Thursday, 26 April 2018

A new bag from Pittards at Yeovil

I wasted no time in looking around for a smaller leather bag with a cross-body strap. I thought it might take quite a while to find exactly what I wanted, but in fact it took only thirteen days.

There were two obvious approaches. One was to look on the Internet for what the big brands were presently offering, either as 'new in' or in a sale. But this could only give me an impression of what a possible bag might be like in real life. It might not be exactly the colour, dimensions or weight expected. Or somehow not be as classy as its depiction onscreen - something about the leather, or the stitching, not being quite right. As with clothing, it was best to handle the goods before seriously thinking of buying. Consulting the internet was however useful for getting a feel for styling and trends - and current prices! I knew I was letting myself in for significant outlay. It wasn't in me to settle for something cheap. You have to pay for quality. But I wasn't looking for a fashion bag. It would be good-looking, but free of unnecessary decoration. Above all, practical and robust - a bag to take a lot of use and last a long time.

Touring the shops was therefore the next step. I was on holiday. I went to Hereford. Nothing meeting my requirements there. Nor at touristy Hay-on-Wye. A lady in a bag shop in Ross-on-Wye suggested that I go to Clarks Village at Street in Somerset. I'd never been there before, so this sounded both interesting and promising.

And it was. I'd imagined that Clarks Village was devoted solely to Clarks products, and catered mainly for coach parties wanting a shoe bargain and a quick coffee. Not at all. It was a comprehensive and sophisticated shopping centre for those wanting leisure apparel and accessories, especially leather goods. Many big brands had their own shops there. In the handbag department I noticed, for instance, Radley and Fiorelli and Osprey. There was Hobbs too. The two shops that were best-stocked with what I was looking for were Radley and a shop called Pittards (whom I'd not heard of before). I liked what I found in Pittards, but as I'd bought Radley bags before and found them good, I concentrated my efforts there. I nearly bought this bag, which Radley named 'Trinity Square':


What stopped me? The main thing was the price. These were all 'outlet shops', which meant they stocked goods at particularly keen prices, all the regular High Street offerings included. A retail centre like Clarks Village (or Gunwharf Quays in Portsmouth, to think of another location I'd been to in the past), offered stuff at prices near to what you'd pay online, but made it a proper shopping experience. I was therefore expecting the cost of this Radley bag to be not more than £120. But they wanted £160 for it. The 'full' price was £229, so £160 represented a 30% discount. But it was still too expensive. I'd rather stick with my well-loved orange bag than pay so much. There were other, more minor things too. The fussy strap wasn't all that comfortable, and I wasn't keen on the pink-gold metal fittings, which Radley seemed to have introduced in a big way lately. Still, Radley was clearly a very decent brand, worth keeping in mind. But I went back to the Pittards shop before leaving the Village, having been impressed with the feel of the leather used in their bags, and indeed their general finish. There had been a selection of small bucket bags that had particularly caught my eye. I decided to look up Pittard on the Internet, and see what they were all about.

One thing my visit to Clarks Village had made me reconsider was the colour of whatever bag I ended up buying. I'd thought black would be best. It was not exciting as colours went, but it would go with anything. But at home I already had a glitzy black bag (the Prada), a bright red bag (the Karen Millen), and of course I'd been using the orange bag (bought in Florence) for a very long time. I didn't really want a new bag in one of these colours. That left grey, white, pink, yellow, green, blue and purple. The first four colours would quickly look drab and dingey with intensive use. No to them, then. I disliked purple. That left blue and green. Blue would go with many more things than green would. So I was now leaning towards a blue bag. And on Pittards' website were those small bucket bags - one was blue with a tan strap. The 'full' price was said to be £195, and the online price (with clearly a 40% discount) was £117. The sort of price I knew I'd have to pay for a well-made leather bag from a respected maker.


It looked just right. But of course I'd want to examine it. I noticed that Pittards were based in Somerset, with a factory and shop at Yeovil, just an hour away from Cheddar. It would make a nice trip. And surely the gods were nudging me to go and see. Google Maps gave the precise location, on the A30 Sherborne road, close to Yeovil Pen Mill station.


