The Front Line Walk – October 2016

It’s been three weeks since I returned from the Front Line Walk and I am only just getting my thoughts together on it. It was the most powerful, emotional, exhausting thing I have ever done. And I suspect that it is for those reasons that the experience will live with me for such a long time.

Reasons Why?!

It all began – and I blame Jo entirely for this – when we met on the pavement after she had finished running the London Marathon in 2015. She had managed to raise a fantastic £2,690 for ABF The Soldier’s Charity and challenged me to do likewise.

Run a Marathon!? Me?! You have got to be joking. I don’t run. I’ve tried to get the ‘Couch to 5km’ done and dusted but gave up after week 3 ’cause of shin splits..! I’m not good with pain – being a delicate old soul. So – the notion of running was out. BUT at the post race reception at Wellington Barracks, whilst Jo was receiving a well earned leg massage, I saw some advertising for something called ‘The Front Line Walk’,  met Amy Kenyon who enthused about it and decided that the prospect of walking 100km was a better one that running 26 miles. Sorry – 26 POINT 2 miles. I know that the POINT 2 is of the utmost importance… So that was my first reason for walking the Western Front.

The second reason – if I needed one – was down to my involvement in a collaborative project with the Diocese of Blackburn and the Lancashire Methodist District. The project was called ‘Brothers in Arms’ – a multi-media presentation telling the story of the faith, lives and service of Noel and Christopher Chavasse.

Noel and Christopher both served in the First World War; Noel as a Medic and Christopher as a Chaplain. The involvement in the retelling of their story and the overarching narrative of the First World War really caught my attention – so again, ‘The Front Line Walk’ seemed to be a natural fit. An opportunity to pay tribute to the brothers.

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So – two reasons. A challenge and an opportunity to pay tribute to two outstanding gentlemen. But shortly before the walk – and after approximately 200 miles of training – another reason arrived with the request to bless a reinstated plaque at Poulton-le-Fylde Methodist Church in honour of a soldier called Lt Geoffrey Potts.

I had no idea about this soldier – other than the name on the plaque and the date of his death. Fortunately a church member had done some work uncovering details of his service, but after posting a photograph on the Facebook Group page I am indebted to Terry for his detailed work in uncovering more of Lt. Potts’ story. More of that a little later…

Day One – Embarkation: 5/10/16.

The morning of Tuesday 4th October dawned a little too early for my taste as the alarm roused me out of sleep at 6.00am. I had spent the night in the tiniest of rooms at an easyHotel in Earls Court, in the uppermost corner of the building. I showered, got my bags packed again and headed out of the door at 6.50am thinking that I had all the time in the world to get there before 7.30am… Got to the tube and on it in in perfect time, only for the wretched thing to sit outside the station for 5 minutes… Time was rapidly running away from me, especially as I dithered at St James’ Park Underground Station for a while deciding what to have for breakfast..!

The dithering resulted in a phone message from Amy asking if I were alright and how far away I was… I didn’t reply, for the incredibly good reason that I was in France when I picked up the message. However, I made it to the Barracks at 7.35am and I wasn’t the last! And by no means was I the first! A quick check into registration then jumping into the back of the group photograph, choosing the sandwich and off onto the coach for the journey to France.

Our first port of call in Arras – our base for three days – was to the Faubourg-d’Amiens Cemetery and the Arras Memorial to the Missing. I think it was here, in this place where 2,650 marked graves and the names of nearly 35,000 missing servicemen that the full weight of what I was about to embark on became clear.

You see – you hear all about the figures of casualties in documentaries, numbers banded about during the Somme 100 celebrations and in the history books, but, there is a sense by which none of that really sinks in… “2,650 graves, you say” And the response is almost “Wow. That’s amazing.” And I am sure that it is because that number cannot be imagined in the mind. And then you find yourself in that place, with 2,650 headstones stretched out in front of you. You walk beside the wall where there are 35,000 names etched into stone – each headstone, each etching representing the life of a son, a father, a brother, an uncle – and you suddenly become aware of the vast loss of potential in the lives of those who fell.

From here we made the short journey to our hotel, unloaded and met our roommates! I had the pleasure of sharing with Neil Fox who I warned very early on that I am told that I snore very loudly. Fortunately, he was very gracious and pointed to his exceedingly good ear plugs!

I didn’t stay in the room for very long because Terry had told me to “hurry up” – through his research he had discovered where Lt Potts was buried and we were going to see if we could we find his grave. So I jumped into a taxi at the Gare d’Arras with Terry and Steve and we headed off to find Wancourt British Cemetary.

I can honestly say, that as I stood in front of Lt. Potts’ grave, I wasn’t prepared for the rush of emotion that I felt as I read his name. I knew him only from a plaque at church, back in Poulton-le-Fylde and yet as I stood there, the emotion of the moment took over. Terry invited me to say some words and for a moment I was speechless – I had the overwhelming sense that anything I might have said would have been wholly inadequate for the moment. So I prayed. I gave thanks for his life and for his service and him, once more, into God’s care and planted a poppy cross on behalf of his home church at his grave in this beautiful corner of the countryside of Northern France.

Following this we visited Heninel Croisilles Road Cemetery so that Steve could visit the grave of a relative of someone who had given an amazing sum to his fundraising.

Each of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s Cemeteries has a Register holding the names of those who are buried there and, if known, information about the service of each Soldier commemorated. This details the exact location within the graveyard of where the individual is buried.

So – then we headed back to the taxi and into Arras and to the hotel bar unable to cope with numbers of people wanting alcohol! The evening meal followed, an inspirational talk by Andy Reid (a veteran of the Afghan War and beneficiary of the Charity) and then bed – because an earlier start beckoned the following morning!

Day Two – Walking: 6/10/16

“5.30am! 5.30am?! What sort of ungodly hour of the morning is this?”

My thoughts as I rolled out of bed, across the floor towards the sound of the alarm on my phone that was plugged into the nearest plug to the bed that I could find… Perhaps it was just as well that it was a roll away… Fortunately Neil’s alarm went off at the same time!

Breakfast was a most continental affair – cereals and croissants filled with ham and cheese and plenty of Orange Juice… The queue at the coffee machine was far too long! A quick stop at the gym on the way up to the room followed shortly after. I am delighted to announce that I visited the gym every morning whilst in that hotel albeit only to fill up my water bottle from the dispenser in the corner…water

On the way to the coach at 6.45am, a packed lunch of a baguette was picked up (a daily routine) and then settle into the seat for the short journey to our starting place for the walk at Lochnagar Crater.

