looked at the shields quite closely.

Hilary Melton-Butcher
Positive Letters

Sunday, 19 April 2009

Heraldry .. "a shorthand of history" - part 3/4

Dear Mr Postman .. thank you for delivering the 3rd part of our heraldic story .. my mother and I love talking about these historical facts .. especially as they stretch so far back in time and we did laugh about the early concept of advertising!!.. it will be wonderful to have some more of these jigsaw pieces put into place .. the colours, background reasons etc ..

As we saw in yesterday's post the "plain coat" was held by the eldest member of the dynasty, the eldest son inherited the estate, the second and third traditionally went into the Church and the Army ... however the fourth son had no well-defined place and had to earn his own. To differentiate these heirs, their personal shields had cadences (marks) on them.

Prior to the 11th century (1200s) most inhabitants were unable to read or write, including the nobility, so the use of pictorial designs was essential in establishing rights .. the first came from the star shapes in the skies, the sun, moon, deities; animal mascots - lions, leopards, eagles; reptiles and invertebrates - serpents, lizards, and dragons .. botanical symbols - wheat, the turnip, oak tree, the rose - symbolising their importance to society; then there were also a few inanimate objects - towers, volcanoes, a mount (green hilltop) and the Cross.

Richard the Lionheart was the first to use three golden lions on his scarlet shield .. he was also first used the English motto : "Dieu et mon Droit" (God and my Right) - Richard spoke French and a great many of heraldic terms come from the French or Latin.

The rule of tincture is the most important convention of heraldry .. and provides for contrast and visibility. The names used in English blazon for the colours and metals came mainly from the French: Or (gold), Argent (white), Azure (blue), Gules (red), Sable (black), Sinople (vert in French – green) and Pourpre (purple).

Metals being the most important of the tinctures – gold and silver; the colours encompass blue, red, black, green, purple .. while gold and silver become yellow and white; then the third component is the ‘furs’ – the patterns – representing the white winter fur coat of the stoat and the blue-gray of the Vair (a kind of squirrel) – which is simultaneously a two-coloured filed treatment.

So now we've a little more detail to go on .. we can see how the coat of arms developed over history and actually put our garden of history together tomorrow with its rules, colours, patterns, hatchings, fields, quarterings etc .. quite a story ..

Dear Mr Postman .. it's such an interesting history - we forget that 1,000 years ago most people couldn't read or write .. we've come such a long way in so little historical time .. it'll be really interesting to have the pieces put together tomorrow .. many thanks ..

Hilary Melton-Butcher
Positive Letters

Saturday, 18 April 2009

Heraldry .. "a shorthand of history" - part 2/4

Dear Mr Postman - it is good to see you and you've just arrived as the sun comes out, how lovely; we did enjoy yesterday's letter .. and today we're looking forward to reading more about this shorthand of heraldry ...

Today's the day to see if we can start to make head or tail of this 'floral border in the garden of history' - or perhaps a bit more background will make it easier to piece together our garden of history ..

... as far back as warfare takes us in history there was a need to distinguish our own military allegiances - the stave or standards of the military units were affixed with animal mascots, or representations of a palace or city, then a crane, scorpion or other animal drawn on the top - hence the Pharoah's Horus-falcon symbol. The Roman army's units were identified by the distinctive markings on their shields.

The knights in the Bayeux Tapestry (depicting the Norman Invasion of England in 1066) carry emblemic shields, but the system of inheritable arms, or an heraldic structure had not been necessary - and only became so once the nobility settled and extended their lands, and new lands were granted by the Crown to the newly ennobled knights.

The first development came in the form of a surcoat (= an overcoat today) - a long sleeveless garment worn over chainmail - as the coats of mail became hot in the sun! The surcoat became shorter and it became the custom to bear emblems. As you might expect the designs were applied to other areas .. tunics, saddle blankets, banners and tapestries to name a few; as noblemens' wealth became more established the designs were also put to good use in sculpture and architectural features ... carved into coins, jewellery (eg signet rings) and the seals used to seal letters. A plethora of early advertising!

The helmet protected the head, again with a piece of drapery tied round the helmet in order to shade it from the sun. To distinguish the helm, a crest was worn over it. This was made of feathers, leather or wood, somtimes similar to the device on the shield, but often different from it.

An achievement of arms could also include a crown or coronet if those nobles were of the rank of barnonet or higher; again there is a strict set of rules to be followed - the crown sits below the helmet, above the shield. Wikiepedia has a useful article on the heraldic crown.

Blazonry - the art of describing or painting heraldic devices or armorial bearings - was originally developed by the Officers of Arms to identify the proclaimed & rightful owner of such ennoblement - as depicted in the various parts of that person's heraldic arms - and to rule on questions of rank or protocol.

