Cassie & Selwyn Tillett: Christmas Letters
Christmas flowers at St Mary's Church, Beddington


Dear friends

Well, where do we start? A few changes of pace this year – literally and otherwise.

We’re still very happy to be here – that’s the first thing. Our house, the local countryside and our work in Norfolk are right for us. We’ve not yet tired of waking to our beautiful view, of “commuting” across lovely landscapes, and adopting the slightly slower pace that belongs with rural life. Just the other day we woke to this sunrise, viewed from our bedroom window.

As we’ve said before, the only thing we really miss about London is the company of our friends, and especially our musical colleagues. Once more, we enticed a gang of Chimes Musical Theatre (together with our local friend, Antoinette, who provided wonderful support at the piano) up here to provide a concert at Morton Hall in July; once more, they were praised to the skies (and well-deserved, too). The concert was part of the patronal celebrations for St Margaret, so our theme was Here Be Dragons (in case you didn’t know, St Margaret is one of those wonderful, entirely fictitious, saints who specialised in some interesting party tricks, including exploding the dragon who had swallowed her by making the sign of the cross inside him)…

We’ve not yet joined any other musical or theatrical groups in Norfolk, but have watched the performances of others in this area. This has included choirs (the Gresham’s School Crickets and the Norwich Barbershop both provided successful fund-raising concerts for our parishes, and we also saw the newly-formed Iceni choir at Salle and the splendid Jay Singers); two visits to the Maddermarket in Norwich (an absolutely superb Private Lives and a deeply disappointing Tempest); two to the Sewell Barn Theatre, also in Norwich (an imaginative Cider with Rosie, and a variable but worthwhile Fallen Angels). Local clerics, including the Bishop of Norwich, recorded a great programme of observations on the church called Clerical Errors; and we were privileged to attend a superb double bass recital at the tiny but beautiful King of Hearts Arts Centre in Norwich, by the stunningly talented Ying Lai Green.

Just one theatrical experience in London, but a memorable one: Sutton ADC performed Peter Hall & Adrian Mitchell’s musical adaptation of Animal Farm, with our good friend Ian Akhurst as Napoleon the Pig. There was cruel comment about type-casting… It was worth the visit to London just to see Ian performing, dead-pan, a cake-walk complete with gold top hat and cane, surrounded by cheer-leaders. Would that I had photographic evidence here.

However, we haven’t been idle ourselves on the performance front. Selwyn travelled to Twickenham in March to provide piano accompaniment for Leon Berger as he performed some of the music of George Grossmith (this was broadcast in April as part of a remake of The Diary of a Nobody); we went to London in October to reprise our performance with Leon of Top Hats and Dropped Hats – a show about Grossmith together with Flanders & Swann. Selwyn took part in House & Garden, a poetry reading evening in his previous parish of Stow Maries, organised by our friend Beryl.

Finally, Chimes celebrated 20 years of raising funds for charity with a concert in St Mary’s Church, Beddington. One of our biggest casts – 11 of us – created Infinite Variety, which was much enjoyed by all (despite freezing conditions – the church heating having broken down the previous week!).

This last event was part of a wonderful, difficult, emotional and challenging weekend. We had planned this concert for a long time, but it turned out that the weekend served an extra purpose: attending the funeral of one of our dear friends from Imperial Opera (the society through which we met, back in 1992). Sue Foister was a joyful hostess, actress & singer, wardrobe mistress and friend; she passed away at the tragically young age of not quite 43. Having almost no family, the cremation, memorial and “last party” were populated mainly by Sue’s friends from Imperial Opera, and we all celebrated and paid tribute to an extraordinary and lovely lady.

Sue’s was just one of several sad farewells this year – mostly coming in one of those intense periods where we heard of several deaths within a few weeks. We remember with much love: Cassie’s uncle, Peter; Velda Lewis and John Skingley, genealogical connections; Edna Tripp, also a connection of Imperial Opera; and (all within the last few weeks) Marion Jardella of Richmond Shakespeare Society, Peter & Cynthia Clarke from St Mary’s Beddington, and of course Sue Foister. May they rest in peace.

[Addition, December 15th: I today received a card from Christine Williams, telling me that her husband Dick, who was responsible for much of my earliest love of theatre, passed away in February 2007. I've added a brief tribute here. I've also realised that I omitted to include Vivienne Vassay, who played the dance teacher in Stepping Out with me in 1996; a superb dancer and performer, and a joy to work with.]