So yesterday morning I set forth at 10.00am, duly arriving at Pittards ay 11.00am.

The shop was magnificent. Here are various views. Everything you could buy in leather, clothing included. Ladies' bags were just a part of it all.


I found the little blue and tan bag I'd seen on the website. It wasn't a regular blue - more blue-green I thought. That made it interesting. I'd liked a blue bag in the Hobbs shop back at Clarks Village, but it had been an 'ordinary' blue, and had seemed dull. This wasn't in the least dull. The tan straps went with this blue very well. And as it aged, it wouldn't ever look grubby. I took it to the till. The price was £136.50. They gave a 30% discount in the shop. OK, it was acceptable. I paid (using Google Pay), and adjourned to their café to contemplate my exciting purchase over coffee and cake. I immediately transferred most of the things in my orange Florence bag to the new blue Pittards bag. They went in fine.


And here's me in the café loo, wearing the new bag.


It looked good in Fiona, too.


Actually, I was glad that I'd found a suitable small bag without having to trek into a big city or town. Bristol and Bath were obvious places to go bag-hunting, but I hadn't relished the thought of driving to them, trying to park in them, and then tramping their crowded streets. The hassle would have detracted greatly from the bag-buying experience! But I'd avoided all that.

There was more to see at Pittards. They had a section full of leather offcuts, for those wanting to make their own leather goods. Truly an Aladdin's Cave!


I bought these blue and tan offcuts, in case I wanted to make an internal pouch or shoulder pad to match the bag or strap:


What next? I drove off to Shaftesbury, then back to Cheddar, through a series of heavy downpours - it being a day of both sunshine and torrential rain. Somehow I managed to look around Shaftesbury, and return to Fiona, without getting soaked. Similarly at Waitrose at Gillingham on the way back. All the time, the new bag seemed easy to wear, and not impractically small. It swallowed, for instance, an events programme from the Shaftesbury Arts Centre. It didn't actually feel feather-light when loaded up, but then half of that weight was Tigerlily, my large Samsung Galaxy S8+ mobile phone; and if I had the phone in my hand (for photography) it made a difference.

Back at the caravan, a warm, sunny late-afternoon developed. Strangely, the colour of the new bag seemed to change from blue to green. I suppose the warmer light was responsible for that. If it clouded over, and the light became cooler, then the bag reverted to being blue or blue-green again. To a large extent, this could have been just my eyesight. I have always had difficulty in distinguishing some shades of blue from green. Turquoise and aqua are both a problem. This slight flaw in my colour vision isn't often an issue, of course. Tigerlily's camera (which presumaby sees true colour, correctly colour-balanced at the Samsung factory) records a blue bag in my shots, not a green one, even in warm sunlight. I can see this in the photos, even if I can't always see it in real life:


I feel rather sorry for the orange Florence bag, of course. But I haven't abandoned my old friend, and if I need to carry a cardigan or umbrella or water bottle for any distance, it will still be my bag of choice. We've got a long history together, and I'm very fond of that orange bag. It's just that inside, at the moment, it's most empty space, and I can justify a more compact bag option. Now I've got it.

As a footnote, I see that the Pittards' website presently shows my new bag as being 'out of stock'. It wasn't when I first looked two days ago. Did they have a sudden run on them, at least the ones in that colour? Did the higher shop price reflect their restricted availability? Who knows: bag pricing - the price of ladies' fashion items generally - is an arcane science, hardly comprehensible to the lay person. But I suspect the prices do faithfully (and ruthlessly) reflect availablity and customer demand, like the prices of ferry or airline tickets.

And to end, here is my new bag as currently shown and described on Pittards' website:



Sunday, 15 April 2018

Shaking the lead out of my bag

I recall an old black-and-white Bob Hope/Bing Crosby comedy film, called Road to Rio I think, in which there is a sub-plot involving a band of dusty desperadoes who are riding furiously to get to some place in time, as if they were the proverbial Seventh Cavalry coming to the rescue. I mean really riding hard, galloping like crazy. Every now and then the film, which otherwise concerns the languid amorous adventures of Bob and Bing, cuts to these horsemen, and each time their leader turns around in his saddle and shouts something to make everyone ride even faster. On one occasion, when they are already clearly exceeding the speed of light, it's 'Shake the lead out of your horses!' For some reason this line has always stuck with me. I'd love to say the same thing if I get the chance.

