Kansas Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - June 15, 2012

Sharing in the jubilee

A week ago last Saturday morning, husband Art and I fetched our girls from Heathrow International Airport in London. We immediately departed for Brian Tomley’s cottage we were renting on his farm on England’s Shropshire border with Wales. We arrived about mid-afternoon just as the rain began. It continued throughout the night.

Sunday morning, the rain was even heavier. A pyramid of wood scraps and old pallets stood in a pasture about 100 feet southwest of our cottage. It was one of many across the British Commonwealth to be lit Monday evening to celebrate Queen Elizabeth’s Diamond Jubilee - her 60th year as monarch. The pile faded into and out of view as the fog alternately cleared and thickened. I wondered how a bonfire could be produced from wood so thoroughly soaked.

But Monday dawned bright and sunny with a drying breeze. Art and I walked to the pasture to talk with the four Oswestry Lions Club members who were adding some last bits of brush and wood to the pile. I was surprised to see some of the smaller pieces were beautifully-grained pieces of hard wood. One man explained that the pieces were donated from a local carpenter who also had a funeral home business. He was closing the latter and the wood was left over from making coffins.

Bill Bowen, the organizer of the event and a charter member of the club, told me Oswestry Mayor Martin Bennett would light the “beacon” at precisely 10:15 p.m. He said some 4,200 others would be lit across the Commonwealth and that the first one, located in Tonga in the South Pacific, had already been ignited. He said the Queen would light the last one at 10:30 p.m. in London.

After 30 minutes or so, we left the men to their work. Our plans for the day included a trip to Bodnant Garden in northwest Wales and supper in Carnarvon.The day proved to be a nice one, but as evening approached, the clear sky meant the temperature dropped quickly. So when we arrived at the Tomley farm at 9:45, the first order of business was to put on warmer clothes.

When we reached the pasture, we saw the pyramid was encircled by a rope to keep the spectators at a distance. About 150-200 people were milling about. A woman was passing out “glow sticks” and small Union Jack flags attached to plastic sticks. Other folks were giving out “lollies” - lollipops. A trailer containing a bar had been set up for those who wanted to celebrate with a local ale or beer.

Brian greeted us and grinned while pointing at several people looking over the hedgerow.

“Those are the folks who think you have to pay to get in,” he said.

Art suggested we should let them know it was free after it was over.

Daughters Mariya and Katie and daughter-in-law Lacey were quickly caught up in the spirit of the crowd and began snapping pictures of the wood pile, the people and each other.

“I thought it was just going to be us and a few other people,” Lacey said. “This is cool!”

David Quick, one of the Lions Club members, joked that it was good of us to come all the way from America to celebrate the Royal Jubilee. Then he turned to his son and said, “These people came all the way from Kansas in America just to see our beacon.”

The youngster’s puzzled look seemed to say, “OK, is this true or is it dad just being dad again?”

As the moment of the lighting approached, an orange nearly-full moon appeared above the horizon, adding to the festive atmosphere. When the appointed time came, the mayor stepped forward to do his duty. A club member handed him one end of a long wood pole. The other end was wrapped with a rag soaked in paraffin. After the rag was lit and a few ceremonial photos taken, the mayor and club members moved around the perimeter of the pile, lighting the wood at several locations to the applause and cheers of the onlookers.

As the fire grew, people watched, waved their flags and sang “God Save the Queen.” Bursts of fireworks could be seen at various points along the horizon.

The singing and flag waving made me think about the previous Friday evening when we had joined friend Jan Passey at the Shropshire Prom, a festival in Oswestry. In many respects, it was a bit like one of our county fairs. But the main event was music supplied by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and soprano Deborah Norman. As pieces dear to the British heart were performed, people waved the Union Jack and sang.

When we arose Tuesday morning, a few small flames were all that remained of the bonfire. Reflecting on the three days of jubilee celebration already completed and the one yet to come, I thought about how sometimes it has been said that we in the United States want a monarch - not the kind who makes our decisions for us, but one who serves as a sort of symbolic national unifier. This figure would be a flesh-and-blood representation of all of us. While we keep moving on with our busy lives, he or she would devote full time to us.

The British have such a person and she is Queen Elizabeth. They threw a four-day party to celebrate her 60 years of outstanding service, and in a way, to celebrate their country as well. I thought of something David Quick said the previous evening as the bonfire warmed the cool Shropshire evening.

“One thing you have to agree is we certainly know how to throw a party.”

Indeed, they do - and I’m glad we were there to share a part of it.

Left: Folks enjoying themselves at the Shropshire Prom east of Oswestry; right: fireworks break over the bandshell at the end of the Prom concert.

Left: Art, far right and Oswestry Lions Club members Fred Owen, Brian Evans, David Quick and Bill Bowen as the pyramid is being finished.; right: l-r, Lacey, Katie and Mariya enjoying the "beacon" burning in the background as part of the jubilee celebration on the Tomley farm.

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