Family events

Percy Stroud, my father and Annabel’s, had his 80th Birthday in November 1981, for which Annabel and Jim organised a great party. They had always been noted for their parties and this one was well up to standard! Dad’s daughters and sons-in-law, grandchildren, and as many of our relations as were able were there and it was a jolly, festive occasion. Jim’s Dad, Tommy, was with us also. You will see from the pictures how happy we all were. When John and Jim were together there was fun. During this party they did a striptease act which had everyone in stitches – I wouldn’t have believed they had it in them! It was a shame we were all so enraptured with their performance that no one thought of taking photos.

August 1981 was both our Silver (25th) Wedding Anniversary and Annabel and Jim’s. They made all the arrangements, but this time at the Tontine Hotel where our Reception had been held in 1956. Again, the pictures show how much we enjoyed being together and remembering.

By then John’s Mum and Dad were in Castle Douglas in a nursing home. This came about because Mum M had had a stroke while at the hairdressers some years before and was in Greenock Infirmary when, and I think this is correct, junior doctors had some sort of work to rule or strike (and who could blame them) and as many patients as possible had to move. She was to be sent home unable to walk unaided and quite frail. Annie couldn’t go to Greenock, being a full-time Matron, and Elizabeth’s boys were still young. It had to be me, so off I went to Greenock. Mum M was a good patient but was unable to do much. Every morning I helped her out of bed and, leaning heavily on me, she managed a wee daunder round the room. John’s Dad wasn’t all that well either, a bit bewildered by the changed circumstances. He had his whippet, and when I went to the butcher’s I had to get a piece of steak which he fed by hand to Scott! I got to know my parents-in-law in a new way and was glad to be there. I suggested to Dad M he should ask his pals round and he did. They blethered away and I gave them tea and scones and it cheered him up. Mum enjoyed the company too. She was feeling better and able to sit up in bed comfortably.

My dad had been struck with bronchitis and taken to hospital, and when he was discharged that was another problem. Anabel was back full-time in the Bank and he wasn’t to be left alone. It was quickly solved by John’s Mum, who immediately said “bring him here”! So there was a shift around of sleeping arrangements, my Dad got my room and, for the period he was there, I slept on two armchairs with a kitchen chair between then in the room with John’s Mum. So I was handy when she woke in the night and I slept very comfortably. The ‘boys’ came a couple of times when my Dad was with us. The three had been policemen and Dad an engineer and they found plenty to talk about. I was there for about two weeks and learned a good bit about nursing elderly patients, and was content.

John and his Dad

John arranged for his Mum to come to Shotley Bridge Hospital in Consett, where we then lived, and his Dad could stay with us for the time being. When John phoned Annie, who was Matron at Castle Douglas Hospital, to say all was well she told him she was arranging for Mum Mitchell to come into her Hospital and Dad M to stay with her! To say John was taken aback was putting it mildly, having been under the impression he had been left to arrange something. Never mind, we made a new plan. Annie arranged a Greenock ambulance to fetch her Mum. John said, when I called him from a phone box, that he would drive up from Consett to Greenock the day before and see us off to Dumfries Hospital where she had to go first. I would come back to Greenock in the ambulance and we’d take Dad to Annie’s next day, then come home to Consett. It was a slow journey and I wasn’t even able to go into the hospital with her but had to sit and wait in the vehicle. I hoped they might bring me a cup of tea but no luck! It was dark when we got back to Greenock and I was dropped at the door and glad to see John. That evening John’s Dad gave me £25, which I was reluctant to take as I had been glad to help them, but he said it was for the train and petrol so I appreciated that. We took him to Castle Douglas and then headed for home. It was only next day I realized how very weary I was, but I felt it had been a very satisfactory episode in my life and was glad to have experienced it.

I think the girls were glad to have me back. I was regaled with the tale of how their Dad wouldn’t let them heat the deep fat enough, and the chips they made were all limp and pale, not crispy like mine. I never did manage to domesticate John, though I was glad they had missed me even if it was only for crispy chips!


District again

Kathleen Richardson

During the 14 years John was Chairman I sometimes felt my mission in life was kitchen duty! There were few weeks when we had no meetings or luncheon or dinner guests to cater for. The house was often full of people. Looking back as a 91 year-old with a sad lack of energy, and not much desire to cook for more than half a dozen unless they are all family, I realise how much I enjoyed it all and how satisfying it was to have so many happy gatherings in our home. John was very helpful with all the clearing up afterwards and he suggested if we had a crowd rather than a few we should use throwaway dishes. So sometimes we did. Coincidentally the first President we had to stay was Secretary of the Conference, Kenneth Greet and the last was Brian Beck (see gallery below), also Secretary of the Conference. We were nervous with the first but soon relaxed. In 1982 history was made when for the first time Methodism had a woman President, Rev. Kathleen Richardson. We enjoyed having her staying with us and John had the usual full programme arranged. Kathleen has had a wonderful career. She was appointed a Life Peer in 1998 with the title Baroness Richardson of Calow and sits in the House of Lords as a cross bencher.

John met many interesting people during his Ministry and I did also. Every year, we attended the Durham Big Meeting which took place in the Cathedral. It was a great day with a Parade when all the miners marched with their large colourful banners and people came from near and far. It was always very well attended. One year, although I was near the front, I would have seen nothing much of what was happening had I not been in an aisle seat and could take a peek out now and then! That was because in the seat in front of me was a very large man whom I eventually realised was Terry Waite. He had been kept in solitary confinement for about 4 years in the Lebanon by a Jihad organisation. I don’t remember much detail but it was in all the news when he was eventually released. This was after he had recovered and got his strength back. I got a smile from him after the benediction.

