Cassie & Selwyn Tillett: Christmas Letters
The Holy Family, part of an exhibition of Nativity scenes at The Basilia of the Sacred Heart, Brussels. January 2009


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Dear friends

You know, we really did intend to get this written earlier this year. However, a glance back proves that "last posting date tomorrow" is the rule - and this year is no exception! Life in rural Norfolk continues to be all we had wished - although it's not what you'd call peaceful (not that we'd wish it any other way). The various responsibilities of the benefice, watching and performing on stage, some wonderful holidays, visits to and from friends and family, busy times in Cassie's business and introducing her parents to our lovely county all made it another exciting year.

Predominantly for Cassie, it was the Year of Getting Back On Stage. Last year's missive related that she'd been cast as the "disillusioned, middle-aged, alcoholic old reprobate Martha in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf"; and a fun time was had by all for the performances at the Sewell Barn in April & May. The most difficult part she's ever learned or played, enormous fun, very stretching, emotionally a roller-coaster; wouldn't have missed it for the world. The blonde was replaced by a brunette (her own hair), coaxed into heated-roller-backcombed-curls by the indispensable Veronica (shrieks of "get back to being blonde NOW!" from almost everybody).

The team (especially director Jenny and fellow performers Noël, Andy and Louise) were superb to work with and have become dear friends, and many flattering comments were received by the whole unit. Oh, and the image perhaps acts as a dreadful warning… We were also thrilled to welcome many friends (some travelling large distances) to witness this scary event, including Dot & Milton from Bolton, Lois from London, Neville & Sarah from Bucks and Zoë from Berks.

Our favourite bass-baritone, Leon, has visited twice this year: once in May, and again just last week, to provide fund-raising concerts for the benefice. In each case, we were also joined by Rachel & Martyn, our superbly talented new musical friends, whose soprano and tenor talents are a joy to work with. Each concert raised just under £500 for benefice funds, and was very well received.

The May concert was a revamp of a long-distant Chimes compilation (1999, my goodness) of the work of Noël Coward and Ivor Novello, Glamorous Night; it concluded a Bank Holiday weekend Flower Festival in celebration of the life of Selwyn's predecessor, Parson Woodforde.

Our festive offering last week was a return to the world of Flanders & Swann: And Then They Wrote. For this, we were even more delighted to be joined by Bob Osborne, long-standing friend of Selwyn's from Cambridge days, who contributed some superb clarinet playing, both solo and with singers. With his wife Margie, they were a huge support and help all weekend.

The concert was, you might say, challenging: Selwyn managed to acquire a spectacular tracheal infection on the Tuesday, and by the Saturday, with antibiotics, was just able to fulfil his role at the piano. Most of his sung repertoire was shared out between the other performers, although he did stamp his tiny foot and insist on performing one number: the totally pathetic Pillar to Post ["pity the poor little pillar-box, standing in the rain all day…"]. He is, as this is written, confined to barracks and taking it easy in order to have a hope of getting through next week's Christmas services! We think that said infection was picked up during the carol-singing (where he was playing the piano) at the Gressenhall Museum of Norfolk Life with Rachel & Martyn, and the rest of their music group, The Upper Octave - as almost everybody attending seemed to come down with some illness (Rachel, too, managed the concert while fighting a bad cold). Leon's song about "the bottle-nosed whale with the 'flu" was especially appreciated.

That wasn't all the performing, however. Somehow Cassie found herself wandering off to the Maddermarket - the larger theatre in the centre of Norwich - to play Mrs Watson-Courtneidge (aka Scary Mummy) in John van Druten's I Am A Camera (based on the stories of Christopher Isherwood, later to become the musical Cabaret). Lovely director Rob, and many new friends. Admittedly, she's wanted to play Sally Bowles all her life, so it was slightly disheartening to play her mother instead… but she can forgive the wonderful Jo Sessions, whose performance was stellar - as were those of all involved.

We made sure we watched others doing the work occasionally, too. A Matter of Life & Death, Teechers and Cold Comfort Farm were highly enjoyable at the Sewell Barn; Habeas Corpus and The Accrington Pals were first-rate at the Maddermarket; Lou (from Virginia Woolf) and Jo (from I Am A Camera) were superb together in two plays during the year, intimate two-handers in small spaces, both at the Maddermarket and at the delightful Seagull in Lowestoft: Indian Summer and Henna Night.

