Back to the Garden

And we’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden.    Joni Mitchell

Minturn Till is a fourth generation fruit and hop farmer. His great-grandfather, Walter Till moved to Worcestershire in 1896, renting land and buildings in order to fatten chickens for the White Star Shipping Line. Walter also raised livestock and planted hops. He was passionate about farming and, over the years, was able to buy a few small plots of land.

Jim, Walter’s son, fought in WWI and, like many men of his generation, he struggled with his physical and mental health. After Walter died, Jim took on a foreman to manage the farm on his behalf. Jim’s own son, George, inherited both the farm and a lack of enthusiasm for a career he would never have chosen for himself. As soon as his son, Minturn left agricultural college, George sold a few parcels of land and invested his money on the stock market. At 53 years old, he retired from farming and spent the rest of his long years chairing committees, including the board of governors of a large local state school, fishing and playing golf.

Fortunately for the farm, as well as for the ensuing generations of the Till family, Minturn inherited his great-grandfather’s passion for farming. I have known ‘Minn’ for more than 40 years and, once or twice a year, I drop by for coffee, a chat and a walk round the farm. Minn’s apples are the best I have ever tasted.

As a result of the pandemic, I hadn’t seen Minn for a while and so, when I visited him late last year, I asked him about a project he had first mentioned to me 10 years ago – a walled kitchen garden. It’s finished! he told me triumphantly.

When Minn was a small boy his mother used to send him into the garden to pick herbs or pull carrots. He was mesmerized by the variety of colours and shapes and would invariably return to the kitchen with a cornucopia of fruit and vegetables, arranged in his basket like a Cezanne still life. At the age of five, I decided that when I grew up I would have a walled kitchen garden of my own, he told me.

Minn has lived at Nevergood Farm all his life and his sense of place and memory resides in the land. His garden is the result of accumulated wisdom combined with objects, thoughtfully collected, over six decades. An apothecary-style cabinet in the potting shed is a perfect example of this. Worn smooth, water-stained and the size and width of a single bed, its many drawers reveal seed packets, twine and small gardening tools. I know this because my granddaughter opened every one. When Minn was in his late teens, he spotted the cabinet standing on the street outside the village hardware store. A builder confirmed that it was destined for the bonfire. Minn returned with a flat bed truck and took it back to the farm: In my imagination, I already had a purpose for it, he said.

This sense of vision combined with attention to detail defines Minn Till’s legacy as a farmer. His passion is contagious and although I am entirely without knowledge or understanding of how to grow food, I asked Minn whether I could return and hear more about the story of his kitchen garden.

Two months later, I was back at Nevergood. Carrying a pot of strong coffee and two mugs, Minn and I retired to the greenhouse.

In the beginning I made a lot of mistakes, he explained. As a commercial farmer and grower, I had spent a lifetime cultivating fruit, hops and cereals but I had never planted vegetables before. I learnt, for example, that carrot root flies can’t jump and that you can stop them with a physical barrier. I installed mesh which kept the caterpillars from the brassicas (that’s cabbage, cauliflower and sprouts) but allowed sun and water to reach the plants and soil. Melons hate draughts and need a lot of sunlight and so I cover them with glass cloches, which also keep the pests out. Minn doesn’t use synthetic fertilizer, pesticides or fungicides in the garden. He kills aphids by tipping dirty bath water over the beans and cherries. Predatory insects do the rest.

As I sat on an old wicker chair, feeling the warmth of the spring sun through the glass and the first kick of caffeine as it entered my bloodstream, I asked Minn about the many varieties of fruit and vegetables in his garden. He grows apricots, nectarines, peaches, rhubarb, cherries and a full range of berries. He grows parsnips, beetroot, celeriac, artichokes, fennel, shallots, runner beans, broad beans, aubergines, chillies and, against a sunny wall, parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme. Everything is grown specifically to use in the kitchen because Minn is not only a very good farmer, he is also an outstanding cook, known for his ability to whip up a delicious meal out of so-called ‘nothing’. The day I was there, he was expecting a friend for dinner. I’ll pick a few radishes and carrots and make crudités with fresh tartare sauce, using shallots and parsley. For the main course, I might grill a couple of salmon fillets and serve with asparagus, the last of the spinach and some new potatoes. For dessert … maybe  stewed rhubarb with cream…. What’s good in the garden today is my guiding principle.

Minn’s walled garden is not only beautiful, a rival to any of its National Trust equivalents, it was created pretty much instinctively. As his father, whilst an excellent nurseryman, was neither a hands-on farmer nor a dedicated gardener, Minn learnt much of what he knows from Ernie, the retired farm worker who planted and tended his parents’ kitchen garden almost 60 years ago. My motto was always listen, listen all the time to what others are saying because one day it’ll come in useful. The glass on the greenhouse roof, for example, has been cut using ‘beavertails’. This directs the rain water to run down the middle of the glass panes, thereby protecting the cedar frame from damp and rot. I remembered that detail and wanted to include it in my own garden. I have, of course, had a long time to think about things. I designed and sourced everything myself and I managed the project from start to finish; I have absolutely no building skills but the wonderful 70 year old carpenter and his team who built the garden allowed me to work alongside them as an apprentice labourer.  

