More about cats

I posted a while ago about Black Cat Appreciation Day. I got it in the neck from one of my girls because she is not black, she is what is known as a Smokey Tortie. If you are not a cat lover, (a) you won’t understand what I mean and (b) move away from the blog now. Move to a cat free zone until my next post.

If you are, a cat lover read on…

The first cat who owned me was black, with a white locket. He was my best friend, and my only true love. Seriously. When he died, I missed him dreadfully and I went to Battersea Home for Dogs and Cats as soon as possible after he died (the prescribed wisdom is, leave it six weeks before getting another cat, to allow the scent to diminish) to get another cat. Not to replace him. That wasn’t possible. I could never replace my little T. (Actually, Titan wasn’t a small cat. Not fat, but quite big.)

I knew, despite the fact that I really love black cats (and dogs), I needed a different colour. I could not have a rival for my Titan. With the help of Nic and Kate, I ended up with two sisters, one was black and white, the other was the smokey tortie, Telesto.

There is a story to be told about my little Teleto, but it is incomplete. Incomplete because I don’t know it all and she, and her sister, Oceana, can’t tell it. I can surmise, and my friend, a spiritual medium, Anne Germain, tells me what she has been told, but I can’t prove it, so won’t say it here.

When I brought these girlies home, Telesto settled herself in very quickly. She cuddled and snuggled. What she didn’t do was sit on laps. That was ok, not all cats do laps. Oceana hid for a week before she came near anyone. Now, she will fight her way onto my lap. Little Telesto, it took her eight years before she would sit on my lap, or on top of me when I am lying down in bed. Even now, it’s quite fleeting, she still prefers, to lie by my side. Glued almost. Her preferred position is as close to me as she can be, particularly when I am sitting or lying in bed. The cat terms of engagement change in other rooms.

This is hard for us humans to understand, but it’s all about territory. I thought, when I bought my girls an activity tree that is about 6’ high, so taller than me, that they would all immediately think (a) this was manna from heaven and (b) they would stop scratching other things that I did not want them to scratch. Wrong.

First thing, my little girls, the younger pair of sisters, almost immediately made the activity tree their own. The other two rarely went near it. In fact, I have never, to this day, seen Oceana on it.

The thing is about cats (and dogs, and humans) is that when they’ve been badly treated, they need time to heal, and trust other humans. And sometimes they never build enough trust. The only thing you can do with cats is to let them take their own sweet time.

© Susan Shirley 2019


Fifehead Magdalen and Shaftesbury

My brother and little sis’ have recently moved to Dorset, to a village called Fifehead Magdelen.  It is described, by Online Parish Church (OPC), Dorset, as ‘a small, remote village and parish in the Vale of Blackmore, 8km west of Shaftesbury in North Dorset.’  Small, definitely.  Remote, yes, and although not the most remote I’ve ever been to, remote enough.  It is 320 feet above sea level, on a ridge of Corallian limestone, in the Blackmore Vale. 

I wondered about the name and, as quite a few of the villages in this part of the country have religious sounding names, and whether it had been a Catholic stronghold during the reformation.  In fact, the opposite is true.   

OPC tells me that Fifehead is a corruption of Five Hides.  A hide was the amount of land that would support one free family and its dependents, which, in Wessex was 48 acres.  Five Hides was assessed thus in the Doomsday Book.  The Magdalen came later, named after the church and the dedication of the hides to St Magdalene.

The village church is, unsurprisingly, St Mary Magdalene.  It’s a lovely little church, originally built in the 14th century, although the Newman chapel was added in the 17th century, and it underwent some restoration in the 20th century.  Aside from the church, there is a village hall, and an old red telephone box that doubles as the library.  Seriously.  People put books in there for others to borrow.  Aside from houses and farms, I think that’s it. 