Anyway, going cashless - using my phone as the main way of paying - seems like a great opportunity to shake the lead out of my big orange bag. In other words, to conduct a deep rationalisation process, so that I'm less weighed down with all manner of 'just in case' stuff, and can gallop to the rescue that much more easily.  

I'm thinking, for instance, that I need to get rid of the traditional purse, containing not only money but a mass of sundry items like my driving licence, plastic cards galore, stamps, and a collection of business cards. Do I really need to keep all this with me? In one big purse?

A purse is an obvious target for theft, easily snatched or lifted, and most of the things kept in it are rarely needed from day to day, and certainly not when at the till in my usual shops. A lot of it could be left at home, where it would be more secure anyway. The essential stuff (driving licence, loyalty cards, membership cards) could go into a handy little wallet - very easily carried, very easily concealed. This little wallet, the all-purpose phone, and my keys, would be my minimum bare-bones kit for going out.

I wouldn't need much of a bag, if carrying only this: it could be something small and sweet - not too fancy a brand, not too expensive - with a cross-body strap to keep both hands free. Something you could easily keep an eye on, or wear all the time, even when seated. Something you could even wear under a coat without looking odd. All this might be important in busy crowded places where the light-fingered lurk.

I suppose I'd still have to carry a small cache of emergency banknotes and coins. Mostly notes, enough to get me home. Plus of course lipstick, comb and tissues. And perhaps a little torch. Maybe a pen too. But no more: I'd make it a principle to be as lightly encumbered as possible.

What about umbrella, scarf, gloves, and cardigan? Well, coats and jackets have pockets. Pockets are not just for tissues. And I do have a shopping bag. And a wicker basket. And indeed an under-used rucksack. If I'm lightly-laden, might I go for long country walks more often?

Right. Thanks to Google Pay, I'm ready to streamline myself.

Saturday, 14 April 2018

The Serpent

This is about a posh silver bangle I bought for myself in Canterbury last December. It was so nice that for the first three months of ownership I kept it for best and did not wear it as a day-to-day item - just as I keep my pearls for special occasions. But recently this has changed. I've become accustomed to putting it on most days, and wearing it not only when out, but often at home as well. We've bonded. So I had better say something about it.

My bangle is not an ordinary design. It's like a coiled serpent. Here it is, resting on an Ian Rankin crime novel, apparently hissing away and poised to strike:


Actually it's harmless, and very friendly. I wouldn't have bought it, if it were in the least bit threatening. But the likeness to a real serpent does give it a certain animal quality. This isn't just an abstract design. It's got personality. No, I haven't given it a name! But I do refer to it as The Serpent.

I saw it in an upmarket jeweller's shop in Canterbury on 6th December 2017: Justin Richardson, near the Cathedral. (See http://www.justinrichardson.co.uk/) I was there with my cousin Rosemary. Her son is getting married shortly, and for the occasion she wanted Justin to enlarge a gold bracelet given to her long ago by her late husband Mick, using the gold from two rings that no longer fitted and could be melted down. Her husband had bought bracelet and rings in Saudi Arabia, and they were very yellow indeed, almost pure gold. Mick had been dead for twenty-eight years. Refurbishing and wearing the bracelet was a way of his being represented at his son's wedding.

While Rosemary discussed with Justin the best ways to use the gold from the rings to insert a new section in the bracelet to make it fit her wrist, I cast an eye at the gorgeous pieces of jewellery in the display cabinets. I dismissed the gold items: not for me. But the silver items now...

And there it was. The Serpent. Gosh, it was £300. But what a nice thing.

What's your attitude to nice things? Mine is to think carefully about why I take an immediate liking to them, and then consider practical things - such as whether they would be fit for purpose and truly affordable.

