Monday, 26 September 2016

Radiance and Memorial at Ely

Climb the stairs,
see the struts and rafters,
flaking paint and wooden beams,
this entangled, behind-the-scenes structure,
rising discreetly
through cathedral grandeur
above city hubbub and fen majesty,
breaking out
into eight sided glory,
light shafting in
from east and west,
north and south
as the day moves
through its paces.
Octagon of splendour
replacing dark, medieval tower
torn down by gravity
and weathering
to worshippers' delight.
They recognised oppression
and release,
knew shadows hid places
sun's rays should expose,
saw clearly opportunity
and celebrated unexpected light
releasing building and people
to a thousand years
of radiance.

© Revd Phil Sharkey 2016 'The All Seeing Eye'

Climb high
and find another piece 
of Ely's story.
This octagon,
built for bright hope,
now, in a war-wracked summer,
intriguingly enfolds
to itself another tale,
hides it well
in mother church's breast.
As boots ascend
and karkhi legs
brush cobwebbed walls,
irreverent cigarette butt
falling, unnoticed, here,
railway ticket (soon to be missed at station booth)
dropped there,
this great fen ship
receives into its wooden frame names 
etched in pencil - black and red, 
prophetic shades of soil and blood -
signatures of soldier lads
who've come to tea 
and evensong
and a last long look across the fenland 
to the villages of their birth.

Climb to witness
on eight tall shutters this record
of spirited, youthful soldier pals
from dyke-side hamlets
to which scarce few returned,
a secret, sombre memorial
carved in the heady expectation
of a summer's afternoon,
read now in winter gloom
with chilly hindsight;
a hundred years since
clear young lungs
made short work
of eight score stairs and five,
jostled and joked 
at the sudden view
of drains and meres that nurtured them
never before seen from so far above.
No shadow of gas or gangrene or trench,
no care for shell or fire or bullet
yet oppressing mind and soul.

© Revd Phil Sharkey 2016 'Octagon Floodlit'

Each went out to dark or glory,
Ely's octagon recording
only their names
and, by direction,
the village of their birth.
The fenland offered up her best;
they disappeared
as silently as if marsh mists 
had swallowed up her own,
Saint Etheldreda's church  
holding the secret
and shedding light
in equal measure
this hundred years,
loyal to sons
whose growing up she oversaw
with ecclesial distance
and whom she now celebrates
with circumspect pride,
holding for history's gaze
a tale of lives too short
and wars unstoppable.

Daily prayers in her community
still beseech the throwing down  
of dark towers cradling enmity,
still reach up to light,
entreating the Divine with clumsy words
to illumine and permute
wellheads of strife and conflict
breathed, as they are, beneath
this humane structure
of lightsome hospitality.

©Janet Henderson 26th September 2016 

@ Revd Phil Sharkey 2016 'Nave'

These beautiful photos of the octagon and aisle at Ely Cathedral were taken by Revd Phil Sharkey and used with his kind permission. I have long admired his wonderful photographs of Cambridgeshire and the Fens which always seem to me to capture the unique essence of the area - one which I grew to love during the years I lived in Cambridge and Wisbech. To contact Phil about his photos,

If you climb up into the octagon at Ely, you can see for yourself the signatures that imprinted themselves on my heart and cannot but lodge in the memory of anyone who reads them.

Untimely Funeral

I stand on the path outside the church
surrounded by unwilling mourners
tense with grief,
pain etched on every feature.
They seem shrunken into themselves,
these young people I have laughed
and sparred and tangled with
in school assemblies.
Last week was ordinary.
They'd moaned about exams,
played football, drunk beer, 
told parents half-truths about revising.
Now, suddenly,
life stands questioned, existence uncertain.
This is a funeral not like most.
A young man has taken his own life
and here, today, his friends stand, bereft, 
inheritors of questions that, as yet,
displace the memories. 
How could he? How could he not?
Is this the end? Is this our end?
The dank November air
is charged with a hundred
self-blaming, silent cries.
An occasional, gut-wrenched sob
breaks through, racking up the tension.