Lochnagar Crater is the biggest man-made crater created during WW1 formed when a mine laid by the 179th Tunnelling Company of the Royal Engineers was exploded underneath the German Stronghold of “Schwaben Hohe” at 7.28am on 1st July 1916, signalling the start of the Battle of the Somme. It was still dark when we arrived and as we left the coach, jackets were rapidly pulled out of bags as a biting wind swirled around us.

The Crater is a remarkable size – no picture can do it justice and after a prayer and a blessing from the Padre (Andy)  we took a moment to look around… I perhaps took too long to look around as when I turned from taking photographs I discovered that the majority of the walkers had walked! So I turned my back to the Crater and my face to the rising sun and set off…

5 miles later – and after Terry had presented me with a heavy piece of shrapnel he’d found at the side of a field (I carried it with me all the way that first day!) – we arrived at the next moment of reflection for our walk.

Mametz Wood is a hauntingly, beautiful place. Peaceful and serene and yet with a past so tragic and violent. A past that creeps up on you as you walk through it, for attached to trees along the way are tributes to men of the 38th (Welsh) Division who fell in 1916 during a battle with the Germans to gain control of the area and to drive them out of the wood. The Welsh first had to cross open fields to reach the wood and then engage in hand-to-hand warfare within the wood itself. The first attack on the 7th July failed and it would take another attack on the 10th July and a further two days fighting for the wood to come under Welsh control.

The Memorial to the 38th (Welsh) Division is a remarkable red dragon atop a plinth of stone quarried from a Welsh mine. It stands proud above the fields the Welsh Division will have had to cross in order to reach the wood and where so many fell in the haze of machine gun fire coming from the wood itself.

The road running past Flatiron Copse Cemetery was the location for our first drinks and snack stop of the walk! The team had done an excellent job of setting up hot and cold drinks and a wide variety of snacky treats – a sign-in sheet also recorded all our arrivals. It was that I first really began to be aware of the number of headstones dedicated to ‘A Soldier of the Great War Known unto God’. Within the headstones of those names were these tribute to those whose remains were found but who could not be identified. I don’t know why I found this such an emotionally challenging moment, but I suspect it was the thought that these ‘unknowns’ may never have had anyone pay tribute to them at their resting place. I cried. And I resolved that at each cemetery we visited, I would knee beside such a headstone and give thanks for the life and service of whoever was buried here, knowing and trusting that God knew exactly who it was. In the midst of such numbers of headstones and tributes where one could become so easily overwhelmed, I found it a moment in which I could spend simply a moment in reflection and gratitude.

From here, our journey took us to Thiepval and the Memorial to the Missing. The Memorial first came into view over a ridge as it rose, majestically into the skyline – the top only in view, the est hidden by trees. A wave of emotion came over me as I saw it – a place I saw during the television coverage of the Somme 100 Memorial – knowing that I was walking to that place where so many are remembered.

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On first arriving at Thiepval, the main opportunity was the chance to remove boots and let feet breathe as we sat and enjoyed our lunch in the sunshine. Thiepval was a busy place, with coach tours arriving and departing all day. Lunch today – as was lunch every day – consisted of a filled baguette, fruit and a fizzy drink. Thankfully, the coffee station had been set up as well!

Once lunch was eaten, there was the opportunity to walk around the memorial. It is an incredibly impressive structure, sitting proud atop Thiepval Ridge and is the largest British battle memorial in the world, taking 4 years to construct. Each of the 16 legs are covered with the names of those who fell in the Battle of the Somme before 20th March 1918 and “to whom the fortune of war denied the known and honoured burial given to their comrades in death”. 72,000 names. 72,000. Names of soldiers, officers and men of the United Kingdom and South African Forace. 72,000 names.

And it was here that I was struck again with a stark contrast in the theatre of war. The missing named and the nameless found. 

A remarkable memorial to the missing is produced by the British Royal Legion in the form of a Somme 1916 Poppy Pin. Jo had purchased one to give me when I arrived home at the end of the walk. However, as I had been updating  my journey for those following on FaceBook, she had been able to discover that I was at Thiepval. The pin had arrived that day and Jo had opened it to have a look and she discovered that the soldier my pin whose life it commemorates was remembered at Thiepval Memorial. So she sent me a photograh of the card and I was able to find the name of Lance Corporal H Miller of the Essex Regiment, who died on the 26th September 1916 and pay a tribute to him whilst I was there.

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Steve, our most excellent historian, told us as we were preparing to leave of the battle that took place where we stood. Of how the British had to make their way up a hill, under a hail of German machine gun fire. Of the diary of a German Machine Gunner who fired thousands of rounds and saw hundreds of men fall. Once again, our walk set off in silence. We passed Connaught British Military Cemetery and Mill Road Cemetery and the exquisite ‘Ulster Tower’. The Ulster Tower is a replica of Helen’s Tower in the Clandeboye Estate in Northern Ireland where many of the men of the Ulster Division would have trained before arriving in France in 1916. Nine men are remembered here who won the Victoria Cross during the Battle of the Somme.

As well as receiving a piece of shrapnel, it was possible to see shells laid out alongside the fields – discovered by farmers as they plough their fields. 30 tons of 100 year old metal is found every year which, given that in the preliminary bombardment of the Battle of the Somme and in the week afterwards 5,350 tons of shells were fired by the British Expeditionary Force alone.

A wander through Beaumont-Hamel Newfoundland Memorial followed – a Canadian National Historic site comprising of 74 acres of preserved battlefields on which the Newfoundland Regiment fought on 1st July 1916. Within this preserved battlefield there is also the ‘Danger Tree’ – the only tree to survive the Great War in this location. There is also a memorial to the men of the 51st (Highland) Division which captured the village of Beaumont Hamel on 13th November 1916.

On 1st July 1916, British cinematographer Geoffrey Malins was filming the 29th Division’s attack of the German lines for the official war film ‘The Battle of the Somme’. He had his camera set up to film a mine due to be detonated at 7.20am that morning. His camera captured one of the most famous pieces of footage of World War 1.