'Fit for purpose' in this case meant that the bangle would have to fit my wrist, be comfortable to wear, and easy to get on and off. It mustn't be delicate and likely to get damaged easily. There mustn't be mechanisms (like hinges and catches) that would wear and loosen with time, and perhaps come undone unexpectedly. The piece mustn't catch on clothing.

Finally, could I afford to buy it? £300 was not too much to pay for an unusual piece from a jeweller who made his own jewellery, but it was still a fair bit. But the end of the year was always a good time for my finances - the year's big bills being all out of the way - and I could easily find the money.

I asked Justin about the bangle. He said that he'd had some silver left over from a commission, and used it to make this one-off piece. That was a while back. Hmm. Well, the thing was definitely appealing. Here is was, with its shop tag on, begging to be put on my wrist. Dare I?


Rosemary is a sensible, no-nonsense woman of seventy, a retired headmistress. She admired it. She thought it was a superior item of silver jewellery. That impressed me. Her approbation wasn't essential, but it meant a lot to me. Justin didn't push the sale. He did however suggest a way of wearing it, with the head of the serpent pointing forward over the top of the hand, that made it look particularly attractive for an evening occasion - for instance, a long-dress candlelit dinner with friends. I put it on. I saw what he meant. My goodness, it did look good. I imagined such dinners. And other events, at home or on holiday, where I might want to wear something special.

Need I say more? After Justin had taken the tags off and polished it up, and I'd flashed my credit card, I walked out of the shop with the thing on my wrist. I fancied that passers-by were eyeing my new bangle. Let 'em.

Not long afterwards, Rosemary and I had tea in Nasons. The excitement hadn't worn off one bit. Rosemary took this shot with my phone.


Back at Melford Hall, I studied my purchase. 38g of silver, as bullion worth maybe £12. So nearly all the value was in the design and the making. Presumably a molten blob of silver, extruded into a long tail which curled back on itself just a little bit at the tip. The whole thing shaped into a closed ring. But then the 'head' had been angled, so that a gap was made for a baroness's wrist to slide through. I was surprised that my wrist was slim enough for this gap, but it was. I shook my wrist about, but try as I might the bangle wouldn't come off. It was secure then. It greatly appealed that this was a strong piece, with no moving parts, thick enough to resist bending and other damage, and bare of fussy detail. My kind of jewellery.


It was of course hallmarked.


JR for the maker, Justin Richardson. The lion and 925 denoting Sterling Silver. The leopard's head meaning assayed in London. The year letter 'n' saying it was assayed in 2012, and the Queen's head to confirm the year - it was her Diamond Jubliee Year. It was also the year of my 60th birthday. So, in a way, I could regard this bangle as a belated 60th birthday commemoration piece, bought in the year of my 65th birthday. 

My local friends liked my new wristwear. They all tried it on. Jackie, Jo and Valerie:


It was too big for Valerie's wrist. But the other two ladies could have worn it with no problems. Jo was especially reluctant to take it off. (Hey, it's mine. Give it back!)

An item like this might be suitable for either wrist, and The Serpent could face forwards or backwards. 

Four positions to try out then. I discovered they were all different, as regards how the bangle sat on each wrist, and how it could shift about as I moved arm or hand in various ways. Then there were convenience factors: for instance, if I wore the thing on my right wrist, it got tangled up with the lanyard on my phone - and remember, I'm constantly using the phone as a camera, with that lanyard looped over my wrist, many times during the day. 

I have settled on wearing The Serpent on my left wrist, with the head facing me, on the inside of the wrist. The tail then normally grips the small mound of flesh at the bottom right of my palm, and the bangle as a whole stays put. Unless I choose to slide it up my arm - which happens anyway when I'm driving.

It's still early days, but it looks as it The Serpent will become part of my permanent jewellery set, one of the items I am most often seen wearing. If pleasant or lucky things keep happening when I'm wearing it, I may begin to regard it as a talisman of good fortune. Not that I'm superstitious, but you never know.  

Thursday, 12 April 2018

Going cashless

Whoops. Somehow this post got published when only half-written. It's complete now, but you may need to read it again!