We have been delighted to welcome many friends to Norfolk this year. Mike Withers, from Imperial Opera days, came and spent a couple of days with us and attended a local production of Dido & Aeneas and Pyramus & Thisbe; an interesting evening… Selwyn celebrated 25 years of the priesthood in early July, and it was a joy to be joined by several people from his past parishes. Andrew from days at Cambridge called by, bringing a nostalgic box of Fitzbillies’ Chelsea Buns – to which Cassie is now addicted. And Sandy, one of Cassie’s fellow declutterers, came and spent a great evening with us while she was working in the area.

Locally, we had joyful celebrations with two couples at their golden wedding anniversary – Gerald & Pauline in Ringland, and Dick & Dot in Weston Longville. And speaking of weddings, there was the event that many of us thought we’d never see… Ellis Pike, who has taken part in many Chimes concerts and who Selwyn has accompanied on the piano for more years than either of them cares to remember, was finally captured and tamed by the lovely Claire. Judging by Ellis’ rueful comments about not needing to pad up to play Henry VIII any longer, she is clearly feeding him well. Their wedding in February was a suitable pageant of costume, music and laughter.

Our work in the parishes continues steadily. The challenges of having more parishes than there are Sundays in the month don’t abate, but we are doing our best to find ways round it. Social and fund-raising events are in evidence as always, with the beautiful Swannington in Bloom open gardens day, a visit from Winston the Singing Farmer (yes, really), the Chimes concert already described, plant sales, coffee mornings and the rest. Selwyn has now had his arm twisted into accepting the role of Rural Dean for the Sparham Deanery, with effect from February 2008…

Cassie’s business has been chugging along nicely, with a fairly continuous round of website design, IT training and decluttering to keep her out of mischief. As one project finishes, happily another usually takes over. 2007 was also the year in which she decided that she really didn’t ever want to see another Access database ever again!

We’ve had some wonderful holidays this year. January was, as ever, our usual visit to Dorothy & Milton in Bolton – plenty of Rest and Recuperation (not to mention Retail therapy). Our post-Easter getaway was to Staithes, on the beautiful East Yorkshire coast: an extraordinarily lovely part of the country, with hills. We forget about those, living in Norfolk. A week of occupying a fabulous cottage (down a cobbled street, car had to be left at the top of the hill, cottage was spread over five floors… plenty of exercise!) with the most amazing views over the bay, and lots of gardens, beaches and little towns.

In August, we joined forces with Dot & Milton again to take our summer break in a gite in the Loire Valley. Selwyn & I had much enjoyed this area a few years ago, and had much pleasure in returning to old haunts and exploring new ones with our friends. We crossed using the Chunnel in our two cars and motored the 350 miles or so between Calais and Breil (Pays de Loire). We explored just a few of the hundreds of wonderful vineyards in the area (and had some riotous wine-tastings); wandered round market towns and cathedrals, the zoo at Douai and troglodytes in the hillsides; found superb restaurants and held our own barbecue. A brilliant holiday.

At the end of the fortnight, Dot & Milton came back with us in order to attend Dot & Dick’s golden wedding party. (That’s the Other Dot. Do keep up.) As they pointed out, a journey from Dover to Bolton via Norfolk is not the sort of thing they’d have done for anybody else. As Dot & Milton had two weeks’ holiday and we had three, Selwyn & I then took a couple of days to catch up on laundry and post before driving down to London to visit friends in a sort of anti-clockwise tour of the M25.

Melanie and her gorgeous twins (at just over a year old) were our first port of call [for more aaah moments, visit the Hill Twins' website here]; overnight with Zoë & Paul; down to Surrey to have lunch with Pat, Cassie’s boss during her days at Epsom Council; stay a couple of nights with Joanna in her new flat; travel into London to see our American friend, John Wolfson, giving one of his superb talks at Shakespeare’s Globe, and the following day to be treated by him to lunch at the Athenaeum (this is the life); finally round to Walthamstow to Cassie’s parents, and back up the M11. Not the most restful way of concluding a holiday – on reflection, it might have been more sensible to do that bit before France! – but joyful days and reunions, nonetheless.

So – I hear you ask – what’s all this about a change of pace? It sounds like the same frantic rush it always was. Well, this was a change of pace in the sense of movement. Cassie has never been what you’d call a sports enthusiast – the odd bit of dancing on stage being about as good as it got. Previous attempts at weight loss have included some half-hearted gym memberships, but – in the manner of Mr Colman making his money from the mustard we leave on our plates – seldom did they prove a worthwhile exercise.

