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A couple of months ago, I happened to put an empty paper bag on my bed.  Within seconds, my little Rhea has ensconced herself in it.  She slept in the bag all night, but, unfortunately, the bag only survived a couple of days before it split.  I think she might have carried on though…

Rhea in a bag

Last week, during a sort out, I put a shoe box on the bed, and she duly slept in that all night. And has been going back to it ever since.  There is a large box (it had a case of wine in it), with only one entrance and exit in the living room, which most of them use interchangeably, especially when there has been a bit of a ruck going on.  It’s been there for years now, and I suppose I’ve grown so accustomed to it, I take it for granted.  

And then there is Titan’s House.  (Titan was my first cat, a rescue, and there is a long story to be told, all in the book that will be published in due course.)  I bought him a house and scratching post.  He wasn’t interested in the scratching post, but loved the house. Now, it’s only Oceana who is allowed to use it, and then, generally only when she is fed up with the rest of us.

Rhea 2013

I have known dogs seek out enclosed spaces, but only when they are scared so what is it that makes boxes so enticing to cats?  According the American Society for Cruelty to Animals, boxes make them feel safe.  They feel that nothing can sneak up on them (which is true in the case of the big box in the living room) and they can’t be seen until the other animal is within their field of vision.  A bit like humans in a cave, I suppose.  

She looks like a she-devil but she’s not

They are also well insulated – the space inside is free from draughts, and comfortable for cats to sleep. As they sleep for anything between 16 and 20 hours a day, it might as well be cosy.

Rhea in a box

Another thing is that cats love the texture of cardboard boxes.  (I wonder whether I should have left that tissue lining in there for longer than the first night?)  They love to have a chew and to bite it (better than my fingers, I suppose) so let’s see how long Rhea’s new box lasts.

© Susan Shirley 2019



A few weeks ago, my friend Kate and I went to Cambridge for a long weekend.  We were staying in a hotel about 20 minutes walk from the City Centre. 

Anyone who knows me will know that I had researched everything to nth degree: where the best Indian restaurant was, where we could go for Sunday lunch, and what we could do when we were there, etc.

We arranged to arrive within about half an hour of each other, and to have lunch near the station. It just so happens that there is a hostelry just outside the station, The Station Tavern.  Like so many pubs in Cambridge, it’s a Young’s pub, in case you are interested in the ale.

We had a good lunch, complete with a couple of bottles of wine, then got a taxi to the hotel.  One of the best things about Cambridge station, if you ever travel there, is that there is a large taxi rank, probably because the station sits outside the main town.  Walking would be fine if you didn’t have suitcases in tow.  

Obviously, our first job was to settle ourselves into the hotel. Like most people, I like a bit of local knowledge when I go somewhere new, so I asked the receptionist about the Indian restaurant.  Fortunately, she agreed with my own research…

I won’t bore you with all the details of the next few hours, just rest assured that our first evening was spent catching up and checking that the Prosecco sold in Cambridge was of the same quality as elsewhere. J

Saturday was a different matter.  We had pre-booked a walking tour and a punt tour.  I have never punted before and thank the good Lord that I decided not to try it on this trip, but I am getting ahead of myself.

We was ‘ere

We walked into the City, which was very pleasant, except for the number of bicycles.  I feel it would be rather undignified to die having been run over by a cyclist.  We had plenty of time, so had a mooch around for a while, before finding a little bar in the market square where we had drinks before our tours.  It just so happened it was graduation day for a large number of students, and it was lovely to see them all dressed up.  I remember the feeling well and was inwardly celebrating with them. 

Our tours were run by the same company, Cambridge Alumni Tours, the meeting point was outside of King’s College, in Kings Parade.  Our walking guide, Maria, walked us around the streets of Cambridge, the tour having a university-theme.  Cambridge itself, or at least, a settlement in that location, has been around since the Bronze Age.  It was given city-status in 1951.  

King’s College

Cambridge, as well as being the home of the university, is the county town of Cambridgeshire.  There has been a settlement of sorts here since the Romans and before, although it seems it may have been completely abandoned after the Romans left.  Not for long though, the Vikings saw to that and when William the Conqueror had established himself, he built himself a castle in Cambridge.  

The University was founded in 1209.  Oxford had an older university, but there was some trouble between the people of the town and the students, resulting in some deaths of students.  Not a happy situation and some of the Uni academics left and went to Cambridge, and set up store there.

