Monday, 20 February 2017

Two Lives: Llyfrgell Genedlaethol & Ysbyty Bronglais

Afternoons spent in the calm, panelled reading room
with breath-taking views of Cardigan Bay
absorbing information, crafting essays,
glancing at the clock from time to time,
amazed to see a whole hour gone with Moltmann
while ten minutes spent with Kant
seem endless hours.
Time for a coffee break
and down the winding stairs
deep into the basement
passing book stacks and airtight rooms
stuffed with the artefacts of Welsh history,
down, down into the library's bowels
where coffee machines hiss and tea cups rattle
throwing out a welcome contrast
to the studious silence above;
greeted now by earnest young men
in pullovers and wild-looking
young women in scarves
bemoaning the cost of thesis-binding.
Strange to be accepted here,
a fully fledged researcher
chiselling out hunks of obscure knowledge
while all the time,
in my bag, lurk stethoscope and uniform
the trappings of a different life, nocturnal,
spent in brightly lit, windowless wards and bays,
each peopled with recumbent forms,
some bloody, others pale and drawn,
nursing injured limbs 
or a crying child;
here, urgency is paramount,
the need to do, react, respond, record.
No time to reflect, no possibility of quiet
the whole night through,
noise and light pressing in around
quick decisions 
making the most of limited information,
diagnose, treat, discharge,
investigate, inform, admit,
no frills, just basic care
that saves lives and eases pain.
And oddly, here, the coffee break
is four stories up, a hurried combination of
canteen fry-up, tea and medical gossip, 
views of the Library above silhouetted
against a moonlit sky as if watching,
observing safely at a distance,
dispassionate, mildly rebuking
of quite so much unreflective activity.

©Janet Henderson 20th February 2017

Llyfrgell Genedlaethol Cymru - the National Library of Wales - is situated in a dramatic location half way up the hill that is home to the University of Wales, Aberystwyth. It commands spectacular views of Cardigan Bay and also overlooks the local hospital - Ysbyty Bronglais. One summer during my theological training I was simultaneously working toward a research thesis in the National Library and as a staff nurse at the hospital below. The 'two lives' contrast in the poem mirrors a life-long struggle to find a satisfactory balance between reflection and action. Theology of course tends to teach that reflection is paramount. Work in A and E and ITU tends to require a certain amount of embodiment of well learned practices that can be engaged immediately and without too much reflection. In the so-called Pastoral Cycle beloved of pastoral theologians, I have always been very suspicious of any tendency to overemphasise reflection at the cost of action. Action requires the careful, in-the-moment attentiveness of the performer. Musicians and sports people understand this too. Every discipline requires both action and reflection but it is often a challenge to keep each in its proper place. 

Cambridge to Cambrian Coast

She wondered would it ever end?
Four changes and a wait at Dyfi.
Travelling since the crack of dawn,
leaving in doomy Fenland mist,
a watery sun low in the sky,
wood pigeons scarcely tuned in throat,
station guards blowing on their hands,
cold now with hopes of heat to come,
and, oh, that apprehensive knot
of sharp concern; would trains connect?

Early morning and vast stretches
of moist, black soil on either side,
a straight-ploughed barrenness
out to the horizon and beyond.
No hill, no dip, just endless sky
as lifting fog up-curtains, proud
to reveal the East Anglian stage 
dormant, inscrutable, holding
its secrets close beneath the earth
yet to yield the region's choice crops.

Passing Peterborough's sprawling mass
(glimpse only of cathedral towers),
catch Scottish accents boarding train
while two German students ask, 'How far
to Birmingham? And will it stop?
Please tell us when. We go to see
the Jewellery Quarter and canals.'
More chatter, then a quiet falls
as rich Midland fields and woodlands
pass, spaced now by red brick villages.

England's heart, a rolling landscape
pegged out by ancient spires and towers,
and factory chimneys less grimy
today than in childhood memory.
Before Bromford, a sprawl of roads
interconnect round houses built
in haste, post-war, providing homes
for motor workers' families,
neat terraces and towers of flats
with now and then a shopping mall.

New Street looms proffering parallel
platforms; no problem here to find
your way, just rushing feet and crowds,
heads down, determined not to miss
connections north, south, east or west,
no time to notice concrete walls,
cocooned from outside elements,
rain, wind, sunshine irrelevant
'til, luggage stowed and new seat claimed,
the train pulls out to vistas fresh.