Minn finds many of his treasures on eBay. By the entrance to the greenhouse stands a water tank; empty, it weighs 600kgs and was used in the Welsh mountain railways of the early 20th century. In the potting shed is a Victorian pot-bellied stove. The mine lamps in the greenhouse are from the 1940s and the light switches come from an old factory. The rain buckets, forged in a Glasgow foundry, were made for a Scottish country house. They’re cast iron and when I bought them at auction they were coated in thick gloss paint. You could hardly see the beautiful Regency pattern underneath. I power blasted them and then powder coated them with zinc to prevent them rusting.

In the centre of the garden is an enormous 19th century French copper cheese vat which has been repurposed as a fountain. This creates an attractive centrepiece but more importantly it maintains a steady water level in the dipping pool. Rain water from the gutters is channelled underground where it collects in a 3000 litre onion-shaped tank. A small electric pump circulates the water and irrigates the trenches during planting time. It maintains water levels on the same principle as a loo, Minn explained.

The garden was originally an old meadow that had never had pesticides used on it. The next process, as Minn described it, reminded me of baking a multi-layered birthday cake. He stripped away the top soil so it was not damaged during building works, laid out the raised beds and then brought back the soil. He subsequently spread 4 inches of horse manure over the soil, then covered everything with 4 inches of leaf mould. I am using a ‘no-dig’ approach to all my growing; as long as I keep topping up the beds with the leaf mould every year, I don’t need to disturb the soil and this preserves all the flora and fauna – especially earthworms and mycorrhizal fungi. Every year, in kitchen gardens and allotments across the land, Minn explained, people double dig the soil going in to winter. This, he told me, was like demolishing your house once a year. You spend the spring and summer building it and then, just as you’ve moved in and the winter winds start to howl, you knock it down again. Deep cultivation destroys the soil structure, causes soil erosion and the bare, overwintered soil it leaves allows valuable nutrients to escape into the atmosphere. Leaf mould is akin to soil armour: it provides food and habitat for organisms and also prevents moisture evaporation and the germination of weed seeds.

Minn uses a small Dutch hoe to create a little crumb on the surface, which, as a result of the leaf mould above and the water tank below, is consistently moist but never wet. His weeding system is equally gentle. I watched as he tenderly ran the hoe through the soil to dislodge the few weeds that were there, leaving them to dry and die in the sun.

A local carpenter built the greenhouse and Minn bought the 25,000 bricks for the wall and the paving stones as a job lot from a local reclamation yard. The footings for the entire garden structure were cast as a single ring beam, so that it moves, floating imperceptibly like a platform over the clay subsoil. By moving as one, it prevents the walls cracking. Minn sources his flowerpots from a company in Yorkshire that also makes terracotta drains. Drains need to be frost and road traffic proof, so not only are Minn’s pots tall and beautifully proportioned, they don’t flake or crumble. I thought of the Watch with Mother characters ‘Bill and Ben, the Flowerpot Men’ (but without ‘Little Weed’).

It was five hours before we returned to the house. I learnt a lot, not just about kitchen gardens, but about holding a vision for a lifetime; holding it, like a tiny seed in the palm of your hand; being patient with it; feeding it with just the right nourishment; showing it to just the right people; listening carefully, with your ears and your heart and above all waiting, ever so patiently for the day when your dream can fly free. Although George didn’t physically cultivate his own garden, Minn was able to see what was created on his father’s behalf. Today, George’s grandchildren and his great-grandchildren are learning about food and where it comes from. They plant and grow their own seed pots and every autumn Minn judges the Till family pumpkin growing competition.

I went home, not I will admit, sufficiently inspired to plant a kitchen garden of my own, but certainly with the intention of introducing my granddaughter to Beatrix Potter because, well …  Thea loves her bunnies as much as Minn loves his brassicas.

Recommended Reading:

Dirt to Soil: One Family’s Journey into Regenerative Agriculture Gabe Brown

Entangled Life: How Fungi Make our Worlds, Change our Minds and Shape our Future  Merlin Sheldrake



And They Lived Ever After

Einstein is credited as saying: If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales.

I am currently re-visiting my own copy of Grimm’s Fairy Tales, given to me by my father in 1965. Unusually, there is no dedication. Instead, in a six-year old’s wobbly handwriting are the words: Sunday May 23 Suseli from Papi.

Dad gave me a lot of books as I was growing up and he often wrote something pithy and poetic on the fly leaf. His words went over my head but I never asked him to explain them because, well, I didn’t want him to think I was stupid. The hardback edition Dad gave me when I was six years old is a fine one. Printed in Czechoslovakia and illustrated by the German Expressionist painter, Josef Scharl, it contains 210 stories and concludes with a folkloristic commentary by Joseph Campbell.

There is nothing about Scharl’s illustrations that seem appropriate for a six-year old. The  faces of kings, trolls, devils and witches are terrifying and the anguished expressions of fishermen, bridegrooms, sisters and servants, imply a world of worry and trouble.

Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm were born in Kassel, Germany in the late eighteenth century and their stories are collected from local farmers, weavers, tailors, grandmothers ….  The Grimm brothers sought not beauty but accuracy: from mouth to ear to page.