Another charming fact about Cambridge is the Black Death (or the Great Plague) that hit the town in 1349. The town north of the river was almost completely wiped out.  In common with many towns along the east coast, Cambridge was heavily involved with the RAF during the Second World War and became its regional headquarters. Fortunately, the town survived without serious damage and relatively few deaths.  In 1944, Trinity College was home to a [then secret] meeting of military heads which started planning the Allied invasion of Europe.  Cambridge was eventually granted city status in 1951 – normally, there has to be a cathedral in order to become a city, and Cambridge doesn’t have one.   

Back to the present…. There are different colleges in Cambridge: King’s, Queen’s, Magellan, and more. Some beautiful building and wonderful stories about their history.  The whole uni set up is quite complicated and I don’t intend to go into detail here, there are other places that can do it far more justice than I can. 

After a short break, we went on the punt, which travelled a short distance along the Cam.  In that part of the river, it is not deep, maybe two feet.  Our punt driver (?) and guide was Tim, a lovely young man who was very informative and huge fun.  He was also extremely attractive, but since I am old enough to be his grandmother, I won’t labour that point.

The Bridge of Sighs

That evening was curry night, yay.  We walked to the Pipasha, which was about 20 minutes from out hotel.  It was a lovely little restaurant, very friendly waiters with a great sense of humour and good food.  Kate had Chichen Rezalla and I had Chicken Vindaloo, as well as some sides. I would definitely go there again if I were in the area.

Sunday was a bit more relaxed.  We strolled into Cambridge for Sunday lunch, back to King’s Parade, to the restaurant the chap at the Alumni Tours had recommended, which, again, just happened to be one of the places I’d already put on the list: The Cambridge Chop House.

Most of their meat is locally sourced, and they do deals with vineyards so they serve wine by the gallon rather than in bottles (only joking, but they do serve it in big, economically priced jugs).

A lovely lunch – I had the soup of the day, which was sweet potato and tomato,  That is an excellent combination, must try making it.  Kate had a quinoa salad with pomegranate and a lovely dressing of orange and fennel.  Mine was absolutely gorgeous and Kate loved hers.  We both had belly pork roast for the main, with roasties, cabbage with peas and onions.  It was very good and the restaurant deserves all the positive reviews it gets.

Very happy and very full, we returned to our hotel.  No snacks that evening, but more Prosecco and TV.

We left the next day, glad to have had a good weekend but sad to part.  And getting ready for the next time…

© Susan Shirley 2019


The menopause.  That taboo subject that no-one ever talks about, at least until this week, when the BBC has decided to run a series of articles about it. And yet, roughly 50% of the population go through it at some time or other, one way or another.  And the other 50% is affected by it.  

If you do get to discuss it, usually in the hairdresser or somewhere similar, it’s all the bad news: hot flushes, night sweats, anxiety, to name a few.  But that’s only part of it, there are other symptoms, good and bad…

You may have few or no symptoms, in fact, 30% of women fit into this category.

Seriously, this is a good news story.  I wondered whether I was getting was hot flushes and night sweats, but when other people described them, mine were not even on the same scale.  I was told they started at the feet and worked their way up.

That didn’t happen to me, and the year it was happening, it was a very hot summer, so it is possible that I was just sweating a lot in reaction to the heat.  Realistically, I do think I had five or six hot flushes, but that’s nothing in the scheme of things.

I’m rarely anxious and if I am, there is usually a reason for it.  Was I bad-tempered or grumpy?  Possibly, but there are those who would say I’m always bad-tempered and grumpy.  

Joking aside, I don’t remember any difference and no-one has actually told me that there is a noticeable difference in my temperament, so I’m saying no to that one too.

Taste, Red Wine in Particular

I’d heard that women’s tastes changed during and after the menopause.  The first time I noticed this was when I was out with some friends and offered some red wine.  It is true that I’ve always preferred white wine, but there was a time when I was very much red wine in the winter and white wine in the summer.  Then, one day, I just couldn’t drink red wine anymore. The smell put me off, it just wasn’t right.  And the taste…  Ugh! There was no red wine hangover behind this, and anyway, that had never put me off before, it was just…  red wine.  

I started to notice that other things weren’t as palatable either.  Nothing serious, nothing important and obviously not chocolate (life has its little compensations!) but there are definitely a few foods that are no longer up there on my last meal list.

There are some foods that I find more difficult to tolerate but that’s more to do with an older digestive system.  For example, chillies can upset my stomach more now.