Heraldry by the 1100s was well entrenched, however in England the cadence was introduced .. as the oldest surving member would hold the "plain coat" - the simple blazoned shield - however family members would then be distinguished by added marks to the "plain coat" - so the hierarchal ranks could be identified.

Heraldry, in the late Middle Ages, also became adopted by professional and educated individuals as well as early institutions .. the Church, educational establishments - the colleges at Oxford and Cambridge Universities; heraldry flourishes in the modern world - institutions, companies, and private persons continue using coats of arms as their pictorial identification. Heraldry is both legally protected and lawfully assumed.

So now we have a simple structure of how the coats of arms are made up and tomorrow we'll start looking at the colours, the plants, animals, specific flowers, mythical creatures as well as some world wide examples of heraldic shields in use today ..

Mr Postman - thank you for delivering our letter .. I see there are a lot of building blocks to give us even a simple understanding of how the coats of arms are made up .. it is tantalising that we have to wait another day - but I can understand that .. Mum and I can mull over these facts and go back to yesterday's post - it takes her a little while to absorb things, but she will definitely comment and make some salient points - that is what is wonderful .. that she's still with us. Thank you - til tomorrow then ...

Hilary Melton-Butcher
Positive Letters

Friday, 17 April 2009

Heraldry .. "a shorthand of history" - part 1/4

Dear Mr Postman .. thank you once again for delivering our letter; I know this will stimulate my mother's mind .. these kind of brief notes offer us lots of ideas to ruminate over .. laugh at and enjoy each other's company while we read the letter -

Wikipedia describes heraldry thus: 'A shorthand of history' .. now that is an interesting phrase to ponder on .. or how about 'the floral border in the garden of history' - what an amazing statement or description for us to think about .. - do Persian carpets tell the same kind of tale?
Heraldry of sorts was an established tradition in Egyptian times; the heraldic idea came over to England at the time of the Norman Conquest (1066), however the inheritable emblem and heraldic structure became established over the next 100 years, and is now embedded into the pageant and customs of State.

The origins of heraldry lie in the need to distinguish participants in combat when their faces were hidden by helmets; eventually a formal system of rules developed into ever more complex forms of heraldry. This bestowal of inheritable honour fell to the sovereign (or the state), who also appoints Officers of Arms to regulate and control matters armorial, attend state ceremonies, conserve and interpret heraldic and genealogical records.

A coat of arms (armorial achievement) consists of the shield, the helmet, the crest, mantling (the drapery backing the crest on the shield) and supporters (the animal, bird etc holding up the shield); the motto, which may be in any language, may appear with the coat of arms, but is not necessarily part of the coat of arms.

The colours and tinctures (metals and furs), charges (the emblem or device occupying the 'field' of the shield) - have all stemmed from historical elements and been absorbed into each country's heraldic dynasty.

So we will look at this garden of history .. the tinctures, the symbols, the metals, the furs, the national styles, modern heraldry .. and see if we can make head or tail of this shorthand! Interesting times ahead .. enjoy ..

Thank you Mr Postman for this simple explanation of the origins of heraldry .. we look forward to tomorrow for some more rich and royal descriptions ... & in the future Persian carpets - now's there's a thought!

Images: The coat of arms of Garter Principal King of Arms - appears above: per Wikipedia
as does .... The coat of arms of University of California San Diego
Hilary Melton-Butcher
Positive Letters

Thursday, 16 April 2009

To skylark, eat pies ...

Dear Mr Postman .. how nice to see you again .. are you saying that today's letter has a link with yesterday's .. but with a twist .. oh! alright .. we will enjoy reading ..

Our English culture is so amazing .. now-a-days fortunately some of the customs have disappeared in to the mists of time .. such as

Sing a song of sixpence, A pocket full of rye;
Four and twenty blackbirds baked in a pie!
When the pie was opened the birds began to sing,
Oh wasn't that a dainty dish to set before the king?

A cook would skylark around and produce a pie with live birds inside a huge pastry crust to the wealthy medieval knight to amuse his guests, and then bring in a real pie once the birds had been released ...

Larks until fairly recently in Europe were shot, or caught in nets, and eaten as a delicacy .. and in fact in England were sent to Leadenhall Market in sack loads in the late 1800s .. per a reference by Roy Booth: & to a recipe for lark pie by Elizabeth Grey - the Countess of Kent - 1687 ... it starts ...

Take three dozen of Larks, season them with Nutmegs, and half an ounce of Pepper, a quarter of an ounce of mace beaten, then take the Lumber pye-meat [I think she means loin], and fill their bellies, if you will; if not, take half a pound of suet, and one pound of Mutton minced, half a pound of Raisins of the Sun, and six Apples minced all together very small, then season it with a Nutmeg, pepper and salt, and one spoonful of sweet Herbs, and a Lemon peel minced, one penny loaf grated, a quarter of a pint of Cream, two or three spoonfuls of Rose-water, three spoonfuls of Sugar, one or two spoonfuls of Verjuice (unripe grape juice); then make this in boles (balls), and put it in their bellies, and put your Larks in your Pie ......

