Poem: Jacob’s Ladder

 

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One of the loveliest spots in my home is the window seat.  In the winter, the radiator does its work through the wood, and it is warm and snug.  At this time of year, as you sit you are surrounded by flowers, and every day you see something new opening.

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This poem is a poem of waking up. To begin with, the life of the world seems far away, on the other side of glass.  Gradually, though, I begin to see.

 

Jacob’s Ladder

Sitting on the window seat, in this box of light,
I drink warm, bitter coffee, my mind waking slowly from  sleep.

There is a fly buzzing against the glass, black and slow,
not getting through.  On the other side is the cool sun,
the flowerheads and flowerbuds swaying in the breeze,
their stems crossing and crisscrossing  in straight green lines,
Making rhomboids, diamonds of the brightness.
And so I sit here, as if among the flowers,
not feeling the breeze, not catching the scent.

There are the bright, tissue paper flames of poppies,
and the soft deep pinks of the columbine,
dove among flowers,
And the euphorbia – black with bees –
their green flowers full of sweetness.

But there, suddenly, are the tall spikes of Jacob’s ladder,
new dazzling white, startling, perfect.
They must have opened early while I slept.
Those flowers – small, spread out skirts
of pure white, anthers gold with pollen,
the delicate deep ring of purple veins –
drawing you deep to the green-dark heart of the flower,
curled, mysterious, where the heavy bee probes
for nectar as sweet as the honey yet to come.

Angels ascending and descending,
ascending and descending
as the stiff green stems are swaying,
are still swaying in the cool breeze.  The day begins.

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The name of this plant calls to mind the story of Jacob in Genesis, which is also a story of coming to see, of waking up.
Here is my retelling from The Bible Retold, the text shared by The Lion Classic Bible

Jacob went alone, travelling unitl it was dark.  Shivering in the chill of the desert night, he took a stone for a pillow, and lay down to sleep.  As Jacob slept, a dream came to him.  He saw a ladder, with its feet on the ground, stretching up and up to heaven.  In his dream, he watched as God’s bright angels travelled up and down in between heaven and earth.  And in his dream, God himself was there.
…….
Jacob woke with a jolt and looked around.  He was alone.
“God was here and I didn’t know it!  This place is the gate of heaven!” he said  Then he took the stone he had slept upon and set it up as an altar to God. He poured oil on it as an offering, and worshipped there.

You can read the Genesis story here

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Sophy Williams’ beautiful illustration from The Lion Classic Bible

 

Help us, like Jacob, dream of angels.
Help us, wherever we wake,
to know that you are there, too.
Help us to see with new eyes.

The Alde Valley Festival – a glimpse of a more beautiful world.

I don’t know how I have managed to miss this astonishing festival in previous years – it’s not far from where I live, but tucked away in the network of lanes between routes to other places.

Perhaps that’s one reason why, going down the drive laced with cowparsley and buttercups, it felt like we were slipping into another world – a world we are losing and a new one we are finding.  There are ribbons tied in trees, and sculptures, and everyday objects that look like they have been placed with transforming love and care.  You feel yourself relaxing, and being lifted, and filling with wonder, even as you arrive.

Jason Gathorne-Hardy writes in the programme

The farm sits within a landscape that has been planted and cultivated for hundreds, possibly thousands of years. Small areas of farm parkland and pastures [known locally as pightles] are enclosed by hedges of hawthorn, crab apple, blackthorn, field maple, hazel and elm.  This grassy landscape is punctuated by free-standing trees: oak, ash and poplars tower above the hedgerows……

White House Farm is a truly remarkable place.  They have been running this festival since 2011, using their working farm buildings as workshop space, studio space, and exhibition space.  This year’s theme is Florabundance.

As you meander through the farmyards, directed by handwritten signs on wood, you find open doors to peer behind, revealing breathtaking beauty.  There is so much, but I’ll just pick out a few details among a true abundance.