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Next to where Malins’ camera stood was ‘The Sunken Lane’ – a simple country lane situated in no man’s land between the two opposing armies. The men of the 1st Battalion The Lancashire Fusiliers were filmed here, moments before they went over the top and into a hail of machine gun fire.

Steve painted the events for us here in great detail; of how tunnellers had worked through from the British Front Line, emerging from the embankment where we stood in the lane; of how Malins filmed the men, hiding on the opposite side of the lane to avoid sniper fire from the Germans at Hawthorn Ridge; of how the call to ‘go over the top’ waited for 10 minutes after the mine was exploded, giving the Germans ample time to recover from the shock and surprise of the mine blast and man their guns. Pictures of stills from Malins’ film were place on the banks of the Sunken Lane and we stood in reverent silence as gazed upon their faces, hearing their story and looking at the point at which they scrambled over the embankment to attack the enemy.

Perhaps the most poignant story we heard here was of the Signaller charged with the task of getting a message back to the lines behind that all was not going well. This man, as he climbed the embankment to relay the message, must have known what the outcome of his task was to be. He was dead within 10 seconds of taking position. Such bravery. Such dedication to duty. And again, we set off in silence.

Our final 10kms took us across some beautiful countryside, skirting by many more cemeteries, by the famous Accrington Pals Memorial (built with Accrington Red Brick) and ending at Gommecourt Wood Military Cemetery.

I must admit to walking this portion with much haste – we had been told that as soon as the first coach was full it would go straight back to the hotel… I was tired and cold and determined to be on that coach. I was. But I ached and knew that I’d overdone it.

Day Three – More walking… 7/10/16

If excitement and adrenaline got us through the 24 miles of Day One, it would be grit, determination and sheer bloodymindedness that got us through Day Two.

The Day began as the day before, 5.30am alarm, breakfast, gym visit, lunch pick up and the coach; except this day dawned grey and murky. Our start point was at the Neuville-Saint-Vaast German Military Cemetery.

I was surprised at the difference between the German and Commonwealth Cemeteries. No pristine, white headstones here. No lovingly tended flower borders.Simply row upon row of crosses. This is primarily because of the way in which the cemeteries are funded. Commonwealth cemeteries receive funding direct from the Governments concerned – Untied Kingdom, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and India who pay Pakistan’s share as Pakistan was formed in 1947. The German Cemeteries are funded entirely by donations to a charity, Volksbund Deutsche Kriesgsraberfursorge (VDK).

The constitutional aims of Volksbund are:

  • to construct and maintain cemeteries both abroad and in Germany.
  • to arrange for remembrance wreaths to be placed on behalf of next of kin.
  • to provide financial support for relatives’ pilgrimages to graves.
  • to offer help and advice to dependants concerning any matters relating to the soldier’s resting place.
  • to establish a constructive liaison with the appropriate authorities in whose land the German soldiers were buried, and to be the means to learn from the past, to build bridges of friendship and to spread the word of peace.

Each cross bears the name of four German Soldiers – there are 44,833 men buried here. Within that 44,833 are the headstones of 129 Jewish soldiers who died fighting for Germany and I was struck by how – in just 20 years – the inhumanity of man toward man took an increasingly sinister turn as the Jews (and other groups too) were systematically destroyed within Germany. This Great War, this War to end ALL Wars, shattered the lives and the hopes of people on all sides of the conflict.

We continued our walk past the Military Cemetery at Ecoivers to the evocative ruins of Mont-Saint-Eloi. The once powerful Abbey was established in the 7th Century, but fell into ruin during the Revolution – the white stones of it’s walls stolen for other uses. The French used the towers that remained to spy on German positions, but realised that the birds nesting in the towers were giving away their positions. Shell fire further destroyed the tops of the ruins.

Our stop at Mont-Saint-Eloi brought welcome relief in the form of biscuits and hot drinks, before a warning that the next leg of the journey – the leg towards lunch and baguettes – was a long and difficult one. And it was. This section had the habit of making you think you were nearly there and then throwing you off the scent. A gorgeous walk through a small ravine with a babbling stream to a road – ‘the coach must be nearby then… No? OK…’. A walk uphill and then a scramble uphill. I remember hoping at the point of the scramble that God really loved those who had put the route together ’cause at that particular moment in time I was thinking some increasingly murderous thoughts. All that turned to shame when we were informed after lunch that the French Army had climbed that very same hill, wearing their uniform and carrying all their kit whilst being fired at by the Germans above. And when the French got to the top, those that could still had to fight the Germans back in order to win the ridge. Perspective is a great leveller and that certainly levelled me.

Notre Dame de Lorette is the largest French military cemetery in the world – a total of 39,985 burials.

It is here at Notre Dame de Lorette where there is one of the most moving tributes to those who fell in the Nord and Pas-de-Calais region between 1914 and 1918. 580,000 names listed without any reference to rank or nationality, friends and enemies named side by side. 580,000 names. I successfully found Lt. Geoffrey Potts and Lance Corporal H. Miller within that 580,000.

From here, we could just about see our final destination of the day, but there was an awful lot of walking to do between here and Vimy Ridge.

Vimy Ridge is a remarkable place – a network of preserved trenches remain showing, in places, how close opposing sides were to each other in this form of trench warfare. If only I had walked faster to get here – I could have spent all day amongst the trenches imagining, remembering and reflecting on the events that took place here 100 years ago. The landscape still marked by shell and mine craters, the grass – too dangerous to walk upon – kept short by the grazing of sheep oblivious to the risks involved!

 

The monument at Vimy Ridge is truly remarkable. It is situated at the highest point of the ridge overlooking the Douai Plain and is dedicated to the all Canadians who served during WW1 – particularly to the 60,000 who died in France. It bears the names of 11,000 Canadian soldiers – many of whom died in the fight for Vimy Ridge – who have no known grave.

A photograph of the collected walkers at Vimy Ridge was taken and then we all headed back to the coaches for the trip back to the hotel. Whilst on the coach, Terry sat next to me – he’d been catching me all day saying, “I’ve got something that I need to ask you, but it can wait until later!” I’d spent much of the day wondering what it might be and it turned out to be something utterly amazing.

