Is Spring that far behind?

Making for Saddleworth by the East Coast line offers a ride through the Pennines. Even if the train from Huddersfield was creaky, the windows gave onto to the bleak hilltops, all dusted with snow.

Next morning the bus through Oldham passed families on their way uphill to the town shops, nine year old boys trying to slide on the film of frost over the shaded pavements, their mothers dragging them along regardless. Mr Pickwick would have sympathised with the little lads

A few more days, and the nights will be getting shorter but the days will get colder; be patient, boys of Oldham!

Mistletoe? No!


I must have had Christmas on my mind even to entertain the idea for a moment. Well, how could it be mistletoe, growing out of the brick arch just north of Peterborough? It looked the part at first sight: a spherical shrub, branching down as well as up, but it was our old friend Buddleia, beyond easy control above a railway track.

So what will take over the world when humans are gone? Buddleia, brambles, birch, briars? Rats, foxes, jackdaws, gulls, magpies? We’ll never know!

My Last School Trip – 9 – Tommy’s Chocolate

Great Elms School Trip to Wales

Transcript of Scene 14

Coming down the mountain

Edited by Paul Thompson and Emily Miles

Camera: Emily Miles

Scene: Near the top of the mountain, by a granite column. Enter Mr Kipling pushing Ollie with help from the Hogbens.

Mr T: Anyone for more chocolate? Come on, Ladies first! Stacey? Nothing coarse about this stuff. Rich and dark, like a good brown ale. Gemma! Are you not speaking to me?

Gemma: I was just reading this inscription. How did a five year old boy get all the way up here by himself? I bet he never had any chocolate with him, he might not have died. I’m going to bury a square for him here, just so he knows. Little Tommy. Do you think he will know, Sir?

Mr T: Of course he will, though I don’t suppose he ever have tasted chocolate in his lifetime. I wonder if anyone else has ever left chocolate for Tommy, poor brave little thing! Well, I hope we’ve all got our strength back to push Ollie down again, or we might as well leave him up here with the rest of the chocolate.

Ollie: Is that what they call chocolate heaven? Thanks but no thanks, I’m coming with you.

My Last School Trip – 8 – Climb Every Mountain


Climb Every Mountain by Oliver Cheeseman

Part of me never thought I would get to the top of a real mountain, but I did! It was all down, or up, to team work and modern wheelchair technology.

I was a bit unsure about getting into the ATW, or All Terrain Wheelchair, that Mr Kipling produced at the Mountain Centre. It had fat tyres, a balloon wheel bogey at the front, rear suspension, a low seat and extending push bars. Mr Kipling said it was very stable. I hoped he was right.

It was hard work with those tyres and I needed plenty of help. Mr Cockle pushed me first, but not for long. He went rather fast and I was quite shaken, even with the suspension. I think he was showing off a bit in front of the girls.

Nerys took over, helping me on the rough parts of the track. We passed a lot of sheep and lambs. l’d never seen them so close before. The mothers took great care and called to their babies when we went by. Nerys called them woolly maggots, because they ruined the countryside. She showed me what looked like abandoned gardens or fields, with low walls and thorn bushes scattered among them. ‘Ruined by sheep,’ she said. ‘No hedges left hardly. ‘

Mr Turnstone began reciting poetry again as we came to a closed up cottage:

Once again I see

These hedge-rows, hardly hedge-rows, little lines

Of sportive wood run wild: these pastoral farms,

Green to the very door; and wreaths of smoke

Sent up, in silence, from among the trees!

Then it began to get steeper and rockier. The ATW had lashing points so people could pull with ropes or hang on to stop me from rolling away downhill.  It got really tough once we got above the trees. I was glad to see that Ellis had big chocks slung round his neck, which he whipped under my wheels, whenever we stopped. Brakes don’t always work so well when wheels get muddy, and some of the slopes were steep; I began to worry about the chair tipping over backwards, even though it had a very low centre of gravity.

The path got narrower and narrower and harder to get along. Sometimes I was pulled up backwards. Sometimes I was carried high on people’s shoulders, using the poles. The views were terrific but the views of my face on Mr Turnstone’s video are terrified!