A tiny choir in Southwold (one of our favourite places), consisting of a very senior conductor (with one of the finest bass voices we've heard in years) and several more not-so-young singers and poetry readers created a totally and unexpectedly joyful evening, Summer Delights. Instant Sunshine were exactly that: a fabulous night with these veteran entertainers in King's Lynn was a real treat. And at the Theatre Royal, Norwich, we had a sunflower-decorated evening at the marvellous Calendar Girls - and spotted the Bishop of Norwich six rows in front of us (when asked, he explained that it was part of his ministry to the older ladies of his diocese…) Finally, at the cinema we saw The Time Traveler's Wife (not bad, but disappointingly dumbed-down from a superb book); the latest Harry Potter (we're addicts, OK?); and Marley & Me (one of the few films - or anything else - that has reduced Selwyn to tears [when the dog died! - and he'd already read the book so knew what was coming…]).

It's been wonderful to have Cassie's parents safely settled in the county. A few further refinements have been performed on the bungalow, such as the construction of a small outhouse by the kitchen door; the garden is lovely (and well looked after by Malcolm, so mum feels dead posh!); and they much appreciate the quieter environment. Less than half an hour from us, it's great to be able to go up there, either to cadge the occasional meal or help out if anything needs doing, and the odd day out or shopping trip.

Dad is limited on how far he can walk these days, but otherwise is doing well, and mum is still happy to wander round shops or shows with us! The Royal Norfolk Show and its equivalent in Aylsham were both good fun, with dogs, horses, stalls and the rest - and very distracting food stalls. A visit to Sheringham to see Jen & Derek (distant Skingley relations, through Cassie's genealogical studies - but they turn out to be close neighbours and good friends of three couples who have known mum & dad for years through Woodford Golf Club - oh, do keep up!!) was brilliant, complete with BBQ.

A rather special day out in August saw a visit down to the Royal Yacht Club at Ipswich to see Dad's brother, Bob. He's a boat-builder and an enthusiastic sailor, and we were lucky enough to have a glorious day and calm water to see his beautiful boat, the Wild Maid. After mooring up in the waters of the club for a lovely seafood picnic lunch, we had a lovely sail down the channel - with Cassie returning to childhood sailing memories and doing her best to crew! A nice set of photos was then turned into a little hardbacked book for Bob as a thank you.

Skipping back to January - which seems so far back, we're now thinking about the next visit! - we were thrilled that sister Jenny and her family were able to come over from Spain to celebrate birthdays, see Mum & Dad's new bungalow, and have a family party. We were joined by lots of the Skingley side of the family, with the result that there were 19 people in the Rectory for the party - 15 of whom stayed overnight! Riotous games on the Wii, lots of catching up, chatter and drink.

It was a sad coincidence that just a few days before their visit, mum's cousin Sheila had passed away; a magnificent lady, full of life and laughter. When we asked her daughter, Gill, about going ahead with the planned party, she pointed out that her mother had been the biggest party animal in the family, and no way should we cancel it. In the event, we were so happy to welcome Gill, husband Paul and daughter Emma as surprise visitors to the party. The following week, we said farewell to Sheila at a lovely service at Corbett's Tay and afterwards at Gillian & Paul's house, and have such happy memories of her.

Our other sad loss in the family during 2009 was Vicky, mum's sister-in-law, and mother to my cousins Matthew & Peta. She had been in indifferent health for many years, but was 83 when she passed away. We remembered her love of beautiful things and all her creative talents when we celebrated her life in May.

We were also sad to say goodbye to two old friends from our past: Enid Scott-Baker, from Selwyn's first ministerial post in Dulwich, and finally the superb Harold Hore from Beddington, who was a stalwart of congregation, choir and PCC, and participated in many of the poetry and play-reading entertainments that we organised during our time there. His formal teacher's exterior was only part of the story; a talented performer and the kindest of gentlemen, with a wonderful sense of humour - he will be much missed. For all our departed friends: may they rest in peace.

While all this has been going on, we've had to earn a living! The ongoing round of church fundraising events continued, but is as valuable for community and enjoyment as for money: including visits from the Iceni choir and the Greshams School choir, and a spectacular (and much luckier, weather-wise, then previously) Open Gardens Day in Swannington. The slightly insane timetable of services continues, with stalwart support from reader Pamela and local retired priest Peter. We continue to build up the music in the benefice, with small groups from both Weston and Swannington rehearsing for special events and monthly Sundays; Dick (our Weston organist) has now provided us with a lovely Requiem Mass, which was performed on All Souls' Day. Its title page describes it as "a small mass for limited resources", prompting the suggestion that The Limited Resources might be a good name for the choir…

We also rejoiced in the re-opening of Attlebridge Church, which had been closed for three years while the substantial holes in the roof were repaired (with enormous assistance from English Heritage). Bishop Graham joined us on a stunningly sunny day in April.