Bro and little sis’ are reading Hardy again, now they are in that territory.  I’ve never found him an easy read, the language is archaic in places, but there is something about his books that makes them compelling.  They are so descriptive, I can imagine myself as the character. Don’t watch the films or TV adaptations, I’ve not seen one yet that does his books justice.

Hardy changed the names of some of the towns in his books, presumably to protect the innocent.  He refers to Shaftesbury as Shaston (which was widely used in the nineteenth century) and Palladour, and Dorchester as Casterbridge, so that’s how the family refer to places.  As if my life wasn’t confusing enough.  Enough of nomenclature and back to the country.

Gold Hill

Shaftesbury overlooks the Blackmore Vale, where Fifehead Magdalen is situated.  There are some fabulous views from the top of Shaftesbury, near to the abbey, if the weather is good enough, and fortunately, it was quite clear when I went.  It’s one of those old towns that had an Abbey (founded by King Alfred) and destroyed by Henry VIII.  Who remembers the Hovis ad with the little boy pushing his bike up a steep, cobbled hill?  That hill is adjacent to the Abbey and is called Gold Hill.  Incidentally, Ridley Scott (Thelma and Louise, Blade Runner, Gladiator, Black Hawk Down) directed the ad.

Some interesting facts about Shaftesbury:

  •  King Athelstan (reign 927 to 939) founded to royal mints here. 
  • In 981 the relics of St Edward the Martyr (also a king, who died as a teenager) were taken from Wareham to Shaftesbury Abbey, thus making it the site for a pilgrimage for healing.
  • In 1035, King Canute died in Shaftesbury. 
  • In the 18th century, Shaftesbury was famous for producing a cloth called swanskin, used by fishermen in Newfoundland.
  • It is 705 feet above sea level.
  • There are two museums: Gold Hill Museum and Shaftesbury Abbey Museum.

© Susan Shirley 2019


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I frequently refer to sending children up chimneys, the way the Victorians used to. Albeit somewhat tongue-in-cheek. Some people look at me as though I am a bit mad, I’m not sure that they quite understand what I’m talking about.

I am of that generation whose houses did not have central heating when I was a young child. There would be ice on the inside of our bedroom windows in the winter. Before going to school, one of my jobs was to clean out and lay the fire. Ours was a modern house, and there was only one coal fire. There was a built in electric fire in the dining room. Aside from that, we were left to our own devices.


I would get up, go downstairs and use the specially designed rake (solid, without teeth) and ash tray to rake out all the ash from beneath the grate. The ash was cold by morning, so no risk of fire. Then I would lay the fire in the grate – kindling and newspaper to start, the coal went on top, once the kindling had got going.

All that wood and coal would cause the chimney to become covered in soot and creosote, which could catch fire (ours did occasionally) so once a year, a man would come around to sweep the chimney. He’d have a set of long wooden poles, with screw ends, so that they could be joined together and extended. The final one had a circular brush on it. Up, up, up, he would manually push the brush and poles, which must have been much harder than it looked. I do seem to recall that there was a machine that did the actual cleaning though. I would stand fascinated, watching, then run outside to see the brush come up through the top of the chimney. It was very exciting for me.

My memory of the chimney sweep is that he was a tall, thin man, who wore a tweed suit, with a shirt and tie, and a flat cap. And soot stains over him. It wasn’t uncommon for working men to wear a suit in those days: my dear old Dad, who was a bricklayer by trade, wore [an old] sports jacket, with a shirt and tie, under his khaki-coloured overalls. And take a look at the photographs at the Tower Bridge Experience, the ones where the work was being done in the 1960s – the foremen were all in suits, and some in bowler hats (no hard hats in those days). And not a child in sight to send up the chimney, so where on earth did I get that idea from?


It’s not my imagination. People had fires in their homes to warm them since way back when, and in the early days of static homes, there would just be a hole in the roof to allow the smoke out. Over time, the rich built houses made from brick and with them, proper chimneys. Think Hampton Court. Then came the Industrial Revolution. More factories burning coal meant more chimneys. Factories making lots of money meant more rich people meant more big houses meant more chimneys. It was a time of growth for the sweeps, albeit that it wasn’t a particularly well-paid job.