Perfumes and smell

This is a strange one, and probably linked to taste…  I’ve noticed that some of the perfumes that I used to like just don’t smell right anymore when I wear them…  As in, ‘don’t bring them near me.’  If you’ve ever had that thing with Dior’s “Poison,” or the Agent Provocateur perfume (which frankly, to me, smells as though someone has vomited over sweaty socks. Apologies to anyone who likes it, fragrance is very personal) then you will know what I mean.  This is a very expensive, and distressing situation 

The worst thing is, and I am not the only woman to report this; a few of my friends report the same thing: some perfumes no longer last on my skin.  Now this may be related to ageing (ugh! Did I really say that about myself?) skin being drier, but it is definitely a thing.  


I was diagnosed with ‘aggressive gum disease’ a few years ago, and have lost a couple of teeth as a result.  It was quite a shock, I’ve always looked after my teeth (I started flossing when they first ‘invented’ floss.  I admit, I was slow on the uptake with interdental brushes, but only because I didn’t really understand: I tried the pink ones and they were as much use as a chocolate teapot and gave up), I only have a couple of fillings.  At the dental hospital, they asked me about genetics and they asked me about trauma – I qualified on both of those, both of my parents had false teeth and I admit to having had a couple of whacks to the face over the years.  No-one mentioned the menopause.

However, it was only at my recent visit to the hygienist that she told me that lots of women start having gum problems during the menopause.  I realised then that the time my gum problems manifested was at around that time.  Of course, the genetics don’t help.  Interestingly, lots of cats have similar problems, and when they spay cats, it is a total hysterectomy, so effectively inducing the menopause…  I wonder…

And finally…

There is one more thing. We stop menstruating.  Whoop, whoop, whoop.  (Come on, don’t tell me I’m the only one that hated that?  It may be natural but it’s not very nice, and for some of us, painful.)  

Ladies, it’s 2019. Don’t be afraid of the menopause. If you are having troublesome symptoms, see your GP, there are lots of things that can be done (lentils and chickpeas if you want to do it without meds, maybe I should write about that…). And maybe you will sail through it.

© Susan Shirley 2019  


I recently met my friend Dorothy for lunch.  Dorothy is the owner of a beautiful Russian Blue.  He was a tiny little thing when I first met him, scared of his own shadow. He now weighs 6kg.  6kg!!!!  Can you imagine it?  That is 6 times a normal bag of granulated sugar and twice the size of two my girls! But the boy is solid, this is not fat.

Dorothy’s affectionate name for her boy is ‘Tink the Stink’. He doesn’t stink but he is a stinker in the sense that he is ‘a bit of a lad.’  He rips the carpet apart, the soft furnishings and ties to swing from the curtains (easier and safer when he was smaller).  In fact, he rips anything that is vaguely rip-able.  Not so different from my girls really.

A very young Tinker

Of course, ‘the mummies’ started telling cat-war stories.  

            “Of course, he’s into self-catering,” said Dorothy.

    “Oh, you mean he’s started hunting his prey?” Said I.

            “Oh no.  He knows where the sachets of cat food are kept and he helps himself. Usually three or four packets at a time. He rips them apart, one by one, takes what he wants, which is usually only a couple of mouthfuls and then leaves the rest. Usually right where I want to walk.”

The vision of this adorable cat helping himself to sachets of cat food made me cry with laughter. Even my girls haven’t resorted to that, although if they’d thought about it, they probably could.

            “Mm, not sure whether that is better or worse than my little Oceana,” I said.  You will remember, Oceana is the Queen, and undoubtedly the smartest one of my bunch.

Dorothy looked at me, quizzically.  

            “A while back, I’d cooked some chicken, and put it on a plate in the ‘fridge’.  I went to bed and all was well.  When I came down in the morning, the ‘fridge’ door was wide open, plate upside down on floor, chicken gone.”  

Little Miss “Butter-wouldn’t-melt-in-my-mouth”

Of course, I had known straight away who the culprit had been.  I now have a child lock on my fridge door.  She hasn’t worked out how to open that… yet…  I, on the other hand, struggle from time to time.

And then there was the time, when I had the old storage container for the dry food….  I tend to buy my cat food in bulk, it’s just easier when I either have to collect it or have it delivered.  