Ah...that went all right. Rather well, in fact.

I thought it ought to, but you never know. And I didn't want to faff around, wasting time, getting embarrassed, getting flustered, and then in the end having to abandon the process and try another way to do it.

But no, the thing went smoothly. And very soon afterwards I got the expected transaction details on the phone screen, as a notification; and then in the app itself, under 'Recent Transactions'. To be viewed whenever convenient. I referred to them once home again, so that I could update Money Diary, my self-designed spreadsheet that records all cash, bank, and credit card transactions and shows me my precise financial position for the rest of the Pension Month.

All done without paper. And all without actually having to physically show my credit card, nor reveal its number. Nor (so far) without having to key in my PIN, with the risk that someone watching over my shoulder might see where my fingers go.

I'd just paid for a cut and blow-dry at Oliver Cunningham, the salon I go to in Cuckfield. I was trying out Google Pay for the very first time. This is the payment app for mobile phones created by Google. I had installed it on Tigerlily only the previous evening. Now I knew that it worked as advertised. A major step, then, along my personal road to a Cashless World.

Mind you, that visit to Oliver Cunningham's wasn't entirely cashless. I did slip a discreet fiver to Morgan as a personal tip - so cash still has that specialised role to play! But the main transaction was paid for simply by holding the phone very close to the salon's payment keypad and waiting for a tick to appear on Tigerlily's screen.

Gosh, it was almost instant. In fact so quick that it took me by surprise. Wow! That was very cool.

After Oliver Cunningham I went off to Jeremy's Two, an out-of-town roadside fruit/veg-cum-butchers shop south of Cowfold, and repeated my Google Pay trick. Once again the transaction was near-instant. Google's message about the money paid came through very soon afterwards, while I was still parked outside (I've redacted the card number):


That's only a temporary message. It replaced the first, about the Oliver Cunningham transaction, and will be replaced in turn by the next Google Play transaction. But the app itself lists all 'recent transactions', and slightly briefer details of each of my first two payments were there (and indeed on the credit card website also):


I imagine that several transactions will get shown before they begin to slip off-screen and into oblivion. But well before then, I'll have popped them into my spreadsheet, recorded for all time, to be read by aliens (or the descendants of mankind) eons hence.

Henceforth I may be able to leave my purse hidden in my bag, unless I need to get out some ID, or a loyalty card. I see that Google Pay lets you register these. Do Google mean my Boots and Waitrose cards? I'd better look into it. But it does look as if the phone is all I will now need, for most payment situations.

There were of course a couple of preliminary things I had to attend to, so that this electronic magic was possible.

Google Pay had to be set up with a default payment card. But that was as simple as confirming that the card they already knew about - the one used on Google Play - was my choice for Google Pay too.

And then I had to configure the phone settings to make the NFC (Near Field Communication) on/off screen button easily available. I didn't want NFC on all of the time - only when I knew that I would be making a payment shortly. Turning NFC on - and then off again afterwards - had to be quick and slick. But really it was no problem at all to get this set up.

So there I was: with the minimum of fuss, Google Pay enabled, and ready to go.

But why? Why now? And why use the phone? After all, cash isn't a dead duck yet.

A number of things had come together over the last year or so:

