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Sunday, 8 August 2010

Back then or My life as a crazy patchwork quilt

Having been encouraged by all the positive comments I received after my last post about my childhood I have taken up the suggestion made by several of you to write my autobiography or since that sounds a bit pompous and important perhaps I should say my memories. Who knows my daughter might one day find it interesting and along the way I will share tidbits with you. If you are not interested in my memories then skip the bit in black type! It did occur to me to start another blog altogether for these posts so that if you aren't interested you needed bother following - what do you think?

I enjoy doing crazy patchwork where the pieces are irregular and there is no set pattern to the quilt I can’t be doing with regular quilting with its symmetry and intricacy, although I can appreciate the workmanship which goes into it. No, for me I love the fact that with crazy patchwork you never know what it’s going to turn out like and that it can actually say something creative about the artist in its very randomness. I love the embellishing using embroidery, ribbons, lace, buttons and bits and bobs.

It occurs to me that my life (and I am sure many if not most people's lives) is somewhat like a crazy patchwork quilt made up of assorted scraps of luxurious bits of silks, velvets and lace along with simple cotton fabrics, the colours varying from bright and cheery to sombre and dark and then embellished with assorted memorabilia each scrap perhaps evoking a memory of when and where the fabric was from. Some of the memories are good ones of long sunny days and happy times and others maybe less happy and of a darker nature when skies seemed always grey. But interspersed with all these memories are sudden flashes of something - shining of moments which live in the memory as something to be treasured and kept special. This is my crazy quilt of memories:

You will perhaps remember that last time I told you that my mother, aunt and I left Suffolk to go and stay with my grandfather in the Forest of Dean:-

Grandfather's House

Grandfather’s house was one of a pair of old stone built cottages which would at one time have been set in fields I suspect since most of the other houses round about were much newer being built perhaps in the 1920s or 30’s. The cottages were approached by a shared path from a little wicket gate painted many years before in green but now a chipped soft pale cabbage colour. The path led to the shared flag stone courtyard in front and there were the two front doors side by side each with a sash window to the side and another above for the bedroom. Alongside the other cottage was a stone lean-to housing a brick built boiler for the washing and a single cold water tap and to the side of Grandfather’s cottage a lean-to shed which was not shared.

At the back of each cottage was the toilet a whitewashed brick affair with a scrubbed wooden seat across the width of the tiny building and a ceramic bowl beneath which led I know not where! It was necessary to tip bowls of washing water down to flush the contents on their way but where it went I have no idea!! In summer it was difficult to keep this building really fresh as you might imagine. No soft toilet tissue then but squares of old newspaper strung on a piece of string and hung on a nail which did make for something interesting to read although the toilets in winter were too cold to linger in and in summer a little on the smelly side so that lingering was not often something I indulged in!

Sadly I have no photos and you can tell that drawing is not my forte either so you will have to use your imaginations I'm afraid!

The front door opened into a room probably about 12 x 12 feet furnished with a polished table and 4 chairs each with a padded horsehair seat covered with a dark brown leatherette, a small bureau above which hung a large sepia photograph of my mother’s oldest brother. He was depicted wearing his dog collar as he had not long before been ordained as a Methodist minister. There was also a piano and a small worn chaise lounge beside the fireplace, a gramophone with some 78s above which hung an oil painting in a gilded frame and alongside a bookcase containing assorted old books of which I remember best The Water Babies which had some lovely illustrations and whose pages were slightly mottled with brown marks due no doubt to the damp. This room was seldom used however except in the summer months when the front door would stand open all day. Most of the living happened in the back room a slightly smaller room accessed from the front room. There was a boarded wooden staircase – no carpet - up to the 2 bedrooms above and a scrubbed table and chairs, a cupboard with a perforated wire panel in the door in which were kept the fresh foods, and a wooden armchair set to one side of the range. There were built in cupboards in the recesses alongside the fireplace and in the upper ones were kept the china and in the lower ones everything else! The floors were flagstones and the only softening effect was a couple of squares of coconut matting since the damp used to come up between the stones in wet weather and carpet would soon be ruined. The curtains were made of thin cotton and hung on an elasticated wire - talk about the sublime to the ridiculous after Reydon Hall!

I remember the smell of that house a mixture of coal fires, of cooking and of damp. I also remember vividly the pretty little china plates each a sort of square shape and with what looked to me like a strawberry painted in the design! I can also remember grandfather’s saucepans – of which he had perhaps 2 there being no room on the range for more than that anyway, which were black and pot bellied in shape – now I wonder why they should stay in my memory?!

At the bottom of the stairs stood an upturned box on which sat a small galvanised bath containing a couple of inches of cold water for washing hands and on the end of the table alongside a dish with a bar of carbolic soap on it (the towel was a roller one on the back of the door)and for drinking and cooking a clean galvanised iron bucket of fresh cold water covered with a teacloth. When I think of the amount of water we use nowadays for rinsing, washing, cooking and cleaning, most of it swishing away down the plughole, I am reminded of those days when every drop of water used had to be fetched in a bucket from the wash house next door and carried into the house through the front door to the kitchen and then of course all waste water had to be carried outside either to the toilet or flung on the garden. In winter it must have been a nightmare although as a child I don’t remember it being a problem but then I didn’t have to do it!!

A paraffin lamp stood on the mantelpiece ready for darkness to fall when it would be lifted down and placed on the table. The amount of light this gave was minimal and later when I started at the grammar school and had home work to do we did in fact have the electricity installed although only downstairs and only for lights and even then my grandfather would never switch the light on if he was at home by himself for any reason! These paraffin lamps seemed to require a lot of attention what with trimming the wicks, cleaning the glass globe and ensuring they were filled with paraffin each day ready for the evenings. They used to make sooty marks on the ceiling and if there was the slightest draught the light would flicker – not at all the romantic soft lighting we sometimes think of lamplight creating!