Minute by minute they come:
head teacher, looking studiously dignified
in college tie, form teacher distraught, crushed,
best mate he sat with that first day at infant school.
Friends sidle up quietly, embarrassed,
uncomfortable in their strangely formal clothes,
embracing with sudden fervour,
wishing to be anywhere but here,
looking to each other to help them stay.
Fifty, seventy, two hundred,
these are the young 
who have no developed vocabulary for grief,
no tried-out funeral behaviour.
They bring no previous experience,
no coping strategies or comfort rituals.
The rawness of their grief
pierces me, setting nerves on edge,
rendering me by turns numb and fearful,
soaked in the deluge of their despair,
pulled about and wearied
by the energy of their searching.
And lurking somewhere in the crowd,
between the sobs and hugs and brooding,
is rage. 
Pure bloody rage.

The hearse pulls up.
Involuntary intakes of breath and muffled cries
ripple through the assembly.
His father,
stepping from the car behind,
speaks for all, flinging his words
upwards, outwards
at the church.
'This is so wrong.'

©Janet Henderson 26th September 2016

Saturday, 24 September 2016


Bed bound
gazing from a window,
across a field and over a hedge.

Old woman
resident in a home,
the holiday she'll never have.

wracked by pain,
the next surge she can't endure.

charged to write a poem,
the scene she half imagines but cannot finish.

the different, new silence
to which the music returns.

atop a mountain,
the place where sky and land meet.

D.H. Lawrence,
the hopeful, brave voyage begun,
the next shore, as yet unseen.

immersed in story and metaphor,
the unseen worlds outside this one.

Or if faith and trust dim, you may think
you will come to a place
where beyond must cease,
in contravention of all precedent.

Alps and Beyond ©Janet Henderson

@Janet Henderson 25th September 2016


Hebron, Welsh Calvinistic Methodist Chapel,
Abergele Road, Old Colwyn, built 1861

'Prynhawn da, Mr Williams, 
I see you have your granddaughter with you.'
I clutch Taid's hand
in the approach to Hebron's brown twin doors.
Neat blue hymnbooks
filled with sol-fa notation
placed into our gloved free hands,
we enter to the accompaniment
of Rhosymedre and sidelong glances.
Ducked head for a quick prayer,
'Dear God, please help me not get bored,
please make the sermon short,'
then look around as others are,
scanning for unexpected detail
to be shared and picked over later:
'Did you see Mrs Prosser's hat?'
'Gethin the butcher was late again.'
I'm the only child
and Taid slips me a peppermint.
The Sedd Fawr is filling up
with black-suited men
in stern faces whose job
is to look into your soul
and wisely nod as the preacher begins.
We stand to strains of O Iesu Mawr,
our voices gathering and swelling,
rich in harmony, transporting us
to mountain splendour
and sunset glory,
to slate-mine dank
and pier head fury
and all the wild, wild world
that Jesus sees and knows and calms.
A torrent sweeps over us,
words of protracted, interminable prayer
taking deep root in Taid's waistcoated breast,
finding resonance and echo there,
teasing my mind, half understood, half not,
wanting more, wanting less
this wintry Sunday evening
that lasts for ever,
held now in Hebron's spell
where judgement and outward severity
belie kindness,
and humble prayer overlies gentle pride
in kith and kin.
'I see Mr Williams brought his granddaughter,
but did you see them eating sweets?
She'll have to learn, you know.'

©Janet Henderson 24th September 2016

Thursday, 26 May 2016

A Place to Write

We call it the study,
a small room, book-lined and quiet,
just off the kitchen,
refuge from domestic hubbub
yet connected,
separated only by a curtain.

Here are brought the day's gleanings, 
enchanted moments
and knotty puzzles, 
shimmering wisps of inspiration
snatched up in memory
for later calm reflection,
piled, as it were, on desk
and floor, illuminated
by well-remembered characters
and stories that leap down
from bookshelves and nestle close
to nurture fresh adventure.

Here are learned contemplation 
and the discipline of daily wrestle,
crafting captured scenes into words
that yield up their essence
beneath a window
teased by lilac and honeysuckle
and, in autumn, falling damsons
that beak concentration. 

© Janet Henderson 26th May 2016

Saturday, 7 May 2016

Breakfast with a View

Kittens in the carob tree,
geckos on the wall,
waiters gliding to and fro
responsive to our call.

Bougainvillaea flowering
vivid pink, red, white,
pastizzi, croissants, almond cake
laid out for our delight.

Scrambled egg and sausage,
mushrooms, bacon, toast,
served on terrace with a view
of glistening Maltese coast.

To east of us, Comino,
and Xewkija's* handsome dome,
magic breakfast memories
stored up for taking home.

