Deck the halls . . .

Steph and I joined the National Trust in February 2011, and have now visited more than 130 of its properties in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland, as well as four in Scotland (where Trust members receive reciprocal benefits from the National Trust for Scotland).

I should add we’re also members of English Heritage, but have visited far fewer of its properties.

We’ve certainly had full value from our National Trust joint senior membership over the past decade. We appreciate how visitor policies have developed and adapted to changing expectations over that period, making its properties—and the stories they have to tell—so much more accessible. Its policy on photography (subject to any copyright restrictions) has been relaxed, so that enthusiasts like me can record our visits (no flash!) and then blog about them afterwards.

Here in the northeast of England (where we moved in October 2020), there are fewer Trust properties than in the Midlands (in north Worcestershire) where we lived for many years, and which was a great base for heading out in all directions to explore the National Trust landscape.

Unsurprisingly, the property we have visited most is Hanbury Hall, on our doorstep, near Bromsgrove.

On our last visit to Hanbury Hall in early September 2020, less than a month before we moved to the northeast.

Hanbury Hall was also the first Trust property we visited in February 2011 just after becoming members. We enjoyed all our visits there, most often to take a walk in the extensive park, see how its magnificent parterre changed through the seasons, and occasionally take a glimpse inside the house. 

I could write a whole blog just about Hanbury Hall’s parterre.

At this time of the year, however, Hanbury Hall like many National Trust properties have introduced their winter opening schedules, or indeed closing over the next couple of months or so, just opening for special occasions. For many of the properties, Christmas is one those.

And from what we have experienced over the past decade of Christmas visits, the staff and volunteers at the houses really make a great effort to embody the spirit of Christmas.

So as we creep inexorably towards Christmas 2022, here are a few reminiscences of the Christmas visits we have enjoyed since 2013. Sometimes there is a theme for the Christmas display, in others, houses are ‘dressed’ as they might have been when under family ownership. And it’s not hard to imagine just how full of the joys of Christmas many of these properties must have been, children running excitedly about (they had the space!), while parents entertained their guests, all the while looked after by a bevy of household staff. How the other half lived!

Whatever the perspective, grand or modest, these Christmas visits (or just after) are indeed something to nurture the spirit of the season.

Hanbury Hall (9 December 2013), Worcestershire

Baddesley Clinton (19 December 2014), Warwickshire

Charlecote Park (16 December 2015), Warwickshire

Greyfriars (14 December 2016), Worcester

Croome (28 December 2017), Worcestershire

Coughton Court (30 November 2018), Warwickshire

Hanbury Hall (9 December 2019), Worcestershire

In 2020, many houses were still closed due to the Covid-19 pandemic although we had been to Cragside in October and toured the house.

On 14 December visited Wallington in Northumberland. The house was closed, but we enjoyed a coffee outside in the courtyard, and an invigorating walk around the garden and park (although parts were closed due to the tree damage caused by Storm Arwen that hit the northeast at the end of November).

Wallington (10 December 2021), Northumberland

Ormesby Hall (28 November 2022), North Yorkshire


Memories of Christmas past . . . and building new ones

Perhaps nothing awakens memories filed at the back of the ol’ grey matter like decorating a Christmas tree each year. And Sunday last we finished decorating ours, for our first Christmas in Newcastle upon Tyne, having moved here from Worcestershire just over two months ago.

We’ve had this particular (artificial) tree for 44 years. After we moved to Costa Rica in April 1976, we bought this tree from Sears, Roebuck & Co. in Miami as part of our airfreight consignment.

Our elder daughter Hannah was born in Costa Rica  in April 1978, and we had great fun decorating the tree for her. I’m sure we must have some photos taken during those days, but they must be packed away in boxes waiting for a move early next year into the house we are buying. And I hadn’t scanned those yet. Likewise of our younger daughter Philippa who was born in May 1982.

However, here is one photo taken at Christmas 1981 in the UK (when Hannah would have been just over 3½ and Steph was pregnant with Philippa; we replaced those curtains and carpet that came with the house not long afterwards!). During the 80s we spent at least two Christmases with Steph’s parents in Essex, and on another two we joined family (including my widowed mother) at my brother Martin’s home in Gloucestershire, and with my sister in Newport in South Wales in 1986. This was a big family get-together as my late brother Edgar and his wife Linda (and young son Patrick) came over from Canada.