Then we turned onto a rocky ridge that seemed to go on for ever, with a long drop to either side. The going was not so bad on the grass. I had the Hogbens pushing and pulling and Scruffy taking a rest on my knees. Then, as it got steeper, everyone seemed to be helping to push, pull, or balance the ATW, using ropes, bars and any corner they could lay hands on.  Everyone but Mr Cockle, who was shouting orders and advice from the rear. Stacey got filthy, turning one wheel with her bare hands. I ruined two pairs of gloves.

At the top everyone was exhausted, including me. “Even though you’ve been sitting down for the last few hours,” said Mr Turnstone. But next thing everyone was standing, jumping, dancing, with their arms round each other.

“Come on Dazza, let’s get him up,” said Dean, and the next I knew the two of them  were lifting me out of the chair and I was standing on top of the world with Scruffy round  my neck.

You get a lovely view from the top of Penyfan, or as Mr Turnstone says, at least when it’s not raining or misty. The lake looked tiny, and the people beside it were like ants. The hills and mountains around us were all colours of green and brown.

On the way down we stopped at a granite column to have a drink. Mr Turnstone said he wanted us to look all around and listen. He said it would make sense of the awful homework Miss Treacy had set. “Don’t spoil it, Sir,” said Gemma.

I don’t think he did. This is what he read:

. . .  here I stand, not only with the sense

Of present pleasure, but with pleasing thoughts

That in this moment there is life and food

For future years. And so I dare to hope,

Though changed, no doubt, from what I was when first

I came among these hills; when like a roe

I bounded o’er the mountains, by the sides

Of the deep rivers, and the lonely streams,

Wherever nature led: more like a man

Flying from something that he dreads, than one

Who sought the thing he loved. For nature then

(The coarser pleasures of my boyish days,

And their glad animal movements all gone by)

To me was all in all. – I cannot paint

What then I was. The sounding cataract

Haunted me like a passion: the tall rock,

The mountain, and the deep and gloomy wood,

Their colours and their forms, were then to me

An appetite; a feeling and a love,

That had no need of a remoter charm,

By thought supplied, nor any interest

Unborrowed from the eye.

Mr T gets carried away sometimes. I’ve known the head slam his classroom door when he was reading Shakespeare to us, along with the rest of the corridor, but there were no doors up here, and no-one to complain, except the PE teachers.

I wasn’t the only one who had an appetite. Gemma said she had one and Mr Turnstone laughed and said she should enjoy the coarser pleasures of her girlish days while she could and Gemma blushed and said he was horrible. We all had chocolate and juice. “Don’t leave your paper about”, shouted Mr Cockle, and at that moment the wind grabbed Mrs Cockle’s empty carrier bag and lifted it over our heads. Nothing to be done about it, but Dean raised a cheer from us all.

Help! On the way down Mr Turnstone said he was tempted to let me roll but he’d best hang on for dear life. “Thanks!” I said. “It’s not your life I’m worried about,” he said, “it’s mine. I promised your dad I’d bring you back in one piece. He might get cross if I don’t. And think of all the paperwork! Anyway, I believe Mr Cockle has a date with a sounding cataract.”

I think the climb was worth it, even if we were all exhausted at the top, except Mr Cockle. He told us he had to do a running risk assessment and scout the best route for the last stretch to the summit, which is why he had plenty of breath to shout at everyone else. Now he dashed off ready to drive the Land Rover up to the stream crossing point.

My Last School Trip – 7 – Mixed Messages

Text Message sent from

Mrs Angela Oxenden’s mobile phone,

 Saturday evening.



Text message sent by May Hogben,

Saturday evening.


That night Darren slept soundly in the boys’ dormitory, with its polished floor boards and thick red curtains, matching the covers on the well-sprung, comfortable beds. Scruffy bedded down happily with Shep in his kennel next to Mrs Kipling’s hen house. I, Will Turnstone, gave careful consideration to my pupils’ welfare before saying my prayers and switching off the electric light.

Sunday: higher things.

I go to church on Sundays, so at Saturday supper I had offered to take any volunteers to Brecon Cathedral with me next morning, after a quick bowl of cereal. We would meet the rest of the group back at the centre, then go on to climb Pen-y-fan, the highest mountain in South Wales. The idea was what Bob Kipling called a pleasant Sunday stroll to get into the swing of things. I didn’t know if anyone would join me, but Darren and Dean were not a total surprise, though they usually spend their Sundays playing football or fishing. Stacey came too. Scruffy as well, of course; no-one had said he couldn’t go to Brecon, though I insisted he stayed in the minibus during the service. We parked under the trees to keep him cool.