Other birds were hunted to extinction - cranes an ancient British bird had been wiped out by the 1600s .. as dozens of them had been the lavish centre piece of medieval banquets ... or included in the great theatrical show of cooking a bird within another bird .. tiny larks last, blackbird or thrush, hens, partridge, cranes ... = a meal fit for a king.

Cranes have returned to England and are being protected to ensure their population growth, skylarks are being protected by the farmers setting aside rough areas of farmland for them to breed - as they are ground breeders, blackbirds are still fairly common throughout their habitat - Africa to Scandinavia and northern Europe ... although the rise in the magpie population is taking its toll on smaller birds .. blackbirds, robins, wrens etc

Thank you Mr Postman .. that was very interesting and I'm pleased we are learning to protect and reintroduce our natural world again ... is there a link for tomorrow - heraldry .. oh good .. we look forward to seeing you then ..

PS: Thank you Giovanna for suggesting I add in the Beatles' 'Blackbird' track sung by Sarah McLachlan.

Hilary Melton-Butcher - Positive Letters

Wednesday, 15 April 2009

Innocent Pleasures ...

Dear Mr Postman .. it's at this time of year that we seem particularly to appreciate small pleasures .. spring has sprung and all tiny things appear wonderful .. we are grateful to see you on this wonderful sunny day ..

Going back to yesterday's letter and the news of burgeoning spring .. when I went to the hospital I realised I'd missed so many other wonderful new beginnings .. the berberis hedges with their amazing orange clusters, turning to dark purple berries later on - which the birds luxuriate on, - another Darwin find during his Beagle voyage down South America. We had these hedges in our garden .. great prickly lines with these fantastic orange blooms ..

I love the dark streaks of branches, stems, twigs .. that suddenly show life .. and give a promise of spring and new growth .. another plant we had at home and is coming into flower now is the flowering quince (Japonica or Chaenomeles) .. I just love the colour - described as bright orange scarlet .. to me it's got some pink in it .. just beautiful.

The tulips, grape hyancinths, late daffodils, narcissi, pansies, irises, narcissi, wall flowers - this huge array of carpets of blooms .. the verges in the country are full of primroses, primulas, violets - backed by the sprouting white flowered blackthorn or sloe (used to infuse gin .. my mother remembers making some in the days when she drank gin!) - all promising of other pleasures to come.

The common blackbird, recorded by Linnaeus as far back as 1758, with its yellow eye-ring and bright orange beak is darting around bobbing up and down as it prepares to nest in gardens, hedges, thickets ... the male starts singing in late March - a wonderful musical warble followed by a high pitch finish, then starts again .. the song is magical and has been sacred to folklore.
The Skylark is another bird immortalised in our culture - this year 2009 we seem to be lucky: spring is taking its normal course, we've had a typical winter/spring build up with slowly increasing temperatures allowing our vegetation to take its natural course.

When we're out in the country on warm days we can take in the innocent pleasures of spring without a second thought and watch the skylark as it rises straight up to hover at distant heights singing its lofty song before it plunges down .. my mother and I were talking and laughing about the memories of our walks in the country listening and watching the distant specks high in the blue skies of spring.

Are you experiencing the innocent pleasures of our northern hemisphere spring?

You are enjoying your post rounds now? - that's good news to hear .. it is wonderful being out and having some of that warming sun on our backs .. thank you so much bringing us this positive letter ..
Hilary Melton-Butcher
Positive Letters

Tuesday, 14 April 2009

Spring has sprung - but what a difference a year ago

Dear Mr Postman .. you must be enjoying your rounds delivering the letters in this wonderful spring weather - do you remember last year? What an amazing change ..

The burgeoning warmth of spring has suddenly just let loose ... we're walking round with smiles on our faces, fewer anoraks or coats, wondering at the magic of nature - all the blossoms are out - great riots of colour, before their leaves follow on, all the spring green shrub and tree foliage is teasing us of fullness to come ... the colours are so amazing, so fresh and hinting at bountiful times ahead here in England.

There's so much happening in the natural world .. the birds are singing and twittering around, some soaring to great heights, some arriving back from distant lands - the cuckoo has already been heard, the swifts have started to arrive (both all the way from Africa) .. perhaps ten days to two weeks earlier than expected. There've been many changes since I was a child .. rare birds, which are now common, and common birds that are harder to find ..... perhaps you've had the same experiences in your lifetime?

