For those of you of a horticultural disposition who have been in despair over the weather, as I have been recently, I've posted something over on The Gardening Habit which offers up some small rays of hope despite the lack of rays of sunshine. The lessons to be learned from Nature are many, but right now it's these:
In defiance of the highly unseasonal weather I have put up a little tasty, summery salad number over at Fridge Food. Go take a look here if you are in need of something both sunny and healthy and filling, despite its size.
In March 1943, 617 'Dambuster' Squadron was formed from an elite group of military men who were chosen or volunteered for one of the Second World War's most daring and innovative strategic attacks on Nazi Germany. It was an attack which was to mark the turning point in the war for Great Britain and her allies.
I have just been watching the coverage on television of the tributes that were happening today here in the Peak District where the squadron honed their skills over the Derwent Dam and this evening at RAF Scampton in Lincolnshire from where the 19 Lancaster planes set off this very night 70 years ago.
The skills that the pilots and their crew had to hone, with none of today's technology, in the space of eight short weeks, were incredible. The mission was to be carried out purely by the light of the moon and the eyes of the crew using sights which look like they'd been knocked up in the potting shed (some wood and a couple of nails) and some basic target altitude aids. Added to this, the Avro Lancaster bomber which they were flying was designed to be operational at far greater heights than the few hundred feet which were required for the success of this top-secret mission. These were brave and courageous men indeed and when they set out this night of May 16th, 1943, many of them knew they were unlikely to return.
As I sit, writing this, in the house that Flt Lt William 'Bill' Astell DFC was living in with his parents and three sisters at the time of his active service, I feel both extraordinarily privileged and very moved. It was to this house, in this quiet Derbyshire village, that he returned having been awarded his DFC for fortitude in Libya, to rest and recuperate prior to his involvement in the Dambusters' Raid. It was a place he loved, as confirmed to me by his sister Betty in a brief correspondence we enjoyed before her own death a few years ago. She said how happy they had all been living here and that, indeed, the only sadness was that their beloved brother died in action while they still lived here.
Edmund Bradbury, member of the British Legion and long-term resident of Chapel-en-le-Frith, worked tirelessly to bring together today's commemoration of Bill Astell who died just 53 days after Edmund was born. The sun shone on Chapel's market place - site, too, of the War Memorial where William Astell's name is etched in the stone like too many other fallen comrades of the First and Second World Wars. A message was read out from Her Majesty the Queen; flags were raised and lowered; a lone trumpet played The Last Post; a minute's silence was held and its end marked by the Revalle; hymns were sung, prayers were said and readings given; wreaths were laid and the Chapel Male Voice Choir sang the famous Dambusters' March. BBC and ITV news were both there filming and interviewing and military and local dignitaries were joined by a good crowd of invitees and passers by.
Refreshments were then offered in the Town Hall where a local business, Cup 'n' Cake, had provided a generous spread of home-made sandwiches and cakes; a two-man band played songs from the 40s following speeches of thanks and a special presentation to Edmund Bradbury from two current young members of 617 Squadron.
At around 12.40 we all moved outside onto the High Street and lifted our eyes, cameras and videos to the sky to capture the moment that the only remaining flying Lancaster in Great Britain (there is also one in Canada), the 'City of Lincoln', flew over Chapel-en-le-Frith. Responding to a special request from Edmund, it took this short detour on its way to the Derwent Dam where many more people were gathered to watch this magnificent and iconic old lady of the air make an emotional sweep through the same skies where the crews had trained so intensely and secretly during those extraordinary eight weeks. Friends in Combs arguably had a better view as the City of Lincoln swept majestically over the village three times, its engines roaring and its four propellers glinting in the sun. I was told that it actually went over our house and I thought how very fitting that was - although the pilots would have had no knowledge of that particular significance.
If you will indulge me, I would like to write out some paragraphs from a book called 'The Peak District at War' by Peter Clowes which Edmund so kindly sent me before today's Remembrance Tribute:
'When Flight Lieutenant Bill Astell drove to Chinley Station one sunny morning in 1943 there were only two people with him in the family's black Austin car - his mother and his nine-year-old sister Heather. After all, he was just returning to his base after a normal seven-days' leave.
The 11.15 train to Sheffield pulled out of the station on time and Bill, his peaked cap askew on his head, waved cheerily until his carriage vanished in drifting smoke. His mother and sister drove back to their home at Spire Hollins in Combs unaware that Bill knew he was about to take part in one of the most hazardous operations of the Second World War - the famous Dambusters' Raid.
Bill had been awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross earlier in the war for 'displaying great courage and fortitude' after being shot down in Libya and surviving a five-day walk across the desert. He returned to Combs to recuperate, smoke his favourite pipe and sometimes go on rabbit hunts in the fields on Ladder Hill, his shotgun echoing around the hills that rim the Combs valley.