# It was becoming ever more socially acceptable to pay for practically anything with a credit card, partly because prices had risen and the number of very small transactions seemed fewer. I'd been startled to see people paying for ordinary drinks at a pub bar in New Zealand in 2007, eleven years ago. It wasn't a strange thing now.
# The closure of bank branches had made life for traders and retailers more difficult. They had further to go, in order to physically bank their cash takings. And travelling with cash was always a risky procedure for the staff doing it. I felt they now preferred card payment, even if they hadn't in the past.
# It seemed to me that a lot of coin-operated machines were going to wear out in the next couple of years. I was already paying for half of my car parking by phone, as roadside meters disappeared. It might soon become normal to make electronic payment (via mobile internet, or NFC) for many things. A good thing, in busy situations where transaction time mattered: supermarket checkouts, road bridge tolls, train tickets, toilets...
# Cash dispensers were likely to get fewer, as LINK made them less profitable for providers. Or an exorbitant charge would be made, that I for one wouldn't be willing to pay. One way around this was to draw cash less frequently, and use less of it, so each withdrawal lasted longer.
# I didn't like the bad-hygiene aspects of cash - grubby-looking bank notes touched by who knows how many unclean hands...and coins even worse.
# Old age was not far off. I didn't want it to fossilise my attitudes. I didn't want to be thought fuddy-duddy. I needed to be modern and up-to-date and adaptable, and not get stuck in an old-fashioned cash-only world, with an old-fashioned cash-only mindset.
# Keeping faith with cash might end up implying dishonesty, or at least a dark motive for paying in an untraceable way, such as tax evasion. Not for me.
# My purse - bought back in 2009 - was getting tatty and needed replacement: indeed the zip on the coin section had already failed. The new purse would be posh and stylish (naturally) but if its main contents were not to be notes and coin, it could also be small and exquisite.
# I hadn't forgotten the occasion in Brighton some years back when a wad of notes fell out of my purse one dark evening, and was snatched away by the wind. I had a torch in my bag, but I didn't find all of them. An important £40 stayed missing.
# I was regularly taking unwanted small-denomination coins to the Burgess Hill library. Everything below 20p in fact. Coins were in fact a perennial nuisance: not worth much, heavy to carry if you had enough of them to be useful, and when fumbling in the car liable to slip away into inaccessible nooks and crannies. I wasn't sentimental about British decimal coinage. I remembered with affection the old pre-decimal coins, the coins we used up to February 1971. Now they had character. The ones churned out since then were mere tokens, uninspiring bits of metal, and I resented having to deal with them.
# Banknotes were a little more interesting, and much more practical. But necessarily a high-quality product that must cost zillions to manufacture and replace when too worn or torn.
# I wanted to go ever more paperless. Electronic, contactless payment offered the chance to forego hoarding paper receipts that were only thrown away once checked against bank and credit card statements.
# In any case, retailers were starting not to offer a receipt automatically. You had to confirm you wanted one, or even expressly request one. The time would come when their payment machines wouldn't have a roll of paper inside for printing out a receipt.

But I had several reservations to overcome, before moving over (almost completely) to various electronic forms of payment.

1. A very, very easy payment procedure might encourage unthinking or reckless expenditure.
2. I'd definitely need to keep track of what I was spending - but would there be a receipt?
3. Contactless payments would lead to PINs slipping from my memory.
4. What if the payment card used were lost, damaged or stolen?
5. If using a mobile phone, what if that were lost, damaged, or stolen? Or ran out of charge?

Being disciplined about maintaining a series of financial spreadsheets, and constantly updating them, was my answer to impulse spending. I was always able to decide whether something was really affordable. This worked, if I were prepared to be rational and sensible.  (All the time, of course)

As for receipts, I was cheered to learn that Google Pay would send a near-instant electronic message to the phone after each transaction, saying what had just been spent and where. (So I'd know, and wouldn't overlook spending the money. And the lack of a paper receipt wouldn't matter)

There was nothing to be done about forgetting PINs except to note them down in a password-protected encrypted space for occasional retrieval.

I reasoned that it was easier to mislay a card than a phone, and so the best strategy here was to use a phone for payment, and keep the card in reserve, safely hidden. I keep my phone with me 24/7, and if using it in public I loop the lanyard around my wrist, so that we do not part company by accident nor through somebody snatching it. I'm obsessive about battery charge too.

So my reservations have dissolved. Suddenly my spreadsheet shows 'Google Pay' in the 'type of payment' column. Should I make 12th April 2018 an historically-important date to remember annually, as the day I went cashless (almost)?

Sequel
I've now set up my Boots and Waitrose cards on Google Pay, so that when I present my phone at payment time the appropriate store card should kick in and award me points or whatever. Well, should do! We'll see.

Further sequel on 14th April
I shopped in both Boots and Waitrose today, and each time paid using Google Pay on the phone. Neither my Boots Advantage card nor my My Waitrose card got updated with these transactions. So it can't all be done by using the phone. Next time I'll have to present these cards before paying, which means getting out my purse after all. Sigh.