© Janet Henderson 7th May 2016

* pronounced shoo-key-a

Table Cat

He sits by your table to wait,
eyes lovingly fixed on your plate,
if it's fish, he'll appear in a trice
abandoning hunting for mice.

He's ginger or tabby or black
and seemingly one of a pack,
but, in truth, it's each cat for himself,
tracking down the best morsels by stealth.

He will woo you with eyes full of love,
wrapt attention trained on your each move,
but the second you lay down your fork
he'll disdainfully turn tail and walk.

He frequents secret harbour-side spots 
then at lunch down he jauntily trots,
warm place in the sun left behind,
whiskers eager to detect a good find.

And that, my dear friend, is your dish,
whether rabbit or lamb shank or fish,
for by charm to steal mouthfuls of that
is the work of a Gozitan cat.

© Janet Henderson 7th May 2016

Sunday, 1 May 2016

Ceridwen's Child

Where beauty fails to manifest
mother's love yearns to compensate
bestowing a poet's spirit
on Morfran. As Gwion Bach tends
inspiration's bubbling cauldron
it seems maternal care cannot
so readily be exercised
by proxy. A fatal error.

by Christopher Williams 1910

Awen's shining face of wisdom,
shekinah in a Celtic guise,
blinds Morda and causes Gwion's
young hand to tremble, a bard's fear
stirring, baleful, within his gut
as he licks the golden liquid 
clean - potion that seeds a lifetime's
toil chastening words to lyric flow.

Dropped kettle, the fire extinguished
beside Llyn Tegid's fertile shore,
catastrophe for progeny 
of Tegid Foel, Ceridwen's mate.
Dashed hopes and hastening feet proclaim
disturbance of the natural realm; 
hare, fish, bird, grain of corn pursued
by greyhound, otter, hawk and hen.*

What cosmic madness here at play?
Freakish mutation churns the air,
Ceridwen agitatedly
transformed again from hen to dame,
brings forth a child so fair of face
that all intent to seek revenge
for Gwion's theft of Morfran's draught
is stilled and soothed and lulled away.

How so? Not fickle mother-love
but hormone-drenched discovery 
accompanying every unsought birth,
love's copious elasticity
surprising the least welcomed, most
unplanned gestation. She wavers,
conflicted by first loyalty 
to Morfran, tender for this child.

Dark despair, solicitude, self  
doubting shame, or shrewd ambition
to cast this son upon the sea?
A second womb of coracle
lends leathery shelter to the boy
whose fearful voyage bears him south
to Aberdyfi's treacherous coast, 
Elffin ap Gwyddno's sanctuary.

Strange birth! Muses' conspiracy
evading natural law to gift
Wales her Ben Beirdd Taliesin,
an accoucheuse with subtle powers
to weave a cloth of words that sing
a nation's tales down centuries,
whose shining brow* cascades wisdom
ancient, mysterious, luminous.

©Janet Henderson May 2016

* Ceridwen and Gwion (after tasting the potion) possessed the power of metamorophosis. To avoid Ceridwen's wrath (because he had tasted and therefore stolen Morfran's inheritance of wisdom), Gwion changed successively into a hare, a fish, a bird and a grain of corn; she turned into a greyhound, an otter, and a hawk to pursue him and finally she became a hen and gobbled up the grain of corn. In her belly, it turned into a child and she became pregnant and gave birth to Taliesin.

** Taliesin means 'shining brow'.

This poem explores the birth of the Celtic poet Taliesin, a historical figure who lived, possibly, in the 6th century and whose poems capture struggles between rulers of the kingdoms that preceded present-day Wales, Scotland and north west England. He has also captured hearts and imaginations down the ages.

Ceridwen - Taliesin's mother variously portrayed as goddess of birth, transformation, 
                   poetic inspiration and sorceress  
Morfran - Ceridwen's ugly son to whom she wishes to give the gift of wisdom as
               compensation for his looks
Awen - the name given, in mythology, to the cauldron containing the magic potion that
            inspires poets and gives rise to wisdom
Shekinah - Hebrew word for the glory that accompanies the presence of God
Morda - the blind servant left in charge of Awen
Gwion Bach - the young servant who stirred Awen and licked his thumb clean of a few
                    drops of the magic potion (the first three drops contained the gift of wisdom
                    but the rest of the potion was a deadly poison)   
Tegid Foel - Ceridwen's husband
Llyn Tegid - a lake in North Wales (Bala)
Elffin ap Gywddno - son of Gwyddno Garanhir, ruler of Cantref Gwaelod, a lost kingdom
                             now under the sea (Cardigan Bay around Aberdyfi). Later a Prince in 
                             his own right and patron of Taliesin
Ben Beirdd Taliesin - a Welsh title for Taliesin meaning 'Chief of Bards'

