Cassie & Selwyn Tillett: Christmas Letters
Madonna and Child, Little St Mary's, Cambridge, July 2006


Dear friends

It’s that time of year again… Twenty months on, we are continuing to settle into our lives in rural Norfolk, but feel so much at home here. When asked if we miss London, the truthful answer is “the people, yes – the place, not at all.” Any visits to London serve as a reminder why we’d be happy never to see the London underground again! When we need shops, trains, theatre and the rest, Norwich is a civilised ten miles up the road; otherwise, we love waking to a view of the countryside and seeing starry skies that we’d thought were limited to remote parts of Ireland.

The delights of a visiting fishmonger (in his little van with fish caught at Lowestoft that morning), a choice of at least four excellent butchers within five miles, including a farm shop, and the best pub in Norfolk over the road, more than make up for the absence of a paper shop in the village! With sterling work by John the gardener (our time in Beddington proved conclusively that it’s one service we can’t manage without), the garden is being brought under control and brings beautiful new surprises each season.

The challenges of working with nine church buildings, five of which are in regular use, across nine villages and five parishes, don’t make for a straightforward life, but we didn’t expect that! There are ongoing reshuffles of service times, both Sundays and weekdays; five PCCs, eleven churchwardens; umpteen events for every major liturgical season, and a different timetable every Sunday. But most people are supportive, welcoming and seem glad we’re here – which is the main thing.

The cycle of social events across the villages has some familiarity, but plenty of novelty, too. The Great Witchingham Quiz was won by the Rector’s team for the second year in succession, as was the Rector’s wife’s raffle ticket (drawn by the Rector) for first prize at the Weston Longville Harvest Supper – we may not risk buying tickets next year!

This year, there was another beautiful Snowdrop Walk at Morton Hall, raising impressive funds for a local children’s hospice; a superb Open Gardens day around Lenwade & Great Witchingham; and a really outstanding Flower Festival in Alderford Church at Harvest-tide - this tiny church had apparently never looked so beautiful. At St Margaret’s, Morton Hall, a “lost brass” was returned, and Lady Ann Prince-Smith has just been the subject of a delightful article in the local newspaper celebrating the event (sub-heading M’lady investigates…).

The Mawkins made another invasion of Weston Longville – with our friends Dorothy & Milton Cooper creating the Rectory Mawkin on our behalf. (As you can see from the photo, the real-life Rector had had a long weekend of it…)

The special festivals of Holy Week and Easter – our first in Norfolk - moved around the benefice, and we were delighted by the mixture of attendance from around the villages. In particular, the Easter Dawn service was much appreciated and well attended.

We’ve received some visitors from our London life (of which more in a moment), and are kept updated by friends of goings-on in Beddington; but until this month, hadn’t seen the congregation there since Easter 2005. We were therefore very glad to be able to arrange a visit to London in early December in order to attend the Advent Carol Service at St Mary’s, beautifully sung as ever by their superb choir. Most folks didn’t know we were coming, and it was so good to get the impression that the surprise was a pleasant one!

We also took the opportunity to sneak a look at the Rectory, where Justine & Guy seem to be equally settling in; and especially good to see that Southwark Diocese has finally done an excellent job on the kitchen, taking out the wall that previously divided it from one large room into two tiny ones! It was wonderful to feel both happy and welcomed by old friends, whilst at the same time content to return to our new home.

After a shaky start for the first few months here, business has picked up well for Cassie, with an ongoing mixture of computer training (especially the over-50s); de-cluttering in homes and offices; website design and database design, with the odd bit of genealogy and calligraphy thrown in for good measure. It’s a rather piecemeal way of earning a living, but very, very enjoyable – especially when it involves travelling around some lovely countryside.

We’ve seen lots of Cassie’s family this year, which has been wonderful. Back in April, her dad’s brother Bob celebrated 40 years of marriage to Marga, and the celebrations took place in the good old Parson Woodforde pub opposite the Rectory.

