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:
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.
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.
I 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.