“Meeting the Dull (Wo)men of Great Britain – The Post Box Toppers of Rhyl”
14 minute read
Every so often I am reminded of how odd my life must appear to the outside world.
And it seems that my involvement with the Dull Men’s Club is only serving to amplify this oddness; taking what occurred at the outset of this latest feature, as a prime example.
It was a Tuesday afternoon just like any other and I was sat at my desk at work, surrounded by friends and colleagues.
Conversations were taking place, phones were ringing, and there was a muted barrage of swearing taking place in one corner of the room. I later understood these expletives to have been caused by a failing piece of software, which has since been affectionately labelled, a useless pile of shit.
In the midst of this outburst, my personal phone began to ring, with the classic-metal riff from Slayer’s Angel of Death (1) now adding to the cacophony of workplace noise.
I picked up my phone and answered with an enthusiastic hello, and much to my surprise it was Leland Carlson; founder of the Dull Men’s Club and author of the Dull Men of Great Britain book.
“Hi Leland, how’s it going?”
Leland greeted me enthusiastically, his laid-back American accent proving to be as hypnotic as always. He asked how I was doing and I sank back in my chair, feeling chilled from his vibe.
“Well, you know, never a dull moment!” I retorted, thinking I was much funnier than I actually am.
“That’s good.” Leland chuckled, politely acknowledging my questionable attempt at humour. “Hey Elliot, are you still on the lookout to meet more dull people?”
I responded perhaps a little too loudly. “Yes! Always! I love dull people!”
At this point he began to tell me about a dull woman that had been welcomed into the club, and he asked if I’d like to meet her.
“A dull woman? Brilliant. Yes, what’s her specific area of dullness?”
Leland continued to tell me about a lady named Rachel and of her enthusiasm for creating post-box toppers, her work having impressed Leland so much that she won the DMC’s annual award in 2021.
“Really? Post-box toppers? That’s awesome!” I continued. “Uh huh, yes, no way, she won Anorak of the Year?”
It was at this point when I began to realise that the office had fallen silent and that a few heads had turned in my direction. But the conversation continued and Leland said that they’d missed me at the DMC group event in Wales last year (2), where Rachel had been present.
“So, who else was there?” I asked. “The Telegraph Pole Appreciation Society? Brilliant. Yes, I like telegraph poles too. In fact, I work with them. Electrical ones. But we don’t call them telegraph poles. We just call them poles.”
Another colleague’s head popped up from behind a computer monitor, like a meerkat looking out for predators. Or for men who associate with dull folk.
I could hear my colleagues beginning to whisper and giggle amongst themselves as Leland now began to question me about my previous meetings.
“I met the vacuum cleaner guy.” I said, suddenly starting to feel a little self-conscious and slowly turning my chair so that I was facing the wall.
“And I saw his vacuum cleaners.” I continued, with a lowered voice. “About sixty of them to be precise. Mostly Kirby’s. A couple of Dyson. And a Henry.”
The room had fallen silent again and I could feel my cheeks starting to burn, so I took down Rachel’s details and brought the call to an end. As I swivelled back around in my chair I was greeted by a dozen or so faces, blended with both confusion and amusement.
I looked around the room and then shrugged.
I’d been sat in the living room of Rachel and Ruth Williamson’s home for less than five minutes, and I was already making an apology.
“Please forgive my conversation earlier this week.” I said, shaking my head and feeling somewhat foolish. “I feel a little bit silly now.”
The conversation that I was referring to was one that was fuelled by my apprehension about meeting Rachel, or rather, the circumstances under which we were meeting.
Having only communicated by text message up until this point, I’d suddenly grown increasingly aware that Rachel, in effect, was allowing a strange bloke off the internet to go to her home. I mean, I know I’m not strange (3), and I know I’m completely harmless, but she didn’t know that. In fact, for all she knew I could’ve been a complete and utter lunatic, and so my gentlemanly instincts had kicked in and made me suggest meeting out somewhere for coffee instead.
“If we’d have done that then you wouldn’t have got to see all the toppers.” Rachel said, pointing out what was a massive and very obvious flaw in my otherwise chivalrous plan.
To top it all off (4), Rachel had spent half her working life in the police, while her twin-sister, Ruth, had served in the Royal Air Force; both of them clearly being able to look after themselves, and with me posing absolutely no threat to them whatsoever. In fact, they’d probably have been better at protecting me than I am in protecting myself.
Living alongside both Rachel and Ruth is their mother, who makes up part of the formidable post-box topping three-person team; with each member playing a crucial role.
Rachel is the driving force of the team, bringing forth the creative ideas while completing the majority of the knitting/crocheting. Ruth is ‘the engineer’ who figures out how to make the complexities of the designs become achievable. And their mother plays a key support role, churning out item after item from the back room.