L-R Back row: Brother-in-law Trevor, Mum, Steph; middle row: sister-in-law Linda, nephew Alex, Martin, nephew Bruce, Margaret; front row: sister-in-law Pauline, Edgar (with Patrick on his knee), me, Philippa, and Hannah.

We enjoyed decorating our little tree from Costa Rica every Christmas until 1991. In July that year, I moved to the Philippines. Steph, Hannah and Philippa (then aged 13 and 9) celebrated Christmas in the UK on their own, then packed everything away, locked up the house, and flew out to join me in the Philippines a few days afterwards. The tree remained packed away for the next 18 years.

But come December 2010 (after I had retired and we moved back to the UK), we ‘rescued’ our tree from obscurity in the attic. Newly-married Philippa and Andi joined us in Bromsgrove, almost a ‘White Christmas’; there was snow lying in the garden but it didn’t actually snow on Christmas Day (to qualify as a ‘White Christmas’). In fact, throughout my whole life I can remember only one ‘White Christmas’; more of that later.

The last Christmas Day we spent in Bromsgrove was in 2017, because in 2018 and 2019 we were with Phil and Andi—and the grandchildren Elvis and Felix—in Newcastle. Having grandchildren around certainly brings a new dimension to celebrating Christmas. Unfortunately we’ve not yet had an opportunity to celebrate Christmas with our other grandchildren, Callum and Zoë in Minnesota, but we always link up on a video call and become immersed in their excitement as they open presents.

We spent almost 19 years in the Philippines. Filipinos know how to celebrate Christmas, beginning in September (the first of the ‘ber’ months) and often continuing well into February. It’s trees and lights and glitter everywhere. And their special Christmas lights, the parols.

We took one back to the UK in 2010 and proudly displayed it in our porch (probably the only one in Bromsgrove!) every year until it finally gave up its electrical ghost around three years ago. Just seeing it light up brought back memories of so many happy years spent in the Philippines, and the wonderful friends we made.

Now while Filipinos celebrate Christmas in a BIG way—Santa, snow, trees and the like—the Philippines reality is quite different. For me, it was shorts and t-shirts on Christmas Day, even if smarter ones than usual. Even after they had gone away to university in the USA and the UK, Hannah and Philippa returned most Christmases (and we’d even go scuba diving). Hannah’s boyfriend (now husband) Michael came on two occasions as well. Given the size of our IRRI house, we had space for a much taller (almost 7 foot) tree than we could ever accommodate in England. And we still have many of the decorations that we acquired in the Philippines.

One of my important roles during the 2000s, was being Santa for the Staff Housing children and friends at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in Los Baños.

In 2007, I thought it might be a good idea to spend Christmas with Hannah and Michael in St Paul, Minnesota. Before doing anything else, I checked if seats were available for the Minneapolis-St Paul (MSP) flight on the Northwest Airlines on Christmas Eve, and made reservations. Only then did I ask Hannah if we could visit, provided that Steph was up to the idea. Hannah thought that would be a great idea. So then I asked Steph if she would like to spend Christmas in Minnesota, provided of course that Hannah and Michael agreed. No-one knew I’d already made reservations. It took Steph a couple of days to warm to the idea (she’s not over-fond of intercontinental flights), but at last everything was in place and I confirmed the tickets.

We flew out of Manila on an early morning flight to MSP via Tokyo’s Narita airport, and arrived at our destination just before midday on the same day (Minnesota is 14 hours behind the Philippines).

It was cold, many degrees below 0ºC. A major snow storm had passed through just a few hours before our arrival, but the main highways had already been cleared. We headed straight to the Mall of America to buy some warm clothes for Steph. Since I had to travel in the course of my work with IRRI, and in all seasons, I already had suitable clothing.

There was deep snow everywhere, and as we sat down to eat our Christmas lunch at about 3pm on Christmas Day, it began to snow. My first ‘White Christmas’. We just had to go outside and enjoy the moment.

