Home-grown food

A few weeks ago I noticed a volunteer potato plant in one of my raised beds. I’m clearly bad at harvesting potatoes, because I haven’t planted any since 2016 and last year I also had a small crop of potatoes that grew themselves. Although it’s a rather so-so variety I’m still looking forward to them, because any spuds cooked and eaten immediately after harvest are better than shop-bought.

Growing at least a little of my own food (deliberately or accidentally) is one way I connect to my forebears. For them it was an absolute necessity, but I think most of them also took pleasure and pride in cultivating their gardens and allotments. In this age of supermarket abundance I have no need to grow edibles, but nothing tastes as good as a plate of vegetables you’ve sown, nurtured and harvested yourself.

Here’s a photo of my Great Grandfather Curtis earthing up potatoes at his allotment. I don’t know the date, my best guess would be in the 1930s.

As well his full-time, long-hours job as a woodsman on a country estate, Grandad Curtis cultivated a large garden and three allotments to provide food for his large family. The children were expected to assist with the gardening and other chores and in doing so they learnt many useful life skills.

Here a bed of potato plants in front of my maternal grandparents’ cottage in the 1950s.

I remember Gran’s garden with great fondness. It’s one of my happy places. Perhaps I’ll describe my memories in more detail in another post. I have a lot of them!

My parents probably didn’t absolutely need to grow vegetables and fruit, but it undoubtedly helped the family budget and provided us with better quality food than could be bought. My brother and I were encouraged, though not obliged, to help and thus the urge to garden passed on to us. It’s also evident in the next generation, my nephew wants to be a farmer. I hope he can achieve his ambition.

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Do some writing

Lying in bed first thing this morning feeling grateful that I’d slept away yesterday’s ghastly migraine and pondering the day ahead, I asked myself “What can I do to make today better than yesterday?”. The no-hesitation answer my mind gave was “Do some writing”. And I knew it meant want-to-write writing, not the should-ought-must kind…

So I did an hour or so of my memoir-writing project. Mostly just getting some of the backlog of handwritten notes onto the computer and doing a bit of editing. Limbering up after a break.

Now I’m writing my first blog post for months. And maybe my last for more months, I’m inclined to be over-optimistic.

So why the pause this time? Mainly because my cat became very ill at the beginning of November last year and after a few weeks of reprieve, I had to make the dreaded decision to have her euthanised. That was really, really grim. At the same time I had to deal with a health scare of my own. Then Christmas, then HRT problems, then… well basically I was too depressed and ill to give much of a shit about anything.

Thankfully things have got better. For the past couple of months HRT has been doing what it’s supposed to with no nasty side-effects, so I’m getting more sleep and generally coping better with everything. I found a format for my memoir-writing that is working for me. I may never show it to anyone else, but it’s good to have something to keep going back to.

My family history research goes on erratically and I read voraciously, but at this time of year most of my spare energy goes on gardening and photography. That said, maybe my next post will be another about my ancestors. The more I read, the more my interest grows.

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Bessie’s parents Thomas and Mary Bridle (nee Mary Ann Courtney) were born in the parishes of Bradford Peverell and Charminster respectively. I can see an image of their marriage certificate on Ancestry (how amazing is that?!). On 22 May 1862 aged 21 and 19, they both signed the register after their wedding ceremony in neat handwriting. Thomas’s signature being particularly well-executed in copperplate style. From that I deduce that they both had a reasonable amount of schooling.

Flicking back and forth through the pages of the marriage register to see how their handwriting compared to that of other celebrants I noticed several other Courtney weddings including one where Thomas and Mary Ann were the witnesses. It seems that Mary Ann had cousins in the district and that the families were close. In my short study I encountered several “X” signatures, but in general most brides, grooms and witnesses signed their full names with varying degrees of dexterity. And that should have been that, but the first “his/her mark” signatures I encountered twisted my heart. Not only were this couple illiterate, but the bride was a 27 year old widow…

This is the sort of tiny detail that snags my attention and that diverts me from my main goal. Not content with satisfying my initial impulse to do a quick check to see how Thomas and Mary’s handwriting compared to that of their contemporaries, I wanted (needed!) to know more about the widow and her groom. It was easy enough to find them despite numerous variations of their surname – Treaves, Trevett, Treviss.

