It is very strange how things suddenly slot into place when you are undertaking research. Ever since I began this project I have known that the Admiral must have spent time in Egypt while he was Captain of HMS Espoir. I have his ship’s log which has just one entry written in Alexandria. And research has thrown up no official connection to Egypt. Yet family history has told me he became good friends with Muhammad Ali, Khedive of Egypt and undertook the job of supervising the building of the Egyptian navy’s first corvette in or around 1810/11. Indeed the Khedive was supposed to have been so pleased with Captain Mitford that he rewarded him by giving him ‘Cleopatra’s needle’ (I think he gave it to many people, safe in the knowledge that none of them would actually be able to take it away!) It was however eventually removed, of course (not by the Admiral!) and ‘our’ needle now stands on the Embankment in London!
But today proof arrived miraculously through the post, along with some other papers. It is just a tiny notebook, but you can imagine how thrilled I was to see this image which shows quite clearly that the Admiral was in Egypt at just the right time!!
Last week the world of horse racing lost one of its greatest stars with the death of Henry Cecil. The papers were full of comments describing him as ‘a genius’, ‘the toast of Epsom and Royal Ascot’ and ‘one of the most influential and successful racehorse trainers of all times’. And it did make me think about how horses run in the Amherst Cecil blood. I remembered coming across this photo amongst Billy’s letters. Billy grew up to be an excellent rider, and particularly passionate about his hunting. How proud Billy would have been of his grandson Henry. In fact a passion for horses and racing runs further back in the family as May, Billy’s mother was renowned as an excellent horsewoman. Didlington Hall even possessed its own racecourse on which, Phosphorus winner of the 1837 Derby had trained.
Henry did indeed have an extraordinary career which included winning The Derby four times and The Oaks eight times. His was a life full of brilliance, mixed with despair – and maybe it was this mix that made him so popular with the masses of race goers. The death of his twin brother David, and his own fight against cancer must have provided some of the darkest moments, while the arrival of Frankel, ‘star of stars’, must have been one of the brightest.
When I heard of Henry’s death last week I couldn’t help thinking how immensely sad it was that not only did Henry never know his grandfather, he never knew his father either.
History can strangely repetitive. When Billy was killed on the Aisne in 1914, at the age of twenty eight, he left behind my father, William who was two years old and, Henry who was just six months. For both boys being fatherless must have been very hard, but for Henry it seems it was a tragedy. He was completely charming, immensely popular, and totally wild. Always after excitement, he was quick to join the newly formed Parachute Regiment. He was fatally wounded in 1942 in the Battle of Oudna in North Africa. He, like Billy, was twenty eight years old when he died. He left behind him four young sons, Strongbow (known as Bow), James and the twins, David and Henry. The twins were in fact not even born until a few days after the news of his death had reached their mother, Rohays.
I am extremely sad that Henry can’t be with us when we visit Billy’s grave next year to commemorate the centenary of his death. But there is no doubt that he will be there in our thoughts.
I realise how remiss I’ve been with this Blog – it’s like nothing has happened for months – which isn’t true. Lambing is long since over and some of the lambs are looking pretty huge already – like the ewe lamb below. As for Mum – it appears she might not be able to see where she’s going – however – weather permitting the shearer will be here tomorrow, and so that particular problem will be solved! Not that the shearer will remove her forelock – that is not allowed – a Cotswold must keep their fringes at all times – even if it does mean that after shearing they look like goats with mops on their heads! But shearing is a good time for me to give her forelock a tidying trim!
I have at last managed to get The Nile Cat to a state where I feel I can start looking for a publisher. This is quite daunting and only time will tell how it all goes – however I am at last getting better at writing a synopsis – at least I hope so.
The real challenge is now to switch off from The Nile Cat for a while and focus on Billy – it is such a different project, and the deadline while self-imposed is tight – but not impossible – so it is back to WWI for me!
Lambing means not much sleep and a good deal of stress. It’s all that responsibility I guess. Anyway I thought I’d put up some photos of some of those cute moments that make it all worthwhile!
I never planned on being a midwife! Or a nurse. So finding myself in both roles, even if my patients are sheep, is pretty strange.