I was once asked about my favourite childhood fairy tale. The one you choose, it seems, is a reflection of how you see your own life. I was obsessed by The Singing Ringing Tree, (based on Hurleburlebutz by the Brothers Grimm). It was first shown on the BBC in 1964 as part of the Tales from Europe series. Das Singende, Klingende Bauemchen was an East German production and the German dialogue would play simultaneously with the voice of the English narrator. This conflicting jumble of voices and language only served to amplify the sinister quality of the characters, who all looked as though they had walked off an Otto Dix painting. Even the good-prince-transformed-into-a-bear-by-the-wicked-dwarf looked weird and scary. But … it was impossible to look away. The whole thing was utterly compelling. My parents were still at work at 4.00 in the afternoon and so I would watch The Singing Ringing Tree by myself. I used to worry that they’d walk in unannounced, switch off the television and forbid me from watching it ever again.

Joseph Campbell writes about the visionary rather than the descriptive quality of fairy stories: The ageless tale of human destiny, recognised, for all its cannibal horrors, as a marvellous, wild, monstrous, irrational and unnatural wondertale. This is the story our spirit asks for; this is the story we receive. Einstein declared that the gift of fantasy meant more to him that any talent for abstract, positive thinking.

I am looking forward to reading fairytales to my grandchildren; not the plump, bright cartoon versions but the ones my mother used to read to her grandchildren. Polly and Lucy’s favourite was Snow White and Rose Red, the tale of two sisters, a bear-prince and a wicked dwarf.


Closing the Circle

I was a free man in Paris. I felt unfettered and alive. Nobody was calling me up for favors. No one’s future to decide.                                                                                                                                                      Joni Mitchell ‘Court and Spark’

Many years ago – 42 in fact – I lived in Paris. I was a student at the Sorbonne, although I rarely went to lectures, preferring to spend my weekdays in the Library at the Pompidou Centre. I was trying to write a dissertation on Cezanne, but I often got distracted, particularly by the fire-eater in the square. He was there every day and would bark huskily at the crowd, refusing to take a first slug of petrol until his hat was full of francs.

I have only been back to Paris a few times and for short periods. Last week I was looking forward to spending four days in the city with my friend, Valentine. A few days before we were due to leave, she tested positive for Covid; thus I arrived, by myself, at the Gare du Nord carrying my old diary from 1980 with some vague notion of retrieving my long-ago life in Paris.

In September 1980, I moved into an apartment in the 15th arrondissement. It was tiny but had huge French windows that overlooked a courtyard. My landlady, Dominique, was a dancer at the Folies Bergeres. Cite Falguiere is a former artists’ colony, built as studios and apartments: Gauguin, Modigliani and Brancusi all lived there. My favourite restaurant Aux Artistes on Rue Falguiere is still there, exactly as I remembered it and probably unchanged since the family first opened the doors in 1959.

When I lived at 3 Cite Falguiere in 1980, I had no telephone, so if my parents or my friends wanted to visit, they had to send me a letter. Sometimes I’d come home and find a note stuck to the front door. Passing through, but you weren’t home. I rather liked this arrangement. I was free and unfettered. I wasn’t accountable to anyone. Sometimes, if I didn’t feel like entertaining visitors, I’d pretend I wasn’t home.

Today, accessing apartment buildings involves codes and keypads, but I managed to sneak in behind a delivery driver. I followed him, first into the courtyard and then into the stairwell of No. 3. Everything was exactly as I remembered it – just a little spruced-up.

Encouraged by my success, I walked to the Jardin de Luxembourg where children used to race sailboats across the pond and a one-man puppet theatre performed in the shade of the plane trees. On the Ile St. Louis, I joined the queue for Berthillon, a fifth generation glacier and a Paris institution since 1954. My roasted pineapple and basil ice cream was delicately flavoured and delicious.

The following day I decided to visit one of my favourite places in the city. In 1980, whenever I grew tired of reading French novels, I would make my way to Shakespeare and Company, a cosy, ramshackle building on the Left Bank and the only place I knew in Paris that sold second-hand books in English. George Whitman opened his bookshop in 1951. All through his life, Whitman, who died in 2011 at the age of 98, invited writers and artists to stay at his bookshop (benches doubled as small beds at night) and in exchange for his hospitality, visitors were asked to read a book a day, help at the shop for a few hours and write a one-page autobiography before they left. George referred to his shop as a socialist utopia masquerading as a bookstore. I didn’t know any of this at the time. I just liked the space and the books.

Shakespeare and Company has since been discovered. The queues are long and rope barriers determine the number of people permitted into the building at any one time. The rooms upstairs are now referred to as ‘Reading rooms’ and the books on display are for ambience. None are for sale. I asked a young woman stacking shelves about the change. This has always been a new bookshop she told me, in a tone of great confidence. You can’t buy second-hand books any longer, but you can buy tote bags and stickers; and you can drink lattes in the buzzing Shakespeare and Company coffee shop next door.

The city was full of people taking pictures of themselves and of each other. I was taking pictures too of course, although not of myself. I have almost no photographs of the 8 months I spent in Paris in the 1980s. I don’t recall having a camera.