 

In the lamb nursery room – which is used as such earlier in the season – laid out on white tops, were the most exquisite bronze vegetables, fruit and seeds. Alice-Andrea Ewing had cast them from produce during her residency at the farm.  The beauty of the natural forms coupled with the weight and seriousness of bronze gave them an extraordinary presence, as if we could see and feel everyday things as truly wonderful.

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The combination of old farm buildings and small cubes of art gallery white really charged ordinary food with a sense of the artist’s reverence, such as with these pears, and medlars.

 

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I loved the way the whole place was so hospitable.  There were were toys and picnic tables and clues to adventures outside – and inside the lovely Suffolk chairs, old and new, were often beside piles of books that, if you felt inclined, would send you on the trail of other adventures – of friendships and connections between the artists and those who had gone before, and the places they love, and their mutual “cross pollination”.   The Benton End trail was a joy to follow – especially the connection with the iris paintings we would come to later.

I loved the transformation of the everyday, the desire to honour simple planting and growing, that was evident everywhere.  In particular, Tessa Newcomb with works “The onions continued to be elegant”, “The last moment of the Year, 2018”, and a whole barnful more….. and Ruth Stage’s limpid winter light, again in pictures of the farm and nearby walled garden.

It was the corrugated old threshing barn that held the largest and most breathtaking works though.  Jane Wormwell’s large canvasses of detailed corners of her garden, and tangles of hedgerow brambles, were remarkably powerful and moving.  These huge flowers put me in a better perspective.  The main exhibition space was given over to Jelly Green’s iris paintings.  This is why we had come – the publicity material had small snatches of them, and I really wanted to see them in real life with all the thickness of the paint and vividness and aliveness of the colours.

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Some of these were flowers cultivated at Benton End by Cedric Morris, who taught Maggi Hambling, who taught Jelly Green.

The vivacity, the joyfulness of the paintings was breathtaking.  I could have spent much longer there.

There is a tiny chapel in one of the barns, with a cross on the table before an animal feeding trough, a manger.  The walls have small pictures of refugees, and brick-sized scriptures alongside.  It was a good place to stop, to breathe, to pray.  The whole place is full of a deep sense of presence, of connection, of goodness, of life.

We walked through the bluebell wood, following the winding path, slowly, breathing deeply, letting the colour and the scent fill us.

 

More from Jason Gathorne-Hardy

It is easy to believe that we, as humans, can control our environment: that we dictate the terms on which we live on this planet. But that notion of power over of all that we survey is probably a mistake.  Plants give us oxygen to breathe, clean water to drink and the raw materials for shelter, food, medicines, comfort and rest.  To borrow a phrase, ‘we live in their world’. We have lost a lot of biodiversity in the past two hundred years.  Locally, this is made abundantly clear by referring to George Crabbe’s plant list for Framlingham and District in the early C19th…….
The Exhibition also seeks to honour their presence in our gardens and landscapes and celebrate the importance of plants in our lives – alongside natural pollinators and seed carriers – through the work of selected guest artists.  Implicit in this is a positive and hopeful story: that the diversity of flora and fauna that we once lived with…. in whose world we lived…. may once again become abundant and resurgent…. which is something to celebrate!

 

What a joy it was to come home, and to see that the irises in our own garden were beginning to open.

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If you live in Suffolk, the exhibition is open for one more weekend – the Late May Bank Holiday.  The tea in the farmhouse is very good too!

 

 

Poem: Sheringham Park Pigeons

 

 

 

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The Norfolk coast is such a beautiful and fragile place.  We walked there again,  close to cliffs that seemed to be sheering away into heaps of sand.  I tried to keep the recommended five meters from the edge.  I am not afraid of heights, but I was afraid of these cliffs.