The bright yellow forsythia bushes, the delicate pink and white blossom of the flowering cherry - my mother immediately said its latin name - subhirtella - something I didn't know - I had to check (after asking her to spell it!) .. & of course she is correct .. we had one on our lawn when I was growing up. Here in Eastbourne our parking area has 5 or 6 mature cherry trees with wonderful sugar-pink clusters of flowers .. it is magical to see. Last year we had a poster of one of these cherry trees in full bloom put on the ceiling above my mother's bed .. so 'she could dream into it' ...

As I go back and forth the short distance to the hospital as now, or the nursing centre, I watch the green and red leafed growth spread and hide the stalks and branches, the deep pink of the magnolia or the white star shaped magnolia flowers, see the confetti of dropped petals - the deep rosy pink of the camellias, the cherry blossom, the grass becoming covered in daisies and this year a prolific spread of dandelions .. I heard a tale - that spring is really here when your hand can cover ten daisy heads .. that is most definitely so now!

Last year .. was a different story on 13th April 2008 .. we had a dump of snow! I cannot remember anything like it - yes I spent some time in Africa - & yes we had snow in Johannesburg = that was a surprise to all!! .. my mother watched the snow falling and always smiles at the memory of the picture of a bicycle I brought in - she always amazes me.

We had about six inches in an hour and half .. I left home in a blizzard - drove the mile up the hill (top of the Downs) - parked and just watched the snow fall - we couldn't see anything else, it was a white out. In the end I thought this isn't going away .. so out I plodded & swept my car clean of snow .. so I could drive home again: the staff stood in the window laughing & reported my progress to my mother.

We love this time of year and can talk and laugh about all kinds of happenings and remember the years gone by .. and last year the cherry trees in full bloom covered in layers of soft powdery snow .. what memories for us all ... have you had similar experiences?

It is most kind of you, Mr Postman, to bring us this letter - did you manage to deliver your letters in all that snow last year? - I suspect you did, as you are so diligent and we are so grateful ..

Hilary Melton-Butcher
Positive Letters

Sunday, 12 April 2009

Food, glorious food ... after the long fast

Dear Mr Postman - it is excellent to see you again with another letter - and I see it's about the celebration of food after Lent and the renewal of life .. spring lambs, eggs ..

After 40 days of giving things up for Lent - this is the time for a family feast after the fast with a succulent spring roast lamb, roast or new potatoes, fresh young vegetables, onion sauce, and all the trimmings including mint sauce, followed perhaps by rhubarb crumble and custard ..? Then into the foliage sprouting garden for a 'hunt the egg' game .. & an overdose of chocolate for the children & perhaps adults?

The Paschal Lamb or Jesus Christ, is the lamb sacrified for sin, hailed by John the Baptist as the Lamb of God & is tied in with the lamb sacrificed and eaten at the Jewish Passover. The symbolism of faith goes with the symbolism of spring and that's the fine congruity between the Christian feast and the season. The same goes for Easter eggs - the start of spring and a sybmol of fertility and new life - also given as an emblem of the Resurrection.

Chocolate eggs come in all shapes, sizes, flavours taking over the art of egg decorating - a family tradition involving the children. We used to have chickens at home .. so we had lots of eggs and I remember early on painting hard boiled eggs - dipping the eggs into bowls of coloured water ... natural dyeing (beetroot, spinach, tea, onion skins or saffron); then we tried blowing the eggs - a somewhat trickier 'operation' .. and I don't think we were too successful - as we were "get up and go kids" .. always out in the garden running around.

Here in England .. hunt the Easter egg is a favourite .. chocolate eggs placed around the garden - public or private - hoping the dogs won't hunt them down first!! Then everyone is teamed up to look for their particular coloured eggs .. and another orgy of excess can begin!! Afternoon tea would be on the table soon afterwards ...

Spring is ushered in around the world with a host of strange and wonderful religious, secular and pagan traditions .. all celebrating the universal experience of spring as a time of natural and spiritual renewal. These customs are mainly in the northern hemisphere - though no doubt have also been adopted and suitably amended for down under ...

Egg rolling competitions still occur in parts of England and are held each year on the White House lawn (if there's enough room left after the new vegetable patch!?); egg tapping or knocking is another custom practised in the north of England, and is making revival in Louisiana, in the States ... as well as local egg decoration and craft competitions for the children.

After the dark winter months, the lengthening days and the time of sorrow and self-denial during Lent - Easter allows us to let loose and start enjoying the pleasures of life again .. fresh spring air, young fresh food, new ideas, new leaves .. wonderful scents of flowering sweetpeas, roses to come .. the burgeoning of new life for a new season .. it happens every year .. but it makes such a difference!! Enjoy the coming months ...

Thank you Mr Postman .. that's a great letter about Easter and the start of our wonderful seasons of plenty .. are you having roast lamb for lunch today - I expect most people will be having a family lunch and that is what is so important ..

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Hilary Melton-Butcher
Positive Letters