I decided to make one last attempt at a Proustian experience and headed to my favourite cafe Les Deux Magots on Boulevard St Germain. It was popular, even 40 years ago. Writers including Sartre, de Beauvoir, Joyce and Hemingway would meet there and it became known as Le rendez-vous de l’elite intellectuelle. We were students and going to Les Deux Magots for ‘chocolat chaud’ was an expensive treat. We always asked for the same table outside so we could watch the street performers.

I had been told that it can take 30 minutes to get a table at Les Deux Magots and so I arrived with low expectations. It was lunchtime on a sunny Saturday and every table was taken. Then, as if by magic, a smartly-dressed waiter unclipped the rope and guided me straight to my old table. The chocolat chaud arrived on a silver tray in a china jug. It has the consistency of thick soup and I can say, without hesitation, even 40 years later, that it is the very best hot chocolate I have ever tasted. I wanted to hug the waiter. I resisted and left him a generous tip instead.

As Marcel Proust once said: Remembrance of things past is not necessarily the remembrance of things as they were. My old diary recalls the freedom I had as a student in Paris, but it also describes a time in my life where isolation was my response to feelings of vulnerability and separation. The four days I spent alone in the city helped  me reconcile the idealism and peculiar melancholy which I have always associated with the 8 months I lived in Paris.


The Beatle of the Bullring

In 1959, my parents founded an English language school on the southeast coast of England and in 1970, The School of English Studies welcomed ‘El Cordobes’, Spain’s most celebrated bullfighter.

I was eleven years old and had never heard of the man they called ‘The Beatle of the Bullring’, but I was fascinated by the secrecy that surrounded his arrival. He had chosen Folkestone because he wanted to keep a low profile. Within days, however, his cover was blown and there were photographers hiding in the bushes of Grimston Gardens and reporters calling the house day and night for a story.

Finally, it was agreed that the press could visit for a one-off interview and photo opportunity, and a team came down from the now defunct Daily Sketch to follow Manuel Benitez through a day in his life at SES. Pictures were taken of him playing table football with the other students and sitting in the Language Laboratory with headphones and a text book. The photographer even snapped him polishing his powder-blue Rolls Royce, a chore much more likely to have been done by his chauffeur. The double-page spread in the paper the following day infuriated my father. He was scornful of the impoverished, clichéd language used in the article, which described the matador as stabbing at everything that moved with his ballpoint pen and shouting ‘Gore Blimey’ and ‘Magnifico’ when tasting Mrs. Bannister’s fruit cake. In spite of all the excitement, Peter O’Connell remained determined that the SES teaching routine was not to be disrupted and, according to the article, the Press had to wait until the tough bullfighter had finished morning school before they could do their interviews.

El Cordobes was given special one-to-one tuition with Marion, the Director of Studies. She recalls driving Manuel around town in her Ford Popular in a bid to confuse the Press, who pursued him wherever he went.

Even though I had no interest in bullfighting, I decided to make the most of having a real live celebrity in the school, and I asked to be introduced to the great man. I had been told that even though he was in his mid-thirties, he had never been to school and this, in itself, I found astonishing. El Cordobes was very gracious and even though his English was non-existent, we smiled at each other and communicated through an interpreter. He subsequently handed me two pieces of what appeared to be air-dried beef. When I showed my mother what the great matador had given me, she explained that after he killed a bull, he would cut off its ears and throw them into the crowd. It was a great stroke of luck if you caught one and here I was with two, possibly even belonging to the same bull. I was revolted by this story and managed to get my mother to exchange the ears for an autographed picture, which I thought would give me greater kudos with my friends at school. First, of course, I would need to explain who El Cordobes was and why they should be impressed, after which I could always throw in the bit about having turned down a couple of dead bull’s ears.

El Cordobes is arguably Spain’s most famous bullfighter. Growing up in poverty in Cordoba, the young Manuel Benitez would steal into estates at night and practise fighting on untrained bulls. Later, in an attempt to gain recognition in the Ring, he vaulted fences at big fights and, using a makeshift cape, challenged the bull and delighted the crowds. He was flamboyant and provocative and had a reputation as a great lothario. Several biographies were written about El Cordobes and in 1991 the musical Matador, loosely based on his life, opened at the Queen’s Theatre in London. The great bullfighter had been due to spend seven months studying at SES, but the publicity became intolerable for everyone concerned, and a few weeks later he went back to Spain.

Richard, a summer teacher at SES, had lived in Spain for many years and was an avid fan of the ‘toreo’.  In 1980, we were visiting Barcelona and Richard invited us to a bullfight. I wasn’t keen on the idea, but decided that, in view of the school’s history with El Cordobes, I should go. I bought a copy of Ernest Hemingway’s Death in the Afternoon in the hope of preparing myself a little, but the spectacle turned out to be worse than I could ever have imagined.

Bullfighting was banned in Barcelona in 2012 and Las Arenas is now a shopping mall. El Cordobes fully retired from the ring in 2000. At the time of writing, he is eighty-five years old and lives a quiet life in his hometown of Cordoba.


Taken from I Have Come to Say You Goodbye: A History of The School of English Studies, 1959 – 2017  by Una Suseli O’Connell (pub. June 2022).