Over the last few weeks as I filled water buckets, freshened the pens with clean straw, brought in the food buckets, hand-fed a ewe who had survived a particularly traumatic delivery of her lambs (by the vet, not me in this case!!!) and wielded syringes of pain killers and antibiotics to other ewes who had had to have some lambing assistance, I couldn’t help wondering how any ‘real’ nurses, could ever be as completely blind to their patients’ needs as has recently been reported in the press – after all my patients can’t tell me what they need, but I work it out. Their patients could talk – but those nurses weren’t even pretending to listen!!! Of course, I know the vast majority of nurses are dedicated, caring and immensely hard-working.
But I have other roles to play too – ‘adoption facilitator’ for one – this was down to a ewe called Francesca. Francesca is a rather beautiful ewe, with fantastic wool and not so fantastic ‘attitude’! This year she had two lambs, a nice largish ewe lamb and a smaller ram lamb. She fell immediately in love with both her lambs, and was a brilliant mother for at least two hours.
Then something happened – I don’t know what! But all of a sudden she decided that the ewe lamb was hers, and the ram lamb was… well, not! And there was nothing I could do to persuade her otherwise. I tried everything – spraying both lambs with delicious vanilla scented musk so they smelt the same, and even tying her up so she couldn’t sniff either lamb, on the basis she would forget which lamb she had decided wasn’t hers.
Francesca is many things – but forgetful she is not. In the end she fed the ram lamb, but only under sufferance. I knew the moment I put her out in the field she would turn on him. So another solution had to be found – and by this time he had a name – Milo.
I could bottle feed Milo, but a single bottle-fed lamb is a very lonely lamb, and it is SO much better if they have a mother to keep them fed, warm and away from danger, in our case the river. So the only real answer would be adoption. But for that I needed a ewe which had been scanned as carrying just a single lamb to give birth within two or three days, for the adoption to have a chance to work.
So one day passed, then another, and another – by the fifth day I had almost given up hope as Milo would soon be too old for adoption – he wouldn’t bond with his new mother. Currently he was surviving, his mother hadn’t actually killed him, but she ignored his bleats, and would lie nuzzling her ewe lamb, leaving Milo on his own in the corner of the pen.
Then at last an older ewe, Genevieve, scanned as carrying a single lamb, was in the process of lambing. There was no time to waste – as timing in these matters is everything! I had to get Milo wet with Genevieve’s birth fluids and place him in front of her, before her own lamb was born. I also had to tie his legs (gently but firmly) as the fact that Milo at a week old was as agile as an olympic athlete might give the game away! Luckily Genevieve is a maternal sort of ewe, and although I could swear she gave me a knowing look when I plopped Milo in front of her, she obligingly began to lick him dry. When her own ewe lamb arrived a few seconds later she licked both, and never looked back. Genevieve is a brilliant mother to both lambs and Milo is thriving. Adoption is truly wonderful when it works!!!
Lambing is a time when writing creatively seems impossible – tiredness does not lead to imaginative thought – rather I sit down at my computer, open a document and… unsurprisingly, fall asleep. So not a great time for getting on with a writing project.
Yet I think this raw contact with life and death does feed the creative brain. And there is always drama in the lambing barn – whether it’s clearing a lamb’s mouth and nose so it can take its first breath, watching an exhausted ewe licking her lamb dry, or supervising an adoption, like Milo’s. But I’m quite glad it is ten and a half months before it all starts again. Now I’m off to bed for an uninterrupted night’s sleep!
I have this week discovered yet again what an amazing research tool the internet is! Through the Amherst website I have met a distant, but most distinguished, cousin as Hugh is the 37th Squire of Mitford. A remarkable family that held the estate of Mitford in Northumberland for nearly a 1000 years – and the main branch of the family that gave rise to the notorious ‘Mitford girls’, among many other rather splendid characters.
Unfortunately the Northumberland lot were not very good at producing heirs when they were needed, so the lines of inheritance got rather convoluted leading in the end to the family’s down turn in fortune and the sad sale of the last acres of the surviving estate in the 90’s.
