Gypsy Meets a Red Hat Society Lady!

Now, I know that at least two of my blogging friends are Red Hat Society ladies, you know who you are over in Oregon, but at the weekend I met a real live one myself. Carol, whose Hatter name is Countess Caroline, had a table displaying her gorgeous handmade fascinators, many of which she has created for mellow hatters (I just invented mellow because fellow sounded too masculine for Hatty ladies). Once Carol told me she was involved in this craziness I just had to learn more.

She began by telling me that they are all show offs! ‘You almost have to be’ she said, ‘and I’ve always been a showy off person myself’, I don’t know about that, but she is certainly a very attractive and outgoing lady who loves to chat. As well as the red hats they wear purple clothes when they meet up in their ‘Chapters’. Most of them are middlies but you can still join in your forties, then you are a Pinkie with lilac clothes and pink hats. At fifty you are invested with scarlet sparkles or a wand. Carol is one of the one hundred members of the Riviera Royals, whose leader is Princess Cockington.

When the ladies meet up they go on a ‘Hoot’, days out, concerts, shows and balls, and men are never allowed. Occasionally other chapters are invited to a soiree, to which they often travel using their bus passes, fully hatted and gowned. They have big conventions and she has been known to attend as a St Trinians girl.

During a ladies birthday month, they dress in reverse, red clothes and purple hats. There’s a whole world of red hatters out there with dedicated internet shopping sites. Some hatters have appeared on the Vanessa show, I would imagine Ms Feltz would be in her element.

            Carol told me that she went on her own to her very first meeting and that from the start she felt welcome. ‘I’ve found that women can be bitchy, but never felt that in the Red Hatters. I think it’s because of our age, there are no grudges, it’s a sisterhood. No one minds disgraceful behaviour. Even out for coffee we wear our hats. It’s supportive as well as fun, caring for each other through bereavement, watching out for each other’s well being and remembering little details.’

For last year’s Royal Wedding they celebrated at a lovely local restaurant. They watched together, all dressed to the nines waving flags, as if they were actually there. Carol has immaculately painted nails and not a hair out of place. Last year the chapter went to Ladies day at Ascot, what a sight they must have been, but as it was £3-400, this year they will be going to Newton Abbot. I have no doubt they will look wonderful.

            They have a ‘Mother of the Bride’ evening planned shortly. This will be held at the Grosvenor Hotel, Torquay, as featured on a recent Channel Four TV series. This will be a major event for which Carol will be making a sash to wear and the high heels will be out in force – manageable because it will be ‘Car to bar’.

Carol said ‘I can’t promote the Red Hatters enough, it’s given me a new lease of life and I wouldn’t be making fascinators without the society.’ She taught herself to make these exquisite little numbers. I tried one on and looked incredibly silly, but she has made lots for her chapter.

            Carol is a glamorous lady and even on holiday her style is maintained. She is ecstatic if she can sit in the sea, watching the sun glinting on her red glittery finger and toe nails. I am grateful to this fabulous lady for sharing her Red Hat experiences with me and maybe one day I might just join. Or not, because I’m too much of a scruff bag!

As well as the unnamed Oregon ladies, I’m sure there are more of you out there around the world, would you like to share some of the fun you have had? I would love to learn what you get up to around the globe!

A Postcard from Torquay

I spent an hour in Torquay today. It’s never been a favourite place but I try sometimes to like it, after all thousands of tourists arrive each year so it must be okay mustn’t it? The pedestrianised town has some of the usual chains and an awful lot of hideous souvenir shops, selling the same tat they sold when I was a child. Do people really want to buy plastic dinosaur ornaments with Torquay emblazoned? Along the sea front sits a theatre where the annual pantomime  is performed by F listed soap stars and in the next few months, The Dreamboys full frontal tour – spare me, and the Grimethorpe Colliery band – probably the most talented of the bunch! The beach itself is narrow, but nice for winter sunsets when you can’t see the kiss me quickers.

Tourist ‘attractions’ include a model village (very clever and a bit twee) and Kents cavern (beautiful prehistoric caves) which is listed as a wedding venue, presumably for those of us who would like to re-enact the Flintstones. Between lovely parkland and the esplanade there is a large balloon thingy that allows you to rise directly above the bay, for the views, while remaining tethered to the ground. The hotel used for filming Fawlty towers is somewhere in Torquay, can’t think of anywhere more appropriate.