Gernika is the happiest town in the world. Its affairs are run by a group of peasants who meet beneath an oak tree and always make the fairest decisions.      Jean-Jacques Rousseau c.1760

From the village of Mundaka, we boarded a single-track railway line which took us through tidal flats and salt marshes, past sun-scorched fishing boats and pampas grass. Yellow-billed storks sat motionless on the branches of bleached trees and, in the distance lay the snow-covered mountains of Cantabria.

The first thing you notice about Gernika (the Basque spelling is preferred), is that, unlike its near neighbours, Bilbao and San Sebastian, there are no shady, narrow streets, no ornate iron railings, no covered wooden balconies, no clothes drying on washing lines. Gernika is a modern town, open and spacious, full of plazas, parks and apartment buildings.

The Basques are an ancient people with a long history of self-reliance and a strong desire for autonomy. The Basque Republic was founded in Gernika in October 1936 in the shadow of the Gernika oak tree, which, over hundreds of years, has evolved into a symbol of freedom for all Basque people.

The Spanish Civil War began in July 1936. Initially, Franco was pre-occupied with the Republicans in the south but, by the spring of 1937, he and his generals had turned their attention to the Basques in the north.

Monday April 26th was market day in Gernika and people from all over Vizcaya were in town to buy food and livestock. The fighter planes with their machine guns were the first to arrive, weaving and dipping, flying so low that their wing tips stroked the grass along the riverbank. They were closely followed by the bombers. The two worked in shifts and flew in waves across the town. Relentlessly. For three hours. Around 5pm, the bombers began to drop incendiary cluster bombs: They came down like rain, like silver pencils that exploded. Through the dust and the smoke they looked like hundreds of candle flames burning. We found some that had not exploded. They were all engraved with the German eagle. (Jose Ramon Segues). Hitler had agreed to support Franco in the bombing of Gernika as it offered him an opportunity to test new weapons and strategies. Intense aerial bombardment later became a significant part of his Blitzkrieg tactics.

By nightfall, the fires were so intense and the debris so overwhelming that many survivors, calling from beneath the rubble, could not be rescued. That was horrible – more horrible than the bombing itself (Carmen Zabaljauregi).

1,654 people were killed that day and 85.22% of the buildings in the town were destroyed. Franco’s army never acknowledged responsibility for the attack. On the contrary, he blamed the Basque republicans, claiming that they had exploded dynamite in the sewers and used gasoline to set the fires. Priests were brought to Gernika to perpetuate the story from the pulpits. Those who disputed it were given prison sentences and children in schools were  ‘re-educated’. It was not until Franco died in 1975 that the narrative began to shift in Spain. It was not until 1997 that Germany finally acknowledged responsibility for its role in the bombing of Gernika.

On May 1st 1937, just five days after the bombing, Pablo Picasso, who was living in Paris, began work on Guernica. He offered the painting, on extended loan, to the Museum of Modern Art in New York with the understanding that it would remain outside Spain until such time as democracy was re-established in his homeland. It was not until 1981 that Guernica, travelling on a commercial flight from New York to Madrid, arrived in Spain. As the plane touched down at Barajas airport, the captain made an unexpected announcement: Ladies and Gentlemen, Guernica has returned to Spain.

As we made our way back up the coast to Mundaka, I thought about the people of Gernika, who like the citizens of Mariupol, Aleppo and Hiroshima, awoke with ordinary expectations for the day ahead. By nightfall, in the words of Joseba Elosegui: There were people standing in front of the place where their homes had been, screaming the names of their loved ones who were missing.


The Day Guernica Was Bombed – A Story Told by Witnesses and Survivors  William L. Smallwood



The Kindness of Strangers

Yesterday I lost my wallet. By late morning, having conducted repeated searches of the same pockets and all the rest, I decided that it was time to call the bank. My money was safe and that was a relief, but where was my velvet purse with its white beaded stitching? – a gift from a friend in America.

In 1992, we were living in Switzerland. Our daughter Polly, who was 3 years old at the time, had a favourite bear who was her constant companion. At the English Church Christmas Bazaar in Bern that year, she lost him. Anticipating weeks of tears and sleepless nights, I put a small ad in the newspaper offering a reward to anyone who found him. Polly remained strangely calm, explaining that Bear had gone to the North Pole to help Father Christmas. He’ll be back in the New Year, she assured us.

Sure enough, in early February, a parcel arrived and there was Bear. An accompanying note explained that he had been discovered behind a filing cabinet in the church office. The kind woman who returned him to us recalled reading about the little girl who had lost her bear.  She said she’d cut out the piece and pinned it to the notice board in the office.

We were over the moon. Polly was delighted too, although her reaction was more muted. I told you he’d be back she said.

Polly has a little girl of her own now and Bear, although quite elderly, still lives in the nursery alongside several newer, fluffier versions of himself.

I was getting ready to go to bed last night when there was a knock at the front door. A woman I had never seen before handed me my wallet. She told me that she had found it on the street on her way to work. She apologized for not returning it earlier but explained that she had only just come off her shift.





Standing on the shoulders of giants

If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants  Sir Isaac Newton 1643 – 1727

Rikon, founded in 1926, is a leading Swiss brand of cookware. In the early 2000s, a factory worker, who had been with the company for many years, retired. His job had been to remove pans from a controlled heating environment and feed them on to a conveyor belt. As he took each pan from the heat, he developed a habit of knocking the base against a flat block of wood. This evened out any bubbles or ridges which might form once the metal cooled. This was not anything the man had been told to do. It wasn’t written down in any corporate manual. It was simply an instinctive movement he had developed as a result of his long experience on the job.