The whole technology had changed too. Whereas the original purpose of chimneys was to get rid of the smoke, as they evolved, the chimney because a means of creating a draft in order to help keep the fires alight, hence the chimneys became angled and smaller. And harder to clean. They were no longer straight up and down, despite how they appeared from the outside.

Bear in mind that there was no Universal Credit or JSA in those days. If you were poor or in debt you could easily end up in the Workhouse. Little boys (and, sometimes girls) who were orphaned, or whose parents were unable to afford to keep them, were indentured to Master Sweeps as apprentices.

It seems that the optimum age for them starting their apprenticeship was age 6 – any younger and they were generally considered to be too weak, any older and they would get too big before they had finished their apprenticeship. The fact that they weren’t meant to be too big probably gave the Master Sweep a good excuse for not feeding them too much.


The climbing boys were expected to clean four or five chimneys a day and it was a dangerous life. There was a danger that the boys would get stuck in the chimney (in which case the Master Sweep and other apprentices would either try pulling them out from the top, by means of rope, or from the bottom. If that failed, some of the bricks would have to be removed. The owners of the property did not want a body stuck up their chimney and one way or another, it had to be removed.

The sweeps would get cuts and grazes in the early days of their career, particularly on their knees and elbows, so the Master Sweeps would stand them next to a hot fire and rub in a brine solution, using a brush, to harden the skin. Sounds delightful.

Owing to the lack of space in the chimney, the boys would take off a lot of their clothes, sometimes going up the chimneys naked to sweep them. As if this wasn’t enough, the boys didn’t get paid, the boys had to sleep on soot covered sacks, rarely got to wash, and in late teens or early twenties, would often suffer from Chimney Sweeps’ Carcinoma. The sweeps called it Soot Wart. Whatever you call it, it sounds awful.

Soot is carcinogenic, and it was common disease in sweeps. It seems that soot particles would get caught in the skin around the scrotum. As we already know, personal hygiene was not a criterion for the job, so the soot would often stay in close contact with the skin.  A cancerous sore would develop.  It usually didn’t develop until the sweep was in his late teens or early twenties and was usually fatal.

The law did change in 1788, to give sweeps more protection, and over time, more laws were passed to improve their working conditions, although much of it was ignored for sometime.  Mechanical brushes replaced boys going up chimneys and building regulations changing the construction of chimneys were changed.  Eventually, it changed to being the man I remember and nowadays, it’s a far more technical job, involving diagnosis of hazards and repair as well as cleaning.

It is still considered lucky for a bride to see a chimney sweep on her wedding day, so some sweeps hire themselves out for this purpose, which is far more pleasant end to the story.

© Susan Shirley 2018


27 October 2018 was Black Cat Appreciation Day. I am a long-time lover of black cats (and dogs) and am always upset by the fact that Black cats (and dogs) are less likely to be rehomed than other colours. Why? It seems that one of the more recent reasons is that they (allegedly) don’t look so good in selfies (of course, I disagree, but then, I am totally biased). Or is that their connection with witches and bad luck persists?

They weren’t always considered unlucky

In Ancient Egypt, up to about 310AD, black cats were considered to be far from unlucky. All cats were considered to be sacred an worshipped. In fact, they were believed to be descended directly from the Gods. That is clearly a genetic trait that has passed on, at least to my cats, who expect that same level of adoration and are relentless if I don’t deliver the goods.

In medieval Europe, perhaps because of their nocturnal nature, cats were believed to be associated with witches and the supernatural. In Christian cultures, white is the colour of good and purity, black is the colour of the dark side…

At around this time in Europe, witch-hunting was big business (a story for another day but women – it was generally women – who were accused of witchcraft were damned if they did and damned if they didn’t. In England, they were put is a ducking stool, and plunged into a pond. If they survived, it was considered to be proven that they were witches, and they’d be burned alive, their cats with them. If they drowned, they were innocent, although too late for them.