We had a great time with Hannah and Michael. Phil even joined us by video link from the UK. Seven days passed all too quickly and before we knew it we were on the return flight to Manila, from the frozen North to the heat of the tropics in less than 24 hours.

I was born in Congleton in southeast Cheshire in November 1948. I don’t really remember anything about Christmases (or winters) spent in Congleton, except the communal sledging in the snow that children from the neighbourhood enjoyed in Priesty Fields close by to where we lived in Moody Street. We moved to Leek, 12 miles away, in Staffordshire in April 1956 when I was seven.

Family Christmases with Mum and Dad, and my elder brothers Martin and Edgar, and sister Margaret were enjoyable as far as I recall. Mum and Dad were very hospitable and there always seemed to one group of friends or another spending time with us.

Dad had his own photographic business that provided a sufficient income to keep us fed and clothed. I never recall having to do without, but I now know that things were very tight and difficult financially for my parents for many years.

But as you can see from these photos, we did have fun.

And there were always a few presents. Among my favorites were a toy farm and the beginnings of a collection of plastic farm animals. I played with those for hours. It was never given away after I grew up and left home. So, in 1981, it came back home to me and was enjoyed by Hannah and Philippa. In fact, it was only last Christmas that I decided to give it away, and advertised it on the Bromsgrove Freecycle site. Within an hour it had been ‘claimed’ by someone who wanted a present for her younger sister. It’s good to know that another generation is enjoying it.

Then, one year I asked for a globe just like the one shown in this photo. It must have been the late 50s or early 60s. I kept that globe until 2010. I’m not sure why now, but we took it to the Philippines, and it was used by the girls. I decided to give it away before returning to the UK.

Each Christmas, we lived in hope of one special present each. A comic Annual. My brothers and I had a weekly subscription to the Eagle and Swift comics. I think Margaret had one for Girl. Anyway, each year, there would be an Eagle Annual and a Swift Annual waiting at the bottom of our beds. Who remembers Dan Dare? What a joy!

Rupert Bear Annual for 1960

And there was one more; Rupert Bear. Rupert first appeared as a cartoon strip in the British tabloid newspaper the Daily Express in November 1920, and continues a century on. Periodically we would receive one of the softback Rupert books, but we always looked forward as well to the Rupert Annual at Christmas, which has been published since 1936.

Such happy memories. And now that we have moved north to Newcastle, so many more opportunities to build plenty more as Elvis and Felix grow up. However, we will have to spend Christmas 2020 on our own even though the government will relax the Covid-19 restrictions for five days from Christmas Eve. We have decided to remain self-isolated. As I write this story, the first Covid vaccinations are being given in the UK. We can wait a few months more to make sure we are safe. It will be a virtual Christmas this year. But memorable, nevertheless.


Season’s Greetings 2015

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It has been an interesting year, one way or another. We enjoyed more travel in the UK than in previous years. However, for the first time since we retired in April 2010 Mike has had no consultancies and associated travel at all during 2015.

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Enjoying our very first s’mores during our Minnesota visit in September.

Early in the year, Hannah and Michael raised the possibility of coming over to the UK during the summer. And on that basis we decided that we wouldn’t go to Minnesota this year but instead take a road trip holiday around Scotland at the end of May, something that we had wanted to do for several years. In the event, Hannah and Michael had to postpone their UK visit. By then however, Steph and I had already worked out an itinerary for Scotland, and booked bed and breakfast accommodation. But then we decided to make our annual visit to the USA as well, and we enjoyed almost three weeks there from early September.

5, 4, 3, and 2
Those are the ages of our grandchildren – Callum, Elvis, Zoë, and Felix.


Callum and Zoë

Elvis&Felix July 2015

Elvis and Felix

It was a big year for Callum who turned five in mid-August, and started kindergarten during the first week of September, just a few days ahead of our arrival in St Paul. After a thorough check about local school opportunities, Hannah and Michael settled on the Nova Classical Academy (NCA), about 15 minutes away by car. Callum won his place in a ballot. It has a ‘traditional’ curriculum, including Latin, logic, and rhetoric. During our visit we got to hear a couple of recitations that Callum had to learn and present in front of his class. The kindergarten schedule has been quite a challenge for him, after the informality of day care for so many years. He was quite exhausted after a long day at school, and soon settled down to a good night’s sleep.