Short ride now across Black Country
coalfields, skirting West Brom, Walsall,
cresting the edge of Staffordshire.
No time to rest, palpate the pulse of
British productivity, proud,
dogged, taking no flimflam or
easy talk of redundancy
and merger, yet struggle etched
on each face and brick and billboard 
til laughter lines release tension.

After Wolverhampton, accents
and countryside soften into
Shropshire blend of undulating
farmland and early industrial 
enterprise with telltale signs of
former ways of life - once thriving
canals now serene waterways
for leisure barges, an ornate 
ironwork bridge sole evidence  
of smelting pioneered close by.

At last, Shrewsbury's floral welcome
heaves into sight, station buffet
selling the first Welsh cake she's seen
this side of Offa's Dyke, and tea
brewed well with soft, western water
as if to compensate and soothe
travel weary souls now consigned
to a two hour wait in setting sun -
a dusk that will obscure the view 
of majestic mid Wales mountains.

And so it is that eight hours since
leaving Cambridge she travels on
into the west, roused from slumber
now and then at Abermule and
Cemmaes Road and Llanbrynmair,
til, more by sound and smell than sight,
she apprehends Dyfi's approach
as mountain shades recede, the lights
of Machynlleth are left behind
and soft estuary calls assault the ear.

Here the black, velvet-lined Cambrian 
night envelops all, man and beast,
train and track, inlet and creek
so that to quit the train, alone,
at Dyfi Junction seems madness,
an aberration requiring
stern discipline, heroic trust
and careful desire to avoid
the fate of being carried north
to Harlech's ancient castle walls.

She watches as the train departs,
hears the clack of wheels on the bridge
over open water and sand,
the gentle lap of small eddies
driven inward by mounting wind,
dogs barking across the valley;
now distant car headlights replace
the train's receding lights, then all
is quiet and brooding and wild,
a restless, watery, pregnant hush.

So once again Dyfi enfolds
its own; all Aberystwyth-born
children journey west to sunset
skies that slowly morph to darkness
where Taliesin's laid to rest
and Glyndwr's parliament is set,
judicious, between north and south,
and treacherous tides at Ynyslas
swirl round ancient shores as they wait
for a late-night homecoming train.

©Janet Henderson 20th February 2017

Monday, 19 December 2016


We had no rich food to share
but ate enough,
created no overt nativity scenes
but celebrated Christ,
sang no well-known carols
but together intoned
'Dona nobis pacem',
took no collection for refugees
but among us were
two Sudanese, a Syrian, a man from Kurdistan.

©Janet Henderson 18th December 2016

Monday, 5 December 2016


They sit, six women in the room,
piecing together hangers
for dresses they will never afford,
little plastic cubes, 
eight, ten, twelve, 
twenty, twenty-four 
strewn across the carpet.

Delivered by the box-load,
four parts to each hanger,
five pounds per three hundred assembled.
Not possible to do it in under an hour 
even with the help of friends.
The TV blares, their coffee cools,
Jade pops out for a fag.
They talk of how they'll cope next week
with all the kids off school
and last Saturday down the pub
and when you could get 
early morning shifts at Raleigh 
or Players, cleaning loos.
Six women, eight hours,
forty-eight hours' labour
and forty pounds to show.
Sometimes they share it
but today it's been agreed that if
they work tomorrow and half Friday
Amber can pay her rent.

©Janet Henderson 5th December 2016

Saturday, 26 November 2016

At Nazareth

How did it start,
this idea of God-among-us?
More natural 
to place God on a throne
amid the thunderclaps
and singing stars.

God's God, after all
and due worship, notice, adulation,
no mere workman
with rough joiner's hands,
or village lass
of water-bearing status.

It was the day
she fetched that second jar,
pausing near the well to catch her breath,
swallowing slight queasiness,
she knew for sure 
she was carrying him.

Not really welcome,
this unexpected baby. 
'A grave misdemeanour'
the Rabbi said.
And what her mother said 
was unrepeatable.

So sudden.
Not yet seventeen and now
a carpenter's wife, a mother
and, though the oldest, not exactly
the daughter her family 
could embrace with pride.

Returning from Egypt,
exhausted, with Joe and child,
she found an unanticipated stigma
hung round the family.
She felt avoided, shunned,
no longer Nazarite.