Living in East Anglia we are very aware how precarious we are, with the power of the North Sea beside us, with the ground under our feet seeming sandy, and uncertain.  I feel the threat of that sea driven by north winds, rising as the ice melts.  These places, and the creatures that live there, like the sand martins, like us, are in uncertain times.  And although it may be tempting to despair of what is happening to our world, what our systems of greed have done and are doing to the world, I feel our sense of beauty and fragility offers us a note of hope, too.  The sorrow for what we have lost, and what we are losing – all those precious creatures, plants, places – can bring us to our senses, can help us wake up, and treasure what is close, what greets us every day with a soft, green welcome.

Sheringham Park is full of bright colour in spring – first the azaleas, then the rhododendrons.  There is a tower you can climb to look over the tops of these extraordinary banks of pink, and purple, and red.

What caught me, though, what filled me with wonder, what made me feel a part of this place, was a beech tree, and some pigeons.  The startle as they all flew away made me feel that moment, and that place – a sense of awe, of connection, of being one with a place.
It seems such a small thing in the face of potential global catastrophe – to love a place, to be awed by such ordinary things as a beech tree in new leaf, as a crowd of pigeons.  I wonder if it is such a small thing, though.  I wonder if that sense of love and connection can open us to another way of being in the Earth – humbled by its hospitality, aware we have gifts to offer in return, walking softly.

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Sheringham Park Pigeons

 At the top of the ridge –
from here the land slopes to the sea –
from the top of the tallest beech tree
singing with new green,
shining with life,
the pigeons fly
away in clattering waves,
circle after circle of them.

My steps disturbed them,
although my shoes are soft.
How could there be so many,
crashing through the blue air
in tens, in hundreds it seems,
in circles that grow wider and wider
their flights the spokes of a wheel.
And here, this smooth old grey trunk
its very centre.
Where I stand,
the very centre.

Poem: The green of rose leaves

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The progress of the rose – some, taken last year.

The roses that ramble through the silver birch give me great joy – I love to watch them as they grow and get ready to flower, and then fill the trees with startling beauty. I’m waiting for them, I can almost anticipate their scent …..

but not so much as I don’t love the spring as it is now, today.

Sometimes, we just need to look long enough to see it.

The invitation remains.

How do we respond?

 

 

The green of rose leaves

I watch the long arching branches
of the rambling rose bend in the breeze,
noticing how the leaves lighten,
like a colourchart of
pea green,
like a Deco lithograph.

So dark by the stem,
and look, how vibrant
by the tight bud –
with its white flower
to come.

Today, I can sit here,
and do this.
Today, I give my attention
to the spring,
which warrants it.

It has been here all along,
calling with the blackcap’s
fluid, full-throated voice,
it was here,
all this green,
saying
“Look, look……”
and asking me now,
“So, are you going
to join in?”

Poem – Throwing sticks for the Black Dog

Today is the day some call Blue Monday – the most depressing day of the year.
Here in Suffolk, though, we have had some sunshine, and the frost has sparkled, so it’s less gloomy here – at least meteorologically – than it has been for weeks.

I thought I’d share this poem with you.  Churchill called his depression his Black Dog, and it seems a good name for it.  I have tried to express the care and nurture we wish we could give ourselves, and those we walk with, when we notice the Black Dog is beginning to sniff around.  Those gentle nudges towards the things that used to bring life and joy, in the hope that they will again. I hope that has quite a different feel to injunctions to pull up your socks, or whatever.  It’s more a hope of holding on to the capacity to notice what does you good, and to keep on doing that, even when you don’t feel the good being done.

I hope it is a simple and gentle hand to hold.

The Blurt Foundation offers compassionate support resources online, as do many other organisations.

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Throwing Sticks for the Black Dog

When I’m walking, I pick up sticks,
they feel rough and dry in my hand.
I have been collecting them for a while,
just in case.

And that black dog, well, can you see him?
Is he walking with us –
sloping through the undergrowth?
Or there, breathing at our heels?

I will throw some sticks.
Maybe he will turn playful,
maybe he’ll run after them
and not come back.  Maybe.
Maybe he’ll leave us alone for a while.
I can try.
Here are a few I have gathered:

Beauty, any sort of beauty
that takes you unawares
so the mind halts in its circling tracks.
Green beauty of growing things,
beauty that comes from the human
heart and mind –
words that build castles in the air.
Look, there they are!

