It's funny how rituals evolve in one's life, unplanned but just there, as if they had always been there, since the year dot. About this time each year, Lynn and I always drive over to Annie's house in Northumberland, always have coffee and shortbread, always admire her beautiful seasonally-decorated home; I always open my birthday presents if Annie hasn't been over to my house on the day with them, and then we always go off, the three of us, to Corbridge, a very nice little village with some very nice little shops.
It is also known for Corstopitum, a Roman site of some importance, to which, many years ago, a certain recalcitrant Third Form was taken on a school trip. We didn't get out much, and a trip, no matter where we went, was an exciting event in itself for strictly-kept Convent boarders. We larked about so much in the ruins of the hypocausts, the hollow spaces that ran beneath Roman floors to duct hot air for heating rooms or water, that on our return to school we were collectively given a massive telling off by an indignant teacher, and made to sit and write out what we had learned that day. We were mortified; we twitched and shuffled, and tried to see what our neighbours were writing, and after a few minutes, none of us had managed more than about four lines. A memorable day, for all the wrong reasons.
The village car park is across the 17th Century bridge that crosses the Tyne most picturesquely, with a wonderful view upriver; the fields were white with snow, and the water gleamed. It was bitterly cold. We cut up a little side street and spotted a characterful stone house for sale, with a magnificent view across the river. Annie and Lynn began a pincer movement - why didn't I move to Corbridge? So nice; they'd love to visit; they'd bring soup if I was ill....Too expensive, of course; even the air in that part of Northumberland smells of money. But we'd find out the sale price. (Want to have a peek? Of course you do; click here.)
After we had lunch - far too much smoked chicken for me in my Caesar salad, so it got wrapped up for certain chicken-loving small creatures - we 'did' all the shops. I rather liked a striped grey sweater, its small plain buttons sewn on with red thread; it cost almost £250.... perhaps not for me then - I'd only spill something on it....
I called in to say hello to Marianne who was doing a roaring trade in her elegant jewellery shop (and as ever, expecting that many of the husbands' purchases would be returned by wives in the New Year to choose something more to their taste). I mentioned the house, which turned out to be next door to that of one of her staff, who obligingly told me the history and the sale price - perhaps twice as much as I could ever hope to get for mine. No conflict there then; end of pincer movement.
And then we trudged over the bridge in sleety rain, and drove damply back to Annie's, sorely in need of a reviving pot of tea. But as we went along, the sleet turned to snow, then to alarmingly thick snow; we made the mistake of driving up the steep hill to Annie's house to drop her off, anxious to get home before the weather closed in further, and had a perilous half-mile slide downhill again, uncertain if we could even stop when we reached the junction with the high street.
And then we crawled the 14 miles home - this weather had been predicted all week, but the gritting wagons were only just emerging now, as motorists, some with enormous Christmas trees strapped to the roof rack, slid and slithered all over the roads. We muttered; words like "disgraceful", "complain to the Council", and "I've a good mind to" were uttered.
And now we're all safely home and in our slippers; the annual ritual is over, and very pleasant and satisfying it was too, apart from the hill-sliding business. The countdown to Christmas Day begins.
The cats and the dog loved the smoked chicken. They think that this should form part of the ritual next year. Well, perhaps.