The Soldiers’ Charity, perhaps in order to encourage rabid fundraising(!), offer the opportunity for the top three fundraisers to form the wreath laying party on behalf of the charity at the Last Post Ceremony at The Menin Gate in Ypres. That incentive certainly worked for me in my fundraising activity but unfortunately it wasn’t meant to be! At best guess I came fourth – but that’s OK – you don’t, as they say, win ’em all! So it was with the greatest of surprise when Terry offered me the opportunity to take his place at the Menin Gate. And I am forever grateful for that amazing moment – but more of that later…

On arrival back at the hotel, it was back up to the room to check out the damage on the old (and I use that word hesitatingly) heels. Throughout my 200 miles of training walks, I’d always ended up with a blister in exactly the same place on either heel. No matter what strapping, socks, boots or speed I walk, they were my ever present companions. So instead of being frustrated by them, I decided to embrace them, welcome them and name them! Meet Eric and Ernie.

Day Four – Still walking…. 8/10/16

You know the routine by now… 5.30am alarm, breakfast, the all important gym visit, lunch pick up and coach… But this time, pack the case and remember to take it to the coach for we left Arras behind and headed up into Belgium.

Our starting point was Ploegsteert – otherwise known as ‘Plugstreet’ by those who served during WW1 – and the Memorial to the Missing  holding the names of over 11,000 soldiers from the United Kingdom and South African forces who died in this sector. It was here the Steve told us about the life of the only tunneller to have ever received the Victoria Cross.

“On the morning of 22 June 1916, Sapper William Hackett and four other miners of 254 Tunnelling Company were driving a tunnel towards the enemy lines below the cratered surface of the Givenchy sector of northern France. At about one-quarter of the way towards the German trenches at a depth of about 35 feet, the timbered gallery 4’3” high by 2’6” wide was still in the early stages of development; it was served by a single shaft – the Shaftesbury Shaft. At 2.50am the explosion of a heavy German mine (the Red Dragon) blew in 25 feet of the tunnel, cutting the five men off from the shaft and safety. On the surface, a rescue party was immediately organised. After two days of digging an escape hole was formed through the fallen earth and broken timbers, and the tunnellers contacted. William Hackett helped three men to safety. However, with sanctuary beckoning, and although himself apparently unhurt, he refused to leave until the last man, seriously injured 22 year-old Thomas Collins of the Swansea Pals (14th Battalion, the Welsh Regiment), was rescued. His words were said to be, “I am a tunneller, I must look after the others first”. The rescuers worked on, but were frequently immobilized by German shelling and mortaring of the shaft-head. Conditions above and below ground became more treacherous by the minute. Eventually the gallery collapsed again, entombing the two men. Both still lie beneath the fields of Givenchy today… For his act of selfless valour William Hackett was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross.” (http://www.tunnellersmemorial.com/william-hackett-vc/)

Hackett is named on the Ploegsteert Memorial whilst Collins is named at Thiepval.

Our walk took us through Ploegsteert Wood and the opportunity to visit some smaller cemeteries hidden between the trees. It was at Rifle House Cemetery that we saw the a headstone commemorating one of the youngest serving soldiers. Raphael Glitzenstien was born on 25th June 1899 in London, son of Barnett and Esther Glitzenstein. After a family argument, he left home and, having lied about his age, he joined the army. Being a Jew, he thought it was to change his name, taking up the name of his father as his new surname, he became Rifleman Robert Barnett. He had been in France and Belgium since 9th October 1914 and was killed in action 19th December that same year. He was 15 when he died.

Prowse Point Military Cemetery was our next visit – uniquely named after an individual instead of a location or nearby feature, the cemetery is located on the site of a stand made by the 1st Battalions of the Hampshire Regiment and the Somerset Light Infantry in October 1914. It is named after Brigadier Charles Prowse, commemorating his heroic actions during this stand.

Here Steve showed us the grave of an Australian soldier – Private A.J. Mather, whose remains were discovered during an archaeological dig nearby. Through DNA testing his remains were identified and his family travelled from Australia to be present at his internment.

Somehow, I missed visiting the Khaki Chums 1914 Christmas Truce Memorial – I will have to try and rectify that at some point in the future! I did, however, have my breath taken away by the beautiful simplicity of the Island of Island Peace Park, full of poetry with the ‘Irish Peace Tower’ at it’s heart. The tower is beautiful, with the inside – due to its design – only being illumined by the light of the sun at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month. There are a number of stone tablets at the park, holding the words from poems and letters of Irish Servicemen…

“It is too late now to retrieve a fallen dream, too late to grieve a name unmade, but not too late to thank the Gods for what is great. A keen edged sword, a soldier’s heart is greater than a poet’s art. And greater than a poet’s fame a little grave that has no name.” Francis Ledwidge, 5th Inniskilling Fusiliers.

“Spent all night trying to console, aid and remove the wounded. It was ghastly to see them lying there in the cold, cheerless outhouses, on bare stretchers with no blankets to cover their freezing limbs.” Chaplain Francis Gleeson, Royal Munster Fusiliers.

“I wish the sea were not so wide that parts me from my love, I wish that things men do below were known to God above. I wish that I were back again in the Glens of Donegal; they’ll call me coward if I return, but a hero if I fall.” Patrick MacGill, London Irish Regiment.

A short and thoughtful walk from here led us to tea break at the New Zealand Messines Ridge Memorial.

There were many places along on the route of our walk where I could have spent many hours thinking and reflecting on the events, heroics, service and suffering of those who fought in the Great War. This was even more the case at Spanbroekmolen Mine Crater, now known as the Pool of Peace.

“The mine at Spanbroekmoelen was started by 171st Tunnelling Company, Royal Engineers, on 1st January. Six months later the mine was finished. To celebrate the mine’s completion two officers made their way into the chamber with four bottles of champagne and drinking glasses. The main charge for the mine was made up of 50lb boxes of ammonol, totalling 90,000 lbs. The main charge was finally completed on 28th June 1916 and officially completed, according to the War Diary, on 1st July 1916.

The dimensions and details of the Spanbroekmolen mine are as follows:

By virtue of the clay soil in the area combined with the high water table, the crater has filled with water. The site was purchased by Lord Wakefield in the 1920’s to be preserved as a memorial and symbol of peace. I had the briefest of moments to sit and reflect on the events, the sights, the statistics and the stories of the past four days – I wish I had had longer there, it was a beautiful. Amazing, I think, that such a place of beauty was born out of an act of horrendous violence and destruction. I am grateful to Jane for having caught – unknown to me – my moment of reflection.

