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Monday, 24 January 2011

An urban wassail

"Old apple tree, we wassail thee, and hoping thou wilt bear
For the Lord doth know where we shall be 'til apples come another year."
The old West Country tradition of wassailing is being reclaimed and revived for the urban environment. Wassail - from the Anglo Saxon Waes Hael (to be healthy) - was an ancient fertility rite to wake fruit trees from their winter slumber and scare away evil spirits, ensuring a good harvest. Around the old Twelfth Night, January 17,  folk would go out into the orchards bearing a wassailing cup, and sing to the trees before making a great noise to frighten away malignant forces. The tree would be toasted, some drink poured on the trunk, and pieces of bread put among the branches, perhaps as an offering to the tree spirit.

Now residents of Willesden Green in NW London have taken this custom and used it to bring life back to their high street. On a bleak January Sunday, they paraded through the main shopping area (above), serenading local independent retailers and wishing them health and prosperity.
The event was organised by storyteller Rachel Rose Reid (here leading the singing) who brought with her a host of singers, fellow storytellers, comedians and performance artists to entertain the crowd. Orchards being rather thin on the ground, the procession ended outside the local library by two crab apple trees planted the previous winter. Cider and apple juice were poured around their roots, and branches decorated with ribbons to symbolise the traditional food before the wassailers repaired to a nearby cafe to warm up and chat.
Their verdict? Unusual, fun, and a great way to waken community spirit, even if the trees prefer to slumber a little longer.

Thursday, 20 January 2011

A wedding dress for £10?

Impossible? Not, it seems, for stylist/fashion journalist Mary Jane Baxter (above). She's a long-standing friend who always manages to look fantastic by taking market and charity shop finds and transforming them into eyecatching outfits - in other words, a recycling genius. But when BBC TV's Breakfast programme challenged her to use her needlework skills to create a wedding dress for £10, even I had my doubts. However, she's come up with not one, but three outfits, all hitting the target price, The results will be on BBC Breakfast News on Saturday Jan 22nd and then on her blog: "I didn't think I would be able to do a dress for £10 but I was amazed at what I could do, " she said. "I think if you make it yourself and put the time and love into it, you are more likely to look after clothes. In this year of austerity more people are looking to traditional skills like sewing."  Something the future Queen of England, Kate Middleton, may consider when deciding what to wear on April 29.

PS Mary Jane's ideas for turning almost any ordinary outfit into something special are going into a book, Chic on a Shoestring, published by Kyle Cathie and coming out in May - £14.99. (It's currently available for pre-order on My needle and scissors are ready and waiting....

Thursday, 13 January 2011

Sudan - time to visit?

Sudan and its people are in the news - those in the southern half of the country have been voting in a referendum to see if Africa's largest country should be split into two, a move which could bring a lasting peace to the area. 
The country has a rich past. On an organised tour of the north just before Christmas, I was amazed by what still remains. The Nubians - the 'Black Pharaohs' who ruled the ancient kingdom of Kush, and for a time, Egypt, for more than a thousand years until around 350 AD - built temples, palaces and Roman-style baths.

 But their most spectacular creations were pyramids. Smaller and steeper than their Egyptian counterparts,  they cluster together on three main sites in the desert, near Karima, at Nuri and at Meroe (pictured). There are around 220 of them - more than in the whole of Egypt, though little-known to tourists.

A highlight of our stay in Karima  (about a day's drive north of Khartoum)  was a dawn climb up this sacred mountain, Jebel Barkal. It was thought to be the home of the Egyptian sun god, Amun. The sandstone outcrop to the right was likened to a cobra.

On its western side is a small royal cemetery with around 20 pyramids.

We crossed weird and beautiful landscapes.......

........and saw ingenious systems to irrigate the fields alongside the Nile.

Away from the Nile, most of northern Sudan is desert, and  life is hard. Nomads (and their flocks) trek up to ten miles to get water from deep wells. Their homes are often a framework of branches,  covered for shelter by matting which is rolled up when they want to move on. (No-one else will touch this framework, so they can come back to it time and time again.) But one family we met were adamant that they preferred this simple existence to living in a city.

Everywhere, people were dignified but friendly - there was no hassle and no begging. Whenever we stopped, children appeared out of nowhere, full of curiosity. This little boy used the sand to show how he could write his name.

Watching the sun rise over the Nile from the top of Jebel Barkal, I could only hope that the referendum brings peace. Sudan's turbulent past has discouraged visitors, but perhaps that will now change, and more people will come to marvel at the remains of this rich and ancient civilisation.

Monday, 3 January 2011

Foxy problem

A neighbour spotted this fox in her garden last week, with a large patch of mange on its back. A second fox (below) was also suffering. Animal welfare charities have suggested either putting out food with a homeopathic remedy inside, or leaving food in a particular spot in the garden till they get used to finding it there, then moving it into a trap. The animals could then be taken away for treatment. Both methods involve feeding the foxes for some days - something she's not keen to do, as this could attract other foxes as well. And what if the wrong ones (about five roam the area) get trapped? She's not happy about either of these solutions. So does anyone have another suggestion???????