As if all that wasn’t enough, in 1233AD, Pope Gregory IX (who had clearly been a mouse in a previous life) declared that black cats were an incarnation of the devil! The Christians (hmm, struggling with this a bit, seems a contradiction to me) gathered up all the black cats they could find and burned them alive at village festivals.

There were a number of other beliefs about black cats and witches, perhaps the most common being that they were “witches’ familiars,” and helped them in their pursuit of witchcraft. (Trust me when I tell you this is not true. Many, many times, I have pleaded with my black cats to magic me a shed load of money. I am still waiting.). They were also believed to be in touch with the underworld because they went out at night. Again not true. My girls curl up and that bed and only budge when I move.

And in some places, it is different

I was brought up to believe it’s good luck when a black cat crosses your path, which is also true in Japan and there are other places where they are believed to bring good luck:

  • In Italy, if you hear a black cat sneeze, it is supposed to bring a streak of good luck. (Gotta tell you folks that in 17 years of owning black cats, I’ve never heard one sneeze.)
  • It is considered lucky to own a black cat in Asia.
  • Black cats are supposed to be good luck at sea, according to European tradition.
  • In Scotland, a black cat appearing on your doorstep is a sign of prosperity.
  • In Japan, black cats are believed to bring good luck, especially to single women, as they are supposed to be a lure for the right man…
  • In Russia, black cats are considered lucky.

In my house, cats rule, not just the black ones, although my personal belief is that black cats have a louder purr than others (I used Titan’s purr as my ringtone for many years). If you can’t love them, don’t be cruel to them.


© Susan Shirley 2018



I moved over to hosted blogs a few years ago.  I thought it was a good move.  And it was ok, until recently, when I discovered I had white pages.  I rolled back to when it was all working, but my hosting company was less than helpful – basically, they wanted me to pay more money to them.  Not happening.  So, here I am, back on


I’ve transferred all my blog posts over (I will probably have to do this with another one, too), so everything from now on.


© Susan Shirley November 2018


As a young teenager, I lived in Sharpthorne, West Sussex, not far from the Bluebell Railway. And yet, my first visit to the railway was a few weeks ago. I went with a friend, Sheena, and had an enjoyable day out.

We took the train from Victoria to East Grinstead station The Bluebell Railway is next door. We had plenty of time before the next train, so had a cup of tea in the old railway carriage that doubles as a tea room. Pink geraniums in hanging baskets outside finished off the 1950s effect.

Tea carriage

When our train came in, it uncoupled from the carriages and reversed back to the other end of the train. We wondered if there was a turntable to rotate the engine but it appears not. It coupled up and the tender reversed along. We boarded, Sheena found the bar, bought us a mini bottle of wine each and so our journey began.

The Bluebell Railway runs from East Grinstead to Sheffield Park. It stops at Kingscote and Horsted Keynes on route, although not all trains stop at Kingscote. Apart from East Grinstead, they were all built in 1882 in the ‘Queen Anne’ style

All the stations have appeared in television shows at some time or other.

The Bluebell Railway has quite a history, with a line opening in around 1878. Worth noting, too, that most people would have had to walk to their local station. I imagine for most of them, that would have taken more than ten minutes… I remember my Mum telling me that she had a ten mile walk to and from school every day…

In 1954, the powers that be decided to close the line. Although challenged by local residents, the closure took place. It happened a few weeks earlier than scheduled, due to a rail strike. Then, as now, people power prevailed, and a bitter battle between British Railways and the users of the line began. It lasted for three years. The line re-opened in 1956, but British Railways challenged the Act that has caused it to be re-opened. The Act was repealed and the line way closed again on 17 March 1958.