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From here a walk past Caterpillar Trench and Hill 60 – again I need to return to visit these places properly and give them the time they deserve(!) – and tea break before heading on the final portion of the walk – via a well deserved break at a lake side pub! – to Ypres and the finish line at The Menin Gate.

Once we had all regrouped at the lakeside pub, we reorganised ourselves so that those who walked slowest, or were struggling with injury, walked at the front of the pack. This was significant as it meant that we arrived in Ypres as one. Well, as one as a group of 100 can be! We must have looked an incredible sight walking in either our red or black Soldier’s Charity tops along the road.

As we entered Ypres next to the Ramparts Cemetery and through the Lille Gate emotions at the enormity of our achievement began to set in and emotions became etched on our faces – none more so when we round a corner and saw The Menin Gate looming large as people in bars and cafes stood to applaud us as we walked out final footsteps. Emotions overflowed as we walked through the gate, to receive our medals – overawed at our achievements, thankful for friendships forged and aware of the history that had surrounded us every step of the way.

Arrival at our new hotel swiftly followed as did the first bath for days – the chance to soak aching limbs was a welcome change from a shower – and a change into smart clothes for The Last Post Ceremony at The Menin Gate. The sounding of The Last Post first took place at this location on 1st July 1928 and it has been sounded every night (except for during the four years of occupation during the Second World War) and in every kind of weather since 11th November 1929.

It was an honour and a great privilege to have been a member of the wreath laying party on behalf of all the amazing people of the Front Line Walk. I found it increasingly hard, as we waited for the ceremony to begin, to keep my emotions in check as we stood surrounded by the 54, 399 names of those who fell in the Ypres Salient and who have no known grave. It was also through here that many thousands of men marched to the battlefields – in the footsteps of the great we stood, remembered and paid our respects.

A celebration meal at a local restaurant followed and thanks were given to those who had done such an amazing job putting this incredible event together. At the end of the meal, I was invited to join John and Richard at their table – they are both, by ways of explanation, two of the most remarkable people I’ve had the privilege to meet – where I was presented with John’s walking stick with the words, “I don’t have a flock to look after when I get home, but you do”. Speechless. It accompanies me on most of my ministerial duties…

I returned to the hotel relatively early – I had plans for the following day in order to enable this amazing journey to come full circle. But for now – it was time for sleep.

Day Five – Full Circle and Back Home: 9/10/16.

The alarm went off relatively early, although I will admit that Neil’s alarm beat mine by about 10 minutes! A wash and breakfast, packing and storing and a request for a taxi. I was travelling to the village of Brandhoek, 6.5km West of the centre of Ypres. My reason for visiting was to find Branhoek New Military Cemetery and the grave of Capt Noel Godfrey Chavasse so that I may pay my respects to a man whose story I had had the privilege to tell for two years.

Again, I cannot describe the moment and the rush of emotion as I stood before his grave, etched with two Victoria Crosses and the words, “Greater love hath no man that this. That a man lay down his life for his friends.” A most remarkable man, one of only three soldiers to have ever received the VC twice and the only solider of the Great War to have done so. A man who went above and beyond in the course of his duty to care for and attend to those who needed his assistance. Capt Chavasse had received a wound to his head which gave him a fracture to his skull but he refused further treatment, leaving the dressing station in order to attend to those who needed him. He was sheltering in his first aid post on 2nd August 1917 with a group of other soldiers when it received a direct hit from a German shell. Despite a serious abdominal wound, he crawled for half a mile in order to get help for those who lay too injured too move. He received surgery on his wound which gave him the strength to dictate a letter to his fiancee and cousin Gladys Chavasse, explaining why he had carried on working despite his earlier injuries insisting that “duty called and called me to obey”. He died on the 4th August.

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His twin, Christopher, felt his death very keenly and gave a glimpse of his grief in a letter written in 1961; “I still mourn my Noel every day of my life, and have done so for 44 years, and shall do till I see him again – quite soon now.” Christopher died in March 1962 at the age of 77.

In all, four Chavasse brothers served during WW1 – Noel, Christopher, Aidan and Frances. Christopher and Fraces survived the war. Noel died at Brandhoek and Aidan was killed in action, his body never found. I am grateful to John for reminding me that his name is recorded in the stone of The Menin Gate.

A quick tour of St George’s Memorial church followed, where all the walls are covered with plaques of remembrance and the kneeler cushions bearing numerous images of Regimental Crests. I would never have known to have looked here if it weren’t for a walker who had given me his time so generously.

And then that was that. Back to the hotel for a quick glass of Pinot, pack the coach and travel home. Disembarking back at Wellington Barracks was a rush of ‘goodbyes’, ‘see you agains’ and ‘thank yous’ as we all dispersed to numerous London Terminals to begin our final journeys home.

I am truly thankful to so many people who made this experience so utterly remarkable. I don’t want to start naming names because I will undoubtedly miss someone out – entirely by accident – and I don’t want to be doing that. So a thank you – to you all; organisers, medics, photographer, walkers – thank you for the parts that each of played in this amazing, life changing experience.

Postscript – A Lasting Memory: 31/10/16.

It is now three weeks since the walk, 21 days since Jo surprised me by picking me up at Preston Station as I was about to change trains, 504 hours (or so) since the physical end of an incredible journey. To say that this experience will have a lasting emotional impact is somewhat of an understatement. I keep remembering moments and conversations, photographs raise the emotions.

I rededicated the plaque in memory of Lt. Geoffrey Potts on 23rd October after sharing his story and the photographs I took whilst there and my involvement in ‘Brothers in Arms’ continues but now with more meaning than ever before. The production ends with a reading of Laurence Binyon’s poem ‘For the Fallen’ with the music of Elgar’s ‘Nimrod’ playing in the background – I struggled to get through it without shedding a tear before the walk and now… Well now I find much more poignancy in the words:

With proud thanksgiving, a mother for her children,
England mourns for her dead across the sea.
Flesh of her flesh they were, spirit of her spirit,
Fallen in the cause of the free.

Solemn the drums thrill; Death august and royal
Sings sorrow up into immortal spheres,
There is music in the midst of desolation
And a glory that shines upon our tears.

They went with songs to the battle, they were young,
Straight of limb, true of eye, steady and aglow.
They were staunch to the end against odds uncounted;
They fell with their faces to the foe.

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.