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Now that Callum is a pupil at NCA, Zoë is almost certainly guaranteed a place there when it’s her turn to start kinder. We had great fun with them during our visit. They certainly kept Grandma and Grandad entertained and occupied.

We made it up to Newcastle just twice this year, but Phil and Andi and the boys visited us a couple of times during the summer. Elvis and Felix spend four days each week at their day care centre just 100 m from home. As Phil compresses a five day working week into four days as a Senior Research Fellow at Northumbria University, she can spend Fridays with them. Elvis graduated to a bicycle on his 4th birthday in September; Felix has become an expert scooter rider.

It’s wonderful to see how all our grandchildren are growing and their personalities developing. We wish we could see everyone more regularly, but distance and work commitments make that difficult. Next year might be the first time we have all the family together. That would be something to look forward to.

Busy times at No. 4
We had a busy year around the house. In February we finally got around to having a proper loft access hatch and ladder installed, something we should have done years ago. No more fetching a step-ladder from the garage. In mid-May, we discovered that the underfelt on our roof had deteriorated badly, so had that completely replaced. Just a week later the worn-out tarmac drive was replaced with brick paving, and an electric garage door installed in mid-June. Hannah says that the house now has kerb appeal!

National Trust and English Heritage
This has been our fifth year as National Trust members, and whenever the weather permitted we had quite a number of day outings visiting thirteen properties. We also became members of English Heritage this year (annual membership was a Christmas present from Hannah and Philippa and families), and visited nine. We are fortunate that within less than 80 miles of home there are many NT and EH attractions to visit. English Heritage has given us access to many different types of property – ruined castles and the like that are not part of the National Trust’s portfolio. However, many of these are day outing ‘hanging fruits’ and we will have to go much further afield next year to visit a whole new range of venues, probably spending a night or two away in bed and breakfast accommodation. Being NT and EH members certainly is an incentive to make the best of the better weather days. Actually, on reflection the 2015 summer was not too bad, although August was cold and wet.

Fàilte gu Alba
Our Scotland trip lasted 13 days, and 2,260 miles. On Day 1, we headed to Mike’s sister’s home in Fife, just across the Firth of Forth from Edinburgh, for one night. And then we headed north through Aberdeenshire, taking in the Cairngorms and Culloden battlefield, up the east coast to John o’ Groats, across the top of Scotland through Caithness and Sutherland, down the west coast as far south as Ullapool, and then over to the Outer Hebrides (Lewis and Harris, North and South Uist, and Eriskay) for five days. Returning to the mainland via the Isle of Skye, we headed further south on the west coast into Argyll and Bute, before heading southeast towards Loch Lomond and on south to home. We took in a couple of National Trust for Scotland gardens at Inverewe and Arduaine, but undoubtedly one of the highlights of our trip were the mysterious Calanish Standing Stones on Lewis. Mike visited the Outer Hebrides (for bird-watching) in 1966 and 1967, but had not returned since; Steph had never been to the islands.

Despite the generally poor weather at the end of May, we actually didn’t do too badly. And looking at all the photos we took (almost 1000) there were many bright days as well. The weather did not stop us doing anything at all, which was quite a relief given the number of weather fronts that came powering in off the Atlantic.

The Outer Hebrides have not lost their magic, although a lot has changed in the past 48 years, most conspicuously in the housing. In the late 60s, most residents lived in thatched, stone cottages (or ‘blackhouses’), but almost all of these have now been abandoned.

We had long desired to make this Scotland trip, and now that’s something crossed off our ‘bucket list’. Maybe Northern Ireland next year.

The Windy City

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During our most recent visits to the USA since 2011, we have aimed to make a road trip to various parts. It was Arizona and New Mexico in 2011, the Minnesota Riviera in 2012, Oregon and northern California in 2013, and the Great Plains and Yellowstone last year. Having made our long road trip to Scotland, Mike didn’t fancy another one in the USA. But we did get out of the Twin Cities, if even for only three nights – travelling to Chicago and back by train. With temperatures hovering around 80F, we had a wonderful visit in that great city.

At home and in the garden
Steph is always busy keeping the garden looking lovely. 2015 has generally been a good garden year. It’s remarkable that even in November there was so much colour to see.