Of course the range needed to be fed and Cinderford being a mining town coal was the usual fuel when we could afford it and whatever we could find when we couldn’t! Coal was delivered in sacks weighing a hundredweight each and the delivery man was usually filthy and covered in coal dust so that all you could see was his eyes and if he opened his mouth perhaps his teeth. At least we had no gas or electricity bills to pay though!

Upstairs were the 2 bedrooms the front one slightly larger than the back since the staircase took up some of the space alongside the back one. Grandfather slept in the back room in a big brass bedstead. I don’t remember what other furniture there was since I rarely went in there but in the front bedroom with its window overlooking the street and with views across to the hills a mile or so away there was a black iron double bed and a chest of drawers. There must have been bedside tables or somewhere to put the candle down but I don’t remember those. To begin with we all slept in the bed together! But at some stage a single bed was purchased for me and my mother and her sister slept in the double bed together although in the depths of winter I was often to be found in between them and the bed covered with coats in order to keep warm. Under each bed was a china chamber pot for night-time use. Who would wish to go to the toilet when it meant going outside and round the back of the house in the darkness possibly in the rain or snow!

I was happy enough living at Grandfather’s and the only thing I really hated was the cockroaches, which must have lived in the crevices round the fireplace where it would be nice and warm, and which only came out after dark! Occasionally a field mouse would appear indoors but they were cute and I didn’t mind those although I hated the horrible traps my grandfather set for them.

But if I was happy I am sure it cannot have been easy for my mother, aunt nor for grandfather whose peaceful solitary life had been so severely disrupted.


  1. Jane, what a wonderful piece of writing....I was so disappointed when it finished. I could have carried on, it was like reading a book, I was ready for the next chapter.

    It also took me back to holidays at my grandparents in the Essex countryside. I remember those toilets!!!

    Your needlework is so very pretty. I love the way you put pieces together, you have such a good eye. I like the comparison between your life and a patchwork quilt.

    Beautiful post, enjoyed every minute of it.

  2. You could add another page to your blog, especially for this writing. I just discovered that you can add pages yesterday! LOL

    I'm going to read this story tomorrow morning - have a headache at the moment, but looking forward to reading it.

    The quilting looks absolutely lovely.

  3. I've just found your blog via Serenata's and I must say it's fab! I was so immersed in your writing that I didn't want it to stop. I really look forward to your next instalment


  4. Jane, how I loved both aspects of your post. Your crazy patchwork is lovely, (I do own a piece) and your writing is terrific, such a contrast to your previous life! Your grandfather's life sounds so similar to my grandparents', but I only stayed for the holidays!

  5. Wonderful post! I too was enjoying it soo much I didn't want it to end! Such a contrast to your life in Suffolk. Do you know if your Grandfathers cottage is still standing? Of course I love your crazy patchwork, its just amazing.

  6. I like crazy patchwork too though I'm not really into the embellishing - love it when someone else does it though! I would love to do a whole quilt of it one day but it would take some thinking through. As you know I'm only new to this quilting business.
    What an interesting life you have had! So different from my experience. If you don't mind me saying it sounds a hard life especially for your mother bringing up a child alone and without much money by the sounds of it. What a contrast to the life of your children. I'm sure your daughter will be fascinated. Keep going, the rest of us out here are anyway!!!

  7. As another lucky recipient of your beautiful crazy patchwork I can testify to your skills in this area. You are also a skilled writer Jane, able to evoke similar memories for me. Albeit a few years later I still remember the newspaper in my grandparents outside loo which got upgraded later to IZAL paper, all shiny and useless. Grandad was meticulous in cutting it to size! Whichever way you choose, you must keep this dialogue going for your daughter. It will give her a rare insight into what has shaped you and made you the lovely person you are. Fascinating stuff. Lesley x

  8. It's so valuable to record memories like these, both for your family and for social well as for the pleasure they give to those reading them.
    I was really struck by your account of water conservation. How terribly wasteful we are today. We should all have to carry water from a distant tap, and then we might begin to value it.

  9. What great reading Jane - I'm looking forward to reading more. I haven't tried crazy patchwork - maybe I should (there's too much structure in my life!).

  10. Thoroughly enjoyable read Jane. You definitely need to keep and record this. My Mum and Dad live in the country in NZ and they are on tank water and still have to be careful with the amount of water they use so I have grown up very water conscious...My hubby, however has not and I find it hard to reconcile the amount of water he appears to waste when doing simple things like cleaning teeth etc... Mum and Dad still collect all their washing water to water the garden etc...

  11. So enjoyed reading your memories, Jane. When I was a child living in Bristol, our next door neighbour was a coal merchant who came from the Forest of Dean (- much of his coal came from there too, he and his brother delivered all over the Bristol area whilst his father and I think another brother dealt with the supply end). I was very envious of their children who spent holidays in the forest with their grandparents whilst I was stuck in the hot dusty city. Reminds me that I must seek out and re-read Child in the Forest by Winifred Foley - and I'm looking forward to your next instalment!

  12. Keep these wonderful posts coming Jane. (I am another one who has memories of a grandparent's house in a forest complete with squares of newspaper in the outside loo....).
    Lovely crazy patchwork.

  13. Jane, according to my side bar you have post more recently than the post above. I have tried and tried to access it but for some reason I cannot, which is odd.

    Will try again this evening.....

  14. Love the patchwork....especially the heart ♥ liked the analogy too.
    You write so well Jane....keep it flowing.


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