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Diary: Caroline Chartres

17 May 2019


Time for a knees-up

I HAVE just had a big birthday. Number One daughter celebrated a milestone birthday shortly before mine, and my mother has one looming. In fact, there are so many significant birthdays in the family this year that we have turned into one of those maths problems: If A is the combined age of B and C, and B is twice the age of C and two-thirds the age of A, how many of them are eligible for bus passes?

When I could no longer tell whether it was the floorboards or my joints creaking in the night, I decided belatedly that it was time to take action (literally); so I joined an exercise class — and now I don’t know whether I ache despite the unaccustomed exercise or because of it. It’s taken me a while to realise that, when the instructor shouts “Crunch!”, she’s calling a movement rather than describing the effect on my knees.


Into the woods

PREVIOUSLY, my only exercise consisted of walking with the puppy. Often, we walk in the woods, which at this time of year are full of birdsong; in terms of locations, we’re spoiled for choice. One stretch of local woodland is quite different from the others: a remnant of the ancient forest that once covered much of southern England, it has a presence; neither benevolent nor malign, it just is. Through its heart runs a wide avenue along which Roman soldiers are reputed to have marched on their way to the Mendips; in May, it’s celebrated for its bluebells.

But it’s unlike the other local woods in more than just its age: wander off the beaten track and you can quickly and bewilderingly find yourself lost. Paths that seem to be running in a straight line mysteriously lead you somewhere entirely unexpected, or — even more bafflingly — bring you back to where you started. The first time I walked the puppy there, the light started to fail as we tried to find our way back to where we needed to be (there is, of course, no mobile-phone signal to enable map access), and he was visibly alarmed and jumpy. It’s the only place where I’ve suddenly understood all those fairy stories and folk tales that are set in dark woods or enchanted forests.

Number Two daughter summed it up: “In most woods, if something terrible happened it would be human” — like a plot in one of those murder series, beloved of The Beloved, in which the number of corpses far outstrips the size of the local population. He is particularly fond of what he describes as “a genteel murder” (this excludes Scandi Noir, or anything too visceral, although he is invariably cheered by a high body count), claiming that — in a life devoted to professional benignity — this sort of television is therapeutic. Anecdotal evidence suggests that many clerics share his enthusiasm.


Throne of phones

THE same daughter spent a recent holiday in Armenia. Outside the cities, she found an agrarian society in which the tradition of welcoming the stranger is not only alive but flourishing. People she had only just met went out of their way to drive her to beauty spots or to her next destination, often with a detour to give her a meal in their own homes, or even a bed for the night.

Staying with one family, she ventured down the garden after dark to take advantage of the facilities, using the torch on her mobile phone to find her way. When she opened the door, a cloud of moths converged on the light, giving her such a fright that the phone flew out of her hands and landed in the proverbial. Her helpful hosts promptly began raking through the contents of the latrine (the daughter was by now rather less certain that she actually wanted to recover the phone), but in vain.

She learned afterwards that their next visitor was an elderly Russian, who had grown up in the Soviet Union. He also ventured down the garden in the dark — and, comfortably installed, was disconcerted to hear emerging from the depths beneath him the unmistakeable sounds of a ringtone.


Sporting style

THE puppy had surgery last week. Instead of wearing the traditional cumbersome plastic lampshade (aka the Cone of Shame) to prevent him from licking his wound, he is sporting an inflatable Buster collar around his neck, like a ruff. Since this makes accessing the wound merely awkward rather than impossible, he is also attired in the canine equivalent of a sleeveless Babygro. He looks like a Tudor high-diver — with rather hairy legs.


Plus ça change

MORE ancient even than the local bluebell wood is the Neolithic hill-fort which, centuries later, became the site of the royal castle where William the Bastard summoned his barons to pay homage after the Conquest. It’s another favourite place to walk (I had a memorable outing there in high summer with our last dog, shortly before he died). I like the sense of deep history; the comfort that comes from knowing that the past has made us what, and who, we are.

It occurs to me that both the books I’m currently reading — on my Kindle, the new biography of Chaucer; in hard copy (to make the most of all the illustrations), 1776: A London chronicle or how to divert oneself while losing an empire — are historical: not as an escape from the present, but because, in turbulent times, it’s reassuring to know that we’ve made a mess of things before.


Caroline Chartres is a contributing editor to the Church Times.

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