In September, Cassie’s parents topped this with their Golden wedding anniversary, and we found some imaginative ways to celebrate! A “posh nosh” at the Lavender House restaurant in Brundall on the night itself was followed by an overnight trip to Lincoln, to see Aled Jones in concert in the Cathedral – Cassie even managed to wangle a signed card and CD for them; driving back across country the following day, we met up with Bob & Marga’s family for a pub lunch; and finally, on the Monday, we were welcomed at Sheringham by Jim & Pat Coker, who hosted a gathering of mum & dad’s friends from old days at Woodford Golf Club.

Cassie’s sister Jenny was hoping to be with us with her family for the Golden Anniversary, but in the end it wasn’t possible for them to arrive until the week after this event. However, we had a wonderful time welcoming them here to Norfolk in the course of their two weeks’ travelling around the country seeing various friends. Nephew & niece Jack & Samantha were great, and we had fun taking them to the zoo, the beach and the dinosaur park!

And then there were visits from friends. We were very happy to be visited by at least eleven different sets of friends from all over the country, ranging from an afternoon’s call to a ten-day stay. One such visitor was David Lloyd, a talented artist from Selwyn’s parishes in Essex (1985-1993), who has created a beautiful pen-and-ink and watercolour view of all nine of the church buildings in this benefice – completing our set of his drawings of churches where Selwyn has worked! These images will also be used by the parishes for postcards and similar items in the future.

We also managed to pay a few visits ourselves. Back in January, we went off to meet up with members of the Imperial Male Voice Choir, who were having their annual rehearsing-and-socialising weekend in Wells-next-the-sea, which isn’t far from us. Looking in a wine bar window to search for a lunch venue, Selwyn suddenly said “I know that couple”… it was Justine & Guy, who were taking a break away from anybody they could possibly know before Justine’s licensing to Selwyn’s old job at St Mary’s Beddington! They also know many of the IMVC, so within minutes their peace was rudely shattered by a gang of singers, all shouting variations on the “it’s a small world” theme…

More recently, Cassie went on a trip to Berkshire (for a retreat weekend at the Benedictine community at Douai Abbey), and whilst there she called in to meet Melanie & Andrew Hill’s adorable twins, Amelia and Alexander, who were born in early August. Cassie recognises a fellow diva in Amelia… (You can see a few photos of Cassie's visit, together with lots more aaah moments during the twins' first few months in the world, at Andrew's website.)

Speaking of divas brings us to the world of performance. After a naturally quieter year in 2005, we’ve managed to tread the boards a few more times in 2006. There have been two performances in Weston Longville church of the Fauré Requiem, sung by a combination of folks from Weston Longville and other local choirs, with Cassie taking the uncharacteristic solo of the Pie Jesu. We were also very pleased to produce our first home-grown benefice entertainment: a reprise of the poetry-and-prose evening first performed in Beddington for Mothering Sunday, Violets in the Lane. With our new team of Norfolk readers – John, Peter, Mary, Antoinette & Dot - we and our audience enjoyed ourselves very much, and we hope to return to this format as soon as possible.

However, Cassie had really missed the opportunities for those songs from the shows… In early 2006, an email came round from our old friends in the Imperial Opera group, telling of plans for a concert version of Sondheim’s Follies. She sighed and regretfully deleted it. A couple of weeks later, an email arrived from the Director saying “I need you! Carlotta only has one song and a couple of lines of dialogue – you could do that on two rehearsals…” How could she refuse? So a week’s visit to London to join in with final rehearsals followed by the performances in the New Arch at Waterloo was arranged… Competing with Sue Foister (middle row, serious diamante) and David Phipps-Davis (understated red sequins) to produce the least subtle performance, the whole thing was a real joy. It was great to prove that I’m Still Here!

And best of all – we managed a Chimes concert. These were the events, and the people, that had been missed probably the most. We called the concert Midsummer Mardles (geddit? – oh, perhaps I should translate: Mardle. Norfolk. v.: to gossip, chat at leisure. Otherwise to amble aimlessly).

We dragooned Pam & Ian Akhurst, Joanna Soane, Neville Hargreaves and Zoë White into committing themselves to a weekend’s visit; booked Lady Anne’s home at Morton Hall as the venue (first half in the tiny church, second half in the parlour of the hall), set up the programme via dozens of emails, and were all set to go for early July. Then, at the very last minute, disaster struck: Neville’s mother was seriously ill, and taking him away from London at that time just wasn’t on.