Light, and the patterns it makes
through these leaves,
and darkness, when it is soft,
when, awake at night,
sitting by an open window,
I hear the owl – can you hear it?

Movement and prayer, together,
if movement and prayer remain possible.
Good food, that grows in the earth,
its colours and smells as I chop, chop.
Friendship, and kindness –
either given, received, or witnessed.
Love.
The memory of good things past,
the faintest trace of hope for
good things to come.
For good things may come.

And so, I carry this armful of sticks,
ready to throw – ready to give away –
like this,
and this,
and this.

 

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Here is a link to my poem Sorrows

Poem – Crows

A few weeks ago we were away, staying near Hebden Bridge in West Yorkshire.  I loved the deep steep valleys full of trees, with farmland and moorland above. I also loved the way we were close to towns, and railways, and the busy life of people. We were near Haworth, Bronte country, and staying at Hardcastle Crags, which some of you may know from the Sylvia Plath poem.  I hadn’t realised quite how close we were to the places where Ted Hughes grew up and lived, and was so excited to come across the occasional little plaque in the landscape referring to this poem, or that. My backpack carried collections of poems, and notebooks, as well as chocolate and water.

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So, I’ve been reading them both lately – Plath and Hughes – as well as beginning to turn some of our walks into poems of my own.  It’s taking a while, but reading Ted Hughes has reawakened my curiosity about the crows who visit our garden.  I remember doing an English project at school on Crow, and have come back to look at that collection again, in all its darkness.

What I noticed about the crows that I have come to know a little, here, is their sociability, their memory, their communication despite the apparent sameness of their cries.  They seem intelligent and sociable creatures, and I have written a couple of poems from here, in my garden.  It helps to pull things together – lived experience, and the inspiration of others – and to add a small voice to the other voices that sing songs in our landscapes.

I have also loved the wonderful exhibition at The Sainsbury Centre, UEA, of Elizabeth Frink’s work.  I have been so looking forward to that ever since I heard it was coming, as I have felt drawn to her sculptures for quite a few years, and wanted to see more.  The birds particularly struck me.

 

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Crows

Now it is winter, the crows have come back
with the north wind, with the darkness.
They land softly, and in number,
at their old roosting place –
what remains the great beech
just there, ahead of us.

And then they rise again, suddenly.
They land and rise and caw,
and land, and rise, and caw.
The branches shake their dry leaves.
Can the birds tell the tree is dead,
not sleeping?
They do not settle,
whatever they know.

They crisscross the sky in dark lines
above me in the garden.
They land first here, then there.
They try the blackthorn,
and the sycamore.
They drench the holm oak
with their dark wings,
and strip it of acorns.
Their sharp black beaks and
shark black claws work and work.

All the time their cawing calls,
they seek a new place,
they keep tied to each other
with these black lines,
with these cries,
as they fly restlessly
to and fro,
to and fro.

 

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I have  recently, and unusually for me, done a day’s workshop in lino cut printing at The lettering arts trust.  It was such an inspiring environment, surrounded by such excellent work.  I reminded myself to be inspired, not daunted! We had a very talented tutor, Louise Tiplady, who shared very generously of her time and talents.

I wanted to experiment with trying something at home.  It’s really satisfying to gouge away at the lino, letting shapes emerge.  The top of these two is the lino itself, and you can see how I’ve printed sometimes in red, sometimes in blue, taking out more as I felt I needed to.  I don’t have proper inks yet – I was using old ink stamps – and that might account for the blurry, grainy texture.  It’s something I’d like to keep trying, seeing if I can capture some ideas visually, as well as in words.

 

Norfolk coast path – a poem about the bus.

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This year is a year of walking.

