Posted in Personal life, Travel

From Bucket to Bottle

My column for the August issue of the Hawkesbury Parish News

Bountiful summer garden makes it easy to get our five-a-day

Seeing the progress my husband has made in the garden during my week away in Scotland, I declare I don’t want to go away again this summer, but to stay put and enjoy our home turf.

I do however plan to heed the advice of creative thinking teacher Orna Ross* to go on a weekly “createdate” with self –  a solo outing to a place that stimulates your imagination. The first of these is to Newark Park, a former Tudor hunting lodge now owned by the National Trust, set on the edge of the escarpment that tumbles down into Wotton-under-Edge.

*Orna Ross will be giving a talk about how to live a more creative life at the 2020 Hawkesbury Upton Literature Festival.

Newark Park has been on my bucket list for decades. It has all you’d expect from a National Trust property – a fascinating historic house, rambling gardens to lose yourself in, and a teashop to restore your equilibrium. Added family appeal is provided by an exhibition celebrating Judith Kerr’s much-loved children’s story, The Tiger Who Came to Tea, complete with dressing-up clothes and giant toy tiger..

view from Newark Park across to the River Severn

But the highlight for me is the breathtaking view across to the River Severn. An annotated map of the horizon identifies local landmarks, including Hawkesbury Upton’s Somerset Monument, from this vantage point just a tiny, exotic tower five miles away.

map of landmarks visible on the horizon

Returning home, on a bucket list roll, I set about creating a terrarium, a self-sustaining miniature bottle garden, watering itself from the condensation collecting on the interior of the glass. I follow instructions in a book I bought and first pored over when I was about 14, finally achieving another long-held ambition.

cover image of craft book

I start with a layer of crocks for drainage, add cactus compost mixed with gravel, then arrange a selection of tiny succulents. Standing back to admire the miniature view, I realise there’s something lacking.  Then it dawns on me. I fetch the three-inch-high stone pagoda that my daughter gave me last Christmas: the perfect finishing touch for my new creation, Hawkesbury-in-Bottle.

My bucket runneth over.

photo of terrarium with small pagoda inside

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Posted in Events, Personal life, Reading, Self-publishing, Travel, Writing

A Trip to the Van Gogh Exhibition and More Serendipitous Inspirations

In keeping with Orna Ross‘s recommendation to replenish the creative well by going on a “createdate”with yourself every week to a fun, stimulating place, I book tickets for the Van Gogh Britain exhibition currently running at London’s Tate Britain Gallery. I bend Orna’s rule by taking my teenage daughter with me, because Van Gogh is her favourite artist and this seems the perfect focus for quality mother-and-daughter time.

Van Gogh Britain Exhibition

The exhibition is even bettter than we thought it would be, demonstrating how a three year stay in London before he began to paint influenced Van Gogh’s themes and style, and how his own paintings went on to influence subsequent generations of British artists. It was not only art that influenced him, but also British literature, his favourite being Charles Dickens, and the architecture and ambience. He particular enjoyed the views from the Thames Enbankment, a constant source of inspiration to artists and writers.

Afterwards my daughter and I channel our inner Van Gogh by walking along the Embankment on our way to Trafalgar Square, via Whitehall, then back down the Mall and through St James’s Park, as I point out historical and cultural landmarks along the way. I enjoy introducing her to the landmarks that as a Londoner I grew up with, and have never felt fonder of my home city.

3 Unexpected Pleasures

But as always with planned trips, serendipity yields more food for thought. On this trip to London, three incidents stand out for me that transported us out of London and around the world:

