Reports of Coffee Mornings
Open Morning October 2018
Report by Jill Walmsley
October saw the annual open morning for Minehead and District U3A, when most of the convenors of some forty interest groups had displays to show what they have been up to in the previous year, and talked to potential new members. Over a hundred people attended and the Baptist Church Hall was buzzing with members and guests having a look at all the displays ‒ books, literature and poetry; local history, geology and archaeology; painting, photography and art appreciation; French and German conversation, and new this year, croquet and a discussion group ‒ too many in fact to mention. Chairman John Batt welcomed everyone and encouraged people to try new groups, to think about convening one, or to join the U3A committee.
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Coffee Morning September 2018
Our September speakers were Chris Jones, Station Commander at Minehead Fire Station, and his colleague, Jason, who between them gave a presentation on how the Fire and Rescue Service operates in this area, together with some helpful tips about safety in the home.
Tony Perrett, our Vice-Chairman, introduced them, (after being very careful to tell the audience where the fire exits were…), and Chris started with a swift run-through of the nature of work that Minehead Fire Station has to deal with. He works full time but other fire fighters are volunteers who are called on to deal with property fires, traffic accidents, animal rescues, gorse fires, and more. They are highly trained to work in dangerous situations, confined areas and at heights. Dunster Castle is a useful training site for the team.
Moving on to fire prevention, Jason told us about the most common causes of fires in the home: cooking and smoking risks, overloaded sockets, and faulty electrics. He gave advice about wise bedtime routines, maintaining smoke detectors and reducing clutter. The Devon and Somerset Fire Service offers a free home fire safety check, and works with schools and Hinkley Point.
During questions afterwards, the impact of cutbacks was raised; fire fighters are concerned that recent directives to reduce the number of staff, close fire stations and use smaller, less well equipped vehicles will put lives at risk.
Coffee Morning July 2018
The speaker at the July coffee morning was John Evans, a trustee with the Severn Bridges Trust, who gave a presentation on the crossings over the River Severn ‒ starting from ancient ferry crossings, the first plans for a bridge, and then the Severn Tunnel, constructed in 1886 and still in use today.
Subsequently there were plans for a totally innovative and beautiful suspension bridge culminating in the first Severn Crossing, opened by the Queen in 1966. John worked on the project as a newly graduated civil engineer, and maintains his enthusiasm more than fifty years later. However, though closures were rare, studies of the stresses caused by the volume of traffic in the next couple of decades recommended a new crossing, and in 1996 the second bridge was opened. Now called the Prince of Wales Bridge, the cable-stayed construction is the longest river crossing of its type in the country.
Coffee Morning June 2018
Vanessa Mason, Chair of the Somerset Badger Group, was the speaker at the June Coffee Morning. She started by talking about her passion for wildlife from childhood and watching badgers in her own garden, and went on to explain the aims and work of the Badger Group: to raise awareness about badgers, the threats they face, badger rescue and vaccinating them against TB. Vanessa said her group is privileged to work with farmers and landowners who prefer to vaccinate badgers rather than cull them. The Group also collaborates with the Wildlife Trust, the police, Natural England, the RSPCA and Secret World Rescue Centre. As well as developing special expertise in returning lost cubs to their natal setts, the Group runs a 24-hour helpline.
Vanessa talked about badger ecology and the threats badgers face. They have existed for over 500,000 years, can be found throughout Europe into Asia and are a protected species. Badger baiting and sett interference are illegal yet still occur. Housing developments greatly reduce foraging areas and about 50,000 badgers die on the roads each year.
As the Government approves widening the cull, Vanessa Mason asked her audience to support the work of the Badger Group by getting involved as volunteers, donating money and writing letters of protest about the Government’s policy to our MP and to the Secretary of State for the Environment, Michael Gove.
Anne Clarke put in the winning bid in the auction for the badger soft toy that Vanessa had brought along.
Coffee Morning April 2018
Jim Patterson, owner and manager of the Two Rivers Paper Mill, kindly stepped in at the last minute as speaker at our April coffee morning.
Founded at the ancient mill on the Mineral Line in Roadwater in 1990, Two Rivers uses recycled rag fibres to produce high quality handmade paper, which is highly valued by watercolour artists. Jim didn't just describe the process: he showed us exactly how it’s done – creating a sheet of paper before our eyes.
First the fibres are beaten in water, sieved and individually framed using the traditional mould, which gives the characteristic deckled edges and strength. The sheets are laid onto cloth felts, pressed, hard sized with gelatin and then dried slowly, hanging from the rafters of the old mill.
Artists like to use Two Rivers paper because it doesn’t absorb paint. This means that painters can do any re-working they want to make, and the colour dries to give a sharp, brilliant finish. The paper is durable too: there are paintings on Two Rivers paper hanging in the Tate Gallery.
Jim recounted a little about the long history of papermaking, from before the birth of Christ, to the introduction of books that have encouraged literacy. He concluded by telling us about his Roadwater team of four, which includes an award-winning apprentice. He also described Sarah, who’s the daughter of U3A member Judith Ward, as an invaluable administrative assistant.