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Peter, my husband, is doing the Country Walking 1000 miles  challenge. He’s well ahead of schedule, and it’s a brilliant project, doing him much good. I don’t tend to sign up for things that have quite such a big commitment to exertion, but I seem to be covering a great many miles, even so!  I just reserve the right not to, for instance now, when evening walking leaves me too hot to sleep….

We thought we might give the Norfolk Coast Path a go – Hunstanton to Cromer, as it’s not too far away, and flat, and beautiful, and dotted with lovely B and Bs and tea shops and pubs for rest stops….

And we did!  Before the weather got to be quite as hot as it is now, we walked the distance, with breezes and the cool brown North Sea to keep us going.  Taking on such a, for me, long walk was made all the sweeter by the memory of illness recovered from, health restored.  How good to feel the strength of your body, to rejoice in its ability to just keep on going.  How good to let your feet take you over sand, and marsh, and boardwalk, and lane. It felt good to rejoice in being upright, and in seeing such beauty.

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I’m hoping to write up some more of what filled my notebooks as we went, but, for now, I’m just dipping my toes back in with a poem about a key part of the walk, the coast bus, which made it possible.  You can walk one way and get the bus back, or to wherever you need to be that night.  It’s a bus well used by the locals, who are happy to tell you about good shops, and places to see marsh harriers, and other useful things.  It’s cheerful and kindly as community services often are.

One day, we were done as the schools closed, and it was so good to share a few miles with kids who were clearly happy to be on their way home again.  It prompted another small poem, which I share with you now.

 

Norfolk coast bus

Sitting on the coast bus after
the wild open walking,
the huge sky,
the oyster-catchers,
The saltmarsh, and the reeds,
my legs stick to plastic seats,
the sun strikes hot through glass,

But as I breathe and cool, I hear the
young voices all around me,
laughing, wrestling with
musical instruments,
sports kit,
bags of files,
the weight of
home-from-school.

And when anyone reaches their stop,
one boy, near the front,
says goodbye to them,
each in turn,
and the partings ripple
back down the bus –
he, young as he is,
sets the tone.

You see the web
woven between them,
hot in nylon blazers,
and feel the life of them,
the kindness of them,
despite their loads.

For these few miles
I feel I am in community,
connected,
as I take off my straw hat,
and loosen the damp hair
from my head,
as the sound of voices
surrounds me
as the bonds of friendship
surround me,
I am restored.

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Poem – The courtesie of pigeons

Each morning at the moment, I go outside to see what’s happening.  I don’t get up with the dawn, so by the time I go outside, life has been bursting out for a couple of hours – there’s always something beautiful that makes me catch my breath.

I spend time sitting, meditating, or in contemplative prayer, and then I get out my notebook and try to write what I see, what is happening right now.

Our old bench was beginning to rock and sway, especially if more than one person sat on it, so we have a beautiful new one from Genesis, Orwell Mencap  I particularly like the way that someone involved in making the furniture comes to help deliver it, and see where it will be enjoyed.

 

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Sometimes, sitting on the bench, life’s dramas play out before you. This one, with the pair of pigeons who nest in our garden, felt like part of an old chivalric romance, hence the rather archaic spelling….

The courtesie of pigeons

The pigeons, on the roof-ridge,
or on the black line of the
telephone wire,
begin this dance the same
each day.

She, head bowed slightly away,
He, with a deep murmur,
bows low, his beak sinks
to meet the wire, or the tile.
With a tail elevated to the sky,
he puffs up, more than
his full size,
his wings droop slightly.
He rises and bows,
Rises and bows.

My strength, lady,
is yours to command,
is at your disposal
should you wish it, lady.

But she steps sideways,
and again,
and flies, nonetheless,
but, nonetheless,
she cannot always do so,

for each year, come summer,
plump grey squabs sidle
across the lawn,
feasting on its richness.