  1. Waiting at the bus stop for our coach to London, we’re approached by what I assume to be an unremarkable old man, in old-fashioned windcheater and slacks. He is clutching a Sainsbury’s carrier bag, and I assume he’s come into Chippenham to do a bit of grocery shopping. When he strikes up a conversation with us, we discover he is also London-bound, on his way to meet a former student he taught in Macau as Professor of Intercultural Trade and Relations. He still teaches for in China, Hong Kong and Macau, for three months a year, the maximum visa period. He gives us plenty to think about on our way to London. My key takeaway is “Never judge a man by his carrier bag.”
  2. Strolling down the South Bank of the Thames before our allocated time slot for our date with Van Gogh, at the foot of the Oxo Tower we chance upon Latitude, a free exhibition of wildlife photography, an array of breathtaking pictures of Arctic polar bears, Antarctic penguins, and all kinds of animal in between, including cheetahs frolicking as playfully as domesticated kittens and a tiger apparently leaping towards the photographer with murderous intent. From a modestly tiny picture of the photographer Roger Hooper in the exhibition brochure, I recognise the grey-haired man lurking diffidently in the corner. “Excuse me, are you the photographer?” I ask. “Yes,” he says with a smile. “How many risks do you take to get such fabulous shots?” I ask, indicating the hungry tiger. “Ah,” he smiles wryly. “You’ve picked the one shot that isn’t entirely real. That tiger is the one used in the film The Life of Pi, and i had a piece of meat on a stick dangling from my hand beside the camera. I photoshopped the background in and blurred it afterwards.” That still sounds pretty risky to me. The mental image of that set-up is almost as pleasing as the resulting photo, which I can’t reproduce here for copyright reasons, but you can find out more about the photographer Roger Hooper and view his pictures on his website here. You may also be interested in his laudable charity to help build a brighter future for African girls here: www.hoopersafricatrust.org.
  3. The final surprise of the day is when, exhausted, we’re sitting in St Martin’s in the Fields Crypt Cafe, enjoying our tea, when my eyes alight upon what seems to me the most perfect piece of brick wall. The pleasing array of colours in such a neat grid reminds me of Van Gogh’s thick daubs of rich colour, and to an artist’s watercolour paint box filled with the promise of the pictures still locked inside the neat rectangles of pigment. Whether prompted by our encounter with the Professor at the bus stop, or the amusing snap of Roger Hooper apparently being photobombed by a giant panda, it also puts me in mind of the Great Wall of China and all the wonders of the world, whether natural or manmade. My daughter is bemused by my fixation with beautiful bricks (“I can’t believe you posted bricks on Instagram!” she crows later) after all the sights we have seen, but to me it seems a neat and fitting end to a stimulating day, and the perfect end to an enjoyable July.
A paintbox in brick form in the crypt of St Martin in the Fields – could be an artist’s palette for skin tones

Thank You, July, It’s Been Fun

And what a busy July is has been! It kicked off with included a week in Scotland (see my earlier post), finishing my latest novel for publication, and completing a new novella to be sent as an free ebook to my mailing list next month. (If you’re not already on my mailing list, you can sign up now via the form at the foot of this page to receive your copy in August – sorry, originally intended for July!)

I also enjoyed being a part of the usual monthly BBC Radio Gloucestershire Book Club, in which we talked this month about Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, 300 years old this year but still a cracking read. If you’d like to hear what we had to say about this and other bookish talk, you can listen again for the next couple of weeks on BBC Sounds via this link – we’re in the first hour of the show.

Our discussion about Robinson Crusoe included reminiscing about the wonderful old children’s TV series that we all grew up watching

One other highlight of July for me was starting to write guest posts for the IngramSpark blog. IngramSpark is a huge printing company that not only prints books for all kinds of publishers but also puts them into the distribution system for high street bookstores. All my books are published via IngramSpark, which means that you can order them from your favourite bookshop rather than online. I love bookshops – a good bookshop is an invaluable part of the high street and of the wider community, so I’m really glad to be able to drive trade their way.

IngramSpark’s blog is aimed at authors rather than readers, but if you’d like to read the post I wrote for them, about writing productivity, here’s the link: https://www.ingramspark.com/blog/writing-1000-words-a-day-finding-better-ways-to-measure-productivity-finish-your-book

So that’s it for July. And despite my careful plans for a productive month ahead, I wonder what serendipity August will bring?

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Posted in Events, Personal life, Writing

The Comfort of Consistency

Photo of show schedule with first prize rosette
The schedule for the 2019 show is now available from Hawkesbury Stores and Hawkesbury Post Office to help you plan your entries

In my column for the July issue of the Hawkesbury Parish News, I’m looking forward to this year’s Hawkesbury Horticultural Show on Saturday 31st August – a pleasingly longstanding village tradition and the social highlight of the village year for all ages

In an ever-changing world which seems to be lurching from one crisis to the next, it’s comforting to have some events in life that are dependably consistent – such as the imminent Hawkesbury Horticultural Show (Saturday 31st August).

Although each year the hardworking Show Committee announces a handful of carefully considered changes to the schedule – a new category here, changed criteria there – part of the joy is that on Show Day, the essential formula remains the same.

cover of Best Murder in Show with Amazon bestseller flag
The Hawkesbury Horticultural Show, on whose committee I served for thirteen years, was the inspiration for my first novel – although of course the novel is a complete work of fiction. We do not have any murders at Hawkesbury Show!