They mingle not with their laughing comrades again;
They sit no more at familiar tables of home;
They have no lot in our labour of the day-time;
They sleep beyond England’s foam.

But where our desires are and our hopes profound,
Felt as a well-spring that is hidden from sight,
To the innermost heart of their own land they are known
As the stars are known to the Night;

As the stars that shall be bright when we are dust,
Moving in marches upon the heavenly plain;
As the stars that are starry in the time of our darkness,
To the end, to the end, they remain.

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I am returning the Western Front next year as I take part in the Front Line Walk 2017. If you would like to donate to the amazing work of ABF The Soldier’s Charity in recognition of my ability to put one foot in front of the other for 100km it would be amazing if you could donate at justgiving.com/FrontlineWalk17 and support the incredibly work the charity undertakes.

I aim to complete the Front Line Walk 2017 in memory of the 179 Chaplains who died in service during the Great War.

 

Shameful…

I really am rubbish at this. 66 days since my last post! Rubbish. And I’ve started a diary today too! Another thing to get forgotten about no doubt!!

  
I have, however, managed some good walks to kickstart my training for the Frontline walk in October. The longest was just shy of 16.5 miles!! From Pilling to Blackpool Pleasure Beach!!! Was really proud of that walk, but the blisters were a nightmare! Not too mention the chafing!! But more socks and better pants ordered, so hopefully all will be better on my next walk. Whenever that’ll be!! 

  
But for now – this is my page to donate to ABF The Soldier’s Charity: http://www.justgiving.com/critchyboy76

  
I’m up-to £1,300 and am pleased with that, but hoping for more!! The pics were taken on some of the walks I’ve done! Thanks for reading!

  

Where has the time gone?!

Oh my dear life and days!!! I learnt that from an old colleague who hailed from Cornwall!!! 

It has been such a long time since I blogged and so much has happened that I feel quite ashamed for not putting it all into words! 

I’ve continued in work with the Methodist Church and have picked up a large and busy church, which is an exciting and daunting challenge! I’ve been on BBC North West Tonight and BBC Radio Lancashire. Been part of a wonderful project about World War One which is still ongoing and taken up a rather interesting challenge. 

It’s an interesting challenge because as I’ve just rediscovered this blog I’ve read a previous post called ‘blisters upon blisters!’ detailing a walk around our Circuit Churches. Interesting because the challenge that I have taken on is walking 100km down the World War One front line in aid of ‘The Soldiers Charity’. 

So it seems a good time to pick this blog back up again and preserve this coming year for all eternity!! 

Will you join me for the journey?! 

   
 

Tears of Happiness..!

My blogging days were short lived. Sometimes a break is needed. Sometimes I’m just to busy to blog. So after two years, I hope it has been worth the wait.

I had a funeral not so long ago of a wonderful, saintly church member.

His family had been in a service where I’d read a letter to a baby I’d baptised and thought this would be a good thing to happen for this particular person’s service. Bits of it are from stuff I’ve seen in various places, bits gleaned from listening to colleagues and greater preachers and Christians than I.

So here it is – I’ve changed names and places to give anonymity to the parties concerned – and I managed to get through the letter without tears, though a large deep breath was required to regain composure shortly afterwards…

Dear Joe

Well, I didn’t really think I’d be stood here so soon eulogising about your life. It was only the other week I saw you in hospital. I’d popped into visit after a day at the Zoo with the family, who – incidentally if you remember – were orbiting the hospital in a continuous loop to keep the little ones asleep in the car whilst I nipped in to say hello. You looked so well that day – nearly falling off your bed retelling your hospital stories of the last few days. I can honestly say I didn’t expect a phone call telling me the bad news. We’d even planned your homecoming Joe, hadn’t we? It wasn’t to be like this.

But – as I’m stood here, it would appear that this is the way it has to be, though I would give anything and everything for you to come racing down the aisle, waving your arms in the air to get my attention whilst saying, in the loudest stage whisper heard outside of the West End, “have you got your mic turned on?!”

Anyway, Joe, I’m getting side-tracked… I’m supposed to be writing a eulogy about you to tell all those who have come to Church today in your memory that actually all is well and all is going to be well.

I bet they know loads of stuff about you anyway Joe, things you would much rather not be made public on this or any other occasion! I’ve heard a few of them already and I can assure you they are safe with me!

They’ll all know that you were born on XXXXXXXXX gosh that makes you 70 doesn’t it? I’d not have guessed. I would have always gone guessed lower! They’ll know you were born then and born in XXXXXXXX too where you spent much of your early life.

Now, in my line of work Joe, I get to do a lot of these talks at funerals and it always amazes me the different places where people met their other significant halves – tea dances at the Tower, at work, through a mutual interest. I can’t say that I ever known anyone meeting their significant other on a bus though, Joe! But that is precisely where you met Jane – you’re best mate – wasn’t it? On a coach trip, though thankfully not the ones televised by Channel Four. No, not for you two! You sat next to each other and when the coach arrived back in XXXXXX, Jane needed to powder her nose and being the Gentleman that you were, Joe, you escorted her back to your house to use the facilities on offer. You old romantic! But, as we all known, it worked and after a courtship of 7 years you and Jane tied the knot in the December of 1965.

I wonder if those gathered here today know you had two jobs. The first working Monday to Friday in your Dad’s factory and the other at weekends driving coaches. January 1965 saw you passing your bus test and the relief of a vocation away from the Sheet Metal Works.

It was in the factory that you were exposed to the fine black dust that was part and parcel of the metal works process in the days before the good and proper side of Health & Safety. We know now that it was this invasive black dust that led to the asbestosis that plagued you in later life.

Away from the factory, they may not be aware that you loved driving the buses and coaches – it was less money for you, but took you away from the factory. And, of course, it meant that you could simply be you, being friendly, telling jokes, making people laugh and enjoy life. You aimed for that 40 year mark working the buses, but it wasn’t to be was it? Ill health forced your retirement, 6 months off that elusive 40 year mark.

It was on June 1st 1991 when you moved up here – well, after a trip back to XXXXXX to pick up an errant cat – and you moved into your new home on XXXXX Road. It took a while for you to end up at Church here, but after a visit to XXXX for an evening service, finding it closed with a note pinned on it directing you here, you and Jane made your spiritual home here.