On the 1861 census, which was taken six months before the marriage, Elizabeth, a dressmaker, appears as the head of a household and has two daughters aged 11 and seven, and a nine year old son. Richard, an agricultural labourer, is her lodger. Was it a love match or a practical arrangement? By 1871 they have four more children, a girl of 5, boy of 8 and twin boys of nine. One of the twins has the same name as Elizabeth’s first husband. Perhaps an indication that he and the second husband had a friendly connection?

Eventually I realised that I had lost my way and halted my trip down that particular rabbit hole and, while hoping that their union was a successful one, dragged my attention back to my own forebears. I suspect though, that they will stay in the back of my mind. Elizabeth was a Charminster woman and her father was a shepherd, so they were likely known to my family. And then there are the indirect ancestors to think about – the other Courtneys who married in the early 1860s, how are they related to my GGG Mary Ann Courtney Bridle?

But for now, I’m back to trying to picture what life might have been like for nearly-seven year old GG Bessie in April 1871. More about that another day. Anything beyond the bare facts has to be speculation, so I’m a bit bogged down in research materials and trying to get my notes organised. Hopefully having decided to focus on Bessie’s immediate family, a fairly limited time-period (1871-ish) and location (Forston farm/Charminster) for now will help keep me focused.

Here’s a clip from Google Maps showing the entrance to Forston farm. Structurally the view is probably very similar as in 1871, but, apart from the sheep and some of the trees, most of the detail would have been very different.

Forston farm. Clip from Google Maps.

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Establishing boundaries

Much as I’m enjoying my family history research, I’m struggling to organise my discoveries into a format that will make them accessible and interesting to others. Or even useful to my future self. My memory is nowhere near as good as it once was and I need to find a better way of documenting my material than bookmarking links and scribbling notes on random bits of paper. Suggestions welcome! It’s a long time since I did any kind of formal study and I wasn’t very disciplined then either.

In theory I’m currently focusing on my Great Grandmother Elizabeth Ann Curtis (née Bridle), but where do I draw the lines around my researches? I want to create a picture of her life and the wider world in which she lived beyond the bare facts available on Ancestry. To fill in the background and try to understand, just a little, what it might have been like to live her life.

I’m sure young Elizabeth Ann was known in her family by a diminutive, but which one? There are plenty of options, but she named one of her own daughters Bessie so I’m going to assume that was her family nickname and refer to her as Great Granny (GG) Bessie. In later life Dad and his sisters called her Granny Curtis.

My first sighting of GG Bessie on Ancestry.co.uk is the record of her baptism on 6 October 1867 at the parish church in Charminster, Dorset. She was baptised on the same day as her younger brother John, though she was born in 1864. I have the date of her birth as 22 May 1864, which would have been her parents’ second wedding anniversary. Lizzie and John’s older brother George was born in 1863. I’m unsure about the veracity of the date 22 May, so maybe I’ll fork out for a copy of her birth and marriage certificates some time.

The next sighting of the family is the 1871 census record. By now there is another brother, one year old Edward and they live at Forston Farm, near Charminster where father Thomas is employed as a shepherd. Six year old Bessie is a scholar, but no occupation is given for eight-year old George. Is he already working to help supplement the family income, or is he too at school? The 1881 census shows George, now 18, working as an Agricultural Labourer and 14 year old John has followed his father into the family business of shepherding. But I’m getting ahead of myself…

For the present I’m trying to focus on building up a picture of what young Bessie’s life might have been like at Forston Farm in the early 1870s. The farm is located in the Cerne Valley midway between Cerne Abbas and Dorchester within what is now the Dorset Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. The beauty being only partly natural and also owing a great deal to the activities of the human occupants. I imagine that the landscape was lush and gorgeous during the summer months in the 1870s, but much less appealing and very hard to live in during cold, wet weather.

More anon, for now here is a bad picture of a map I culled from the maps section of the Family Search website showing England & Wales Jurisdictions in 1851 overlaying an Ordnance Survey map (date unknown).

This, old-maps.co.uk and Google Maps have been very useful to me in building up a mental picture of the area where Bessie began her life. I’d love to visit for myself and walk the lanes that my ancestors walked, but it would probably be hard to imagine young Bessie’s daily journeys to and from school with a constant stream of fast-moving traffic rushing past me.