But I wasn’t aware of just how true to tradition our Show is until my father recently brought to my attention an extract from a book published privately around 1950, Life in a Hampshire Village by Kathleen E Innes. Her description of St Mary Bourne’s village show at the turn of the 20th century could almost be of the present day Hawkesbury equivalent, without the influence of modern technology and the rise of equal rights for women!

… the village Flower Show was the great summer event. A marquee was hired to protect exhibits from sun, wind and weather and beside it in the field there arrived the day before the show, a fair, with all the traditional equipment of roundabouts, swings, coconut shies and wonderful sideshows… Pennies saved up for months soon vanished in rides on the shiny-painted horses of the roundabout, which went round and round to the droning music, working up to what to the riders seemed a terrifying speed… Amid shrieks and laughter, boat-shaped swngs were worked up to a height far above the horizontal, till it seemed as if the occupants must fall out, but they never did…

Judging took place in the morning, and the judges, who came from outside, did not see the names of competitions till the decisions were taken. Then the cards with names were turned face upwards, ready for the rush of excited entrants as soon as the tent was open in the afternoon. Gardeners had separate classes to prevent them, through any unfair advantage, carrying away all the prizes, but many a non-gardener’s exhibit would have gained the award even in the gardener’s class.

There was always a class for cakes, and a dish of boiled potatoes “to give the women a chance”, but on more than one occasion the prize for the best cake was borne away by a boy who had made up his mind to be a chef…

The scene inside the tent was gay and colourful. Vases of mixed flowers, the best table decorations, bowls of roses, sprays of sweet peas, were placed to meet the eye on entering. Classes of vegetables were in their allotted places on long tables round the edge – marvellous marrows, spotless and shapely potatoes, peas and beans with pods full from top to toe; cabbages solid as cannon balls, cauliflowers round and comely, carrots long and straight. All these were set out as an inspiration and a challenge. Their owners hovered with pride near at hand to hear the freely-expressed envy and admiration.

When the exhibits were removed and the tent left empty, the fair went gaily on till the summer nightfall, the monotonous music of the roundabouts inviting all and sundry to stay and make an evening of it, for it would be gone on the morrow. It was late before even the tired and happy children went to bed.

That nostalgic description has whetted my appetite for the 2019 Hawkesbury Show – now I’m off to find the schedule and start preparing my entries. See you at the Show next month, whether or not my name graces any prize certificates!

Photo of interior of village show schedule showing details of vegetable class entry requirements
We don’t do things by halves in Hawkesbury Upton

Everyone’s welcome at the Hawkesbury Horticultural Show – come and join us on Saturday 31st August for a day to remember! I’ll be in the Hawkesbury Upton Literature Festival tent, near the playpark and the Pimms stall fun by the Friends of St Mary’s (another committee that I’m on!) More details on the show’s website at www.hawkesburyshow.org

Photo of reader talking to author in show tent
Meet the authors in the Hawkesbury Upton Lit Fest tent at the show (Photo of my mum talking to historical novelist David Penny by another Festival author, Mari Howaqrd)

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Posted in Family, Personal life, Writing

Golden Slumbers

In my column for the July-August issue of the award-winning Tetbury Advertiser, I arrived at some surprising conclusions about my erratic night-time sleeping habits.

“If 60 is the new 40” – my spirits lift as I read the start of this meme on Facebook, only to fall at its ending: – “then 9pm is the new midnight”.

Sensitive to the approach of a Big Birthday next year, I reluctantly agree. Once an ardent burner of midnight oil and two-ended candles, the older I get, the earlier my bedtime. Not so for the rest of my household: we operate on three different time zones.

Sleepers

My teenage daughter follows the classic morning-sloth-cum-party-animal schedule.

I could learn a lot about sleeping techniques from this koala, encountered at Edinburgh Zoo last month

My husband, long free of nine-to-five commitments, stays up so late and sleeps in so long you’d think he was working nights. One warm, dry night in May, I was surprised by the sound of a lawnmower starting up after nightfall. Yes, he was cutting the grass in the dark. A few nights later, at midnight he leapt up from his seat in the kitchen, rubbed his hands together enthusiastically, and announced, “Right, back to work in the garden”. Gardeners’ lore states that potatoes should be planted by the light of a full moon, but he’s not growing potatoes. Still, who needs daylight when you have a headtorch?