I was privileged to have a brief meeting with Archbishop Michael Ramsay, John having been fortunate enough to get him to come and speak to a Men’s Meeting. He was the 100th. Archbishop of Canterbury but by then was retired, as far as I can remember and lived in Durham for a while. For some reason I was on the premises before the meeting began. John called me over and I can’t remember a word of what was said. I know Michael Ramsay spoke to me and I replied. What I remember is the aura of kindly benevolence and goodness that surrounded him. The only way I could describe it later to John was that he was what I thought of as saint-like. I’ve never forgotten these few minutes.

Ephraim Alphonse

Ephraim Alphonse was born in Panama in the late 1890s and became a mechanical engineer. He worked on a launch which carried the Minister who worked among the Valiente people who lived in the many small islands in the area. He learned a great deal from this travelling and as time passed he wanted to help the Valiente people in some way. There was no literature of any kind in the Indian language and Ephraim translated the four Gospels into the language and also many hymns. He was called to the Ministry and studied and learned, became a Reverend and gained a Doctorate. He wrote many books and became well-known throughout Methodism. By then he was Bishop Alphonse. In 1988 the Newcastle District Synod was at Chester-le-Street and Ephraim Alphonse was the special guest. He was in his 90s and was accompanied by his daughter Sylvia. It was wonderful to meet them and another of the never-to-be-forgotten occasions. He had the stamina to travel around making other visits and he survived it all. He died at home in 1995 not far short of his centenary. I had known his story almost from first becoming a Methodist but never would have thought of actually seeing him. Both he and Sylvia have stayed in my memory ever since.

Glasgow Garden Festival

I can’t remember when the Garden Festivals started but there was a series of them over the 80/90s. One was in Glasgow beside the River Clyde in 1988, where Anabel and John lived, so we had several visits to them during that Festival and we were enthralled! The flowers and shrubs were all so colourful and the whole affair was breath-taking. There were many pavilions representing various industries, e.g. Electricity which was exciting and mysterious. The Festival wasn’t only a thing of beauty but was also educational in many ways. We had loads of slides but unfortunately, after we had been retired for some years, we thought they took up too much space and we disposed of a lot. If we had known we’d be blog writing in our 80s and 90s we might have been more sensible!

A few years later came the first of two short periods in John’s ministry when he had a day off every week. The next Festival came to Gateshead beside the River Tyne, which was easy for us to visit and we each had season tickets. There was a Religious Pavilion and John was involved in both opening it (below) and in the closing ceremony at the end. We had great times at that Festival; being able to be there often as we would go for an hour or two when John had no evening engagement. We had a week of his holiday time as well. We never tired of it! There are many pictures in my head of the flower beds and the fascinating happenings in the Pavilions, but I have a less spectacular but much enjoyed memory. On the walk into the Festival there were various stalls but I always made a bee-line for the one that made real doughnuts just like my Mum made them, cooked in deep fat, all crisp and brown. You could watch them make the mixture and drop it in the pan of fat then buy it straight away. I always bought four, two for us to eat on the walk and two to go with the coffee we would have at the first coffee stall we came to. That did us till mid-afternoon ‘lunch’. I never would think of buying doughnuts now which are nothing like the ones we enjoyed. They are oven cooked apparently and not a sign of crispiness on them!

As soon as we got the booklet about the next Festival which was to be in Wales, we got in touch with the first name on the list and booked a week. We couldn’t have found a better lodging. Welsh folk had been asked to volunteer to rent a room for the Festival as there were not enough guest houses to accommodate the large number of visitors expected. The food was good, the bed was comfortable and the lady was as friendly and as helpful as we could wish for. We enjoyed the week very much. At closing time a bus went around picking folk up to take them back to the ‘park and ride’. We were on the bus early in our week and at the next stop who should step on but Annabel and Jim. Neither of us knew the others were there! They were staying further along the coast at Aberystwyth whilst we were nearer in a wee village. We had a blether then went off on our separate ways. This Festival was in a lovely valley among hills and farms but we rather missed the riverside. The next two were down south so Wales was our final Festival. They were all marvellous but I always thought Gateshead was the best!

I’ll be taking a break now until 2018. A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

The Stroud grandchildren

Anabel’s christening with Stroud Grandparents

John and I got married in 1956 and two months later I had my 30th birthday. In those days, women over 30 having babies were classed as ‘older mothers’ and so we let nature take its course. When we had our first visit back to Greenock over New Year we were able to tell our families we were ‘expecting’ in mid-July. For my Mum and Dad it would be their first grandchild. Annabel and Jim would be Auntie and Uncle and we’d be Mummy and Daddy! The advent of Anabel Christine has been well covered in an earlier post. All I will say is that the wonder and joy of being parents never wore off. We were a happy wee family.

Elspeth’s christening with big sister

In 1959, right on schedule, we were again happily expectant and the nausea and sickness only lasted for a short time. It was another trouble-free time for me. Anabel had taken all day to make her debut, during most of which I had dozed comfortably apart from the occasional examination to see how things were going. Elspeth Anne arrived in April 1960 with a rush and surprised the nurses and doctor. I had said to John I’d probably be home for tea because the symptoms had gone! I was given hot sweet tea to counteract the shock of the speed of the arrival. I detest sweet tea but I drank it anyway. With Anabel I had 2 weeks in the hospital, but by 1960 it was reduced to 10 days. John’s sister, Elspeth, came and stayed with John and Anabel for Elspeth’s birth and was a marvellous help. In both pregnancies I was sure the baby was a girl and both were.

Tracy’s christening with big sister

It had been wonderful to know that Annabel and Jim were having a big event in March which would be the second grandchild for our Mum and Dad and first for Jim’s folk. Annabel was bothered with the sickness for quite a while. They had their first baby in March 1960, Julie Anabel. Our two had been big babies, Julie was a dainty wee baby. We went up to Greenock in June and both babies were considered well-nigh perfect! Anabel was pleased to have two babies to look at and watch being bathed and so on!