Tuesday, 19 April 2016

Swarthmoor, Easter 2016

                           We arrive, 
                           see the grey walls of the hall
                           unrelieved by the dappling of afternoon sun.
                           Later we walk down the garden, 
                           drawn by the evening light
                           and, suddenly,
                           a heavenly burst of purple,
                           rich, royal and reminiscent
                           of a saviour's walk,
                           a field of blazing crocuses
                           set amid stone walls
                           and yellow grass
                           summoning us toward
                           a hill
                          where shadows and glory 

© Janet Henderson 2016

Swarthmoor Hall was the home of Margaret Fell and her husband, George Fox, the founder of the Society of Friends. It is now a Quaker retreat, visitor and conference centre situated near Ulverston in the Lake District 

Saturday, 26 March 2016

Ellen and Georgina

Ellen Henderson

Of my father's mother, Ellen,
I have no memory at all
just one momento, a photo,
a smiling sepia governess,
composed, in neat Edwardian dress
and in her face I catch my own,
a mirror-imaged likeness, there
for all to see;
my father smiled with his eyes
and so do I and so does she.

Ellen died when Dad was seven - 
a rare blood disease in days of
donor to patient transfusion.
As strangers poured out their life-blood
into her veins then how much more 
must she have poured out her heart 
at leaving her young son and twins
whose lives were rocked
by their maternal loss,
cared for by friends bereft and shocked.

Of my mother's mother, Georgie,
I have a store of memories;
cuddles in bed, Winnie the Pooh,
stories heard sitting on her knee,
the saga of her rings, "This one 
will be your mother's, this one's for
Aunt Gwen but this one's mine alone
and I shall be
sent to my grave with it 
as on the day Taid* married me."

Old hands, young fingers together
chopping carrots and shelling peas,
nostrils tickled by roasting beef
or baking cheese and onion pie;
embroidery and lavender,
pinks, roses and piano
all treats to enthral, then earwigging
the grown-ups' talk 
of who was ill or dead
before an evening seaside walk.

But both have helped to shape my life,
their influence felt in subtle ways.
I still hear Nana Georgie's soft
"Keep going, always sing, each day
be brave to try out something new."
And though I never talked with her,
had no familiar name to give,
Ellen's wisdom 
shone in the words of all
who recalled and shared her vision.

©Janet Henderson March 2016

*'Taid' is the usual name for 'Grandfather' in North Wales.

Thursday, 4 February 2016

We Walked by the Stream

In winter he asked,
'What's in your heart?'
'Darkness and agony.'
'Now light will enter.'

In the spring he asked,
'What's in your heart?'
'Joy and laughter.'
'So Divine life comes,'

In summer he asked,
'What's in your heart?'
'The desire for wisdom.'
'Thus knowing dawns.'

In autumn he asked,
'What's in your heart?'
'The desire to yield.'
'This is the time of fruitfulness.'

©Janet Henderson 4th February 2016


In the car park, 
rain spattering the windscreen,
grey walls topped with slate 
enclosing what it's possible to see, 
space shifts. 

Boundaries of opportunity draw in 
with dizzying unexpectedness
making her sick to her stomach.
The light of unsought prescience flames,
beacon-like, in her mind

branding the moment  
a tattoo on her soul.
Trust shatters,
its explosion littering the future 
with shards of deceit.

A short exchange
unequal and uneven,
words thrown prematurely on the table,
rejected, set aside, snatched up,
reworked in direct defiance of dissent. 

Once released, dissimulation will avalanche, 
distorted phrases gain pace
in minds and hearts, on paper and through media,
forcefully burying all honest

appearances served, 
reputations flayed, destroyed,
veracity concealed by a high-speed, anonymous
maelstrom of internet flow 
wreaking havoc.

In the car park,
the rain turns to sleet,
and she knows without yet knowing
the creeping, wintry fingers 
of misrepresentation.

©Janet Henderson 14th January 2016