Wednesday, 4 April 2018

Meeting Lucy Worsley


Dr Lucy Worsley is of course the well-known historian and Head Curator of the Historic Royal Palaces, often seen on TV, but also the author of several books on interesting and intriguing aspects of social history. While I was down in North Devon, she was giving a talk about the early nineteenth century author Jane Austen, whose classic novels - each combining a sure-fire romantic story with wry social commentary - hardly need any introduction here. Lucy Worsley's purpose was not so much to promote her own recent book about the real-life Jane Austen and her background, but to give an entertaining talk about her family, her upbringing, her private life, and how the restrictive social conditions of the day affected her chances of happiness and personal fulfilment. 

She did it to a packed audience at The Plough Arts Centre at Great Torrington on Monday 26th March. I had secured a ticket in advance, way back in January, and had got myself a good seat. But I was amazed to learn (from talking to other people there) that many had booked seats well before Christmas! So I was in fact rather lucky not to find the event sold out.

Great Torrington is not exactly a place that buzzes after dark. It's a small, plain, inland Devon town: locally important but otherwise nothing very special, although it was the locality for a decisive Civil War battle in 1646, and is nowadays home to the Dartington Crystal Glass factory. The town has a nice old-world square in the centre, and it has a good feel, with friendly local shops, including an interesting 'pannier market'. The Plough Arts Centre is definitely the main cultural draw. If you want to see an arty film - or indeed a regular film - or study an exhibition of paintings, or attend a craft or drama workshop, or watch live comedy or talks, or just drop in to meet and eat with friends, then you come here. Really, it's the only bit of night-life in the town, unless you venture into one of the pubs (which I never have). Here's a plan of the place from the current events brochure. (Click on the picture to enlarge it)


Underneath that plan is my Lucy Worsley ticket, as it was before I went into the auditorium. Here it is again, larger.


Ooops! Somebody mis-spelt her name. I hope she didn't see that! At least it wasn't spelled Wurzely.

This was the front of the brochure. See if you can spot her face!


And this was the event description inside.


I dare say quite a lot of people would also have gone to see Griff Rhys-Jones two nights previously. It's a pretty good celebrity line-up for a small Devon town in March. If I'd ever moved down here - a notion I played with a couple of years ago - I would at least have had events like this to go to throughout the year. If not at Torrington, then at Barnstaple or Ilfracombe - or for certain at Plymouth, Exeter and Bristol.

The red blob in the brochure signifies that The Plough were offering a Meal Deal if you bought a ticket. I plumped for 'Spanish Chicken', which turned put to be this:


Hmm. It was somewhat lacking in Iberian passion - I didn't hear castanets clicking, nor frenzied flamenco guitars - but it was, for the price of £9.50, a perfectly good main course. And it was hot and tasty. I scoffed it with a glass of wine, and coffee to follow. I forewent a dessert. Later, I bought a second glass of wine to take into the auditorium, and then a third at the interval. All this (main course, coffee and three glasses of wine) came to only £20 - definitely good value then.

While drinking my coffee, I noticed this upcoming event in the brochure, apparently a free public meeting in the auditorium to discuss a proposal to build a trio of monster wind turbines, shaped like giant otters with revolving whiskers. (Click on the picture to enlarge it) It must be a spoof, surely? But of course you can't really tell. 


I decided to take my seat as soon as I could. That's why the auditorium looks a bit empty behind me in this picture... 


...but believe me, it soon filled up. By the time the lights were dimmed for Lucy Worsley to come on, as here, I couldn't see a single empty seat.


There were even people off to one side, perched on temporary seating set up for the overflow. They probably had less comfortable seats, although still a good view. 

I was a bit concerned about whether I could take photos or not. I saw a 'no photography or videos' notice near the auditorium entrance, but then, during the interval, I spotted another which suggested that only flash photography was prohibited. The Plough's current policy on members of the audience taking casual shots with their phones was nowhere to be found on their website, nor in the brochure. I decided that one or two quick snaps wouldn't offend anyone. I wish in fact that I'd taken more. Here, anyway, is Lucy Worsley on stage.