In August 1964 Annabel and Jim’s second baby girl, Tracy Jane, arrived. We were in Greenock on holiday and saw this new baby on her birthday. Our parents now had two daughters and four grand-daughters! I still had my hopes till I reached 40. Before we left Roker in 1968 I got in touch with the Social Service people to see if they would have the cot, pram, push-chair and all the bits and bobs including all the baby clothes. It was a sad day but I was assured they would fill a real need for someone. If a miracle happened we’d just have to start all over again! Providence decided otherwise!

Granny Stroud died in 1973 when she was 73 and Tracy, the youngest, was just nine years old and Anabel 15. Grandaddy Stroud was with us until 1987 and saw all his four granddaughters grown into lovely young women. It is hard to believe so many years have passed since then, long enough for some to have their bus passes! Not to mention a further generation to be written about another time.

A family occasion

John and Anabel Marsh, John Mitchell and John Platts, 21st March 1981

In late 1980 John and I were still ‘feeling our way’ and stepping lightly in our new situation. After 24 years of circuit life we felt cut off with no congregations of our own, so to speak, although as time went by that changed and John found plenty to make him very busy, as I did myself. I was chief house keeper! Soon I was answering the phone, typing letters and being his secretary and social organiser.

We were delighted when Anabel and her boyfriend, John Marsh, announced they would like to be married early in the New Year. We thought that would take a bit of organising! Then it turned out they didn’t want a big wedding, but just a small affair with only parents and siblings (and partners) to be present, plus one close friend each, Valerie and Robert. They had not been engaged and Anabel didn’t want to be ‘given away’, or any other formality, but they planned to come to Newcastle and be married in West Avenue Methodist Church by Rev John Platts and Rev John Mitchell, father of the bride. We were very pleased about that. I could see pitfalls though: not everyone was happy about not being invited but, as Anabel and John said, if we have one we’d have to have them all, which was true. We reserved a table for lunch at the Northumberland Hotel and looked forward to the happy day.

That was 21st March 1981 and what a happy day it was. We all assembled at West Avenue Church in the morning. Rev John M went off to the vestry to join Rev John P, with Anabel and John. While we waited, the organist played ‘Sheep May Safely Graze’ which Anabel and John had chosen. They all came in together, Anabel and John hand in hand, and took their places at the altar. And in a short time they were joined in matrimony for better or for worse – I’m glad to say better has prevailed! The party at the Northumberland was great, the food was lovely and we had champagne bought by our newly acquired son-in-law who before long seemed more like a son! Remembering the whole day later, my feelings were that it was a good way to marry. The focus was on the actual marriage and those present were all closest family and friends. We came in our best clothes looking good without having to scour the shops for matching shoes etc. No stress! Anabel had a new suit and looked lovely. John was well turned out, except that when his Mum arrived at our house the first thing she said to him was, ‘John, I told you to get your hair cut!’

We had taken part in a ceremony which can stand alone. It is a tremendous commitment for the rest of their lives that the couple make in their vows to each other. The wedding was as Anabel and John had wanted it to be, but had they preferred a reception with 100 guests John and I would gladly have had a chat with our Bank Manager and gone ahead!

We went back to Ancroft Way where Anabel and John changed into their travelling clothes before going off to the station to start their journey to Amsterdam. Someone must have driven them but I can’t remember who! They had a lovely time there and have been back many times since.

Although Anabel had left home to work in libraries she had come home quite often, but it was different now. She had another tie and a home of her own, which sparked off the following verse.

21st March 1981

We all went to a wedding today;

Anabel and Elspeth and John and me.

Elspeth and I and John came home

Feeling a wee bit lost and lone,

Because Anabel had gone off with her groom;

Leaving us – with another spare room!


Hard to believe it is almost 37 years ago.

District doings

Visit to Turbinia at Parsons c1989

The Engineering Works of Parsons was founded in 1889 by Charles A. Parsons who invented the steam turbine. Their factory was at Heaton, Newcastle. They built the ship Turbinia, which was launched in 1894, sailed at almost 40 mph, and was then easily the fastest in the world. By the time John was District Chairman, Parsons had a Methodist Chaplain, Rev Peter Hutchings, who visited the factories and offices and was available for anyone who wanted to talk to him. The Chaplain and John were invited to meet with the staff: it was probably their 100th Anniversary. Before he was called to Ministry, John was an engineering apprentice in a Greenock firm that made ships’ engines, so he enjoyed seeing the turbines and the Turbinia. The ship can still be seen in a Newcastle museum. Like many others, Parsons was taken over, eventually becoming part of Siemens, the name was lost and much of the work moved away.

Medal from Parsons event

It brings to mind my teenage years when the back windows of our house looked onto the Clyde. At any time, you could see ships sailing up or down the river and the dredgers were out every day keeping the deep channel clear. Nowadays small yachts, occasional gigantic cruise liners, and small cargo ships appear but in no great number. Glasgow and Greenock lost most of their shipbuilding and related industry. Paisley was to the forefront in weaving and was known world-wide for the Paisley pattern and the Paisley shawl: now they too are exhibited in the local museum. It seems everything can be made more cheaply in other countries while we are losing the skills of so many people. That is only three places out of many. ‘Made in Britain’ is hard to find!

With Rev Bill Davies

1988 was Methodism’s 250th Anniversary, and to say we had a magnificent celebration was an understatement! Never before had the media taken such an interest. The President that year was Rev. Bill Davies, then head of Cliff College, and his visit to the District in April coincided with, and added a lot to, the events. He and his wife Barbara stayed with us and I was her ‘guide’. Photographers and reporters were around when three men of the District sacrificed their beards of long-standing so that they could play the clean-shaven Wesley brothers and George Whitfield in a play they were to be in at the Saturday night event. Between the three, being shaven raised £700 for two charities. The President had a press conference, interviews with two local radio stations, and another for BBC North-East News! The media publicised all the events. John Wesley had visited Newcastle well over 40 times, the last only months before his death. He rode on horseback to preach in many places all over Britain and only when he was well in his 80s admitted he was finding it difficult to preach two sermons in a day!