 

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Photograph by Africa Gomez

 

It calls to mind another pigeon saga…..Nest

Dorset Poems – Scrumping in a Hurricane

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So, here is another poem from our trip to Dorset, when we stayed in this beautiful, remote National Trust cottage.  Like most of the poems, the extraordinary weather plays a part.  This time, the powerful winds and sudden gusts of the remains of Hurricane Ophelia brought an end to the moral dither I was in about apples.

There were many glorious and very ancient apple trees, which presumably were owned by the National Trust, being on their land.  However, it was so remote down our lanes that it was hardly surprising that no-one was gathering them.  I could gather them. Whether or not I had a right to, I was unsure.   On the other hand, to let so much food go to waste is another kind of crime.  Food use versus property rights.  I knew what I thought of that particular tussle, but only acted when Ophelia swept along, and swept the fruit off the trees.

The apples really were delicious!

 

Scrumping in a hurricane

So, here are the old apple trees,
behind a wall of warm stone.
Their branches, their trunks,
are gnarley and twisted,
some drip grey with lichen,
all are heavy with fruit.

They belong to the old manor
where we stay,
a remnant of an ancient hamlet.
So, do they belong to us,
here as we are
for only a few days?

The smell drifts over the wall,
sweet, you can taste the juice
in your mouth.
The apples lie in red,
extravagant heaps in
the long grass.
No one comes to gather them.

And then, storm warnings shake
the branches,
and then, the skirts of the
hurricane brush the hillside,
and as the apples fall,
I go and gather them,
enough for us while we
are here,
and peel them as the
juice flows over my hands,
and cook them with the blackberries
that whip across the path

And eat.  What are they?
No varieties I know,
but they are good, so good,
and good the next day
in porridge,
and good the day after
cold, and purple,
and sweet.

 

 

Dorset Poems – St Gabriel’s Chapel, 1

 

We’ve come back from such a tranquil, peaceful break at a National Trust Holiday Cottage – this one was down a long lane which said “No Cars”, and then we turned off to an even smaller lane where the grass swished against our exhaust pipe.  It felt so safe and undisturbed. I felt myself calming as we slipped further away down these winding lanes. While we were there, we did a lot of walking.  Taking the car out was less attractive than just putting on boots and setting off. And while we were there, the remains of Hurricane Ophelia made her presence felt.

She did great damage in Ireland, but where we were, we felt the effects of a dramatic weather event, without the destructive force.  My notebook went with me as we walked, and I tried to record something of the landscape’s response to the storm.

 

 

St Gabriel’s Chapel

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Walks from the door.

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Seatown beach, with Golden Cap behind.  There is an excellent pub, The Anchor to refresh the weary walker! Portugese man of war jellyfish washed up on the beach.

We stayed near the ruined chapel of St Gabriel.  As I sat to write, my thoughts diverged down two paths.  As an experiment, I’m trying to explore both paths in poems, each path taking as it’s starting point the experience of sitting in the chapel as the wind blew.  This first poem follows a more direct path, the one we took over the cliffs back to another cottage where we had stayed as a family years ago, a place full of memory.  It was so good to retrace such freedom and laughter.  Next door Downhouse Farm runs a garden cafe with delicious food, and we enjoyed resting and recovering there, before turning back.  It was a long walk, taking in Golden Cap, the highest point on the south coast, and as we climbed and descended, the sky began to turn a strange red, as the dust that came before the storm filled the air.

 

 

St Gabriel’s Chapel, Dorset,
Storm Ophelia
1

From inside this small, stone chapel,
over broken walls
I can see the sea –
the wild white water crashing
into the cob at Lyme,
the many clouds moving fast,
as one, the sky sliding
against the earth
as leaves
scratch in corners,
tangle in hair.
Yesterday the trees held
more, far more,
when we walked seven
hard miles of cliffs
and troughs,
back to the place
we were
years ago, when
we were
all so much younger,
and we walked, and ran,
with Bessie the dog,
down, down to the sea.
We retraced those steps
more slowly, yesterday,
but look how far
we walked,
look how far
we have come.

 

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Thank you to Peter Skevington for the photographs.