Two Rivers paper is likely to be made in the future at a gallery/studio space at the planned East Quay development at Watchet, when, Jim said, he may hand over the reins.
Coffee Morning February 2018
The speaker at our coffee morning on 15 February came all the way from Worcester to give a presentation entitled ‘A Collector’s Tale’. This was Colin Millett talking about his love for Worcester porcelain, and about his own collection. That collection, which started in 1973 with a gift from his neighbour of a little 1758 milk jug, now amounts to around 500 pieces, which have entirely filled the dining room at his home. Colin did his teacher training at Worcester, and it was there that he was able to visit the Royal Worcester factory and museum, and develop his knowledge of the main porcelain factories and the work of the talented painters. Colin had brought along a number of pieces he had bought over the years, each with its own story. The audience learned about some of the most skilled painters, and their favourite subjects – sheep, cattle, flowers, birds, fruit and landscapes. Colin explained what reticulated porcelain is – the piercing of wet clay before firing to produce a delicate lacy effect – and showed examples, too, of Worcester figurines, ‘Poor man’s Worcester’, and framed paintings by Worcester porcelain painters. Colin clearly loves the thrill of the unexpected find, but also the excitement of the saleroom – his wife’s contribution to the presentation was an amusing account of her unsuccessful attempt to put a stop to his bidding for a particularly expensive item that he coveted. In fact I don’t think Frances minds at all about her husband’s collecting habit – it is clearly a shared passion. Report: Jill Walmsley
January Coffee Morning - Working abroad (the first in our new venue).
The coffee morning in January is always members' morning, and this year the theme was 'working abroad'. John Batt stepped in at very short notice to give a talk on WWOOFing in Australia ‒ getting free accommodation and food while working six days a week, for four to six hours a day on an organic farm. John and his wife are 'grey nomads' who leave the UK each year for a number of months and earn their keep while travelling in their campervan. Starting at 6 am on a sheep farm and often working for more than ten hours a day became too onerous for them, so they now do less demanding house-sitting. Next Chris Lawson spoke about his years as a maths and science teacher in a secondary school for girls in the British protectorate of Nyasaland in the 1960s, with slides illustrating his talk. Chris will never forget the day when Malawi achieved independence under Hastings Banda on 6 July 1964; he was in charge as the head teacher was away. The school had an excellent reputation and Chris developed a new science syllabus during his years there. Patience Lacy-Smith spoke about her Hong Kong adventure after she was made redundant in 1990, and eventually got her dream job in the hospitality industry as the first Residential Services Manager at the prestigious Parkview complex of serviced apartments. Patience had put all her energy into networking to meet the right people and get the successful interview that changed her life. David Temple spoke last about being invited to Frankfurt University as an impoverished PhD student and pharmacist to continue his studies and give lectures in drug metabolism. In the five years he and his wife Cherrie lived there he learnt to drive, speak German and to understand that members of his audience there show their approval by banging loudly on the table instead of applauding. Cherrie was able to continue her research in the same field.
The speaker at our November coffee morning was professional wildlife photographer David Boag, known to quite a few in the audience for his presentations on wildlife, illustrated with his stunning photographs. This time he spoke about The Wild Coast, which David pronounced the most exciting part of the UK, because inland is more likely to be spoilt by humans. A London lad, David now lives in Dorset, and started by showing some slides of well-loved views of that bit of the coast – Chesil Beach, Durdle Door and Old Harry Rocks.
The UK coastline provides a great variety of habitats – sand dunes, cliffs, estuaries, shingle beaches and rocks – and David's photographs were an impressive attempt in one hour to cover all the wildlife in these areas, including plants unique to the coast, sea birds, animals, and marine life. Some photographs, although taken on the coast, came as a surprise: bluebells on a cliff on Skomer Island, a stag on a Scottish beach, and a harvest mouse (for once not pictured on an ear of wheat).
The presentation ended appropriately with a view of North Hill above Minehead.
Author Tessa Hadley was the speaker at our October coffee morning. With local connections ‒ she has a cottage in Roadwater, and her parents, uncle and aunt all live in Minehead ‒ Tessa agreed to come and talk about her new book of short stories, Bad Dreams. She also read from her prize winning novel, The Past, which is based on a family gathering at a fictitious house in what is clearly West Somerset. Tessa has written six novels and three collections of short stories, and won the prestigious Windham-Campbell prize for fiction in 2016. She also fits in teaching creative writing at Bath Spa University, and writing book reviews. She spoke about the exciting, liberating process of writing, but how it is hard work too demanding, in her words, an almost insane perseverance, and how one must be a reader first. This has always been a pleasure for Tessa ‒ from the sanctuary of the library as a child to the wonders opening up of adult books, with their intricate plots and complex meanings. For her, Tessa suggested that life was perhaps not quite real until she wrote about it. ‘You might not know if your work was good, but you would know if it was truthful.’ Copies of her books were eagerly snapped up by our members.