We know that you loved your time amongst us here at Church and I can safely say that we loved having you here amongst us too – I shall miss those walks down the aisle at the end of a service to have you gallop over and tell me that I just keep getting better and better… I’m hoping that I’m somewhere near ‘Archbishop’ level on some imaginary scale of preaching ability…

You were a wonderful friend to so many people Joe for you had this knack of being always able to put people at ease and enable them to see the good in everything around them. You encouraged, enabled and enjoyed seeing people achieve. You were a wonderful husband, friend and mate for Jane – a great Dad to your children, Grandparent to your grandchildren, Great-grandparent to your Great-grandchildren. A gent in every sense of the word, Joe, that – I think – is you down to a tee.

It is true though, what I wrote earlier, about all being well. We’ve heard it read for us in Scripture, that Jesus Himself has prepared a place for you and has taken you to be with Him and His Father in heaven. You know that promise was for you and you know too of the possibility that it is for everyone else because Jesus talked of there being many places, many mansions in Heaven. In other words, you and I know that Jesus was saying there is room for everyone in His Father’s house. And that’s good for us to hear now.

You know as well that in the reading from John’s Gospel, Jesus talks of peace to the disciples. Peace because he was describing to them his departure from them. That’s a helpful thing for us to think about too, Joe, as we contemplate your leaving us, because Jesus didn’t just promise peace, he promised that he would also return and take us to be with Him. And that, I think, is important for all of us who have gathered to celebrate your life to remember, for it is that Christ-peace, that expectation of His return to us, to restore us and renew us that gives us such hope.
T.S, Elliot, an author of some repute, once wrote that “In the end is my beginning” which seems to me to be a quite succinct understanding of the Christian faith. Some may conceive of this service as an ending, but you know and I know that it is merely a beginning – a beginning that brings with it a definitive promise of no more pain, suffering or death. A beginning with life in Heaven assured. Those of us who remain on this side of eternity would do well to remember that.

I will miss you Joe, as I am sure all those who have gathered to celebrate your life will do so too – but we will celebrate Joe, for this isn’t an ending at all.
Goodbye, my friend – I think the Spice Girls once wrote that line – it has been a privilege serving you as your Minister and having been blessed by your generous nature and wonderful sense of humour.

Yours,
Paul.

Blisters on blisters!

Thursday was housework day – my gorgeous, darling wife had decided that the house was terrible and needed work so we raced through the house, cleaning, polishing and vacuuming as went before we all collapsed in a heap with a cup of tea and a biscuit.

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Thursday afternoon I visited a church member in hospital. The parking at hospital is appalling and I usually park down a side road… It seems most of the area decided to park down the side road as I ended up parking nearly a mile away! Still, it was a nice wander to the hospital in the drizzle.

As always, it ended in a big search for the ward I needed as the closer I got the less signs there were! 8, 9, 10 but no 11! After wandering up and down, I found the correct ward and had a lovely visit.

Friday saw me taking a funeral. A funeral of a church member in one of my village chapels. The church member in question had chosen all the readings and all the hymns and music. Her directions included the words NO SERMON! It made my task easier!

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Seriously though, the chosen readings and hymns all put across the message of hope and joy that is rooted in the Gospel of Christ. The church member had done a wonderful job in preparing their funeral. It was such a privilege to lead.

Friday evening was Son #1’s football presentation which was a good evening. He received a trophy for taking part in the squad, as did all the squads. The rest of the trophies, managers choice etc, were reserved for the older squads so we left early and I was dropped off at a Circuit church to stay overnight with a colleague for the adventures of Saturday…

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Saturday was the fruit of a random staff meeting when a colleague said, “I’ve had a great idea! We should do a prayer walk around the Circuit, praying in each church and promoting fairtrade!” I said to him, with a heavy dose of sarcasm and irony in my voice, “Sounds a great idea. Good luck with that!” and found myself as one of the three Circuit ministers to be signed up for the walk..!

We started at 8am at Church #1 and within 1 minute were reaching for the waterproofs as the heavens opened and we were blessed with abundant rain which lasted, more or less, until our arrival, 2 miles away at Church #2. Church #3 was only 1 miles further on before a 4 mile walk to Church #4, having to make it in time for a colleague who was involved in the walk to lead prayers at the start of the local Gala. Churches #5, #6, #7 and #8 followed in quick succession with distances between 1 and 2 miles and also lunch from Subway!

The worst leg was to come… It was 7.8 miles between Church #8 and #9… It was a nightmare. I was actually thinking murderous thoughts towards towards colleague who had suggested the walk and was marching ahead… Fed up, tired and aching and seeing a bus go past, every 20 minutes, to the village we were walking too… But spirits lightening quickly with the opening of the bag of Jelly Babies, I am easily bought!! We were blessed with tea at Church #9 – homemade soup, cheese, ham and lovely bread before our final walk to Church #10. Sadly, on the last mile blisters began popping and rearing their ugly heads. I hobbled the last mile – determined to accomplish the challenge.

We arrived in the final church to the congregation singing, “Jesus is seeking the wanderers yet, why do they roam?” it also included the words, “forgive and forget” which my colleague whose idea it was quickly pointed out! And yes, I did! I’d really had a blast!

So 27 miles done and dusted and I am so pleased with the achievement of having done it. I may be aching from the waist done, blistered on my feet and not able to wear shoes for long periods of time (led worship and communion in my socks this morning!) but I have deep sense of achievement that will last a long time. Praying in every church, met at every church with a warm welcome and a cup of tea was amazing.

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A focus of the walk was for us to promote fair trade in all the churches and as I’ve reflected during the last 12 hours or so I quickly realised that the pain I feel in my legs must be nothing to pain of those who have to walk hours each and every day to find and carry back water of whatever quality.

Fair trade, to put it simply, is fantastic. Giving those who produce our food a decent wage for their efforts isn’t rocket science, but for so long it hasn’t been a part of our world trade. Not only does fair trade promise a proper wage, it also gives communities hope in the future as extra monies pay for schooling, medical care, safe water sources and an opportunity for life.

If you don’t buy fair trade products, think of one thing – tea, coffee, sugar, anything – that you can swop for a fair trade product and know that you are making a difference to the lives of farmers, their families and communities around the world.

Thanks for reading and sticking with this rambling blog!

Critchyboy!

No Drama Wednesday!