Wesley Celebration – City Hall

On Saturday afternoon, 400 young people competed in ‘It’s a Knockout’ with other games for younger children. There were lots of things happening all day throughout the District. In the evening, an audience of over 2000 in the City Hall were entertained by a choir of 200 voices and the 50 strong Springfield Wind Band made up of school children. The play Give Me Your Hand was about the Wesley family. It was sensational, especially the scene showing the boy John Wesley being rescued from their burning house – ‘a brand from the burning’ – as was the storm when the Wesley brothers sailed home from America as failures. It was amazingly well done. All who took part in the entertainment that night were superb. John had started the evening by welcoming everyone and the President closed the occasion with an epilogue especially written by John. The President preached in Sunderland on Sunday morning, the afternoon was free to relax. The evening service was an ecumenical one at St Nicholas Cathedral with a congregation of 1000. Afterwards there was a parade to the quayside, joined by the majority, to the Wesley Obelisk.

The obelix had been gifted to the city to commemorate the one hundredth anniversary of John Wesley’s death, and stood near the spot where he preached his first sermon to a Geordie congregation. It rained on our parade unfortunately – but who cared? a drop of rain wasn’t going to hold us back. There were policemen with us but we caused them no trouble! The TV cameras were there also. President Bill and Chairman John led a brief ceremony of celebration which ended the day. Despite the rain, it was a while before we all made our way home, tired, happy and uplifted by the wonderful day.

There was one meeting on Monday morning with the ministers and deacons of the District, back to our Manse for lunch, then our visitors left for home. It was an incredible few days, never to be forgotten. For 14 years we welcomed the Presidents’ visits, and all were enjoyable and memorable, but none topped the 1988 event. It was unique!

The Church Leaders continued their visits together, and in 1988 in late November they took a step forward. They composed a Covenant which basically pledged all ‘to act together wherever and whenever possible except in those matters in which conscience still required us to act separately.’ This always seemed a better idea to me than trying to join the different traditions of the Church into one big entity with one way of worshipping as it once was. It didn’t work, some chose different ways: silence for Quakers, immersion for Baptists and so on. Methodism arose because John Wesley, although an Anglican priest, felt driven to go out and preach to the people who were neglected by the Church, converting many and changing lives. He composed many hymns, but fewer than his brother Charles. Their hymns are still familiar to many today.

In 1988, Synod met at Haltwhistle which was our first Circuit as a newly married starry-eyed couple. Sometimes I was a member, but whether a member or not I was usually there in the background. It was always good to get a visit to our first home and meet up with all the friends. If I wasn’t elected I couldn’t vote of course, just look and listen. The catering was worth going for as well!

Synod at Haltwhistle 1988. John with Derek Aldridge.

Haltwhistle and its people always had a special place in our hearts, our first home where our children were born – happy days indeed. I had a letter recently from Isobel, our occasional baby-sitter and friend since 1956, who had just joined me as a nonagenarian. Her husband died in 2005. Her nieces and nephews and their families gathered for a birthday celebration and she had a happy weekend. She said she was only just recovering from all the excitement. I know how she felt! We shall probably not meet again, but as long as we are able shall write and phone and keep up to date and share the memories.

Home again

Although we had so much enjoyed being with the Alabamians it was great to be back in our own home again and hearing the lovely Geordie accent. We had plenty of material for meetings if we were asked and we were, John more than me fortunately! Before long we were back into normal busy life. We had a list of letters to be sent to Alabama most of which fell to me. Now there is only one left of those we kept in touch with, Faye. Her husband Luther (Lute) died some years ago and later Betty and Dan died within a year of each other. They were friends of long-standing. I remember a hilarious evening we spent with them at an Ice Cream Parlour just like we’d seen in the movies.

Church leaders: Presbyterian, Methodist, Salvation Army, RC, Anglican

John continued having as many as possible meetings and committees etc. at the Manse, it was more comfortable than some of the church rooms available. Plus of course he had a convenient caterer to hand! I liked it anyway, it gave me a chance to get to know people around the District. I described circuit life as the same pattern followed every year, and being Chairman was much the same on a wider scale. One difference was he was invited to Civic and other events and sometimes I was included.

In February 1983, there was a Festival of Praise which gathered hundreds of Methodists from Durham to the Borders. This was to celebrate the new hymn book, ‘Hymns and Psalms’, which replaced the one dated 1933. Rev David MacDonald was the commentator along with Rev Dr Ivor Jones from Bristol, who was one of the compilers. There were new hymns in and some old ones out. Many people were unhappy that ‘What a Friend we have in Jesus’ was left out and the outcry was so great that the compilers had to give in and bring it back. It is still a popular hymn and was not left out of the following hymn book published in 2011, ‘Singing the Faith’. This one was received with less enthusiasm probably because there were so many new modern hymns some of which had difficult tunes but gradually they are being absorbed!

In the same year, in October, Ardgowan Methodist Church (now Greenock Methodist Church) where I belonged and was married to John, reached its Centenary. John Wesley visited Greenock in 1772 so the history went back further. The Greenock Telegraph finished their report by saying that three young men from the Church had become Methodist Ministers but two, Skinner and Mitchell, were now Church of Scotland ministers, Tom Wilkinson being the third! True enough Alistair Skinner did transfer not long after he was ordained. Someone obviously noticed, the next edition corrected it and said John was Newcastle Chairman. My sister Annabel sent me the cuttings (above).