Longing for my bed by 9pm, I’m first up every morning, yet I’m often awake for an hour or two half way through. Does that make me insomniac?

Wakers

Apparently not. It turns out my two-stage sleep has historical precedence. According to Roger Ekirch, author of At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past, this was how everyone slept until artificial lighting skewed our body clocks, encouraging us to pursue a single shift of seamless slumber. Not only did our forbears to go to bed at dusk and wake at dawn, they also got up in the middle of the night and were active for an hour or so. Many cultures and languages, including Homer’s Odyssey, Virgil’s Aeneid, and Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, refer to “first sleep” (dusk till around midnight) and “second sleep” (early hours till dawn) as if they are the norm. While to twenty-first century ears it sounds absurd for monks to celebrate Matins at 2am, to the average medieval it was a constructive use of standard waking hours.

What You Will

Those without holy orders could do what they liked between sleep stages. Activities that didn’t require illumination would be more practical – and no, not only what you’re thinking: 2am was also prime time for theft. Me, I favour a cup of tea and a biscuit, with a few chapters of a good book.

So now when I wake at 3am, I do so happily, knowing I’m simply following a classic habit enjoyed by our ancestors until relatively recently. Until I stumble across a YouTube interview with Roger Ekirch describing two-stage sleepers as “as not insomniac, but pre-industrial”. Doesn’t that make me one removed from antediluvian? Now I really do feel old.

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Posted in Personal life, Reading, Travel, Writing

Let the Holidays Begin!

With my daughter finishing school in June after completing her GCSE exams, our holiday season kicked off early with a week away in the Scottish Highlands at the start of July, showing a visiting aunt from Canada some of our favourite places. Even so, with views like this at the end of our lane, we’re always glad to come home to our beloved Cotswolds.

View of wheatfield full of poppies
Summertime, and the reading is easy… view from the Cotswolds lane in which I live and work

Even better to come home to a relatively empty diary, freeing me to tackle some ambitious writing and publishing deadlines during the rest of July:

  • Secrets at St Bride’s, the first in my new Staffroom at St Bride’s School series, which will go on sale from the end of July
  • my new short Sophie Sayers novella, The Pride of Peacocks, to be distributed free, exclusively to readers who subscribe to my mailing list, also at the end of July (those already subscribed will be sent a copy too)

If you haven’t yet signed up for my e-newsletter and would like to receive the new novella, and to be alerted to the publication date of the novel, just follow the simple instructions at the foot of this post.

I’m also planning to attend some bookish events this month. I’m looking forward to seeing Deborah Moggach in Tetbury next week at an event organised by the ever-fabulous Yellow-Lighted Bookshop. I loved her historical novel Tulip Fever and am looking forward to hearing her speak about her new novel, The Carer. Ticket info here if you’re interested in coming along. And tonight I’m off to the Stroud Book Festival‘s launch party. My good friend Caroline Sanderson, my fellow panelist on BBC Radio Gloucestershire’ Book Club, is the Festival’s Artistic Director, and is putting together an amazing programme for this autumn’s event. I’ll also be catching up with her on 24th July when, with radio presenter Dominic Cotter, our Book Club discusses Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, three hundred years old now and still a cracking read!

header advertising Stroud Book Festival 2019
http://www.stroudbookfestival.org.uk

I’ll be rounding the month off with a trip to the fabulous Rain or Shine Theatre Company‘s open-air production of Shakespeare‘s As You Like It at Swinhay House, near Wotton-under-Edge – a beautiful venue that has added literary appeal as being once used as a set for the Benedict Cumberbatch Sherlock series (my teenage daughter’s favourite programme). They’re touring nationwide in a series of terrific venues, and having seen other productions by them – they’re a great company, well worth seeing, so if you’re in the UK and you fancy seeing them, check out their website to find the nearest gig to you.

Highlights of the Scottish Highlands

But while my Scottish trip is still fresh in my head, I’d like to share a few highlights with you.

Staying in Callander, in the Trossachs region, we were on the edge of the Highlands – somewhere I’ve been holidaying for nearly two decades with my Scottish husband as he pursued his hobby of “Munro-bagging“, ie climbing every Scottish mountain over 3,000 feet, of which there are 227. He conquered #227 last year. So now we can pick and choose where we go, whether or not there’s a Munro nearby!