At the July coffee morning Brian Wright was the speaker with an intriguing title 'Andrew Crosse and the mite that shocked the world' for his presentation. He talked about the 19th-century pioneering Somerset scientist and poet, who was the eccentric republican squire of Fyne Court in Broomfield. It was a tale of scientific dedication and discoveries, family tragedies, scandal and lost opportunities. Some claim that Andrew Crosse's experiments with electricity inspired Mary Shelley to write Frankenstein, and that he had created life, albeit accidentally, in the form of a tiny mite which emerged when he was trying to form silicate crystals. He certainly came to the attention of both scientists and the public in Britain, Europe and America. Locals called him Wizard Crosse, the 'thunder and lightning man', and there was no poaching on his estate.
A new record attendance for our speaker Lionel Murphy from Exmoor Search and Rescue! Cherrie introduced Lionel, remembering her gratitude that Mountain Rescue had helped her son in a walk that went wrong in Wales last year. First we saw a film covering a variety of call-outs, and then Lionel described his long career as an Exmoor team member. Based at South Molton and Taunton, volunteers are on call 24 hours a day, 365 days a year and work together with police, ambulance, fire and rescue and coastguard teams. The area covers remote rural locations and some urban areas, and volunteers come from all walks of life, keeping vital communication with radios, and maintaining medical supplies and rescue equipment which mean the teams are self sufficient. Though not a 'blue light' emergency service, the well trained teams can be on the scene within an hour, offering casualty care, specialist crag and flood rescues. Fundraising talks and shows are essential when the charitable organisation costs £20,000 a year to operate, with no government funding. Our members donated generously.
We were visited by the BBC at our June coffee morning. With West Somerset having the oldest average age in the UK, and the highest percentage of people of 65 and older, I guess a U3A coffee morning was a good place to come to get the views of that age group about adult social care provision. Senior council officials have said that cuts to social care will be necessary, and Social Services Departments are struggling to reconcile rising demand and increasing costs. The aim is to keep people at home as long as possible, but we are living longer and have increasingly complex and costly support needs. Our interviewees did us proud, and the item was featured on the national news later that day.
Cherrie Temple, our Chairman, lit the Amnesty candle before Susan Mew gave her presentation at the April coffee morning. Jill Walmsley introduced the speaker, saying if ever there was a time for Amnesty International, it was now when we were experiencing a global refugee crisis, Donald Trump as US President and the risk that our Government would take us out of the European Convention of Human Rights. Susan told the audience that she had been a member of Amnesty for nearly 40 years, and with the Minehead group since it started over 15 years ago. She has been on a national activism subcommittee and is a regional Amnesty trainer. Outlining the area of work Amnesty takes on, Susan explained how it started in 1961 with a letter in The Observer from Peter Benenson, who had been shocked to read of Portuguese students arrested in a café for raising a toast to freedom, and how it is now a global movement of 7 million members in over 150 countries. Members write letters, sign petitions, demonstrate, lobby, take part in vigils – any action is better than none, for ‘it is better to light one candle than curse the darkness’. Susan recounted some of Amnesty’s success stories: of brave human rights defenders; of prisoners of conscience released; and of governments that have taken action after influential campaigns.
We had an all-time record attendance of 120 for the February coffee morning, when the speaker was Rev Barry Priory, now retired as Rector of Porlock. His subject and passion was Thomas Hardy, and Barry illustrated his presentation with slides showing portraits of the poet and author, illustrations from his works and significant places in the West Country: Hardy's Wessex. Arguably in the speaker's view our greatest man of letters after Shakespeare, Hardy is perhaps best known for his novels. However, he also wrote 900 poems, short stories and plays, and millions all over the world know his work as it has featured in many TV drama adaptations and films.
Thomas Hardy's Wessex is primarily Dorset, where he was born and died, but the settings range from Salisbury to Cornwall – the castle in A Laodicean, not perhaps one of Hardy's finest books, is ‘our’ Dunster Castle. His novels focus on a declining rural society, with tragic characters often struggling against their passions and social circumstances. Hardy’s ashes lie in Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey, although his heart is buried with his wife in the churchyard at Stinsford in Dorset, for he was overcome with remorse and guilt over their estrangement in her latter years. Rev Barry Priory recalled that he had met someone who actually knew Hardy, and who described Hardy’s quiet joy, humour, love and kindness – “a good man who did good things”.
The January coffee morning is traditionally 'Members' Day', when a few offer to give a presentation instead of having a booked speaker. This year the theme was hobbies, and the audience heard four very different presentations.
Colin Draper was first, speaking about building your own wireless. One of the most important things seemed to be owning a shed, hut, or shack where useful junk could be collected over the years, but not encroach into the family home ‒ or not too much, anyway.
Oli Twist followed with his hobby of woodcarving and had brought a number of his creations. He had been inspired by a carving he bought in Spain, and was determined to learn the craft himself, using the simplest of tools to begin with.
John Rock is known to members of the photography group, and to the nature amblers: John said he felt a walk without a camera was a wasted opportunity. He told the audience about his time as a judge in photographic competitions, an increasingly challenging task in these days of digital wizardry.
Di Martin concluded the morning speaking about her hobby of patchworking. She had brought lots of examples of her work, and was wearing one. A self‒confessed patchwork addict since 1967, Di told members how she started teaching almost by accident, on TV and cruise ships, and most rewardingly her work for Project Linus, making quilts for critically ill children.
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