Wendy Holden meets the Red Hatters
SCHOOL’S out, but not without ceremony. My husband is a governor of Christ’s Hospital, the school founded by Edward VI, in 1552, to teach the poor boys of the City of London. The school moved to its current location in the West Sussex countryside in the early 20th century and is now co-educational, but its great egalitarian mission remains: to provide children from all walks of life with the best possible education.
Channel swimmers coated themselves in lard. We do the same, but from the inside
Its distinctive uniform—the long, dark-blue coat with silver buttons and yellow socks with white bands —has remained unchanged since the school’s earliest days. It makes for a fine sight when the marching band, which leads the Lord Mayor’s Show every year, beats the retreat on the final day of term.
We stood in the quad and watched the set faces of the leaving drum majors as they hurled their maces into the air for the last time. There were tears and hugs, but also palpable excitement.
More unusual uniforms: we have just returned from Cornwall, where, in Trengwainton Garden, groups of ladies of a certain age wearing red hats and purple outfits appeared between the trees. There were too many of them for it to be coincidence.
‘We’re the Red Hat Society,’ one explained. It turns out they’re inspired by Jenny Joseph’s poem Warning, about growing old disgracefully, in which she declares that when she is an old woman, she will wear purple clothes and a scarlet hat, pick flowers from other people’s gardens and learn to spit.
These ladies were the Penzance Red Hatters, but there are, apparently, affiliated groups all over the world, especially in the USA, where —forget Red Nose Day—there is even a Red Hat Day on April 25.
However, I prefer what the poet says she will let her husband do when he’s old, which is to eat 3lb of sausages in one go. Here in Derbyshire, we have the world’s finest bangers, the local tomatoflavoured one deserving an honourable mention. What better excuse to indulge in them than old age?
Cornwall is beautiful at this time of year. Hedgerows shaggy with red campion, meadow crane’s-bill and cow parsley billow onto winding lanes. Occasional field entrances give views of blue sea, across which craggy St Michael’s Mount appears to be eternally setting sail, eternally going nowhere.
We stay with my in-laws, to whom we gratefully return for hot baths after excursions to Penzance’s Jubilee Pool. This splendid 1930s lido, one of Britain’s largest, has recently reopened after suffering storm damage.
It’s the most wonderful place to spend an afternoon—the triangular pool is full of seawater and correspondingly bracing. The water has a deliciously thick, refreshing quality, but there is a limit (an hour, in my case) to what the human frame can stand, even in July.
Channel swimmers of the 1920s famously coated themselves in lard to keep the chill off. We do the same, but from the inside, eating chips at every opportunity. We love chips and those served in Cornwall’s pubs regularly feature on the list the children and I keep (constantly updated) of our top 10 chipserving establishments.
It’s serious research because we plan, one day, to open a hostelry with a special, chip-only menu: fat ones Pont Neuf-style, thin ones frite- style, spiral-shaped, potato wedges, the lot. Here, the sausages and burgers would be optional.
We would also specialise in that other matchless British contribution to world cuisine, the bacon sandwich. The sauce within might depend on your origin—in Derbyshire, we are deemed to be above the brown sauce/ ketchup line (a mythical condiment version of the Mason-dixon, which runs from the Severn to The Wash), so are firmly in HP territory.
For safety purposes, can I ask what’s in the parcel?’ I dislike being asked this at the Post Office, but others, it seems, positively welcome the query. ‘You can get too much information,’ our village postmistress revealed. ‘It’s okay just to say “clothes”—we don’t need to know it’s a bra and pants.’
This was too promising a conversation to leave, so I pressed her for more details of what people admit to sending. I learnt that battery-operated personal items cause the occasional sensation, but possibly not those one might imagine. ‘ We had a hearing aid in a parcel the other day. It whistled and buzzed and drove us all mad.’ The buzziest parcel of all, however, was a consignment of live bees. Wendy Holden’s latest novel is Wild and Free (Headline, £7.99)
Next week: Kit Hesketh-harvey