It’s a really impressive set up, but the back story of how they got started is even more impressive.
The two sisters had struggled academically in their school years, with both of them having been told by a headmaster that they’d ‘never amount to anything’. On top of receiving this early criticism, Rachel had faced further rejection in her working life, having applied to join the police force twice and being turned down both times.
“They said I’d never be a police officer and that I didn’t have what it takes.” Rachel remembers.
But with both of them having a clear fighting spirit and a never-give-up attitude; Rachel later went to night school and acquired the relevant qualifications, and then she applied to join the police once more.
“I didn’t want to grow old regretting not having done it.” Rachel said. “I didn’t think for one minute that I’d get in, but I did. They shook my hand and said, Welcome to North Wales Police.”
Rachel served impressively for 18 years, having worked her way up to becoming a detective; a role that went on to expose her to some severely traumatic and brutal cases, most notably those involving child abuse.
I know from speaking to friends of my own in the police that dealing with such trauma will harden you emotionally; and it absolutely has to, because it’s the only way to be able to cope with it. I don’t believe that anybody could be exposed to such things and be unaffected by it, but by the time Rachel retired in 2018, the job had taken its toll.
Then, while Rachel was still getting used to retirement and was figuring out her new way of life outside of the police, Covid hit and the country went into lockdown, bringing forth a whole new set of mental and emotional challenges; the likes of which none of us had ever had to deal with.
I could sense the emotion building inside Rachel as we spoke, and so I didn’t push the subject any further; but I feel it necessary to take a moment to point out the strength of this woman’s character.
And with Ruth having faced her own rejections in life before going on to achieve tremendously in the RAF, I quickly came to see them both as inspirational examples of just how far you can go if you can develop the right amount of resilience and determination.
It was during lockdown when the post-box topping began.
One day, Rachel and Ruth had both gone to pick up a prescription for their mother, and as they arrived at the pharmacy, they began observing the people that were stood outside.
“Everybody was queuing, socially distanced, and they all just looked so sad. People were struggling.”
For whatever reason, something inside Rachel was triggered, and she came home feeling like she needed to do something to cheer everybody up. This was when the idea of ‘yarn-bombing’ came up; which is the act of covering street-items in knitting and crocheting.
Rachel got straight to work and completed her very first topper, deciding quickly that it would be the post-box outside of the pharmacy that she’d be yarn-bombing first. However, at this point she wasn’t exactly sure whether it would be considered an act of vandalism, and so it was carried out with stealth and under the cover of darkness.
At this point I sat giggling to myself, imagining them heading out into the night, dressed in dark clothing and balaclavas; like a pair of knitting ninjas. And this all led further credence to a comment that was made by BBC Breakfast News presenter, Charlie Stayt, during a feature about yarn-bombers; referring to them in light-hearted fashion as ‘graffiti artists armed with knitting needles.’
The topper was received warmly by the locals, and this appreciation only inspired them to create more, with new toppers appearing all around Rhyl.
While the interest in what Rachel and Ruth were doing kept growing, creative ideas were coming to them thick and fast; and during that first lockdown they worked from morning until night, seven days a week.
Rachel proudly displayed the few toppers that she’d held onto, and she showed me newspaper clippings of the ones that had caught the public’s attention.
There were a few stories that captured my imagination, including one about a topper featuring a friendly looking seagull named Dave. Looking at photos of Dave made me smile and I quickly became fond of him, but Rachel then shared the sad news that Dave the Seagull had been stolen from his topper not long after being put out on display.
I felt devastated. And at the time of the incident, so too was the public. It was a big thing in Rhyl.
I mean, if you don’t believe me, try Googling ‘Dave the Seagull stolen’ and you’ll find news articles about the little fella’s disappearance.
I’m not making that up.
But roughly one month after the bird-napping took place, Rachel was alerted via a photo-tag on Facebook that Dave had been found.
Speaking to the Rhyl, Prestatyn and Abergele Journal, Rachel said, “I cannot tell you how excited I was when I saw the picture on Facebook. An awful lot of work went into creating him and I honestly never thought I’d see him again.”
Hearing this lifted my heart too, and I suddenly felt all warm and fuzzy with the knowledge that Dave the Seagull was alive and thriving. It really made my day.
Another topper that Rachel told me about provided a perfect example of the ways in which they’re touching people’s lives, with the concept allowing people to take a little piece of the topper home with them (5).
This particular piece of crocheting goodness had a number of little fish hanging from the topper with the following poem accompanying it:
“I’m a little rainbow fish with colours bright, to let you know things will be alright.
So if you’re feeling all alone, untie my ribbon and take me home.”
