The last time I visited Grandpa together with Lisa was in September. We heard him being up all night. He made tea, had a few pieces of toast and finished the chunky chocolate bar I had brought for him from Holland. During the day he kept dozing off, sometimes halfway a conversation. Or just as sweetheart great-granddaughter Thandie, dressed up in her doctor’s outfit, was taking his temperature or bandaging his sore arm. He seemed so much older, more fragile too. And a little confused. But he was also exactly the same person that I had instantly come to love when Lisa first took me to Winchcombe in 2003.
During that first, and several following visits he picked us up from the train station in Moreton-in-Marsh. Our 88 year old grandfather (well, not literally mine, but soon he gracefully called me his ‘adoptive granddaughter’) drove us through the Cotswolds hills, took us home to his freshly baked bread from an oven so ancient I had never seen, and apples already picked for the crumble that was to fatten us city girls up a little. We talked at the kitchen table and all enjoyed second helpings of delicious crumble with ice cream on top. On Saturday morning, before we were down for our breakfast tea, Grandpa was off to the pottery for a couple of hours’ work – to catch up on precious time lost while taxiing us from the station.
Lisa and I would go and see him in his workshop. And with hard-to-hide greedy eyes we’d scan the shelves for his pots that had not yet made it to the shop upstairs. And indeed to prevent them from making it there. I loved his tea bowls but revealed my ignorance of all matters regarding pottery when I asked him how long they had been in the oven and at what temperature. Oven?! He looked at me in disbelief. Kiln! And of course he thought it a disgrace that some people came to buy his pots only to sell them expensively ‘on this thing called ebay’. His pots were to be used. He had always felt it that way. And that’s indeed what I do every day.
Evenings were perhaps the best. We sat by the fire – this was before the floods of 2007, when there was still a real fireplace in his living room – and Grandpa treated us to a glass, and top-ups, of sloe gin, while we hoped to be also treated to stories of the past. He often smiled and sighed ‘oh girls I don’t remember!’ But some gems he shared with us, such as his earliest childhood memory of a nighttime bombing of London in 1917 – and how his mother played the piano as loud she could for her little boy not to hear the mayhem outside. And once he said a few words about how hard it had been, his choice to be a conscientious objector during the Second World War. He was in his twenties – and so many young men from Winchcombe never returned. He was quiet for a while then added that, probably, however, he would make the same choice again.
That summed him up. A man of deep-felt values and convictions (but not without deep-felt regrets). A few times we went for a walk up the hills, in Spring, the hedges white with blackthorn blossom, and I marveled at the fact that he had lived in this same valley ever since 1936. He told me about the small cottage up one of the hills that he had rented for 5 shillings a week when he first arrived (there’s a lovely picture ‘Ray in his cottage 1937’ on this website) and how happy he had been, every morning, walking down to another day’s work in the pottery. He embodied what might seem a contradiction: wholly devoted to one place and one profession, but with such genuine interest in the world at large. And concern. Two or three years ago, he wrote to me about his sadness seeing 16-year-old boys sent off to war in Afghanistan. It seemed so wrong. And he wondered, often I think, about the world that Amani and Thandie and his growing line of great-grandchildren will grow up in. And meanwhile he went on going into Winchcombe town, in his mid nineties, to buy his organic yoghurt and fair trade chocolate.
A few weeks ago now, we picked snowdrops from his garden and with heavy hearts we let the pretty white chalices fall on Grandpa’s coffin. Master Potter. Adoptive grandfather to me, and dear friend. I will treasure the memory of his thoughtfulness, his sincerity and unpretentiousness. Of quiet moments and candid conversations. And of course the many memories of his kindness. For one, I wonder whether it was to console himself, or Lisa and me, when as we left him on that gorgeous autumn day last September, he said, ‘Come on go now girls, I’ve come to dread goodbyes. But haven’t we been lucky with these few lovely days’?