After our usual relaxation in Bolton – with all the “eat, drink and be merry” regime that usually entails – the normal new year’s resolutions kicked in (OK, about three weeks late). Weighing in at just a whisker under twelve stone was not good news for a lady of 5’5”, and nor was the fact that even the size 14s no longer fitted. This time, though, I called in the cavalry. [You can see the whole journey in tedious detail at my new blog, aptly titled Rector's Wife Revamp... use the Blog Archive on the right hand side to find your way through the months. The internet gives so many opportunities for the narcissistic.]

In one of those half-hearted gym visits before Christmas, I’d seen an advert for a personal trainer. I phoned Kim, and booked a session. We met on 26th January, and planned a weekly session. For the next six weeks, I managed a session each week with Kim, plus two sessions on my own. The weight loss was starting to go pretty well, especially when I added some walking. By mid March, I had lost a stone, and quite a few inches (6cm each off the bust and the hips, for example). Things were looking up.

And then I spotted an advertisement for the Cancer Research Race for Life – a 5 kilometre (about 3.1 miles, as it turns out) “fun run”, which happens all over the country across the summer. I checked out the Norfolk events, Kim & I entered for the one that took place at the local Norfolk Showground on 6th May – and we started running.

Cassie? Running? The first reaction from pretty well everybody was “I hope you’ve got a good sports bra…” The second was, out of total amazement that I’d committed to anything like this, was to sponsor me. I raised over £1,000, plus extra for tax efficient giving, for running that race. I did it in 39 minutes – not exactly fast – but, to my intense pride, I didn’t stop and I didn’t walk, not even once. And Kim ran it with me.

I ran on the beach in Staithes in April. I kept running all summer. When we were in France, I found a route round the village of just under 2.5 miles, and ran that a few times. I ran around 3 times each week, usually the route down to Morton Hall and back, which is 1.75 miles, and occasionally round the fishing lakes at Lenwade. We ran another 5K – this time at Wroxham – in August, managing it in 34:32. Here we are, back at the Rectory afterwards, celebrating our achievement…

And we planned to run our next distance – 10 kilometres – in the Wymondham New Year’s Day race. When we got back after our summer holiday, it was time to start increasing the distance from my normal 2 mile training run. Kim & I started running together in the evenings along the pavement route – safer than roads – between roundabouts on the main road into Norwich, near the gym. That route is 3 miles. We then started to extend it by overshooting our original “turn around” point, and by adding on distance round the Sainsbury’s car park (how picturesque!) at the end. The longest run of all was 4.85 miles in 54 minutes, no stops.

And then – disaster struck. We’re still not quite sure of the cause, but think it’s a combination of increasing the distance a bit too fast; a pair of worn-too-often, too-high-heeled boots; and (the main culprit) my gait on a tough camber when running on local rural roads. During a run in early November, my right ankle started to ache really badly. I’ve had injuries before, and they haven’t been a problem – just ice and rest it for a couple of days. This time, however, it wouldn’t go away. Eventually, the sports masseur, physio and doctor came to the conclusion that it was effectively that I’d injured the tendons and/or the tissues across the ankle-bone, and that only rest would help it to heal.

The last month has been absolute hell. Having found that Holy Grail of feeling good about myself, actually enjoying the process, and being healthy, it’s been unspeakably awful to be crocked. For about three weeks I couldn’t do more than hobble, and even the machines at the gym were a bad idea. Now, just over a month on, it’s less painful. I can swim, use the exercise bike and the cross trainer. It will probably take a few more weeks before I can run again – and the Wymondham 10K is almost certainly not going to happen – but I’ll be back.

And you know what? My metabolism has obviously started doing its work. In the past, a few days “off the wagon” from a diet would be enough to wreck all my good work; so a month off running and exercise? I thought it would be a disaster. But how about this? The weight reached 10 stone 7 around July, and the dress size reached a size 12 – and five months on, that’s where I still am, even after a month of inactivity. My blood pressure is down from around 144/100 (in January) to 118/85. Best of all, my BMI is still down in the normal range for the first time in years.

As you can probably gather, this has been one of the most important things I’ve ever done. Even without the running, my new understanding of how my body works and what suits it best has been life-changing. I certainly don’t ever want to stop running, so I’m going to be taking things very slowly when I can go back to it – I enjoy it so much. I fully intend to do the Race for Life again in 2008, and the 10K version that will happen in the autumn. It’s not somewhere I ever saw myself being, but I am so happy that I am. Not only that, but it’s brought me the friendship of Kim, who from being my personal trainer has become my closest friend in our new home.

So it’s been an extraordinary year. Here’s to the next one!

With our love –

Cassie & Selwyn