Saturday, December 14, 2013

Christmas memories

As we approach the festive season, I start thinking of previous years and other Christmases spent in different parts of the world. Nelson Mandela's recent passing and the celebration of his life that was broadcast has of course reminded me of Christmas in South Africa, barbecuing in the sun while the Christmas tree with its fake snow twinkled inside the house. I hope Madiba himself, or Tati, as he came to be known, enjoyed many such Christmases after his release from Robben Island. He was a great human being with a deep faith. The world, and especially South Africa, will miss him greatly

Other Christmases I recall were those I spent as a child in London. We lived in an old Victorian house in St John's Wood. It had so much rising damp, I thought it was normal that we redecorated our basement every year to disguise the mouldy patches crawling up the walls. Imagine my surprise when later I discovered that only our house seemed to need this kind of regular smooshing! It was also cold and drafty and central heating was unheard of then, but fortunately we had coal fires in most of the rooms. At Christmas, we would have a massive Christmas tree in the hall, and the paper chains we used to make were hanging in every room. We always went to midnight mass in the centre of London too. There were churches where the services were just glorious with magnificent choirs and organ music. I remember loving these Christmas services, even when I was small. They were quite magical and very exciting when you were about eight and out so late.

Then there were Christmases in the west country, in the large and hopelessly impractical house my parents bought on the Dorset, Devon and Somerset borders. It was even draftier than the London house, and we rattled around in its voluminous space, but we all loved the oversized rabbit warren of rooms and wings it consisted of. Again, we had a huge Christmas tree in the hall that we ritually decked with all manner of baubles and homemade decorations every year. The house was really much too big and the ceilings too high for paper chains, but we did our best. We used to go to midnight mass there too - at our own church but also to the carol service at the village church. Breakfast after midnight mass was baked ham with homemade bread and jam we'd also made ourselves from the blackberries in the summer months, or marmalade my mother made from Seville oranges. We had no TV then, so we would play card games and roast chestnuts in the open fireplace. It was really lovely. I hated leaving London at first, but once I got used to living in the country, I was completely smitten.

The Ténacité at Anderlecht

But what about Christmas on my barge? That has been another kind of magic. I won't say much about Christmas on the Vereeniging here as it's part of my new book, Harbour Ways, and I don't want to spoil it for possible readers. Still, there was another boat, the Ténacité,  in another place - Belgium. I'll be writing about this too later on, but I can say at least something about it here. Some of you already know that for three years, I had a barge at a place called Anderlecht just outside Brussels. I've mentioned it in blog posts before, but what I haven't written about is the Christmas when we took the Ténacité to Clabecq in Wallonia - a Christmas I will always remember with fondness.

The towpath at Clabecq

Scruffy but homely. The living area of the Ténacité 

There was a boating community on the canal between Brussels and Charleroi just past the lock at Lembeek and we knew a few of the people who lived there, so we slotted ourselves in between them for a few days to spend Christmas on our barge, in the country. It snowed while we were there and we went for long walks in the woods or along the towpath, I painted (pictures this time and not boats) and wrote. We made our own bread, and generally lived as I've always wanted to - on the water, but out in the country. We even went to a new year's party on one of the boats. There were no fireworks, there was no Wifi, there was no trite TV - there was just peace, snow, the rocking of the barge as the commercials sped past and a real feeling of a still winter's world at Christmas. I sold the Ténacité in 2006 for reasons I've also mentioned before. I still regret having to part with it as it was a lovely homely barge that gave us some wonderful times and treasured trips, but luckily the memories don't fade (in fact they probably get a bit brighter and shinier over time if I'm honest), and these are something I can always keep.

Another view of the Ténacité interior with my paintings on the wall
Happy Christmas to all my regular readers here and to anyone who happens by. I hope it's peaceful, joyful and blessed for you all.


  1. The warmth of many Christmases reaches out of this. :)

  2. I can't imagine Christmas in the sun. Funny, but I too have been thinking of Christmas of my youth. I suppose our mind always looks back at this time of year. I didn't know you painted,is there no end to your talent?

  3. What special Christmas memories you have, Val and thank you for sharing. You have experienced many contrasts, from magical London, via a large country house, to now life on the waters. All sound wonderful. Have another memorable Christmas, and peace and joy to you too.

  4. Thank you, Christina. There have been many memorable ones, that is true.

    Anne, bless you. Christmas in the sun was lovely, but didn't really feel quite 'proper' somehow. As for painting, I am the least talented member of my family artistically, but I love painting when I have time (not much of that these days). I like painting animals, especially dogs...I wonder why :)

    Patricia, thank you too! I have been lucky to have such a variety of Christmas locations to call home. I'll have to try Autralia one of these years :)

  5. Ah - Christmas, in all its disguises. And it can be just as much fun in the sun as in the wind and rain!

  6. Yes, Jo, I completely agree! Although I always wondered at the desire to have 'pretend' snow and traditional European fare when it was thirty degrees!

  7. Love these memories.... and the thought of Christmas on the boat...makes me want to pack up and head over to Rotterdam (one day) Happy Christmas to you and The Koos...2 people I value in this world. xx

  8. Thank you, CarolStar...very touched xxx

  9. I love your memories. Much love, xo


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