But no sooner were a new batch of fish hung out, were they all untied and taken home. They couldn’t keep up with the demand and everybody wanted one, and it seems they were serving a purpose, because Rachel remembers being contacted by one man in particular.
“He told me that he suffers with PTSD, and so he took one to hang from his car mirror and he finds that it helps him to cope with things.”
But perhaps one of the most heart-warming stories was that of a lady from Liverpool that had contacted Rachel about creating a new topper; asking if she could make one that she and her son could put on the post-box that sat directly outside their window.
Rachel obliged, yet she never heard anything from the lady and so she began to wonder whether the topper had been lost.
When a few months had passed and there’d still been no response, Rachel messaged the lady to ask if she’d received it. She later replied, thanking Rachel and apologising for not having been in touch, but it transpired that her son had become ill with leukaemia and that they’d been in hospital all that time.
The lady added that the topper had made her son really happy and had lifted his spirits, and so she asked Rachel to create another.
Having already found out that the boy was a huge fan of Thomas the Tank Engine, Rachel created a new topper that was themed on the little blue train.
And then, sometime later, the lady got in touch to give Rachel the incredible news that they’d ‘rang the bell’, meaning that the little boy had beaten leukaemia and that he was now cancer-free.
While I’m sure that the topper itself wasn’t the sole reason for the little boy getting better, there’s absolutely no doubt that positive energy can contribute to such a turnaround, and so in some way I like to believe that Rachel’s act of kindness played a part in his recovery.
Designs for the post-box toppers have also been based upon key events that were happening in the country at the time; such as the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee, and most recently the King’s Coronation.
These have all captured the public’s attention, and the love and appreciation they’ve been shown has been completely unprecedented, with the media being just as enthusiastic.
“We thought we were going to have a dull and boring lockdown.” Rachel admits. “But we had TV cameras in the front garden, the mayor in the back garden. And people were turning up with flowers, chocolates, wine, and there’s been an endless donation of wool.”
The twin sisters had not done any of this for recognition and it had all come simply from wanting to make people happy, and to help make the lockdowns of Covid become that little bit more bearable. They were genuine acts of unconditional love, putting their hearts into their creations and then putting them out into the world.
They’ve achieved so much more than they ever set out to do, and their journey has taken them further than they could have dreamed. And their humble efforts to lift people’s spirits during such a difficult period in our history found them being rewarded with invites, not only to the Houses of Parliament, but also to a garden party at Buckingham Palace.
But the longer I talked to Rachel and Ruth, I could see that while these honours were something that they felt proud of, it was something much closer to home that mattered the most.
Ruth recalls one day in particular with fondness; telling me how she’d made a trip to the local post office and noticed that the people of Rhyl weren’t talking about Covid anymore. Instead, they were talking about the toppers. As she looked around, she could see that people’s spirits had been lifted.
People were smiling once again.
They’d achieved their goal.
“His nickname is Greenie.” Rachel said to me, as I held a rather tired-looking but awesomely-cool elf in my hands.
Greenie was the very first thing that Rachel had knitted as a young child, and she’d gifted it to her best friend; somebody that has become a lifelong friend, from the tender age of four.
Rachel had first learnt to knit when she was just five years old, having been taught by her gran. And this is something that triggered an emotion deep within myself, as I recalled having been taught how to knit by my own grandma, also at the age of five. And I shared this with Rachel, as our conversation took an unexpectedly reflective turn.
I’d never kept up with my knitting because I never really wanted to, and when I was away from my gran it didn’t matter to me. For me, knitting was purely about spending time with my gran; it was about closeness, and those special snuggles that make you feel safe. For me, knitting meant love.
Rachel had borrowed Greenie from her friend so that she could show him to me, and as I held the curious little green elf in my hands, I could feel the love that had gone into it.
And I could feel the love of my own gran, as though she were sat right beside me.
I never said anything at the time, but I’m grateful to Rachel for having unearthed such a happy memory from my own childhood; a memory that may otherwise have remained forgotten.
As the interview drew to a close, the sisters invited me upstairs, showing me myriad boxes of wool that filled one of the bedrooms, from floor to ceiling.
They were organised beautifully, with a separate box per colour and with numerous shades of each running throughout; like a giant woollen colour palette. Rachel mocked her collection playfully, yet she also smiled with pride. And then she returned downstairs, while Ruth invited me to follow her up a ladder into the attic room.
As I stepped off the last rung, my jaw dropped as I observed Ruth’s collection of military memorabilia, with so much time and care having been given to all that lay before me. And as we stood talking for almost an hour, it was clear that the motivation behind Ruth’s passion ran deep.