Horsted Keynes Station

Almost a year later, the Bluebell Railway Preservation Society was born, with the aim of re-opening the whole line. Sadly, the plans came to nothing. It wasn’t until 1974 when the society managed to buy the freehold for West Hoathly station, by then demolished, that they started to work on re-opening the line to East Grinstead. The society bought the freehold for Kingscote Station in 1985, which enabled it to press on with its plans.

In April 1994, the society successfully completed the section of track between Horsted Keynes and Kingscote, which included re-laying the section through the Sharpthorne Tunnel. This is 731 yards long (668 metres) and is, I am reliably informed, the longest stretch of track through a tunnel on any UK heritage line.

All the stations on the Bluebell Line are well-maintained and appear to be decked out in the style that they would have been back in their hey-day, as in this photograph below…. Where is Jane Marple? However, that is only part of the story. Sheffield Park station has been restored to look like a Victorian station. Horsted Keynes resembles a Southern Railway station from around the 1930s and Kingscote from the 1950s. East Grinstead itself, where I took this photograph is supposed to be restored to the 1950s and 1960s.

When the train stops at Sheffield Park, there is a museum, a gift shop several places you can buy snacks. There is also a big pub where you can buy a meal and have a drink. All very nicely done.

You can get to East Grinstead on a train out of London Victoria. A standard adult fare on the Bluebell is £19, although it is cheaper if you book online in advance. For more details, see the link below:


© Susan Shirley 2018


Having a drink recently with some colleagues, we got to talking out the ‘old money’ – LSD. Pounds, shillings and pence. Of course, my colleagues laughed when I referred to it as LSD; they were younger than I and were thinking of something else.

The UK changed from LSD to decimal currency on 15 February 1971. I was struggling to remember the origins of the old coinage. I remember ha’pennies and my Mum used to talk about farthings. And, of course, there is the brides’ rhyme for their wedding day:

Something old, something new
Something borrowed, something blue
Silver sixpence in your shoe

We had LSD in this country since the Norman Conquest, but it was Henry II who introduced the system we had up until 1971. We called it LSD because the pound (L or £) was derived from the word Libra, a Roman unit of weight. The s was a shilling, denoted /- (the slash is also known as a solidus). The d was for the pennies, from a Roman coin called the denarius.

When Henry II introduced this system, it was based on Troy weights, an old system of weighing precious metals. A penny was one pennyweight of silver, and 240 pennyweights of silver. Thus, there were 20 shillings to the pound, and 12 pence to the shilling, 240 pence to the pound, but it didn’t stop there, as in most currencies, there were other coins, and some of them had nicknames:

Farthings (a corruption of “fourthings” – a quarter of a penny)
Ha’pennies (a corruption of “half pennies”)
Threepenny bits (three pence. I was rather fond of these 12 sided coins with a portcullis on one side)
A groat (Fourpence)
A tanner (a six penny piece)

A shilling was also known as a “bob” (has anyone heard of “bob a job week?”)
Florin (two shillings)
Half a crown (two shillings and six pence)
A crown (five shillings)
A 10 shilling note, before that a half Sovereign coin.
£1 was called a Sovereign aka a “quid.”
A Guinea (£1 1/- or £1 and 1 shilling, it was called a Guinea because it was originally a gold coin, made from gold from the Guinea coast)

Even when we changed to decimal currency, we still had nicknames, some of which had been around since LSD:

Currency Nickname Cockney Rhyming Slang
6d tanner Tartan Banner
£1 nicker
£5 fiver Lady Godiva
£10 tenner Paul McKenna or Ayrton Senna
£25 pony
£50 Half a ton
£100 Ton
£500 a monkey
£1000 a grand

Adding up in the old currency was fun – you had to add the penny’s column in 12s, the shillings column in 20s. I am sure it improved our maths. Will we revert to LSD after Brexit? I doubt it. It would be an added complication. Alas, I fear, libra and denarius, as well as shillings, are lost to us forever.

© Susan Shirley 2018