There were few women Ministers in the early eighties and while she may not have been the first in the District, the appointment of Thelma Williams to Allendale in 1985 got a mention and photograph in one of the local papers. The headline in large letters being, ‘MINISTER IS WOMAN’. Haltwhistle also had a new Minister but being male he got no headline! Time has made change and in Newcastle District there are around 36 men and 30 women ministers.

I mentioned some time ago that Anabel was one of a group of girls who exchanged with a group of schoolgirls from Gelsenkirchen in Germany. John exchanged several times in a group of six ministers from Newcastle churches with a similar group from Gelsenkirchen. Our two cities were linked in friendship. The German Pastor Peter Leimcke stayed with us and John stayed with Peter and his wife. All were given hospitality in homes and each day met to go on excursions. John filled an album with postcards and enjoyed visits to breweries and other industries as well as sight-seeing. The ministers preached on the Sundays. Nearly all the Germans spoke some English and few, if any, of our lot spoke any German, so they used a translator. Peter translated John’s farewell speech on one occasion. I’m sure John did his best but his effort caused a lot of merriment, even when it wasn’t meant to be amusing. (Quoting him!)

Gelsenkirchen party

We had realised that a lot of the people we entertained would enjoy a glass of wine. The art of making your own had recently come into fashion and I was tempted! I bought a couple of glass demijohns and the ingredients required and got going. I can’t remember how long it took to be ready to bottle, but once the jars were ready I started all over again having tasted the first bottle and both John and I thinking it was quite pleasant really. Friends liked it although I didn’t disclose to everybody I’d made it. Some might have been shocked!! When the combined group of ministers were having a get together somewhere, John said he’d bring some wine to go with cake another was bringing. John came rushing home after a bit and asked was there any more wine? There was! The German party were so delighted with this wine they had finished it. They were used to wine I suppose, which we weren’t, and could drink a lot without much effect. John told Peter that night that it was home-made and he was very surprised. While I was delighted! After all, if they liked it with all their experience, it must have been good.

Alabama – part 3

We visited so many places in Alabama that I could probably go on for ages so I’ll make it shorter by mentioning as many places of interest as I can remember. It was hard not to notice the statue of Vulcan, God of the Forge on the top of Red Mountain. He is 55 feet tall and weighs 120,000 lbs. In his eye-line, lower down and at a distance is a statue less impressive of a stately goddess whose name escapes me. We were told, tongue in cheek, that they pined for one another but could never meet!

Brother Joseph, a Benedictine monk spent over forty years creating the Ave Maria Grotto at St Bernard Abbey and College near Cullman. It covered four acres and had well over a hundred models of churches, shrines and other buildings all constructed from scrap pottery, china ware, jewellery, stones and beads. It was built on rocky ground, and was a wonderful sight.

We visited Noccalula Falls Park. The fall was like a miniature Niagara and seemed to have a permanent rainbow which we saw, but maybe we were just lucky with the timing. There were nature trails and a rebuilt pioneer village which gave a good idea of the hard work being a pioneer was and things to ride on. It was part of our trip to Tennessee. We stayed at Rodeway Motel at Pigeon Forge. On our travels we saw the Chattanooga Choo Choo and the Streetcar named Desire and the longest covered bridge ever. There was a mill which had been grinding continuously since 1830. It was called The Old Mill! When we were there it still provided 13 kinds of meal, flour and grits. We had been told in Alabama that we must try Grits for breakfast which we did. It turned out to be an uninteresting mushy stuff. I didn’t tell anyone that it was a poor substitute for good old Scottish porridge oats. The mill was well worth the visit and the people were very pleasant.

I mentioned the Clubs. Kermit and Doll invited us to have dinner with them at his Club. We arrived and got out of the car at the entrance where we were met by a man came to whom Kermit handed his keys and the car was parked for him. We were a bit taken aback at the grandeur of the place inside and, as we understood he worked for an Insurance Company, I thought salaries must be a lot more generous here! We had a lovely meal during which it became clear the couple were well-known to the staff. It was on top of Red Mountain, 1050 ft above the City and had 5000 members. The car was summoned and we left in style back to their house for evening coffee. Their furniture was also old style and formal. I never saw a house with books and stuff lying around.

Kermit and Doll also took us to ‘have an audience’ with the first black Mayor of Birmingham, Mayor Richard Arrington. He gave John a signed photograph and a key to the City. He was a very nice man and made us very welcome. He was Mayor until 1999. Doll took us on a visit to the Botanical Gardens with Emily Propst who was the Children’s Minister’s granddaughter. She was so typically a Southern Young Lady who said Yes, sir, and Yes, ma’am and was apparently very shy. We enjoyed seeing the wonderful colour and variety of many plants we didn’t recognise and were happy until Doll wanted us to see all the tropical stuff like bananas, coconuts, gigantic cacti with flowers and more, in the hot-house. We had been just about passing out already with the heat in the greenhouses but the tropical place was so hot and steamy I felt I would melt. I excused myself and slowly made my way to the retiring room and took my tights and my underskirt off and braved the heat again! Doll noticed my bare legs but made no comment. From then I went with bare legs unless it was some formal affair which would be in an air-conditioned place.

We later found out that Kermit didn’t work for an Insurance Society, he owned it and was the Boss. We had a similar surprise with another man. We were walking along with two couples on our way to a Rodeo when one of the men asked me If I had a job at home, and I told him, not now, but I worked in a bank for 14 years. Turned out he worked in a bank. Much later someone mentioned that he owned a bank! In the eighties, in a group of men at home it would have been easy to work out who among them were the employers and who the employed, although that could be different now. But in the US groups that we lived among, we seldom could tell where any belonged in the ‘pecking order’, it did indeed seem to be a classless society. The standard of living was way above ours.

The Church was able to do so much for the community because they were well-funded and had no difficulty finding folk to run things and reach out to people who needed help with the difficulties that faced them. Their buildings were in first-rate condition. The Parsonage was looked after by four women members of the Church and when we said we’d like to have a coffee afternoon to say thank you for the wonderful hospitality we had been given, they immediately took over and organised it! We had to remind them often that we were here to work not on holiday.