Anyway, Hugh is as deeply involved with researching his ancestors, as I am mine – and as our researches both include Admiral Robert Mitford (my great, great, great grandfather) he very kindly sent me the following entry in an auction catalogue of a few years ago:
A BOX of decanters and glasses which once belonged to one of Castle Morpeth’s most famous seafaring men is to go under the hammer in Newcastle on March 12. Dating to the early 19th century and contained in a rustic metal-bound oak case, the drinking set owned by Admiral Robert Mitford, of Mitford Castle, is to be sold by auctioneers Anderson & Garland …’
The entry goes on to explain that the Admiral was supposed to have been detailed by Queen Victoria to collect a consignment of Madeira, (from Madeira!!!) and then sail it home to England via the Equator – anyone with any sense of direction might think that this was not the most direct route – but apparently shaking and heating the madeira wine ‘improved it’ – so what could be more sensible than loading up a ship with wine and sending it down to the equator for plenty of natural heating and shaking!
This piece of information sent me back to check out the Admiral’s sketchbook – he was an immensely talented artist – and while the sketchbook is not in great condition, the paintings are good to superb!!! And I came across this little drawing captioned ‘A Shearwater shot off the back of a turtle off Madeira‘ – who knows if this was painted on the trip described above – but it is really nice to conjecture that it was!!!
While I do feel rather bad at the sad demise of the shearwater and hope the turtle didn’t end up as soup (I’m not confident of that!) – pre photos, the only way you could get a creature to stay still long enough to record it properly, was to kill it, skin it, and preserve it till you got home – then you could stuff it and draw it. Apparently the Admiral’s daughter was a renowned taxidermist – she was obviously taught by an expert!!
Last week we spent the night in Soissons. We were trying out the hotel we might stay in for the family visit to Billy’s grave in 2014. It felt incredibly strange to be there looking out of our hotel room across the roofs to the hills that rise on the other side of the Aisne.
The town was extraordinarily quiet – it was that time between Christmas and New Year when nothing seems to happen – everyone is waiting for the main event I suppose – in this case the arrival of 2013.
But I found I was wondering how unbelievably different it must have felt to be there in the dying days of summer in 1914. There was no wind and the air was stiflingly hot. Soisson must have been a cauldron of fear as the Soissonaise looked at the tattered remains of the BEF gathering in the streets and boulevards of the town, and then looked up at the wooded hills that form the northern bank of the Aisne. They must have wondered just how long it would be before the flood of German soldiers began pouring out of them.
Billy arrived in Soissons at around noon on 30th August. The Grenadiers had been marching for days in the dust and intense heat. The men had apparently been grumbling about their sore feet and the endless marching in ‘the wrong direction’ but the 2nd Battalion was immensely proud that not one man had fallen out. The Grenadiers were then ordered to retrace their footsteps back across the Aisne to the village of Pasley, which lies 2 miles north of Soissons, where they dug in and spent what remained of the night watching out for the approaching Germans. There was some hope that perhaps the BEF might make a stand at the Aisne and that the Retreat would be over.
But the 31st just brought yet more orders to continue the Retreat, and so Billy would have returned to Soissons and then headed on south west towards Villars- Cotteret where the Grenadiers would have to face one of their toughest challenges so far.
It was market day when we were in Soissons last week. As we wandered amongst the stalls and inspected the wonderful displays of vegetables, bread, cheeses, etc., it was almost impossible to believe life there could ever have been so very different. When Billy was in Soissons, it was so early in the war, the town would have looked in parts, much as it does today – but later of course, being on the front line a good deal of it was reduced to rubble – it is really extraordinary how mankind does rebuild after such terrible events – but when we looked carefully at the buildings, the bullet holes, and shrapnel scars were easy enough to spot!
I imagine that by the time Billy reached Soissons his world must have shrunk to encompass little more than his own and his men’s survival. Home, Gladys, the boys, and his whole previous existence must have seemed like they belonged to someone else in another life.
Welcome to my first blog from this brand new website – which I might say has given me a few headaches trying to build. I was told Word Press is easy… well it is… once you get the hang of it – but getting the hang can be quite painful!
It is great that you have taken the time and trouble to find me, and I hope you will enjoy your visit. There are the opening chapters of The Nile Cat here to give you a taste of the novel which will be published shortly as an ebook.
You will also be able to see how the biography of my grandfather develops – it is based on his letters from his very first letter written at the age of five, through to his death at the age of 28 during the first battle of the Aisne in September 1914. His story begins in a world of great wealth and privilege, and ends on the edge of a forest in France. The journey from one to the other has all the necessary ingredients of a great drama… adventure, tragedy, courage, and above all love.