Cassie & Selwyn had found themselves performing with a local choir, the Reepham Singers, in two churches on the two Wednesdays either side of the Chimes concert. At the end of the first one, knowing our predicament, we looked around for a helpful baritone to replace Neville… and so dear John Taylor (top left of the group photo) stepped in at around 48 hours’ notice, and did a sterling job. He’s now a member of Chimes, whether he likes it or not! Chimes celebrates its 20th anniversary (yes, really) in November 2007, and we plan to mark the event both with a return to Beddington during that month and a concert in Norfolk across Christmas / New Year.

Watching others entertain? A few visits to the flicks: Mrs Henderson Presents – Dame Judi on top form; the fourth Harry Potter, on New Year’s Day with Zoë & Paul; the fabulous March of the Penguins with Dot & Milton during our January break; and most recently, the superb Snow Cake with Alan Rickman & Sigourney Weaver – see it and take the Kleenex.

In the theatre, there was Song in the Blickling Garden – an operatic dramatisation of the tragic story of Anne Boleyn, premiered in a fabulous barn theatre by the North Norfolk Chamber Opera; two performances at the Cambridge Shakespeare Festival (As You Like It was sadly forgettable, but the wacky version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream was excellent, complete with a hallucinatory accordion-playing white rabbit); a visit to Tolethorpe during our holiday in Rutland to see an imperfect, but in places highly impressive, Coriolanus; a strong To Kill a Mockingbird in Norwich, with Duncan Preston as a totally convincing Atticus, and a quite wonderful Bettrys Jones as Scout; and finally, during Cassie’s retreat in Berkshire, she was fortunate to catch a visit to the Abbey by the Royal Holloway College choir and orchestra, with a quite stunning performance of Brahms’ Ein Deutsches Requiem, together with other motets in the first half – including the glorious Bruckner Locus Iste, taking her back to days in the college choir at Bretton Hall.

Finally, after all this activity, we’ve had some holiday times. Last year’s indulgence of two long holidays – one in Ireland, one in France – was countered by keeping within these shores this year, but no less enjoyable for that. Our now-traditional escape to Bolton after Christmas for some serious retail-therapy and vegging-out with best mates Dot & Milton is about to be repeated in January 2007. (We give each other holidays. They get Norfolk in August, we get Manchester in January. Hmm.)

Post-Easter took us back to the Lake District for a sentimental journey (it was our honeymoon destination in 1995, and this was the first year since our wedding that Easter Monday was also the 17th April). The summer break was a combination of a few days in Cambridge (thanks to Sarah for lending us her flat in Newmarket!), a great week in the beautiful Marlow Cottage in Sea Palling belonging to Andrea & Ian Bucknell, a week at home being domestic, and a week in the lovely county of Rutland.

We have, as always, had a few sad farewells to say: four of our friends at St Mary's (Bob Gray, Pat Ross, Ken Simmons and Derek Sinclair); and another grande dame of local theatre, Heather Godley (who we much enjoyed performing with at Richmond Shakespeare Society in The Best Will in the World in 2000).

Last but certainly not least, we lost the irrepressible Mary Davis, wife to a relatively-newly-discovered distant cousin of Selwyn's in the Tillett family. Known generally as Irish Mary, standing a mighty 4'9" or so, and with a personality twice her size, she will be very sadly missed. This photograph, with her granddaughter Anna (who could guess the relationship?!), is one of several great images from the Tillett Family Reunion that took place in 2004 - you can see the rest of the set here.

Despite such inevitable losses, we do feel more fortunate with each passing year – that sounds really sentimental, and the sort of thing that could earn us a place in a Simon Hoggart book (compilations of cringe-making Christmas Round Robin letters, which we thoroughly recommend) but is totally true. It’s very hard to believe that this is the thirteenth of these letters – the first being Cassie’s “hey, I’m going to marry the Rector” in 1994.

As always, we wish you happiness, fun and contentment in the year ahead – all that you would wish yourselves.

With our love –

Cassie & Selwyn