It wasn’t about the physical objects themselves, but rather what they represented. It was about the people that have served our country, the people that sacrificed themselves for our freedom. It was about their lives. It was about their families. It was about how every medal and every photo has a story behind every single one of them.
The room felt full of people, even though only two of us were there; and as I engaged Ruth in conversation, I could see the same emotion in her eyes that I had seen earlier in Rachel’s.
As we returned to the living room, Rachel was already at work knitting her next topper. She welcomed us back and made a light-hearted joke about Ruth’s collection, claiming she wasn’t the only dull woman living in the house.
But I saw them both as anything but dull.
Throughout my adventures meeting Britain’s dull people (6), I’ve had some wonderful encounters which have offered me something new each time. And my time with Rachel and Ruth had left my heart feeling full.
Although I’d only spent a couple of hours in their company, it was clear that, whether through time served in the military and the police, or whether through harsh rejection and criticism at an early age, life had made them tough.
Yet despite that toughness, they are full of warmth, love, and compassion; and it seems to me that the toppers act as a symbol of the giving and receiving of love, and they serve as a conduit that allows their own love to flow out into the world.
While some people may see Rachel as a lady with a dull interest, I see somebody who, having been exposed to some of the true horrors of human nature, is now able to believe in the goodness of people once again. And in her own way, she is helping others to believe in that too.
ONE WEEK LATER
It had been a long and tiring day at work, and as I arrived home and switched off my car engine, I was desperate to get inside. I walked towards my house and checked the mailbox, and I was happy to see a little red delivery card that had been left by Postie Steve (7).
He’d written a note saying that there was a parcel waiting for me near my back door, and the note, as always, was accompanied by a smiley face. I walked to the rear of my house and closed the gate behind me, and sure enough, there was a parcel on my back step.
I scooped it up and took it into the house, then placed it down on the kitchen counter. I hadn’t ordered anything recently, so as I cut back the wrapping and began opening the box, I had no idea what to expect.
But as I looked inside, I knew exactly who it was from and a massive smile spread across my face. I immediately started laughing, and then I reached inside and lifted out a big woollen seagull, with a cheeky and completely loveable face.
Attached to him was a note:
Here is you very own ‘Dave the Seagull’. Made especially for you by The Dullest Woman in Britain.
I’d thought that I already understood the impact that Rachel has had in people’s lives, but it wasn’t until this moment that I truly got it. Because I was now experiencing first-hand what countless people around the country, and the local community of Rhyl, have been experiencing over the past three years.
An overwhelming sense of joy, followed by a wave of emotion that brought a tear to my eye. And I felt that sense of goodness. That belief in people.
Dave now sits pride of place in my office, and he always will. Because he’s a symbol of the love and the joy that we can spread in the world, if only we open ourselves up to do so.
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(1) The best metal riff ever! Trust me. Look the song up and skip to 1min 38secs. Your life will never be the same again and you’ll love it. Or, your life will stay exactly the same and you’ll vow never to listen to that shit again. One or the other.
(2) Readers of the DMC features will be aware that the very first article proper was based upon my experience of attending one of these events in Preston. Unfortunately, this latest event in Wales landed slap-bang in the middle of my trip to Seville (which I am currently writing about, so watch this space), so sadly I couldn’t attend.
(3) Says the man who travels around the country to interview people about their specialised areas of dullness.
(4) Topper-pun intended.
(5) Perhaps this approach was intentional, with the aforementioned disappearance of Dave the Seagull playing an active influence.
(6) Well up until now I’ve been able to say the Dull Men, but meeting Rachel has now diversified the articles for Dull (Wo)men too. Is it still the DMC, or D(W)MC, or is it the DPC? I’m so confused. Oh well, that’s a question to tackle another day.
(7) This is a reference to my last blog post, in which Postie Steve makes his first appearance. You can check it out by clicking here.
Have you ever seen a post-box topper? Did it make you smile? How big was your smile? Do you know how to knit or crochet? If so then maybe you could make a topper too? Which is your favourite topper that Rachel has made? And did you also feel a sense of relief when you heard that Dave the Seagull had been recovered? Although don’t you find it annoying when seagulls try to steal your fish and chips?
Do you have a message for Rachel and Ruth that you’d like them to read? Do you have a message for Dave the Seagull that you’d like me to pass onto him? And do you have any other thoughts about what you’ve just read that may have nothing to do with dullness or toppers?
Do you now feel a little differently about the subject of boredom and dullness? Are you going to let your inner dull-person out a little more? And is there anything that you’d like to ask which either myself, Rachel, or other readers could help answer? Please feel free to leave your comments below so we can get a conversation started.
And if you know of anybody that you think would enjoy this feature then please do feel free to share it.
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