My girls have three different types of food, to cater for a range of different things: dental, urinary tract, skin, and to give them variety.  The bags come in 3kg, 3.5kg and 10kg.  A few years back, I bought a storage container that stated it would hold 10kg of dried food.  That was a lie, it didn’t.  It was more like 9kg, so I’d pour as much of the 10kg bag into it as I could and leave the rest in the original bag.  This was no self-seal bag and  Telesto and Oceana didn’t much like the idea of waiting for their food…. 

Picture the scene: Mummy comes home from a long day at work to find cat biscuits all over the kitchen floor…. They make a very crunchy mess when you walk on them, and if the floor is a bit slippery and you don’t pay attention, it’s easy to go flying… 

To be fair, they did have the good grace to eat what I didn’t manage to clear up and put back in the bag.  

Telesto ate a whole packet of Dreamies one day when I didn’t fully close the drawer…  


I’ve bought a new bin for their dry food now, but I suspect it’s only a matter of time before they work out how to know the lid off…  Does someone want to remind me why I worry about them not having enough food?

© Susan Shirley 


Cake, wine, those are what used to spring to my mind when someone said ‘Madeira.’  It was really only a few years ago, when my brother went to the island, that I gave the location any real thought.  And then I decided to visit for myself. 

I went with Hot Chocolate, the first time we’ve holidayed together.  It was a short break, only a week.  We met in Wetherspoons at Stansted, at 05.00, for our first glass of Prosecco.  Start as you mean to go on.

It’s a fairly short flight, around three and a half hours, so we arrived in time for a late lunch and time to sleep in the sun.  It was far hotter than I had expected – March is still their winter.  The pool at our hotel is a bit of a sun trap plus it shielded us from a lot of the wind making it was lovely for sunbathing. 

On our outward journey, the pilot pilot was preparing to land when, all of a sudden, (at least, that’s how it seemed to me, one of the uninformed) the thrusters were powered up and the aircraft pulled up.  I felt as though I was in a Harrison Ford film.  It turned out that the wind was too high for the pilot to land safely, so we flew around the island and then had to stack for a while before the second landing attempt.  The airport on Madeira originally had a short runway, although it has been extended a couple of times.  It is now 9124 feet long, extending out into the ocean on 180 columns that are each 230 feet high.  It is still considered to be one of the most dangerous airports in the world and pilots have to undergo additional training in order to fly here. 

On the Saturday, our first full day, we attended the welcome meeting with the tour rep.  It was very comprehensive, much better than others I’ve been to and gave us time to think about how we were going to spend our time.  Our hotel was about half an hour’s walk from Funchal, the capital city, so we decided to have a walk there.   The next day we walked the other way, but there was not as much to do that way. 

Funchal from the road just outside Reid’s Hotel

Of course, we did the tourist thing.  We visited Reid’s Palace Hotel for a glass or three of wine.  It was a beautiful view from where we sat.  The hotel itself is beautiful and there is quite a lot of history here, which is why we went – Sir Winston Churchill used to visit.  The founder, William Reid, was a Scot, who died before Reid’s was finished.  It opened in November 1891 as the New Hotel, and later changed its name to the New Palace Hotel and later to Reid’s, as it is usually known.  One of the things it is most famous for is afternoon tea, which is very reasonable at 36 euros per person (champagne is 18.50 euros a glass).

inside the hotel

We went on a coach trip to the North-west of the archipelago which is mountainous, and wetter than Funchal.  In fact, our tour guide said,

            “Welcome to Scotland,”

as it was wet and misty the day we went.  Our tour took us to Porto Moniz and Seixal, both lovely.  The church at Porto Moniz, Lady of Conception, built in the late seventeenth century, is particularly beautiful.

Lady of Conception, Porto Moniz

Later in the week, we took a trip on the cable car to Monte, which is north of Funchal.  Beautiful municipal gardens, the Monte Palace Tropical Garden and church, it’s a definite must.  The cable car itself is something else, taking between 15 and 20 minutes and travelling 3200 metres, there are fantastic views across Funchal and Madeira.  We managed to get free return tickets by attending a holiday club meeting.

Funchal from the cable car

From Monte, you can travel part way back down in a basket car.  I didn’t do it this time, Hot Chocolate wasn’t up for it, and trying to work out where to meet afterwards went into the too difficult tray.

Our trip away ended all too soon.  Until the next time.

© Susan Shirley 2019


I posted a while ago about Black Cat Appreciation Day. I got it in the neck from one of my girls because she is not black, she is what is known as a Smokey Tortie. If you are not a cat lover, (a) you won’t understand what I mean and (b) move away from the blog now. Move to a cat free zone until my next post.