John went to the Church Office most morning – it was a hive of industry with people coming in and out all the time. He preached twice on Sundays, spoke at the youth groups, and many other groups in several other denominations. We visited summer camps, care homes which were like top-notch hotels, and the UMC Children’s Home in Selma. We went from there to Montgomery where we visited the State Capitol and Martin Luther King’s house. There were occasions with the Senator and others, but we still managed to see a lot of Alabama.

When John wrote his report for Rev. Stanley Leyland after we came home he mentioned that the weather had been a surprise. It was a very unusual summer that year with severe storms and rainfall. Tornados were threatened and we spent occasional time in the ‘safe room’ in the basement when Betty would ring us about a warning, but it didn’t happen. He referred to the preaching mission he was asked to do on our first week. People came in large numbers and he found it an enriching and worthwhile experience which mattered to the Church. He was greatly impressed by the devotion of our people out there. Their giving was generous and they could maintain staff and facilities which we could only dream about. The lay leadership was impressive also: if called upon to pray many of them could respond simply and appropriately. John wasn’t expected to be involved in the administrative side at all, but the marriage of one of his colleagues broke down, there was to be a divorce and he resigned. John was invited to attend and share fully in the various meetings. There were difficulties and snags that gave him the impression that as Pastor he was needed and had helped. He gained an insight into the working of various aspects of how things were done.

We were sad to leave, we were escorted to the airport by a crowd of families, and felt amazed at the love and affection we had received and been given. Our feeling was we should have done this years ago! But we did it again and had wonderful times, and the people we were among liked us and we liked them. But in Alabama the friends loved us and we loved them.

Alabama – part 2

Bugtussle Sheriff

We had a marvellous kitchen with everything, but we hardly needed to use it except for breakfasts. We were invited out for breakfast several times and had pancakes and maple syrup and unlimited coffee. The first evening meal out was to Bugtussle Steakhouse. It was off the beaten track and looked pretty ramshackle inside and out, but they served huge steaks which surpassed any we’d ever had in tenderness and flavour. Our hosts ate all theirs, but we three each took half of ours home in doggy bags, but not for a doggy! It was at Bugtussle we met our first Sheriff and his gun. There is a photo of John being handcuffed but it’s a bit of a blur!

Betty looked after us and arranged our main programme. When Tom heard about all the great stuff John had arranged for them in Newcastle, with transport and many invitations to homes, he rang Betty who sprang into action. Elspeth hung around with Betty’s daughter and her friends, but came with us on most of our outings. Several of the things we three did together stand out. The World Fair was on in Knoxville, Tennessee, that year and we travelled up there on a bus tour and spent two days at the Fair. Elspeth was the guide, she got the plan of the Fair and worked out how we could explore the most Pavilions possible. She did a great job. I still have the red Passport with our picture inside. It was a great experience. On the bus tour we also visited Gatlinburg, gateway to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park (Appalachians).

Another unaccompanied trip was also planned by Elspeth. This time we took the car and John drove us west down to Vicksburg, by the Mississippi, a historic town with ante bellum estates. We visited one, built in 1840, called Cedar Grove Plantation Home. In 1863 it was targeted by Federal gunboats and damaged. Another was McRaven, still lived in as a family home, but also open for visitors. (However, the one I liked best was in Birmingham, Arlington House, built in 1842 and beautifully furnished in period furniture worth a fortune, which I could well believe.) Vicksburg was right by the river and it was a thrill to see the Mississippi calmly flowing along. Some years later we saw it from the air in very different circumstances. After Vicksburg we visited the Natchez Trace Parkway north of Natchez. For a hundred years or more the Old Trail, an Indian Path, was constantly walked on and as a result became a sunken road shaded by trees and Spanish moss which hangs down like pennants from the branches. We saw this moss in many places. The tree roots in the picture show how deeply the path has been worn down. Then we headed towards New Orleans.

We didn’t have to hurry, Elspeth was a great guide and we didn’t get lost. The varied scenery was fascinating although a lot of the journey was on the highways. We had come to think that maybe around four hundred years ago the country was completely forested. Betty and Dan’s ‘back garden’ bore this out as did the Parsonage. (See previous post). We got near to New Orleans just before six pm and suddenly the rain began. It was so heavy we followed the example of other cars and pulled over. It soon stopped and we heard later it happened every evening because Lake Pontchartrain is twenty-four miles across and shallow, so a lot is evaporated by the sun and condenses later in the day. The bridge is the longest in the world.

Our friends in Cahaba Heights weren’t too keen on us going to New Orleans, presumably fearful we might be shocked or corrupted or something! We loved it: it was colourful, cheerful, lively and picturesque and we saw nothing to bring a blush to a maiden’s cheek, even late in the evening. We did the bus tour, the driving and commentary done by a real nice friendly young woman. We sailed in the steamship Natchez a sternwheeler, with a jazz quintet and a calliope organ, great fun! We looked in at Preservation Hall to see the Kid Thomas Band playing real jazz. No liquor or food were served and children were welcome. Just good old jazz! No shock there! There was music all around and the houses and balconies were very attractive. Our only wish was that we could have had more time there.

A relative of Betty worked in State Administration and she took us to the capital, Montgomery, to meet the Governor in his office. Betty had already asked him if he could fix up a visit to the Huntsville Space Centre which was up near the Tennessee border. He arranged for us to have an official car and driver who took us all around and answered all the questions we asked. We saw fragments of the moon kept under glass and the clothes the astronauts wore when they walked on the moon plus the shuttles they travelled in. We experienced the gravity force they had felt. We wondered how they had had the courage to trust themselves to a rocket, leaving their world behind them and knowing there was no turning back. But they got to the moon and they came back and a new era began.