Within weeks of the man’s retirement, Rikon started receiving complaints. Saucepans were returned at an alarming rate. Pans were said to be chipping and surfaces were uneven. No-one could figure out why this was happening. Eventually, someone suggested speaking to the recently retired employee at which point his unique technique was revealed.

Over the course of 50 years, my parents, Peter and Lea O’Connell ran an English Language school. One of the important things I learnt, growing up in a busy school for foreign students, was the significance of accumulated experience and knowledge. In 1962, when my parents bought a former clinic to house their expanding school, they took on the building’s caretaker. Denis Clatworthy had been a ‘Desert Rat’, part of the 8th Army in North Africa during WWII and my father liked to joke that it was in fact Denis who ran the school and without him it would collapse. In his welcome address at the start of each new term, Peter always referenced the office and the maintenance staff. This admiration and respect my parents had for the non-academic members of the school filtered through to the students. I recall that at the end of one term, Denis and his team were formally presented with an enormous card, signed by one hundred and twenty students. Thank you they wrote, for keeping our School so beautifully clean and nice. 

In 2005, I sold the school and a new manager arrived to steer the organisation in a new direction. I  suggested he speak to those who had spent their careers at The School of English Studies, the ones with long years of experience, the ones who remembered the successes and the failures, the ones  who understood the cycles of change.

A new broom sweeps clean but an old broom knows the corners.   

A bell’s not a bell til’ you ring it. A song’s not a song til’ you sing it …. Oscar Hammerstein

In 1953, my father, Peter O’Connell, was teaching at Groton School in Massachusetts. Shortly before he returned to England for the summer vacation, he was asked to direct Groton’s Bellringing Society for the autumn term. His understanding of the rules of bellringing was minimal and he decided to acquire as much knowledge and skill as possible during his two months in England. Within days of his arrival, he had made an appointment to see Mr. Hughes at the Whitechapel Bell Foundry. Established in 1570, the foundry had cast Big Ben, the bells of St. Paul’s, Westminster Abbey and the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia. Peter had an abiding belief that learning from the best possible teachers gave you the best possible chance of joining the ranks of excellence.         

I spent two fascinating hours with Mr. Hughes who is related to the original family. He received me in his office – a low ceilinged, panelled room with pictures of bells and cathedrals on the walls. He wore a velvet bow tie and reminded me of one of Dickens’ Cheeryble brothers. He was most affable and spoke of Groton with affection. He first went there in 1908 and knew Mr. Sturgis well. He thought the ringing execrable. He took me through the foundry and told me countless stories of bells. He also put me in touch with the most suitable ringers from whom I can learn.

The following evening, Peter made his way to Hounslow to meet John Chilcott a young, eager and charming fellow and one of the finest ringers in the country. Mr. Chilcott, a senior ringer at St. Paul’s Cathedral, had, just a few weeks earlier, led a four hour peal for the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth. He took Peter to a rural church in Cranford to practice on a bell cast in 1380. It was here I learnt how little I know. They ring very fast and without calling leads or treble plain leads. I failed humiliatingly but everyone was very nice and encouraging. We finished the evening at the Queen’s Head with several pints of bass and some handbell ringing. The association of churches and pubs is very appropriate for a historian. All historians ought to be bellringers.

On Sunday, Peter was invited to the bell tower at St. Paul’s Cathedral. Herbert Langdon led a 20 minute touch of Stedman Cinques. It was beautiful ringing and made our little efforts at Groton seem forlorn. He subsequently accompanied Mr. Hughes back to his home in Whitechapel for lunch a solid, old fashioned English meal with sherry served as table wine. What a wonderful old Londoner Mr. H is! He is the perfect Cockney and has a greater claim than most to that proud title. Not only was he born within the sound of Bow Bells but his family cast them. Peter was diligent about doing his homework. He listened to bell recordings, lent to him by John Chilcott, studied books and at odd moments during the day he rang handbells in his head. At the invitation of Mr. Hughes, he returned to the Whitechapel workshop to spend a day observing the casting process. I watched Ernie Oliver, whose great grandfather cast Big Ben, turning hand bells. I watched the mould makers, clapper and ironwork blacksmiths and carpenters on wheels (elm, ash and oak) and I learnt a lot of value to me personally at Groton.

Peter rang in many different towers during the course of that summer, including the Norman church of St. Bartholomew The Great in Smithfield, which has one of the oldest peals of bells in the world. After ringing, the little group retired for a pint at The Hand and Shears, reputedly the oldest licensed premises in the city. In spite of Peter’s dedication, he writes: I feel depressed at my slow progress. There is little improvement in my ringing skills and many disappointments but, I shall peg away and I think cope enough to get things on a sound basis next year.