If you are, a cat lover read on…

The first cat who owned me was black, with a white locket. He was my best friend, and my only true love. Seriously. When he died, I missed him dreadfully and I went to Battersea Home for Dogs and Cats as soon as possible after he died (the prescribed wisdom is, leave it six weeks before getting another cat, to allow the scent to diminish) to get another cat. Not to replace him. That wasn’t possible. I could never replace my little T. (Actually, Titan wasn’t a small cat. Not fat, but quite big.)

I knew, despite the fact that I really love black cats (and dogs), I needed a different colour. I could not have a rival for my Titan. With the help of Nic and Kate, I ended up with two sisters, one was black and white, the other was the smokey tortie, Telesto.

There is a story to be told about my little Teleto, but it is incomplete. Incomplete because I don’t know it all and she, and her sister, Oceana, can’t tell it. I can surmise, and my friend, a spiritual medium, Anne Germain, tells me what she has been told, but I can’t prove it, so won’t say it here.

When I brought these girlies home, Telesto settled herself in very quickly. She cuddled and snuggled. What she didn’t do was sit on laps. That was ok, not all cats do laps. Oceana hid for a week before she came near anyone. Now, she will fight her way onto my lap. Little Telesto, it took her eight years before she would sit on my lap, or on top of me when I am lying down in bed. Even now, it’s quite fleeting, she still prefers, to lie by my side. Glued almost. Her preferred position is as close to me as she can be, particularly when I am sitting or lying in bed. The cat terms of engagement change in other rooms.

This is hard for us humans to understand, but it’s all about territory. I thought, when I bought my girls an activity tree that is about 6’ high, so taller than me, that they would all immediately think (a) this was manna from heaven and (b) they would stop scratching other things that I did not want them to scratch. Wrong.

First thing, my little girls, the younger pair of sisters, almost immediately made the activity tree their own. The other two rarely went near it. In fact, I have never, to this day, seen Oceana on it.

The thing is about cats (and dogs, and humans) is that when they’ve been badly treated, they need time to heal, and trust other humans. And sometimes they never build enough trust. The only thing you can do with cats is to let them take their own sweet time.

© Susan Shirley 2019


My brother and little sis’ have recently moved to Dorset, to a village called Fifehead Magdelen.  It is described, by Online Parish Church (OPC), Dorset, as ‘a small, remote village and parish in the Vale of Blackmore, 8km west of Shaftesbury in North Dorset.’  Small, definitely.  Remote, yes, and although not the most remote I’ve ever been to, remote enough.  It is 320 feet above sea level, on a ridge of Corallian limestone, in the Blackmore Vale. 

I wondered about the name and, as quite a few of the villages in this part of the country have religious sounding names, and whether it had been a Catholic stronghold during the reformation.  In fact, the opposite is true.   

OPC tells me that Fifehead is a corruption of Five Hides.  A hide was the amount of land that would support one free family and its dependents, which, in Wessex was 48 acres.  Five Hides was assessed thus in the Doomsday Book.  The Magdalen came later, named after the church and the dedication of the hides to St Magdalene.

The village church is, unsurprisingly, St Mary Magdalene.  It’s a lovely little church, originally built in the 14th century, although the Newman chapel was added in the 17th century, and it underwent some restoration in the 20th century.  Aside from the church, there is a village hall, and an old red telephone box that doubles as the library.  Seriously.  People put books in there for others to borrow.  Aside from houses and farms, I think that’s it. 

Bro and little sis’ are reading Hardy again, now they are in that territory.  I’ve never found him an easy read, the language is archaic in places, but there is something about his books that makes them compelling.  They are so descriptive, I can imagine myself as the character. Don’t watch the films or TV adaptations, I’ve not seen one yet that does his books justice.

Hardy changed the names of some of the towns in his books, presumably to protect the innocent.  He refers to Shaftesbury as Shaston (which was widely used in the nineteenth century) and Palladour, and Dorchester as Casterbridge, so that’s how the family refer to places.  As if my life wasn’t confusing enough.  Enough of nomenclature and back to the country.