Torquay has a darker side and I don’t just mean the troublesome night clubs. It’s the drug capital of the South West, filled with dealers who moved down from places like Nottingham and Liverpool, having spent their childhood holidays in the caravan parks. Until they become OAP’s (if they’re spared) and sit in deck chairs on the seafront, with their heads under tabloid newspapers, they will happily prey on the users they have hooked. These dealers have a hierarchy; very, very evident today were the scruffy, jeans sliding down, yobs in small huddles just off the main streets. More worrying are the big boys in their own sleazy underworld. Torquay has a very busy drug and alcohol service and there are hostels in what were once tourist hotels and are now crumbling dives. I found it interesting today to see one of the town councils attempts to deal with the problems, public toilets where 20 pence is charged to help them keep them clean and safe for ‘us’, no doubt it also helps to pay for the sharps disposal container provided inside.

My visit was brief this time. I didn’t stroll beside the marina with its berths full of very expensive yachts, or drive along the exclusive Ilsham Marine Drive, dreaming of a lottery win. Instead I came back, thankful that Exeter (though not perfect) with its clean streets, history and culture is home. It seems that a journalist in the Independent thinks so too but I really wish he didn’t, maybe he could big up Torquay instead.

Hitching a Ride

Which of you have ever hitch-hiked? I have. And loved it. But that was way back when. When The Faces had not long lost their Small, flowers were still in our hair and I spent my summers picking strawberries to save for a Transistor Radio with –  wait for it – EARPHONES! so I could listen to Radio Luxembourg under my sheets. Kim and I would walk along Topsham road; look at the road signs and think, Torquay today? With no map or any idea where it was, we would sit on the edge of the road with our thumbs out wearing hotpants that barely covered our whatsits, and surprise, we never had to wait long for a ride. We saw a lot of Torbay that year and it certainly beat walking the ten miles to Exmouth as we’d done the year before, desperately aiming for Pink House Corner, the landmark where we had broken the back of it.

Most often our lifts were lorry drivers who happily shared their sarnies, Spam or cheese with red sauce on white bread with margarine. Better though were the couple of times where we struck gold with travelling salesmen, who took us to roadside cafes in flashy cars. Any car was flash to Kim and I though, neither of our homes had vehicles. Torquay’s sea front stretched a mile or so to the harbour and then just a choice of two streets up the town via the dazzlingly tacky amusement arcades, ice cream parlours and chip shops. It hasn’t changed much, apologies to any Torquastas reading, but apart from the gloriously expensive Ilsham Marine it’s all a bit predictable isn’t it?

A couple of years later I saw an article on what was then Westward TV about a tiny place in Dorset – Whitchurch Canonicorum, telling the tale of a shrine to St Wite Why this particular tale pushed buttons I can’t think but I just had to go and see it for myself. My chosen victim, no companion, on this saintly search was my best friend of the time, Sue Leichman, who disappeared from my life shortly after, possibly with a morbid fear of what I’d drag her into next. We got a ride on the A35 but must have walked a good way from there into murky Dorset. I vaguely remember a tiny church and trying to find a way of stretching the time we spent there to justify the effort involved. I have no idea how we got home again. To be honest I can’t ever remember how we got home from any of our adventures, I ‘m just grateful.

I don’t think I went hitching many more times after that, but back then it was exciting to see how far we could get for free. It was commonplace then to see people on the side of the road looking hopeful and it’s sad that the majority no longer feel safe to try.

In the late 1990’s I was driving towards Southampton and ten miles out on a grim, damp morning I saw a young woman on the side of the road with a sign saying London. I slowed to check her out. She looked about seventeen and really cold and scruffy, of course I had to pick her up to make sure no-one worse did so. She threw her backpack in the boot and before she touched the seat I could smell her! I opened my window wide and put the heat on full. Her hair was matted, her clothes raggy and she looked malnourished. She walked from Fairmile to the main road. The old A30 that is, and she had spent a month in the trees with Swampy and the other environmental protestors trying to prevent the construction of the new A30 bypass. We parted company before too long, I took the low road and she the high for London, but it was an interesting experience and insight into their treehouse and tunnel life.

A friend told me recently that she picked up a man hitching to near her home town, a total stranger and she a lone woman. Others had criticized her and questioned her sanity but she said she could tell that he was okay. How did you know? I’d asked. She couldn’t give a precise answer, she just did, ‘Sometimes you just instinctively know.’ Apparently it was an enriching journey where the stranger shared all sorts of anecdotes of his travels around the UK, always by thumb and cardboard. Hitching is largely gone, but not forgotten.