I wondered how she would be. The same as on TV? Actually, she was. I thought she came across as warm and engaging, lucid and enthusiastic about her subject, full of humour, and here and there touching on topics that were a bit risqué. For instance, she tackled the question of whether Jane Austen ever had sex. In her view, probably not. She was a rector's daughter, and belonged to the 'pseudo-gentry' - that class of educated people in Regency times who had a fragile social status between the impoverished 'lower classes' and the genuine aristocrats with land and a large income. The poor, with no social status whatever, might indulge in sex before marriage with a light heart, and happily tie the knot if a baby resulted. Apparently 30% of women in the period went to the altar with a bump on display. It was accepted as proof that the union would be fruitful, large families being the norm, and no especial shame was attached to it, provided the marriage went ahead before the actual birth. The aristocracy would of course have their fun with little concern for any consequences. But the pseudo-gentry couldn't afford to be so lax. They were forced to observe strict notions of respectability, and obey 'the rules'. For Jane Austen - no matter what the biological imperatives on her - pregnancy while still unmarried would have been a social disaster. And no doubt she feared the possibility of death in childbirth, which was still remarkably frequent.

Lucy Worsley's talk was full of similar interesting sidelights into the social realities of the period Jane Austen grew up in, and you could see how Jane's precarious position in society, dependent on a father with only a clergyman's income, and the uncertain charity of better-off family members, shaped her outlook and aspirations - and the subject-matter of her books.

During the interval, I bought the book. There were only a few copies left. Upstairs in the gallery the Zoë and Ric Hyde exhibition was still going on. I had another look at it. I don't suppose I will ever now get a chance to ask Ric Hyde what that painting was all about. I looked down onto the people having a drink and chatting. At smaller venues, there is space to breathe. My general experience of intervals is that it's hardly ever worth the effort of leaving your seat for a drink. The queue at the bar is often impossible. I suppose that's why they always suggest that you pre-order your drinks.


Back in the auditorium, it was soon question-time, and - would you believe it? - I took the mike and actually asked Lucy Worsley whether, in her last (and unfinished) book Sanditon, Jane Austen had begun to get rather political in her satire of the world as she saw it. How bold of me! Lucy corrected me at once, by saying that in every book she ever wrote Jane had been subtly (or even blatantly) political. But the question enabled her to say much about Sanditon and Jane's final days of poor health and eventual death.

Jane died pretty young. She was only forty-one. What she died of is not certain, but it seems her health may have been compromised from birth, and she simply grew weaker and weaker and died. It was such a shame: she was on the verge of making a good income from her writing, and had she survived she would have achieved financial independence and enjoyed a more comfortable life altogether.

Well, I did enjoy seeing Lucy Worsley live. The only slight disappointment was that, contrary to what she does on TV, she made no attempt to get into period kit. (Damn, I should have asked her why not) Still, there was still the chance to exchange a few words as she signed my book. I joined a long queue.


Talking with other people in the queue, the common theory was that she couldn't be staying anywhere in Torrington. She might indeed have come up from Exeter that evening (about an hour's drive), and was facing a late-evening return journey in the rain. If so, she seemed in no great hurry to rush the signings and depart. Which is a display of very good manners, in my view. She had a little to say to everyone. When it was my turn, I said that I'd thoroughly enjoyed her talk, and that as we were namesakes, could she put 'To Lucy' in the book I'd bought? 'Ah,' she said to me, 'What an excellent name Lucy is!' And so I ended up with this:


The girl behind me was on next. Her mum was instructed to take a picture of her talking to Lucy Worsley. I stood next to that mum, and got a couple of nice shots in too.


I was very tempted to linger, in case Lucy Worsley was going to have a last coffee before departing, and perhaps an informal chat with anyone still around. But the remaining queue was still long, and I thought I'd better quit while ahead. So, with a slight sense of anti-climax, I stepped out into the drizzle.

I'd been a Lucy Worsley fan before this. Even more so now. I do hope the book is a meaty read.