Meantime, Cassie's business in decluttering, IT training, website design and general trying-to-be-useful continues successfully. We're about to launch the new website for apdo-uk (the association of professional declutterers & organisers), which she set up with two colleagues five years ago; we now have over 80 member businesses around the country. Clients in Norfolk and in London have had one-to-one computer training; websites have been designed for a creator of medieval costumes, a fellow declutterer and a local music group, and maintenance of other sites continues. Two exciting decluttering jobs took her to Spain: one to the Asturias region in the north, where a London client has a home, to sort out her office there; and one in Granada in the south, where she helped an old friend from theatre days in London to regain control of paperwork. During the latter trip it was also possible to get together with her sister, and spend a lovely evening in the gardens of the Alhambra with Jenny, Carl and Sammie-Jo. It's a tough job, but somebody's got to do it…

Speaking of lovely places brings us to the breaks from duty (what do you mean, it sounds like one long holiday?!). This year's Christmas card features an image from the splendid week we spent in Brussels - freezing cold, but a beautiful and fascinating city, with masses to see, do - and eat. One particularly memorable restaurant near the Grande Place featured various religious artefacts around the building - statues, mirrors, crucifixes, the lot. Excellent food, too! The Musical Instruments Museum was an especial delight, the Basilica an extraordinary space; our little self-catering flat was a real find, and the metro system easy to navigate. We'll definitely be back.

Our post-Easter crash-out was spent in one of the finest self-catering cottages we've ever found. Just outside Clun, Shropshire, we were welcomed by Sue & Peter to Pooh Hall Cottages (their website is here) - not a reference to A A Milne, but to the previous farm animal inhabitants of many of the buildings!! Stunning décor, beautiful views, a huge three-sided expanse of window around the bedroom looking across the fields - just glorious. Can't recommend it highly enough. We then concluded the holiday with a couple of days in Rutland, returning to the lovely Forge Cottage in Egleton, very close to the edge of Rutland Water.

Finally, in July/August, it was back to France (giving our new-second-hand car - an excellent Nissan Tino - her first big outing. Like a Renault Scenic, but not French…). As before, we took half a week at either end of the holiday, using B&B accommodation (including a return visit to the lovely Valérie & Didier at Au Pre du Moulin in Clamanges, Champagne), with the two middle weeks in separate self-catering gites. The first was in the magnificent Auvergne, in the tiny village of St Austremoine. The views that we woke to daily, in sensational weather, were stunning.

From here, we continued to the extreme south, and spent a week in the lovely Gîtes de Barès in Labastide-Paumès, midi-Pyrenees. Nicolas and Wil, the delightful Dutch owners, have done a wonderful job in creating three lovely holiday apartments; once more, we were fortunate enough to have superb views, this time from the balcony on which we sat in the evening to play crib across the wine-bottle! With sunflower fields in the foreground and (even in that heat) snow-covered mountains in the background, it took some beating.

The holiday would take the whole of this letter to describe, but suffice to say that the walks, restaurants, churches, markets, exhibitions, and the rest kept us extremely happy for three weeks.

And next? Well, Cassie is already into rehearsals for Come Back to the 5 and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean (deep Texas - if you know the film, it's the part played by Cher!) and this is followed by Belinda/Flavia in the glorious farce, Noises Off. We look forward to Christmas with mum & dad, and Dad's cousin Fred. Cassie's dad celebrates his 80th birthday next month, so that will be another family do, which all being well Jenny and the family will be here for.

Reading this back, it does sound mostly rather idyllic. That's not to say that we haven't had our moments (from the odd dash of parish politics to continuing foot injury preventing Cassie's return to running, from difficult economic times for everybody to line-learning panics) - but, frankly, we thought you'd prefer to hear about happy holidays, beautiful places, music, meals and delightful friends!

We hope that, for you too, the joyful and exciting times have outweighed the harder moments; and that for us all, 2010 gives us many more opportunities to rejoice - and to see as many of you this year as we can!

With our love as always

Selwyn & Cassie