His wounds healed, he was eager to return to the war and, early in 1943, began to fly four-engine Lancaster bombers. Then he joined 617 Squadron at Scampton in Lincolnshire where the Dambusters' Raid was being prepared. When he reached Combs for a final leave in May 1943 he was quieter than usual and contented himself with long walks in the Peak District hills. He hinted to his sister Betty, who was in the WRNS, that 'something big' was coming off but that was all.'
Bill Astell's Lancaster hit uncharted power cables before it even reached the Ruhr dams and exploded in a ball of fire. He was one of the 53 (out of 133) crew who never returned that night.
As I drove back from Buxton this sunny morning along the narrow lane which tracks Combs Moss before plunging down into the village, I looked across the wide vista towards the peaks of Eccles Pike and Kinder Scout to the north, and Castlenaze to the south. I could not help but marvel at the beauty of the landscape and think how little has changed since Bill Astell walked these very hills, smoking his pipe and taking a pop at the rabbits. The Reverend Bralesford made the same observation at the tribute an hour later and it was hard not to feel both humbled by and proud of the sacrifices this courageous and committed young man, like so many thousands of others, made during those turbulent, violent and uncertain times.
I will go to bed shortly, on the very night that he lost his life, and feel his spirit lingering quietly and happily in this place that he loved. I will imagine him strolling around the very same garden which I tend and nurture in the spirit of those who have gone here before me. I will imagine him walking out of the top gate and into the fields of Ladder Hill beyond, turning to admire and breath in the vista that so many have admired before and since, and will continue to admire for many years to come. People come and go, but landscapes such as these outlive us all.
We are simply guardians of stone and mortar for a moment in time, before we too have to move on. But in the meantime it is a privilege to be able to inhabit this place which he, too, called home.
Have just written a little something about the highs and lows of gardening in a very wet, cold climate over at The Gardening Habit (and all those of you who live in sunnier climes may rightly feel smug!).
What a beautiful day to start May! Clear blue skies, warm spring sunshine, not a breath of wind - and I thought of Henri who used to walk these hills over so many decades but who will set foot to earth no more. As cancer took hold in her ninth decade, she said she had done with her life and now just wanted to float. She passed away on Monday and today I imagined her up there, smiling down on the place she loved so much and knew so intimately.
I have been here but a decade, yet the spirit of place has entered my soul completely. As I dug the earth to plant my columbines, primulas, pulsatilla, wallflowers, campanulas and aubretias, the sheep and lambs lay quietly in the filed, the birds sang their spring song at last and the drill of a distant woodpecker drifted across the valley. I thought of the kingfisher Henri always told me about down by the stream where she walked, and I missed her. The brittle clack-clack of her walking stick as she walked purposefully up the long hill past our house, heading for the beech groves or some such other place, her little 3-legged dog trotting companionably by her side and to whom she was devoted.
Henri (who made it quite clear to me from the start that she hated being called Henrietta!) was a trooper - a no-nonsense woman who had led her entire life in and around this village. I'm sure she had travelled but her home was essentially here, and this is where much of her extended family still lives, many of them working the land she loved to walk on.
It was through her love of walking that I first got to know her. She would put me to shame with her early morning yoga and twice-daily walks. I was always passing her in the lanes - especially when the girls were at the infant school, morning and afternoon, out with her dog, regular as clockwork. Her routine coincided with my drop off and pick up times and we would always stop and have a chat. She taught me most of what I know of this village, its history and its people. Early on she wanted to introduce us to her family and friends and I will always remember going to her delightful cottage, drinking sherry and meeting them. She was devoted to several other 'grande dames' of the village, always ready to help out her frailer friends. I certainly never imagined that she would be gone before they.
Even when I was no longer going to the infant school daily, I would frequently pass her on our lane as I dashed off somewhere else, but I would always put down the window of the car and have a catch up - or at least ask after her and explain that I couldn't stop. One of the last times I saw her was earlier this year. I passed by in the Defender as she was chatting with a neighbour further down the lane. I wound down the window to say a quick hello and Henri quipped, in her classically clipped no-nonsense voice: 'Are you safe to drive that thing?'!
Not so long after that I met her again and stopped to have more of a chat. I noticed how her face had grown thin, her once lively brown eyes more sunken. I asked how she was and she said, elusively, that she hadn't been well but it was clear she did not want to be drawn. Instead she asked after the girls, whom she had watched grow up these past 10 years, and we parted in due course, me none the wiser as to the gravity of her situation. Little did I know that that would be the last exchange we would ever have.
Henri was a part of the landscape of this village and it is hard to believe that she is no longer with us. She will be sorely missed by so many, not least of all, of course, by her immediate family to whom she was know, quite simply, as Granny. As her granddaughter-in-law said, it is truly the end of an era.