Adventure

Mrs Pighills, Teacher Of Social Studies, Watching In Peace

Here’s a sad tale but also one that brings back fond memories that make me smile.

We all remember our school teachers but some stick in our minds more than others. I grew up in a small Yorkshire town and attended the local comprehensive school. Some of my teachers are now just names, blurred faces and obscure leather patches on the elbows. Others remain in perfect focus. One of those teachers who, nearly 40 years later, is still as clear in my mind as the day I first met her is Mrs Pighills. Perhaps it was the curious name. Perhaps it was her distinctive voice. Perhaps I liked her lessons – ‘social studies’ – or her teaching style. Perhaps it was the fact that she lived at the top of the hill on the side of which I also lived. Perhaps it was because her husband was a farmer and that we could see his sheep from her classroom… Who knows? Perhaps all of these and many more.

I went to university, Mrs Pighills continued teaching…

In 2015 I returned to live in that small Yorkshire town. I also happened to start working at the school – Brooksbank School – where I had once been a pupil and where Mrs Pighills had once been a teacher, although she had long since retired. One day I was handed a handwritten envelope by one of my new colleagues:

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That colleague was Ben Mounsey. Some of you may know him as a fell runner of international renown but I knew him as a fellow teacher and, crucially to this story, the grandson of Mrs Pighills. The  letter started as follows:

“Blackley. 4th Feb.

Another dark morning, rain, mist, cold, get back into bed again where it’s warm and cosy. I’m not an early riser in winter until the clocks move forward.”

I was initially somewhat confused but kept reading.

“Get up earlier, not every day at 86. Family probably coming round bearing gifts. I keep telling them I’ve everything I need. Daughter has brought books. She’s not a reader like my son and I. We could spend the whole day with a book. Probably not my sort but will show willing. 

Crossing Europe with Reggie (with a bike?). It’s all I wanted as a child. Enid Blyton and the Famous 5. But doesn’t seem promising, page after page, date, heading, one diagram.”

The beautifully handwritten letter was, of course, from Mrs Pighills, my former teacher of social studies. She had been given a copy of my first book and, despite her initial scepticism, appeared to have enjoyed my two-wheeled adventure and was keen to keep reading.

“…it brought back many memories of the times we have had wandering across Europe. 

I look forward to book 2 because I took my grandson on a tour of Greece in 2000 to see all the classical sights… and then connect up with your ride through Italy to France.”

She signed off with warm wishes.

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As you can imagine, one of the nicest things about having written the books is hearing from readers who have enjoyed the experience of travelling, albeit vicariously, alongside me from one end of the continent to the other. In our 21st Century world of instant Internet communication, however, I have only ever received one handwritten letter; the one from Mrs Pighills. That in itself made the letter special. The fact that it had come from a fondly remembered teacher who had taught me all about the geography and history of our world under the auspices of ‘social studies’ made the letter extra special.

IMG_0665I arranged with Ben to pay his grandmother, Mabel, a visit. She still lived in the same house at the top of the same hill and she welcomed me with a smile. She told me more about the travels that she had embarked upon across Europe and more of her life on the small farm near Blackley. Her voice was just as distinctive and her kindly demeanour just as warm. As our conversation drew to a close, I was delighted to be able to give her a copy of the third book and express my hope that she would enjoy it just as much as the first two. Of all the many encounters that I have had as a result of writing the books, it had been the most touching. Perhaps even, despite its simplicity, the most memorable.

You have probably guessed how this tale is going to end. Yesterday I received a message from Ben. His grandmother passed away last week. “She thought a lot about you and loved reading your books”, he commented. Those words are incredibly humbling and this morning I re-read the original letter that I had received back in early 2017.

“When I joined Brooksbank I learnt all about camping – 17 years of it. I bought a tent – we now have 5, a car when my son was 20 and we were away. England first then Norway (because I read there were only 5 cars per mile.) How wonderful to experience the Arctic Circle on a hot summer day and talk with a Laplander…

I probably won’t be able to read your next book but I could be sitting on a cloud watching you…”

Well, Mabel (or as I prefer to call you, Mrs Pighills), you are now on that cloud looking down. Thank-you again for your kind, supportive words. You will be much missed by those who knew you; as a teacher, as a mother, as a grandmother or as simply a nice lady who lived at the top of the hill. When I next set off on a long ride, I’ll be sure to look up and check that you are indeed watching, not just resting, in peace.

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Categories: Adventure, Cycling, Travel

12 replies »

  1. Wonderfull. Brought some memories – social science teacher called Miss Bellchambers – some names are not easy to forget. Mabel is a name I’ve rarely heard, perhaps I live in the wrong part of the country. I did have a great aunt Mab (took me a while to discover it was short for Mabel) who was crippled with arthritis. She spent her time knitting – her deformed hands fitted round the needles nicely – but said she dreamed of running and running and running .. . . . ..

  2. Loved the story. We met Mabel and her husband, Trevor, on a genealogical trip to the UK in 1998. Turned out they lived in the home my husband’s great great grandparents had lived in during the 1870’s and before. We met Trevor walking his dog in the Blackley Baptist Church cemetery and after a brief conversation learned that his house had indeed been my husband’s ancestral home. Trevor then invited us into his home to meet Mabel, and they graciously took us on a tour pointing out original features as well as all the improvements they had made. And as they say, the rest is history. Mabel and I have been pen pals ever since. Mabel was a warm and gracious lady and I will miss her and her beautifully handwritten letters.
    Jackie Hepworth

  3. Of all the kind messages over the last week from people who knew my Grandma, this is the one that has brought more than a tear to my eye. Thank you so much for your kind and humble words about her. She loved reading your books, following your adventures and of course, thought the world of you. I know how happy she would be to read this post. It’s a perfect and very fitting tribute and very much appreciated by us all.
    Ben and family x

    • She was a lovely lady Ben and I’m delighted that I had the opportunity of meeting her again after such a long gap. Perhaps Brooksbank should bring back Social Studies in her honour. Then again, perhaps not… Hope everything over the next few days and weeks goes as well as it can. A.

  4. A fine tribute and sad news, at the same time, Andrew. A lot of people treasured her as a colleague too, myself included. She crocheted a shawl for my son when he was born. I should have got her to read my cycling blog. Never thought. RIP, Mabel.

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