This year’s high points (ho ho) included a cruise in the century-old steamship SS Sir Walter Scott on peaceful Loch Katrine, a setting that inspired not only Scott but also, more surprisingly, Jules Verne to write a novel set there. Although Verne being Verne, his novel The Underground City was set beneath these peaceful waters!

Photo of SS Sir Walter Scott ready to depart for a cruise on Loch Katrine
No other pleasure craft beside the official cruise ships are allowed on Loch Katirne

We enjoyed wildlife encounters wherever we went, from spotting rare ospreys on Loch Katrine to giant pandas and koala bears at Edinburgh Zoo.

photo of giant panda at Edinburgh Zoo
Edinburgh Zoo has two giant pandas on loan from China
Sign on bear enclosure at Edinburgh Zoo saying "Please don't lean over or sit on the wall. We feed the bears enough protein."
We enjoyed the Zoo’s sense of humour too

We’re always on the lookout for Highland cattle. A tour party guide demonstrated his alarming party trick of sharing a carrot with Hamish, pictured below – one end in his own mouth, the other eagerly taken by Hamish. We didn’t take up his offer to try it ourselves!

Photo of Highland cattle

Exploring Stirling Castle, I discovered a recipe topical to my new short novella, The Pride of Peacocks. (Join my mailing list via the link at the foot of this post if you’d like me to send you a free copy as soon as it’s ready – a copy of the novella that is, not the roast peacock!)

Linlithgow Palace and Doune Castle were both fascinating in different ways. We especially enjoyed the guided tour by local twelve-year-old schoolgirls in Stuart costume at Linlithgow, birthplace of Mary, Queen of Scots. They really brought it to life for us.

At Doune, pictured below, we enjoyed Terry Jones’ narration on an audio guide. Doune was one of the sets for the film Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Remember the scene where the French hurl abuse – and a black and white cow – from the battlements onto our brave knights below? You can now buy plastic cows as souvenirs from the shop, as well as coconut shells, with which to provide your own horsey sound effects. The first time I visited Doune a few years ago, on a wet, windy day, the only other visitor was a solitary chap surreptitiously filming his own tour, coconut shells in hand.

Photo of Doune Castle from approach
Doune Castle was used as a set for the film Monty Python and the Holy Grail
inside the medieval Great Hall at Doune Castle
Picture this Hall full of Pythons – scene of the Spamalot song
photo of sign for shop showing availability of coconut shells
Oh no, forgot to bring your coconut shells? The souvenir shop can oblige.

We stepped even further back in time at the recreated Iron Age settlement at the Scottish Crannog Centre on Loch Tay.

Photo of Scottish Crannog - a reconstructed Iron Age hut on stilts over Loch Tay
The Scottish Crannog Centre is a fascinating reconstruction of an Iron Age settlement. You can’t go far in Scotland without stumbling across historic curiosities.

We also managed to fit in Glencoe, Oban, the Highland Folk Museum (one of the settings for my planned eighth Sophie Sayers novel – I’m currently writing the sixth), the Beatrix Potter Garden in Birnam (yes, as in Birnam Wood moving to Dunsinane in Shakespeare’s Macbeth – two literary references for the price of one, there!) but my camera was playing up so I’ve no photos to share, but here’s the website if you’d like to take a look: It’s a delightful museum all about her childhood holidays spent in Scotland before her family started going to the Lake District, with which she’s more famously connected.

Back at base in our holiday flat in Callander, we enjoyed exploring this little market town, and especially visiting the secondhand bookshop, where I bought Early in Orcadia, an extraordinary novel by Scottish author Naomi Mitchison imagining the lives of the early settlers of the Orkneys, another part of Scotland that we enjoyed visiting a couple of years ago.

The secondhand bookshop in Callander
The unassuming but absorbing and very well-stocked secondhand bookshop in Callander

I’m always glad to bring home a new book about Scotland, but this visit I also returned with a cuddlier souvenir.

Och Aye the Panda’s kilt is in a tartan especially created to incorporate the panda’s distinctive black and white fur; red, deemed lucky in China and auspicious of birth (they’re hoping the Edinburgh pandas will breed); and green to represent bamboo, the panda’s staple diet

Back to the Writing Desk

I hope your summer has started as well as mine, if you’re in the northern hemisphere – and if you’re south of the equator, I hope you’re already starting to see early signs of your spring, now that your shortest day has passed.

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