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Family history

Thanks to the internet and my sister-in-law’s Ancestry account I’ve learnt a lot more about my family history than I could have known if I had to rely on family memory. But still my knowledge is merely a collection of fragments from which it’s impossible to know what individual people were really like, how they responded to the world around them or even how they spent their days.

Lately I’ve been focusing on my father’s maternal grandmother, Elizabeth Ann. She is the GtGranny that I have most information about, from family anecdotes and public records. Elizabeth Ann is also the only great grandmother that I have any photographs of and I’m familiar with the village she lived in for nearly fifty years. It’s not much, but wondering what it was like to live her life has captured my imagination.

I like researching information and trying to imagine a life that began in 1864 and ended in 1942 requires a lot of research. Elizabeth Ann lived all her 78 years in rural Dorset. The daughter of a shepherd, she went into service in her teens and later married an agricultural labourer who eventually became a skilled and valued woodsman on a small country estate. GtGranny Elizabeth Ann bore ten children, eight of whom lived to celebrate their parents’ golden wedding anniversary on 2 May 1938.

I’m not sure when this photo was taken, probably some time in the 1920s. I wonder what GtGranny was thinking, standing in her front doorway. Contemplating her long life or just waiting patiently until the photographer has finished so she can get back to peeling the spuds for dinner? She’s a big woman for the era and, looking closely at the image, I wonder if that’s a goitre in her neck? Was she hypothyroid? Like most things about her, I don’t know and never will, but I’ll go on wondering about it all…

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I didn’t predict that!

I wrote my last post in the glorious anticipation of having at least four 8:30 – 3:30 days free of next door neighbour noise ahead of me. It didn’t happen and I don’t know when or whether that routine will resume. I’ve whinged enough about it on Twitter, so all I’ll say here is that it really underlined what a difference it makes to have predicable times when I know I won’t have to listen to TV, conversation, hoover-whine etc leaking through the paper-thin walls.

It’s harder to plan my activities and rest periods around unpredictable events, but I’ve recovered from last week’s fatigue-and-crushed-hopes induced meltdown and readjusted my expectations. I know that a lot of my tetchiness is due to the illness rather than the actual noise level, so I just have to accept it and get on with making the best of what I’ve got. It’s all quiet next door this evening, so I’m grabbing the opportunity to write.

If I’m going to keep on blogging I don’t want it all to be about my bloody health problems though, so here’s a photo I took at the beach yesterday. The weather was perfect and I needed a break, so I abandoned my to-do list in favour of going to see, smell and hear the sea. It always makes me feel better.

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The big change I mentioned is that I have new next-door neighbours and, at the time I wrote my last post, I was revelling in the huge reduction in noise pollution. The new people are a teacher and her son, so they are out most of the day during term time. It’s amazing what a difference it makes to my well-being to have a good chunk of predictable quiet time during the day.

It’s not all perfect, after the blissful last few weeks of term the summer holidays were very hard going with six long weeks of decorating, carpentry, garden clearance, footballing and visitors. Not to mention having their bloody TV audibly on morning, noon and night. The previous neighbours may have had world champion crying and tantruming kids, but I never heard their TV.

August is always my worst month of the year, but once again I survived. I’ll be better prepared next summer, but I think my hopes and expectations were too high this year. I didn’t expect the amount of home-improvement work that took place and assumed that they would go away for at least a week or two. I also failed to take into account the fact that 11 year olds go to bed much later than 3 and 6 year olds, so I didn’t even get a quiet hour or two in the evening.

It’s an odd thing that while under duress I long for respite, but when the stressor is removed I find it hard to get going on all the things I imagined doing if only I had the energy and a bit of peace and quiet. Distraction can be a useful strategy for coping with a difficult situation, but after a while it becomes a habit that isn’t useful when circumstances change.

It took me several weeks after the change of neighbours to stop startling at certain kinds of noise, as my system went on alert waiting for the next outburst of shouting or crying. I still scanned the street for their car as I approached my house when I’d been out, tensing to see whether I would be returning home to peace or mayhem. I felt triumphant the day I realised I’d parked my car without wondering whether the neighbours were in.

The last three months have been challenging, but interesting and enlightening. Overall my life has changed for the better at least in terms of my living environment, so now have the challenge of deciding how to use the extra time I have available and getting on with it

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