Neil Armstrong was first to step out the shuttle and as he put his foot down on the moon’s surface he said, ‘That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind’. Buzz Aldrin followed and they walked around for quite a while gathering samples and information. It was quite weird to watch the little bits of film on TV; believing it was the moon was hard enough to start with, but now we had to worry about them getting back. But they did come home and I doubt if anyone who watched it on TV or in the cinema will have forgotten the relief and pride with which they were greeted. Now ‘spacemen’ are going back and forward to stations high above the Earth and staying for months at a time. Just last week I read in the newspaper that someone has suggested that before this century is near its end this world will have a Colony on Mars as Earth is becoming overcrowded. I find it hard to believe that could happen; but if anyone had told me when I was a girl that, before I was fifty, men would travel to the moon and walk about and send pictures of it, I wouldn’t have believed that either! So who knows what might happen in my granddaughters’ time……

To be concluded….

Alabama – part 1

Our first pastoral exchange with a Methodist Church in the USA was in Birmingham, Alabama. Our partners were Tom and Helen Stevenson and we wrote back and forward fixing dates. We would arrive in Cahaba Heights, a suburb of Birmingham, before they left. John made the travel arrangements and I took care of the packing. Six weeks was a long spell to pack for but we’d have a laundry room so we managed with one large case, plus Elspeth’s. In 1982 you could take a bag onto the plane and we carried John’s books, sermon notes etc. in that, in case our luggage went missing.

Time seemed to fly past. John Platts (who had married Anabel and John and was ‘my’ minister) offered to take us to the airport and see us off and, as we’d have to set off about six am, we were grateful. It meant we didn’t have to leave the minute a taxi arrived, the driver of which may not have come into the house and helped us with our bags as John did. Elspeth was with us as we set off for the big adventure. (We had recently bought a ‘modern washing-machine’, and shortly before we left we got a tumbler-dryer for our visitors’ benefit. When we saw their laundry room we were very thankful we had updated.) The flight to Gatwick was calm and peaceful, we flew over our house, the clouds and the passing scenery were lovely. The journey to Atlanta was the same, although too high up to see the land below. The last flight to Birmingham was just about an hour, or not much more.

We were met by a group of young folk, Tom, Betty Gilmore, church secretary, and Victor the Assistant Parson, all of whom gave us a warm welcome and we liked them from the start. The shock when we stepped out of the air-conditioned airport took our breath away, we had never felt such blistering heat! Betty told us Helen wasn’t quite ready for us and had asked her to bring us the long way home. We had a tour round which included poor estates of both black and white people and gated estates with lovely homes. Victor told us there would be at least two swimming pools and a Club for the residents. Then we arrived at Christopher Court, our home for the next six weeks. Helen was sitting by the table, which was set for a meal, sewing the hems of slacks she said were lent to her by somebody in the church. Talk about laid back, they were leaving next day! Helen showed us our bedrooms which were en suite, and we were glad to freshen up and look forward to a shower later. We were to find that Alabama folk seldom hurried, women ‘sashayed’ elegantly, young people, on the surface at least, were very respectful to their elders and most children were friendly and biddable.

The meal was ready and beside each setting was a small plate of what I took to be dessert, it was green jelly with something in it. However it was actually a ‘congealed salad’ and was eaten with the savoury course. I can’t remember what was in it but I thought it had a horrible name. Their furniture was very much ‘ante bellum’ and most of the houses we visited were similar. I rather wondered what Helen and Tom would think of our place. We later found that everything in the parsonage was provided by the Church and ministers were also paid far in excess of British Methodist Ministers. They would be using our bedroom; we had moved to the guest room which had a small wash basin stuck in a corner and that was it. We were continually struck dumb by how far ahead of us they were in home comforts and how perfect it all seemed to be.

I said the women sashayed, but we quickly learned they accomplished a great deal. The congregation was fully involved. There were over 500 members and each service was well attended. This was the smallest membership of the four churches we served in. There were seven employed staff, Rev Tom, Rev Paul – Minister to Children, Rev Victor the Assistant, Rick – Director of Education and Music, Peggy – Licensed Professional Counsellor, Karen – Preschool Director, and Betty who was Secretary and was the one everybody relied on. Sunday started at 9.45 and finished after 7 p.m. I joined the women’s meeting on Tuesday afternoons and talked about our meetings and what went on and what life was like in the UK in general. There was an adults’ bell ringing class and a children’s one, both good to hear. The pre-school started every weekday at 9.30 as did mothers’ day out. One lot of people kept tag of all the children and another organised classes and outings for the Moms. The kitchen was like nothing I’d ever seen before, everything was stainless steel and spotless. There was a large group of volunteer workers who produced great food. No event ever finished on sandwiches, it was always a real meal. The Church was a car ride from the parsonage and every time we went we passed along Red Mountain Road which had been dug deep and half a mile of it revealed 150,000 years of geological history. A good few folk told us about it and we always noticed it.

There were a couple of days free and we had our first outing on our own to Hurricane Creek Park Canyon, not too long a car ride for a ‘driving on the right’ beginner. There were lots of ‘hazards’ to keep us on the hop including a bridge over the creek which consisted of wooden slats strung on ropes with ropes at either side to hold on to. We had to ‘go easy’ to avoid making it swing. However, Elspeth stood aside to allow John and me to go ahead and when we got to the middle she started swinging the horrible bridge back and forward. If there had been a big drop and deep water we’d have been annoyed but as the water was obviously shallow we clung like limpets to the ropes until we got our equilibrium back. If only she had taken photos. We laughed later! When we were thinking of heading home and just going to go up a long flight of steps, suddenly a torrential shower came on. In seconds we were all totally soaked to the skin having already had a splash or two going down the water chute. It felt good and cooled us down a little. When we got back to the car we were all dry again and just as hot. There was a waterfall, a twilight tunnel and lots of other tricky situations I’ve forgotten. To get out of the Canyon we rode down a steep hill on a rail track sitting in a huge hollowed out log. We enjoyed it all, but were fair worn out with the excitement of all the hazards and the rough ground and the heat.