Mike keeps busy with this blog, with 270+ posts since its launch in early 2012, and more than 65 posts this year alone.

So, that’s a brief account of our year. Retirement continues sweet, and we’re already thinking about our travels for next year.

Fortunately we are keeping fit and well, apart from the odd creaky joint here and there – and a particularly nasty cold bug that hit us both towards the end of November and lasted for more than two weeks. No resistance! We trust our Christmas Letter finds you in mostly robust health.


Click here for a shorter print version.

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The Night Before Christmas

Twas the night before Christmas,
when all through the house
Not a creature was stirring,
not even a mouse . . .

Are you familiar with this delightful poem? It’s been around for a long time, and was first published – anonymously – in 1823. For many decades there was uncertainty, controversy even, as to the poem’s author.

Although authorship has been claimed by the family of Henry Livingston, Jr. (1748-1828), the most widely accepted author is Clement Clarke Moore (1779-1863), an American professor of Oriental and Greek Literature at Columbia College, the forerunner of Columbia University.

Well, whoever wrote The Night Before Christmas, it has become a firm favorite in households around the world. It also gave us the images of Santa that are familiar everywhere.

And just recently, I came across a rather dog-eared copy of the poem that I remember from my childhood. According to my eldest brother Martin, he thinks it has been in our family since 1942 or thereabouts, before I was born.

Anyway, I used to read it to my daughters when they were small. I heard from a friend recently on Facebook who told me (after I’d posted a copy of the book), ‘My father has read this to us every year on Xmas Eve since I can remember. Still does and the youngest kid is 47!‘ What a lovely tradition.

Just click on the next image to open a copy (a PDF file) of the version that the Jacksons have treasured since the dark days of the Second World War.

But can you believe that a Canadian publisher released an updated version in September having deleted references to and images of Santa smoking a pipe, arguing it would limit children’s exposure to images of smoking? Whatever next!

And talking of traditions – well, we celebrated many at IRRI in the Philippines during my years there. As the staff are from all over the world, we had many opportunities to come together and enjoy each other’s festivals, mostly in the last quarter of the year: the Hindu festival of light, or diwali;  the Chinese mooncake festival; the end of Ramadan, or Eid-ul-Fitr; Halloween (with lots of trick or treats); Thanksgiving on the fourth Thursday in November; and Christmas and New Year, of course.

The Philippines is a great place to celebrate Christmas – it’s so exuberant. We always listened out for the first Christmas music in the malls, often by the last weekend in August or first weekend in September. And the spirit of Christmas continues until the following February. The parol is one of the visual delights among Filipino Christmas decorations – which you can see during the opening and ending sequences of this video (and just watching it makes me feel very nostalgic and appreciate how much I enjoyed living and working in the Philippines).

I just had to have a parol to take back to the UK when I retired in 2010, and since then it has been hung in our porch at Christmas for everyone to enjoy. But this is filmed against a background of snow – so different from the tropical conditions in Manila!

Getting back to Christmas at IRRI. A number of staff take their annual leave from mid-December, especially those from the Antipodes, and parts of Asia. So it became a tradition for the Director General and his wife to host a Christmas party on the second Sunday of December, especially for all the children, and have Santa Claus make an appearance and distribute presents to one and all. One of the happiest responsibilities I had for about a decade was to dig out my Santa suit each year – and my make-up, and put in an appearance as Santa. From about mid-September onwards I’d let my beard and moustache grow so that by early December it was quite bushy. Although my hair and beard are mostly white now, a little make-up always added to the impression. During the 1990s, the role of Santa had been taken by my old friend, the late Bob Huggan, and then Bob Zeigler (now Director General) when he was a Program Leader.

No reindeer and sleighs in the Philippines – so we had to improvise. On a couple of occasions I arrived by tricycle. Another time it was on the front of a jeepney. In 2008, it was a water buffalo or carabao. Here are four videos (all made by my good friend and colleague Gene Hettel, Head of IRRI’s Communication and Publications Services), from 2003 to 2008, of Santa’s arrival at the IRRI Christmas Party at Staff Housing.

Happy days! Merry Christmas! Ho, ho, ho . . .