A couple of weeks ago I had a message from the daughter of some old friends to say that her father had died. When my late husband was a vicar in Exeter in the late 80’s her mother, Margaret, was officially his secretary but actually much more like a PA . She also became a youth leader and Churchwarden so we saw a lot of her and relied on her organisational skills a great deal. Peter was quieter, less outgoing, but a brilliant drummer so he was recruited to play during services and keep us all in time when we sang. My other memory of him was of the two of us helping the treasurer count the collection when most other people had gone home but some clearing up was still going on.
John’s early days in the Parish had been plagued by the interference of the previous vicar who had retired, but still lived locally and visited some of the congregation regularly, expressing his (negative) opinions of the changes John was making. We decided that when we left we would cut ourselves off completely and give whoever came next a clear run. It was horrible to do, especially when John was diagnosed with cancer 2 years later, but we knew it was the right thing and stuck to it. Bless them, our friends in the church agreed it was for the best and never tried to involve us even though we were only a few miles away whilst our children finished at the FE college.
So almost 30 years after we left the Parish I found myself going back for the first time to attend Peter’s funeral last Monday. I knew that to do the journey there and back with the service in between was too much for one day so I booked into a hotel near the city centre for the Sunday night.
Lesson number one – the Internet made that a doddle! I could get information on all the possible choices, decide which I thought would suit me best and book it, moving only my eyes and fingers! Moments later a confirmatory email pinged into my inbox with the option to book a taxi or hire car. I had already established that travelling by train, which I would have preferred, was not an option – only one service on a Sunday and I know from experience that on Sunday evenings there are often engineering works with delays and replacement buses and that the bad weather might also close lines.
The next problem was the dogs. My son had offered to come and look after them but once the date was set realised he was unable to help. My lovely friend Lindy stepped into the breach and came to stay, even offering to stay over on the Monday night so that I had no deadline to get back.
Lesson number 2 – I have amazing family and friends who take great care of me. I am so grateful.
So off I set after lunch on Sunday with mixed feelings. It was an adventure, a challenge because of all unfamiliar things (a long drive, navigating a city which would have changed so I would not know my way but there would be some flashes of ‘Oh that’s where I am’, a hotel stay) apprehension about the impact of going back, and sadness at the loss of a friend.
I planned to use the old bridge over the Severn and stop at the Service area on the English end to have a short pit-stop. The old Bridge was closed because of the strong winds. Then I discovered that I was being diverted onto the M 49, a road of which I had never heard but which cuts the corner off the join between the M4 (South Wales to London) and M5 (North West England to Cornwall).
Lesson number 3 – Thank goodness for Satnav! I was driving straight into the setting sun and therefore couldn’t read the signs over the lanes but it knew where I should go.
I made it to Exeter just as it was getting dark and was directed down a narrow back street to a block of flats. I had put in the postcode I had copied from the internet (and probably made a mistake with one of the digits) not the name of the Hotel. I reprogrammed Satnav and spent half an hour in nose to tail traffic before reaching the right place.
Lesson number 4 – computers are only as good as the information you give them!
As I was checking in I was asked to complete a short registration form which included the question ‘In the event of an emergency evacuation would you need help to leave the hotel?’. I answered yes and explained to the lovely young man on the desk that I was perfectly mobile but might not hear the alarm when asleep without my hearing aids. He promptly transferred me to an accessible room and offered me a vibrating pad, plugged into the fire alarm system, to go under my pillow. He then showed me to the room and plugged the pad in for me assuring me that if the alarm went off someone would come and make sure I was aware of it.
Lesson number 5 – Whatever impression the news gives there are a lot of very nice people out there.
In the morning, leaving my car at the hotel, I walked into the city. The old, listed buildings were still there and I began to recognise the street layout but the shops had been shuffled! It felt very odd – the same but different. I went into Boots to buy a nail file because I had broken a nail and my toiletry bag was in the car. They had NO staffed tills – and when I asked about one the girl looked at me as if I was mad then offered, reluctantly, to help me use the self-service one. Later, leaving the car park I found the pay station wanted me to scan a QR code and pay with my phone. It offered me the chance to pay with a credit card (no chance of using cash!) but kept losing the plot when I tried. Eventually I asked for help again at the reception desk and it was cheerfully given (see Lesson 5) and no it wasn’t me being past it – it played up for her too!
Lesson number 6 – I am way behind the times – and happy to stay there!
Then it was off to the Church which had changed – new chairs, a carpet, the coffee and creche areas rearranged and upgraded – but from the impression I got, not as much as it should have done in 30 years. I know I am a change junkie but both the city and the church seemed to be in a rut – tinkering but unable or unwilling to be as radical as we need to be to rise to the challenges coming down the track. I also noticed how few people were wearing masks in shops. It was as if the pandemic had gone away. Here in Wales masks are still a legal requirement in indoor public spaces and to me that is only sense.
If all that seems critical and grumpy let me assure you that meeting up with people who remembered me and welcomed me with huge smiles was brilliant. At the wake I sat with some of the old crowd and they obviously remembered me and John with fondness. The service had been taken by John’s successor, now retired, as the present vicar was on Maternity leave and it was lovely to meet him and his wife.
Lesson number 7 – A vicar on Maternity leave – Hallelujah! – the Church of England is staggering into the modern world and St Marks is in the vanguard. Something of what John did stuck!
Having driven so far and explored some of Memory Lane I decided to finish the job and walked past the old Vicarage, sold off when we left, and then went to Starcross, a dormitory village on the Exe Estuary, where we moved whilst our children finished their schooling. A walk along the river’s edge was just what I needed before the long drive home. The nearer I got to Wales the more my spirits lifted and when I turned off the dual carriageway 10 miles from home I breathed a sigh of relief. Two waggy tales greeted me as I walked in and a night in my own bed was bliss.
Lesson number 8 – I loved my life in Exeter, have some wonderful memories of our time there and very few regrets, and now I love my life here. It was good to visit but it is no longer where I belong. Now if you will forgive me I have to go – there are tomatoes to pick and bottle.
PS. All images are from Google images – it takes better photos than I do! Plus all that navigating tired my phone out!