“Sing aloud, loud, loud,” warbled Stacey, as we walked Scruffy down to the river, “why is it you don’t mind singing it here, but no-one can open their mouths in assembly?”

“Who wants to be in assembly,” I answered, “with Mrs Hooke and her fiddlers three? Did you bring your violin? You might pick up a penny or two busking in Hay.” Stacey did not know how to answer that. She certainly would never be seen busking in Cossington, and I don’t think her Dad would stand for it either.

But we were in Wales. Thankfully, Welsh Sundays are not what they used to be, so we managed to find a second breakfast in town. By the time we’d finished, Bob Kipling was fussing at me down the mobile phone.


Text message sent by Bob Kipling,

Sunday morning.




Text message sent by Stacey Oxenden

for Will Turnstone (who was driving)

Sunday morning



To the Mountain

The four of us were singing when we reached the car park at the foot of the mountain, but, Charlie Cockle was cross, Celia Cockle was cross, Sergeant Major (I don’t think) Kipling was cross. They’d counted on Scruffy being left behind with Shep. Darren, as ever, was riding his luck or maybe mine. I think they blamed me for Scruffy being there, but no-one had said Scruffy couldn’t go to Brecon, and Turnstone is an honourable man. Charlie wanted to leave Scruffy in the minibus, but Darren and Stacey both said that that would be cruel. The inside of the bus could get overheated which would be bad for Scruffy.  Darren went very quiet when Charlie said he should have thought of the dog’s health yesterday, before giving him the sleeping pill, but Scruffy was allowed to walk up the mountain with us.

“First sign of him running off to chase sheep, he goes on the lead, boy,” barked Mr. Kipling, “and you get on the next train home, even if you have to sleep on your Gran’s floor.”

Charlie and the Sergeant Major were soon too busy to pay much attention to Scruffy. Here at the bottom of the mountain they could take turns showing off their muscle power pushing Ollie up the track in what they called the ATW.  Was Stacey being totally serious when she said, “Sir, you must be strong?” Charlie thought she was: “You’ll see Stacey, it’ll take more than one of those unfit youths to push him.”


All this meant that Scruffy could peacefully walk to heel, not on his lead, right past hundreds of sheep & lambs. He seemed quite at his ease, nose and ears up, tail held high. Bob Kipling, taking a break from pushing, was a reluctant admirer.

Overheard – a woman talking to her dogs

It’s an occupational hazard for those of us blessed with a grey-to-white beard! ‘Hey Santa!’ from teenagers, or a rather more awed approach from younger children. I once had a long conversation with a little lad in Gap, France, with his mother in the background, encouraging me to keep going; great fun for me as well as him.

Today was surprisingly different.

Cycling along the shared path by the river, I rang my bell to warn a lady with her two dogs that I was approaching; they were occupying the whole path. Smiling, she got out of the way, saying to the dogs, ‘There boys, it’s Father Christmas come to say hello.’

The Rewards of Apparent Indifference

If you want to catch a playful dog, like our new friend Melba, it’s as well to pretend you are not interested in doing any such thing. The rabbits on Abbot’s Hill can tell when Melba is up for the chase and soon make themselves scarce. Wild birds will disappear if they feel something is watching them, hence the joy of a cold hide on the edge of a winter’s lake.

In the Nineteenth Century Richard Jefferies put it this way:

This is the secret of observation: stillness, silence, and apparent indifference. In some instinctive way these wild creatures learn to distinguish when one is or is not intent upon them in a spirit of enmity; and if very near, it is always the eye they watch. So long as you observe them, as it were, from the corner of the eyeball, sideways, or look over their heads at something beyond, it is well.

(from The Gamekeeper at Home, available at Project Gutenberg)

This evening’s encounter was fleeting. I was walking past the hazel bush on our street (yes, the squirrels did get all the nuts) when I heard a quiet, musical squeaking. Not from my boots, but at ear level; something on the railway? No, a young cock blackbird, his feathers very dark but not quite black, his beak still a muddy chocolate brown. I don’t suppose he was trying his sub-song out on me, but I felt privileged to hear it for a few seconds as I continued walking so as not to disturb him.

Let’s hope he finds a mate to appreciate his full-throated song, come the Spring.