Peter never became a particularly fluent bell ringer. The frustration he felt about his own shortcomings bled out and swamped the boys at Groton. He complained of their ignorant and loutish behaviour and within two weeks, Bingham and Keyes had told Mr. O’Connell that they didn’t like bell ringing and were quitting. Peter was undaunted and arranged for the school carpenter to build a cabinet for the handbells. He also took the clapper bolts to the blacksmith in  the nearby town of Ayer for repair and asked him to install steel bars in the ringing chamber in order to secure the tower for the boys. Sometimes practice went well the boys are beginning to feel the meaning of rhythm and to sense the enjoyment gained from correct ringing and fast clean striking. From time to time, Williams and Schieffelin came to his study after supper and together they rang handbells We got through Grandsire Doubles double handed, after a bit of a struggle. On November 7th, he writes I lost my temper this evening and shouted the boys down. I also turned Higginson out of the tower for fooling with the ropes.

Douglas Brown arrived at Groton as a third former in the fall of 1953 and joined Peter’s bellringing group. After graduating from Harvard, he spent a decade building church organs before returning to Groton in 1970. As well as teaching woodwork, Douglas was in charge of bellringing. He recalls that in the winter of 1972, my father returned to Groton for a visit and complained about the lack of adult supervision in the chapel tower, something Peter considered to be both irresponsible and dangerous. Douglas assured him that safety was not being compromised but Peter insisted on climbing the bell tower to reprimand the boys for their folly. They must have been both startled and mystified by the sudden appearance of this hapless Englishman who clearly had neither the authority to be questioning the rules of the school, nor to be scolding its students for what he considered to be improper behaviour.

My father encouraged me to become a bellringer and, on a few occasions, I joined him in the bell tower at St. Mary and St. Eanswythe in Folkestone but it felt too much like corporal Maths to me. I either lost control of the rope or lost count of the bell calls. This ultimately allowed my father to reign supreme as our family’s most accomplished and experienced bellringer, a status he assumed with pride.

Peter’s friendship with Mr. Hughes endured. The latter sent letters, written on elegantly headed, onion-skin notepaper, sharing news of bells and festivals, offering advice on clapper stays and ringing technique and commiserating with my father on his disappointments: I am sorry to hear that Groton ringing has not been very successful this past year; perhaps the arrival of Wintie and Sam over here and visits to Towers may be of such help that when they return they will be of greater help to you. We are just as busy as ever. In about three weeks we shall be trying out the new twelve, Tenor 34cwt at St. Giles’ Cripplegate. I am going to Liverpool next weekend for a ringing ‘do’ at the Cathedral to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the laying of the foundation stone. Times were good for the Whitechapel Bell Foundry and, the following year, Mr. Hughes writes We are just piled up with handbell orders for the U.S. and the waiting list is now over twelve months. In 1955, Mr. and Mrs. Hughes visited the East Coast of America and were disappointed to learn that Mr. O’Connell was no longer teaching at Groton.

In December 2016, it was announced that, after 450 years, the Whitechapel Bell Foundry was to close. The owners, Mr. and Mrs. Hughes attributed its closure to declining trade. The days of being piled up with orders for hand, church and cathedral bells had long gone. I decided to visit the foundry before it disappeared. The building is much as I had imagined it – a wooden, butterscotch-coloured store front with Palladian windows and brass signs. Inside, glass fronted cabinets showed old photographs of famous bells, including the 9/11 Bell, cast and gifted to the people of New York on the first anniversary of the attack on the World Trade Centre. The inscription read: To the greater glory of God and in recognition of the enduring links between the City of London and the City of New York. Forged in adversity, 11 September 2001.

My daughters had given me a bronze handbell from the foundry for my birthday that year and I decided to order a second one as a gift for Douglas when I next visited Groton. When he heard the news that the foundry was to close, he was shocked and visibly saddened. He told me that two representatives from Whitechapel had come to the school in the spring of 2016 to service the chapel bells. They had removed the clappers, taken them back to London and returned in the autumn to re-install them. Douglas wondered whether the foundry would continue to service bells even if they were no longer casting them. I asked him when, before 2016, Groton’s bells had last been overhauled, to which he replied, without a trace of irony Oh, about 50 years ago. Douglas said he thought he might build a frame for his handbell and I was gratified to see that he liked my gift and that it offered him the opportunity to reflect on memories which spanned more than six decades. Peter may not have been the finest nor the most forgiving of bell masters, but Douglas Brown followed his lead up the chapel tower and, in 1972, he accompanied a group of Groton boys on a bellringing tour of England. They rang at York Minister and visited the Loughborough Bell Foundry, which, following the closure of Whitechapel, became the world’s largest working foundry.

This article was first published in The Ringing World and appears here with kind permission of the Editor.

The Cornet

Chris is a soft-spoken, modest man who engages the world with a gentle smile and a kindly manner. Being around Chris always makes me feel relaxed and, for a few moments at least, I can lay aside some of the things I normally find tricky and sticky and painful.

Chris recently appeared on The Repair Shop, a popular British television programme where a team of master craftsmen repair the nation’s broken treasures. It is formulaic in its presentation but each piece and each story is unique. Chris brought his cornet to be repaired and, as he explained to Pete, the conservator, it was given to him by his parents when he was eleven years old. The instrument was dented and chipped, parts were missing and it was held together with sticking plaster: This cornet changed my life. It’s the reason I am where I am now, he said.

It was an inspiring and heartfelt story and I subsequently asked Chris if I could interview him and write a longer, more detailed piece about his life.