Gold Hill

Shaftesbury overlooks the Blackmore Vale, where Fifehead Magdalen is situated.  There are some fabulous views from the top of Shaftesbury, near to the abbey, if the weather is good enough, and fortunately, it was quite clear when I went.  It’s one of those old towns that had an Abbey (founded by King Alfred) and destroyed by Henry VIII.  Who remembers the Hovis ad with the little boy pushing his bike up a steep, cobbled hill?  That hill is adjacent to the Abbey and is called Gold Hill.  Incidentally, Ridley Scott (Thelma and Louise, Blade Runner, Gladiator, Black Hawk Down) directed the ad.

Some interesting facts about Shaftesbury:

  •  King Athelstan (reign 927 to 939) founded to royal mints here. 
  • In 981 the relics of St Edward the Martyr (also a king, who died as a teenager) were taken from Wareham to Shaftesbury Abbey, thus making it the site for a pilgrimage for healing.
  • In 1035, King Canute died in Shaftesbury. 
  • In the 18th century, Shaftesbury was famous for producing a cloth called swanskin, used by fishermen in Newfoundland.
  • It is 705 feet above sea level.
  • There are two museums: Gold Hill Museum and Shaftesbury Abbey Museum.

© Susan Shirley 2019


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I frequently refer to sending children up chimneys, the way the Victorians used to. Albeit somewhat tongue-in-cheek. Some people look at me as though I am a bit mad, I’m not sure that they quite understand what I’m talking about.

I am of that generation whose houses did not have central heating when I was a young child. There would be ice on the inside of our bedroom windows in the winter. Before going to school, one of my jobs was to clean out and lay the fire. Ours was a modern house, and there was only one coal fire. There was a built in electric fire in the dining room. Aside from that, we were left to our own devices.


I would get up, go downstairs and use the specially designed rake (solid, without teeth) and ash tray to rake out all the ash from beneath the grate. The ash was cold by morning, so no risk of fire. Then I would lay the fire in the grate – kindling and newspaper to start, the coal went on top, once the kindling had got going.

All that wood and coal would cause the chimney to become covered in soot and creosote, which could catch fire (ours did occasionally) so once a year, a man would come around to sweep the chimney. He’d have a set of long wooden poles, with screw ends, so that they could be joined together and extended. The final one had a circular brush on it. Up, up, up, he would manually push the brush and poles, which must have been much harder than it looked. I do seem to recall that there was a machine that did the actual cleaning though. I would stand fascinated, watching, then run outside to see the brush come up through the top of the chimney. It was very exciting for me.

My memory of the chimney sweep is that he was a tall, thin man, who wore a tweed suit, with a shirt and tie, and a flat cap. And soot stains over him. It wasn’t uncommon for working men to wear a suit in those days: my dear old Dad, who was a bricklayer by trade, wore [an old] sports jacket, with a shirt and tie, under his khaki-coloured overalls. And take a look at the photographs at the Tower Bridge Experience, the ones where the work was being done in the 1960s – the foremen were all in suits, and some in bowler hats (no hard hats in those days). And not a child in sight to send up the chimney, so where on earth did I get that idea from?


It’s not my imagination. People had fires in their homes to warm them since way back when, and in the early days of static homes, there would just be a hole in the roof to allow the smoke out. Over time, the rich built houses made from brick and with them, proper chimneys. Think Hampton Court. Then came the Industrial Revolution. More factories burning coal meant more chimneys. Factories making lots of money meant more rich people meant more big houses meant more chimneys. It was a time of growth for the sweeps, albeit that it wasn’t a particularly well-paid job.

The whole technology had changed too. Whereas the original purpose of chimneys was to get rid of the smoke, as they evolved, the chimney because a means of creating a draft in order to help keep the fires alight, hence the chimneys became angled and smaller. And harder to clean. They were no longer straight up and down, despite how they appeared from the outside.

Bear in mind that there was no Universal Credit or JSA in those days. If you were poor or in debt you could easily end up in the Workhouse. Little boys (and, sometimes girls) who were orphaned, or whose parents were unable to afford to keep them, were indentured to Master Sweeps as apprentices.

It seems that the optimum age for them starting their apprenticeship was age 6 – any younger and they were generally considered to be too weak, any older and they would get too big before they had finished their apprenticeship. The fact that they weren’t meant to be too big probably gave the Master Sweep a good excuse for not feeding them too much.


The climbing boys were expected to clean four or five chimneys a day and it was a dangerous life. There was a danger that the boys would get stuck in the chimney (in which case the Master Sweep and other apprentices would either try pulling them out from the top, by means of rope, or from the bottom. If that failed, some of the bricks would have to be removed. The owners of the property did not want a body stuck up their chimney and one way or another, it had to be removed.

