Every December my wife Helen and I try and spend a few days in the beautiful and tranquil Cotswolds for a pre-Christmas break and this year will be no exception. These days we stay near Stow on the Wold, but for many years up until the end of the 1990’s we stayed in the historical town of Tewkesbury in Gloucestershire at the then four-star Royal Hop Pole Hotel – famous for being mentioned in Charles Dickens’ ‘Pickwick Papers’:
”At the Hop Pole at Tewkesbury, they stopped to dine; upon which occasion there was more bottled ale, with some more Madeira, and some port besides; and here the case-bottle was replenished for the fourth time. Under the influence of these combined stimulants, Mr. Pickwick and Mr. Ben Allen fell fast asleep for thirty miles, while Bob and Mr. Weller sang duets in the dickey.”
Then as now, regular visits to the wonderful 12th century abbey that defines Tewkesbury are highlights of our time in the Cotswolds. I suppose we enjoy the Cotswolds so much because it’s such a change from our everyday lives in London and you have no choice but to relax and enjoy yourselves, as the pace of life appears, to us at least, to be so much slower.
Our many years staying at the Royal Hope Pole Hotel hold special memories for Helen and I though. Somewhat inevitably it’s a JD Wetherspoons pub now but, as I said earlier, in those days it was a four-star hotel and the Manager – a very friendly man called Keith Dunmur – and his staff made you feel so welcome as soon as you arrived. Every Friday new arrival guests were invited to join Keith in the lounge for a welcome early evening glass of sherry. Therefore, as soon as we arrived at The Royal Hop Pole and took our first sip of Croft Original, we immediately felt relaxed and at one with the world.
As was our practice in those days when we stayed at Tewkesbury; Helen and I looked forward to attending the traditional Carol Service the Abbey holds on the Sunday before Christmas.
I don’t know what it is about Tewkesbury and in particular, the Abbey; but as soon as I arrive there a sort of calmness envelopes me and my mind starts thinking of all the special people that are no longer with me but who played such an important role in my life and in making me the person that I am today. I’m not particularly religious so I don’t know how to explain the way I feel when I visit Tewkesbury Abbey but the serenity of the place has such a calming and positive effect on me.
On what were always bitterly cold December nights, Helen and I would make our way from the warmth and comfort of The Royal Hop Pole to the Abbey accompanied by the wonderful sound of the Abbey bells, which seemed to hypnotically summon the people of Tewkesbury to attend!
After being welcomed at the main Abbey door and given our ‘order of service’ booklets – normally by the proprietor of ‘Pickwicks’, the tea and coffee merchants where Helen and I enjoyed cafetières of ‘Santos and Java’ for many years – we would take our seats, which we always tried to get near to the front to enable us to fully appreciate the wonderful Abbey choir.
As I mentioned, I am not usually religious but there is something about Tewkesbury Abbey that really makes me feel calm and at one with myself and as soon as the organist heralded the start of the carol service on the Abbey’s huge organ, which was originally built for Hampton Court Palace in 1631; a feeling of contentment would wash over me.
After the procession of the choir and the senior clergy, the service would get underway and Helen and I would join in with the singing of traditional carols such as ‘Hark the herald angels sing’ and ‘Once in Royal David’s City’. I always enjoyed these services as, for some reason and without fail, I found myself being transported back in time to the Christmas’s of my youth. During each reading and when the choir were performing their wonderful traditional choral incantations, my mind would take me back to ‘meet’ and see again my parents and relatives who are no longer with us but who played such an important part in my life.
As children, Christmas Day for my sister Christine and I was always the same in that, after placing flowers on my grandparents grave at Plumstead Cemetery, we then went to visit my other relatives; first with my uncle Don driving and then, after my Dad passed his test, just with him and my sister in Dad’s Austin A30, a little car that he was so proud of. My Mum used to stay at home to prepare the Christmas dinner for our return later that afternoon. Those childhood Christmas visits regularly came back to me during the Carol services at Tewkesbury Abbey.
There, in the Abbey I ‘met’ Mum, Dad and my dear Nan again and after waving Mum goodbye at the steps of our house in Roydene Road we set off with presents and flowers loaded into the car. We were soon at my uncle Harry and aunt Betty’s maisonette on Woolwich Common and as usual Harry was making everyone laugh with his wonderful sense of humour; then as a Tewkesbury resident was in the pulpit reading from the gospel, we were off again and this time we were in Alec and Bett’s house in Brewery Road. Christmas wasn’t Christmas until we had been to Alec and Bett’s. Whilst Christine and I called them both ‘uncle and aunt’ they weren’t relatives; they were very dear friends of my grandparents and had been involved with my Mum’s family for years. However, whilst they weren’t blood relatives they were as close to being family as you could ever get.
To us, Alec and Bett’s house was just the epitome of Christmas. Their lounge was transformed into something that to the young me resembled the room that Ebenezer Scrooge saw in Dickens’ ‘A Christmas Carol’ when the second of the Christmas spirits visited him on Christmas Eve:
‘’The walls and ceiling were so hung with living green, that it looked a perfect grove; from every part of which, bright gleaming berries glistened. The crisp leaves of holly, mistletoe, and ivy reflected back the light, as if so many little mirrors had been scattered there; and such a mighty blaze went roaring up the chimney……..’’
These were the days when people kept the ‘front room’ for ‘best’ but somehow, I could not envisage another use for this room other than to celebrate Christmas. Alec and Bett were always pleased to see us and Christine and I got smashing, thoughtful, presents from them both. Sitting there in the Abbey I could ‘see’ Alec and almost hear his voice as he took up his Christmas Day position at the table in the ‘front room’ which was full of every conceivable alcoholic drink known to man as well as figs, mince pies, nuts, sausage rolls, pickles, crisps and chocolates. At this point if anyone in the congregation had looked at me, they would probably have seen a very wide smile on my face!
My thoughts then took me to those Christmas Day evenings spent at my aunt Lily’s house in Benares Road, Plumstead and to those traditional boxing night parties when all, and I mean all, of my Mum’s side of the family came to our house. Whilst the congregation were listening to another Gospel reading I’d be ‘watching’ my Dad dancing with my aunt Joan and when, in the Abbey, we’d be singing ‘o little town of Bethlehem’ I would be ‘laughing’ at my uncle Harry doing his party-piece – the tea-pot game! Almost as soon as I had said goodbye to my Boxing Day guests, there I was at my great-aunt Bess’ house in Timbercroft Lane, re-living those New Year’s Eve get-togethers that we enjoyed so much.
Then, when the service was over and it was time for the congregation to file out of the Abbey, I felt myself ‘saying goodbye’ to all the special people who I had met again during the past hour.
I have since tried to analyse why I only seem to have strong spiritual feelings when I enter Tewkesbury Abbey. Who knows, perhaps it has nothing to do with religion? Perhaps it’s the history and serenity of the place and my contented state of mind that prompts these feelings? I don’t know, but what I do know is that I always ‘meet’ my special people again in Tewkesbury Abbey and if God has a hand in that then that is fine by me, but just don’t ask me to understand how He does it!