Chris Bassett grew up on a council estate in High Wycombe in the 1960s.  His paternal grandfather, born in the Welsh valleys, was a resourceful man, who managed a snooker hall and worked as an upholsterer. Chris’ father, Reg was employed at the local Hoover factory, became a national convener for the company union and, while his five children were still at school, he studied for his Bachelor’s degree. Chris’ mother, Betty, was orphaned as a small child and raised by a neighbour. As an adult, she struggled with her mental health and was hospitalised for extended periods. In her absence, Chris and his siblings were sent to children’s homes.

When Chris was eight years old, he fell off his bicycle and fractured his skull. A year later, he fell off a garage roof and fractured it again. He was taken to the spinal injuries centre at Stoke Mandeville and subsequently spent two years in Marlborough Children’s Hospital. His parents visited once a month but he didn’t see his siblings again until he was eleven.

Chris recovered physically from his accidents but he never recovered academically. He started at secondary school but was subsequently transferred to the adjoining vocational unit and it was at this point that his parents bought him the cornet. It opened up a new world, he said. Although he could no longer read words or add up numbers, he discovered that he could sight-read music. His brass band teacher encouraged him to join the local Salvation Army Band and the High Wycombe Youth Band.

He followed his older brother into the Army Cadets and, at the age of fourteen, Chris applied to join the British Army. He flunked the entrance test but the recruiting sergeant, recognising that the boy was musically gifted, suggested he apply directly to the Royal Green Jackets. He was accepted but had to give up his cornet in exchange for the French horn. Two years later, Chris won a place at the Royal Military School of Music in Twickenham.  I loved my time in the army, he told me. I was a musician, not a soldier and we toured the UK every year, playing at ceremonies and marching displays, school concerts and fetes.

He left the army in 1975 and worked as a postman, a Securicor manager and a fireman, before training as a ventriloquist and puppeteer. In 2004 Chris began working in secondary schools, supporting pupils, especially teenage boys, with emotional, behavioural and mental health needs.

After he retired in 2020 he applied to be a volunteer mentor for GRIT – Growing Resilience in Teenagers. At the interview, Chris was asked to speak about his own experiences with resilience and positive change and he recounted the story of his cornet. It was Claire on the  interview panel who suggested he contact The Repair Shop.

When Chris’ cornet was unveiled, he was deeply moved. He gently picked up the instrument and played it again for the first time in fifty years. He chose Edelweiss, he explained, because it was the first piece he had ever played in public. I never got to say thank you to my Mum and Dad because by the time I realised the impact this cornet had had on my life, it was too late. I don’t know why they bought it, but I’m so grateful they did. It was a life changer. I’d like to think that they are proud of me.

The injuries Chris sustained as a boy have been disturbingly echoed in the life of his youngest son. In 2011, at the age of nineteen, Matthew suffered a spinal cord injury in a swimming accident which left him a tetraplegic. Just like his father, he neither leads with, nor defines himself by his injury. In interviews he is relaxed, engaged and quick-witted. Since his accident, Matthew has got married to Amanda, climbed Mount Snowdon, gone skiing in Sweden and, last year he went surfing off the Gower Peninsula. I made peace with the sea again, he said. Life isn’t defined by what I can’t do – it’s about what I can do. If you’ve got the right attitude, you can do more or less anything. It’s about looking at the small things that create something important for you.

As we came to the end of our time together, Chris took his shiny old cornet out of its new carrying case and, at my request he played Edelweiss, a song which always reminds me of my Swiss mother.

Chris Bassett on The Repair Shop BBC iplayer: Series 7 Episode 40

Matthew Bassett on Weatherman Walking, Surf’s Up BBC iplayer

The Child is Father of the Man

January 5th, 2022 marked the one hundredth anniversary of the death of Sir Ernest Shackleton, the polar explorer who died during his final journey to the Antarctic at the age of forty seven.

In 2002, a television series, recounting the story of Shackleton’s 1914 journey to the South Pole, received international acclaim. As it was filmed on location in Iceland and Greenland, the actors experienced some of the conditions under which the early polar explorers would have travelled across the Antarctic.

Our daughters, Polly and Lucy were pupils at St. Christopher, Letchworth where the uncle of a boy in the Junior School had had a major role in the film. The school invited him to a morning assembly to speak about his experiences on location. His talk was enthralling and his pitch was perfect, providing tense excitement without being boastful or overly inflated. During the Q+A session, I expected the children to ask questions about the extreme temperatures, the presence of dangerous animals and how the actors spent their time when they weren’t filming. Instead, the questions were very personal: Do you live in a flat or a house? Do you have any pets? What’s your favourite food?The Head teacher was clearly embarrassed and encouraged the pupils to be relevant to the topic in hand. The children’s interest, however, was focussed on Jake’s uncle and not on his life as a working actor. What kind of man was he? How and where did he live? Was he kind to animals? They were indifferent to his fame and the people he knew; what concerned them was his authenticity. Was he a good person? Was he trustworthy?

Ernest Shackleton was a leading figure in early Polar exploration. He was undoubtedly a brave man. He was also an inspirational one. His men trusted him, they respected him and they followed him.


The Child is Father of the Man by William Wordsworth, taken from My Heart Leaps Up, 1802