The sweeps would get cuts and grazes in the early days of their career, particularly on their knees and elbows, so the Master Sweeps would stand them next to a hot fire and rub in a brine solution, using a brush, to harden the skin. Sounds delightful.

Owing to the lack of space in the chimney, the boys would take off a lot of their clothes, sometimes going up the chimneys naked to sweep them. As if this wasn’t enough, the boys didn’t get paid, the boys had to sleep on soot covered sacks, rarely got to wash, and in late teens or early twenties, would often suffer from Chimney Sweeps’ Carcinoma. The sweeps called it Soot Wart. Whatever you call it, it sounds awful.

Soot is carcinogenic, and it was common disease in sweeps. It seems that soot particles would get caught in the skin around the scrotum. As we already know, personal hygiene was not a criterion for the job, so the soot would often stay in close contact with the skin.  A cancerous sore would develop.  It usually didn’t develop until the sweep was in his late teens or early twenties and was usually fatal.

The law did change in 1788, to give sweeps more protection, and over time, more laws were passed to improve their working conditions, although much of it was ignored for sometime.  Mechanical brushes replaced boys going up chimneys and building regulations changing the construction of chimneys were changed.  Eventually, it changed to being the man I remember and nowadays, it’s a far more technical job, involving diagnosis of hazards and repair as well as cleaning.

It is still considered lucky for a bride to see a chimney sweep on her wedding day, so some sweeps hire themselves out for this purpose, which is far more pleasant end to the story.

© Susan Shirley 2018


27 October 2018 was Black Cat Appreciation Day. I am a long-time lover of black cats (and dogs) and am always upset by the fact that Black cats (and dogs) are less likely to be rehomed than other colours. Why? It seems that one of the more recent reasons is that they (allegedly) don’t look so good in selfies (of course, I disagree, but then, I am totally biased). Or is that their connection with witches and bad luck persists?

They weren’t always considered unlucky

In Ancient Egypt, up to about 310AD, black cats were considered to be far from unlucky. All cats were considered to be sacred an worshipped. In fact, they were believed to be descended directly from the Gods. That is clearly a genetic trait that has passed on, at least to my cats, who expect that same level of adoration and are relentless if I don’t deliver the goods.

In medieval Europe, perhaps because of their nocturnal nature, cats were believed to be associated with witches and the supernatural. In Christian cultures, white is the colour of good and purity, black is the colour of the dark side…

At around this time in Europe, witch-hunting was big business (a story for another day but women – it was generally women – who were accused of witchcraft were damned if they did and damned if they didn’t. In England, they were put is a ducking stool, and plunged into a pond. If they survived, it was considered to be proven that they were witches, and they’d be burned alive, their cats with them. If they drowned, they were innocent, although too late for them.

As if all that wasn’t enough, in 1233AD, Pope Gregory IX (who had clearly been a mouse in a previous life) declared that black cats were an incarnation of the devil! The Christians (hmm, struggling with this a bit, seems a contradiction to me) gathered up all the black cats they could find and burned them alive at village festivals.

There were a number of other beliefs about black cats and witches, perhaps the most common being that they were “witches’ familiars,” and helped them in their pursuit of witchcraft. (Trust me when I tell you this is not true. Many, many times, I have pleaded with my black cats to magic me a shed load of money. I am still waiting.). They were also believed to be in touch with the underworld because they went out at night. Again not true. My girls curl up and that bed and only budge when I move.

And in some places, it is different

I was brought up to believe it’s good luck when a black cat crosses your path, which is also true in Japan and there are other places where they are believed to bring good luck:

  • In Italy, if you hear a black cat sneeze, it is supposed to bring a streak of good luck. (Gotta tell you folks that in 17 years of owning black cats, I’ve never heard one sneeze.)
  • It is considered lucky to own a black cat in Asia.
  • Black cats are supposed to be good luck at sea, according to European tradition.
  • In Scotland, a black cat appearing on your doorstep is a sign of prosperity.
  • In Japan, black cats are believed to bring good luck, especially to single women, as they are supposed to be a lure for the right man…
  • In Russia, black cats are considered lucky.

In my house, cats rule, not just the black ones, although my personal belief is that black cats have a louder purr than others (I used Titan’s purr as my ringtone for many years). If you can’t love them, don’t be cruel to them.


© Susan Shirley 2018