Next day, John was at the church with the stewards being shown around and meeting the people who would be taking part in the services. Frances Seay asked Elspeth and me out for lunch and to visit some caves. We had a lovely lunch of which the only thing I remember is the side dish. Frances had asked if we’d like one and I said I loved fried onions. When it came it was a huge bowlful enough for three, plus we took some home. My Mum made lovely fried onions but she would have had to agree this lot were even better. They were so crisp and tasty. The caves were full of limestone formations and there were tricky passages and coloured lights. We had a great time. Then when it was nearly time to go the warden said be ready, I’m switching the lights out to let you see what real dark is. It was inky black, not a glimmer. I hoped there were no cockroaches or worse running over my feet. What a relief when the light came on. We were told the Confederate soldiers had used this cave as a hideaway in the War between North and South, presumably with nothing but candles. Hardy souls they must have been.

To be continued….

Back in Newcastle

I can’t remember much about the move to Newcastle, except that we packed most of our china and other small breakables and took them to the new house, the Earl’s having moved out early in the month. We moved mid-August and were more or less organised by the time the Welcome Service came round. There were over 100 Ministers and 25 or more Ministers’ widows in the District. At that time it was probably the largest District in the Connexion and widely spread. The most northerly Church was actually in Scotland at Eyemouth, Haltwhistle was farthest west in Northumberland and south in Co. Durham was Chester-le-Street. John would be doing a lot of travelling, preaching in a different Circuit each week. I went with him to places near enough to get back for lunch. If hospitality was provided I only went if invited, which was quite often. John’s view was that you got to know people best when you met with them in their own homes, and I agreed with him.

As a Church Leader, John now worked alongside the Anglican Bishop of Newcastle, the RC Bishop of Hexham and Newcastle, the Moderator, Northern Province United Reform Church, the Superintendent of the North East Area Baptist Union, the District Commander, Northern Division, Salvation Army and the Bishop of Durham. They all got on well together, and for some years visited various areas of the North East to meet folk of all faiths and none. One might have expected some solemnity in such a group, but when they came to our house I found they were a jolly gathering. Very often we had large groups, e.g. when Presidents came, and then we had a buffet meal using cardboard plates which were tossed in a bin bag. There was lots of food set out in the kitchen and hall and everybody got a chance to meet the guest and enjoy their supper on a chair, if lucky, with the younger folk sitting on the stairs! Other times were ‘round the table’. Fortunately we had two tables, one a drop-leaf, so we were able to have ten seated or, with our table-trolley, twelve. It was a busy life for us both. My cooking skills improved a lot in these years, but sometimes it was a relief to have just one or two couples and cater from M&S!

After the first year I became a more regular attender at West Avenue Methodist Church and enjoyed being part of one of the Coffee Groups which met in each other’s homes monthly. I was also able to go to the Guild at West Avenue, and gave a talk of some sort when asked. By then it wasn’t the ordeal it once was! Every Tuesday, I was at Brunswick Church in the town, helping overseas students’ wives of many nationalities to improve or begin to learn English. It was something I treasured very much. I had several Japanese women for some years, they were the wives of men in the car industry, not students. They liked being in the UK because, compared to Japan, their husbands worked fewer hours, spent more time with their families and the wives had more freedom. I hoped the women would be strong when they went home and manage to keep their ‘freedom’! They knew more about English grammar than I did, having forgotten most of it. However, their aim was to speak like the British did. I think I did pretty well with that and we had some very happy ‘lessons’. I think they liked the opportunity to meet with us and be friendly. The most remote area I had a ‘pupil’ from was Mongolia, she had come with her husband and had never travelled before. I had a lot of cookery books and usually asked young women if they had an English cookery book and, if not, gave them one. This led to various discussions about ingredients, meals they made at home, shopping, what they liked and disliked in food, etc., and got us going. We talked about their homes, the differences in their terrain from ours and everything we could think of. Some questioned me about my life and family, and asked why I spoke differently from the other teachers! Just by talking together, their English-speaking became more ‘free’ and it was a real pleasure for me to see them speak out with more confidence.

With Elspeth in Birmingham

Near the end of 1981 John had a phone call one morning, and came to tell me it had been the minister who arranged Pastoral Exchanges with Methodist Churches in the USA. He had asked if John would like to do an exchange at Tallahassee, state capital of Florida. ‘What did you say?’ I asked. ‘I said no’, replied John. ‘Without even asking me?’ said I. So we talked about it and thought, might as well get the details. The US Minister was also called Mitchell and had applied late. We decided to accept it after conferring with our Stewards who were all in favour, provided John arranged it all and provided cover for his absence for six weeks.

So – big adventure coming up! John started arranged preaching appointments in various parts of the District with hospitality and other outings. David MacDonald agreed to become Deputy Chairman for the period. Then we had a phone call from the exchange arranger to tell us Mr. Mitchell had looked at the map and found Newcastle was too far away from London. He had withdrawn from the arrangement! However, there was another had become vacant at Cahaba Heights, a suburb of Birmingham, Alabama, if we still wanted to go. Talk about working out for the best! It was the best of our four exchanges. Anabel, John and Elspeth planned to come for some of the time, but Anabel and John bought a house so decided not to. Elspeth came with us and stayed the whole time which was great. There were several girls a bit younger than she was with whom she went around, but found little in common with them partly because of the age gap. John and I were very taken aback to be addressed as sir and ma’am, by some of the young folk! They were all nice people but different! So once again I’ll veer off track and write about Alabama next time – after a summer blogging break.