Today was one of those ordinary days! No Jubilee madness. No racing around. Just wonderful time with family with, as usual, a little work to keep reminding me that work is never far away, even in School Holidays!

The morning began with breakfast and then a quick dash with wife having realised that time was running out to get to one of her churches for a morning half hour service! We all trouped out, into the car and raced away!

As there was no organist, I offered to play the piano – an opportunity I don’t get very often in worship!

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It was great to be able to play – I feel so free when I play the piano in worship and, somehow, find it easier to worship than when I’m leading an entire service. However, the half hour also included chasing Son #2 who, having grown tired of dancing at the front of the church, was beginning to get restless! I took both boys out to the coffee lounge and treated them to cake, before dashing back into church to play the last song.

Following worship, we took a tram into town. Son #2 is always excited to see trams and loved travelling on one for the first time! Having arrived in town we undertook the obligatory visit to Starbucks, went to Carphone Warehouse for wife to upgrade her phone (I’m not happy at having an ‘old’ phone now..!) and visiting a good friend who works in Smiths!

Lunch, return back on tram, car back him via Garden Centre to buy new plants for fish tank that Son #1 and I were cleaning out this afternoon – a job that took a serious amount of time… with one casualty. 😦

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This evening I had two meetings.

Firstly I had a visit to do to arrange the funeral of the church member who died on Saturday night. The lady had, before she died, chosen her hymns, her readings and her going into and coming out of church music. She had also stipulated that there should be no sermon, because everyone who was going to be there would know her more than could be said in a small speech. Very organised and testament to the type of lady she was. Makes me think I should get mine sorted out because you never really know what’s round the corner…

The second meeting was a leaders meeting for the scout group I’m involved in, which has resulted in me taking on the role of Group Scout Leader whilst still assisting at the Beaver Scout colony. It was quite an exciting meeting and We felt very encouraged and excited about what we have got planned for the future of the group. My new role begins in September – so we will how it all goes.

And now it is bedtime once more. Why does a day seem so long, but a night so short? I don’t know the answer to that, but I do entrust both day and night into the hands of my Maker who watches over me as I work and as I rest.

Jubilee-ness!

Sooooo! I hope you’ve all had a good Jubilee Bank Holiday extravaganza!!

Bank Holiday morning saw us all get in the car and travel to Blackpool Zoo – which was heaving as it was a gorgeous day. Seriously, the queue to pay went from the kiosks out into the car park! Thankfully, we flashed our annual passes and raced through! The zoo is great – it has some modern paddocks for its animals and some that are, sadly, not so modern. However, having always felt sorry that the gorillas didn’t seem to have much space to move around, we were pleased to discover the rest of their enclosure which we’d never seen before due to the route we’ve always taken when we go in!!

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The new wolf enclosure is now open and the wolves have arrived and were looking great. They are in Blackpool as part of a conservation exercise – which is where I think zoos do an excellent job. We mooches around, taking our time over meeting the animals. I particularly like the Giant Anteaters – brilliant creatures! We had front row – on the floor! – seats for the sealion demonstration which was excellent, informative and entertaining. Again, with a conservation angle and the opportunity to support a charity working for the welfare of wild Mediterranean Monk Seals whose breeding beaches are being taken over by hotels and whose population is falling due to overfishing. Sometimes, us humans instead of being good stewards of creation as required by our Maker, do a very good job of royally mucking it up.

The evening brought another excellent event from the Parish Council as part of the celebrations for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee.

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We began with a walk from home, via chapel and the pub (wife stayed at home baking for a Messy Play activity the following morning, arriving when the walk had finished having brought the car so we didn’t have to law all back home!) to the picnic area on the outskirts of the village, where there was a live band playing, which Son #2 took a keen interest in…!

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There was a BBQ selling bacon butties, a tuck shop with sweets and drinks and the opportunity for the adults to relax, socialise and chat and the children to run round playing football and generally have loads of fun! Sons 1 & 2 managed very well running around until gone 10pm! Now, the reason we were up so late was that the parish council had registered and organised a beacon as one of hundreds to be lit across the country.

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There was much excitement as the countdown began, the beacon was lit and an impromptu rendition of The National Anthem was sung. The fire from the beacon brought light and warmth to us n what was becoming a cold, damp evening. From our vantage point we could see beacons being lit on the surrounding hills and coastline. We could even see the beacon that was lit on top of Scafell Pike some 40 miles away from where we were stood.

Seeing all the beacons light up in the dark, once more made me consider the words of Christ when He described Himself as ‘the Light of the World’. For our beacon, whilst we were stood by it gave out light so we could see around us and warmed us as we gathered near it and the beacons further afield signalled to us of their light in the dark showing that light can never be overcome by the darkness around it. Never. Ever. Such a powerful image of the reliability and trustworthiness of Christ. We need not fear darkness for the Light will chase it away – we are secure in Christ.

It was truly a breathtaking and awe inspiring scene.

Bank Holiday Tuesday saw me and Son #2 on tea making duties at our village hall, but Son #2 spent the morning eating biscuits whilst I enjoyed finding old pictures of village friends in the exhibition! We went to another church where wife and Son #1 were holding the fort at a Messy Play morning. We picked them up and nipped home when Son #1 announced that, with an hour to go, he would like to go the Pilling Family Picnic in fancy dress! Wife’s hoarding skills came into good use as he was promptly dressed in a cardboard box, wrapped in Blue and Red Paper, tied up with white ribbon and presented as a walking, talking Jubilee present! He came third. Out of four! Son #2 went as a racing driving and also came third! Out of three!

The picnic was very cold and sadly rained off after we left, but before leaving each child was presented with a commemorative mug celebrating the Jubilee! Something else for the keepsake boxes..!

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This evening was a Talent Show – I ended up doing a monologue at the last minute as the keyboard on offer for me to play wasn’t good and the piano in residence at the village hall would make even Les Dawson sound horrendous! It was a fun night and ended with ‘God save the Queen’! Is it wrong of me, that whenever I sing the National Anthem I always bring to mind Eddie Izzard’s version of it? He says that we shouldn’t sing ‘God save the Queen’ as she is already pretty saved with all the soldiers protecting her. We should instead sing:

“God attack our Queen, send big dogs after her that bite her bum…”

And so, that brings us up to date. It’s now bedtime – I’m sleepy and tomorrow is another day!

Which rather sounds like a terribly boring title for a Bond film…