Yes. The persistent odour
of difference settled
and, strangely, things began
to change. As much 
as some could scarcely bear 
her company, others came:

young Hannah, terrified
she'd fallen pregnant,
Elizabeth, not coping
with her toddler's tantrums,
ostracised by the young mums
who thought her old and stuffy,

Joe's apprentice,
a lad from out of town,
glad to find a couple
sympathetic to ambition
and wider aspirations,
broadened by their time as refugees,

one day, a priest,
a friend of Simeon, bringing
Jerusalem luxuries,
enquiring after the boy,
reminding her of past intimations
of blessing tinged with unease.

'How are the mighty fallen,
the humble lifted up?'
The neighbours prattled,
'Look,' they said,
'how this disgraced girl's house
has become a magnet for

rich and poor,
outcast and pillar of society!'
They all come, and somehow,
one evening, on the rooftop,
find themselves star-gazing
and speaking of God's Word.

©Janet Henderson 26th November 2016

Tuesday, 22 November 2016

The East Coast Mainline

Northallerton platform high up,
Trains thunder through, not all of them
The wind whips round the small shelter,
Morning sunlight dawns sluggish,
Newly bought ticket in her glove's   
a barb.

'Two hundred and eighty five pounds
'To cross London by Undergound,
six more.'
Cost of representing ' The North '
down south.
Train's running late. She sits sipping
hot tea,
dreaming of places she could reach
for less.

Morning coffee on the Amstel.
A weekend break, half board, for two
in Bruges.
Three flights to Exeter and back,
on time.
Scilly Isles, to breathe narcissi.
for the best part of seven days'

Today, before they board the train 
passengers know they'll surely miss
at their meeting. They don't complain,
just brace
themselves to wait. Avoiding stress,
these commuters conspire t'arrive

©Janet Henderson 22nd November 2016

The Writers' Group

We sit round a table
in the public library
and talk (a little)
of one who is absent,
three, four, six of us
rushing in out of the rain,
coats and brollies dripping,
cheeks red, files
clutched tightly under jackets,
damp at the edges.

We settle into our plastic chairs,
stretch numbed fingers
and spread our papers,
listening for the tempo
of each other's day,
sensing hopes, small apprehensions,
aware of nervous gestures,
joining in the laughter 
that diffuses awkwardness
and begins to weave bonds.

Shyly the poems come,
the reading diffident at first,
some used to public space,
others shocked, elated
at voicing their own words
at last and feeling them 
evoke response - like watching
a child take to water and swim -  
discovering new-found pleasure 
as images meet with quiet recognition.

One evokes a child's delight
in exploration, 
another, a loss so heavy
life struggles to go on,
a third, cherished memories
that make us laugh and breathe, 'ah yes!'
Then come portraits of a place
where antiquity shines through
and, simply, of a bird
eyeing us from his tree.

In two brief hours
we traverse joys and sorrows,
see through the gaze of a child,
join family celebrations
and meet inhabitants of streets
we've never walked but already know;
we look out from remote island shores
and sit at tables in sunlit cafes,
glimpsing the irresistible
kernel of each poetic urge.

©Janet Henderson 22nd November 2016

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 Lantern,
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 her 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 Lantern 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 great church  
storing the secret
this hundred years,
loyal to sons
whose growing up she oversaw
with ecclesial distance,
whom now she celebrates
with circumspect pride,
holding for history's gaze
a tale of lives too short
and wars unstoppable.

Still, today, the daily prayers
of Etheldreda's community
breathed, as they are, beneath
this frame of lightsome hospitality
implore the throwing down
of dark towers cradling enmity,
search out the wellheads
of hope and charity and peace,
entreating the Divine to spare us
ever again such mockery of youthful optimism.

©Janet Henderson 26th September 2016, revised November 2016 

@ Revd Phil Sharkey 2016 'Nave'

These beautiful photos of the Lantern 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 Lantern 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 fearful and numb,
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 lad
gazing from a window,
across the field and over the hedge.

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

wracked by pain,
the release as this surge subsides.

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

the different, new silence
to which the music will return.

atop a mountain,
the place where land and sky 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

* A reference to D.H. Lawrence's Poem The Ship of Death

@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
it is to look into your soul
and nod wisely 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