In my column for the July issue of the Hawkesbury Parish News, I addressed an ancient form of rural trading: the use of your front cottage garden wall as an impromptu shop counter. It’s a common sight in the English countryside to see home-grown produce sold this way, especially in times of summer surplus,with payment made via an honesty box. Where I live in the Cotswolds, and I’m sure in other rural regions all around the UK, lockdown has triggered a new twist on garden-wall trading – the free distribution of unwanted household goods.
Social media posts saying “It’s on my front wall” have become commonplace during lockdown.
As we declutter our houses, the front wall has been the closest we can get to a charity shop drop-off. This method has the added bonus of feedback. I was gratified to hear from a local boy’s mother how thrilled he was at the progress of the mint plant he’d adopted from me.
The prospect of free gifts in someone else’s front garden lured me out for my first village stroll after twelve weeks of shielding. I returned home with abundant bounty:
the perfect pot in which to store my kitchen knives
a small vase just right for the pinks I’m currently cutting every day
a set of pressed glass dishes the colour of rosé wine that makes me smile every time I see them
and a planter just like the one I used to admire as a small child at infants’ school. (The less useful a memory, the better my recall.)
But the pleasure lies deeper than in the initial frisson of acquisition. What makes such trophies special is knowing the circumstances in which they have been given.
Antique dealers set great store by “provenance” – the record of an item’s ownership to show it’s genuine and honestly come by. The provenance of “off the wall” items is precious in a different way. Such things are being gifted, often to strangers, in a spirit of generosity fuelled by the extraordinary circumstances in which we find ourselves.
To me these items will always be souvenirs not of Covid-19 but of the kindness of neighbours and of their propensity to offer solace in a time of crisis.
I hope such exchanges continue long after lockdown is over. I for one intend to keep putting surplus items on my front garden wall, weather permitting. With the triffid-like growth of the mint in my garden, I should have plenty to go around.
Village Trading in Wendlebury Barrow
I haven’t yet used this idea in my village mystery series. In the fictitious village of Wendlebury Barrow, all shopping scenes take place either in Carol Barker’s village shop, where she stocks goods in alphabetical order to make them easier to find, and Hector’s House, the bookshop and tearoom where Sophie Sayers works. But I’m adding it to my ideas book for future use.
There must be a good mystery plot hinging on the mysterious appearance and disappearance of various goods on Sophie’s front wall!
If you’ve not yet encountered Sophie Sayers, you might like to know that the ebook of the first in her series, Best Murder in Show, is currently free to download from all ebook stores worldwide. The sixth book, Murder Your Darlings, was launched at the end of February, and I’m currently planning the plot for the seventh, Murder Lost and Found.
Order from your local bookshop by quoting ISBN 978-1-911223-13-9
In an occasional series on my blog I share the reasons behind the dedications in my stories. Today I’m describing how Chudleigh Women’s Institute and Westonbirt School inspired the first in my new Tales from Wendlebury Barrow series, The Natter of Knitters.
Every book I write has a dedication to the person or people who played a key part in its conception. My mini-mystery The Natter of Knitters, 20% the length of one of my novels, has a three-way dedication:
To Irene Smith, Joy Bell and the Chudleigh WI.
What’s a WI?
First of all, I’d better explain what WI means, for the benefit of readers outside of the UK who aren’t familiar with this long-standing organisation. WI is short for Women’s Institute(motto: Inspiring Women). The Federation of Women’s Institutes coordinates the local groups that meet regularly all over the country. This is how they define themselves on their website:
Inspiring women – then and now
In 1915 we set out to give women a voice and to be a force for good in the community. Since then, our membership and our ambitions alike have grown tremendously. Today , we are the largest women’s organisation in the UK and we pride ourselves on being a trusted place for women of all generations to share experiences and learn from each other.
There is a thriving WI in my home village of Hawkesbury Upton in the Cotswolds, so why is my dedication to a group a hundred miles away in Chudleigh, Devon, a place I’ve visited only once?
A couple of years ago I was a guest speaker at Chudleigh Lit Fest, an ancient wool town in Devon. On my way to the festival marquee, passing by the local playpark, I noticed that its perimeter railings were festooned in colourful knitted scarves .
A sign on the railings explained the WI’s mission: to make scarves for the homeless while also raising awareness of their plight before visitors to the playpark and to the festival.
As a lifelong knitter, this arresting sight inspired me not only to pick up my needles and start a new knitting project, despite it being a hot summer’s day, but also to plot a story that centred around a village yarnbombing event.
The Westonbirt Connection
It took another knitting-related encounter two years later to germinate the seed of the story that was planted on my trip to Chudleigh. When I put a call out on social media seeking a charity that might welcome handknitted items, my former colleague Joy Bell, Head of Textiles Technology (amongst other things) at nearby Westonbirt School, drew my attention to her pupils’ project to knit blanket squares to be turned into blankets for an Indian orphanage they were sponsoring.
A few weeks later I called in to the school to drop off some squares I’d knitted for them. Manning reception was Irene Smith, who is also the school seamstress, running up impressive costumes for school plays. We started chatting about knitting, and her enthusiasm for real wool from Cotswold sheep, as well as from those of her native Scotland, added a further strand (ho ho) to my story. We were talking for so long that at the start of our conversation, girls in lacrosse kit passed by on their way to a PE lesson, and we were still going strong when they returned.
The Natter of Knitters
By the time I got home, the plot of The Natter of Knitters, about a village yarnbombing event that goes wrong, had fallen into place. The story features lots of familiar characters from my Sophie Sayers Village Mystery series (Carol, the shopkeeper, teaches Sophie to knit, much to Hector’s annoyance), as well as introducing some memorable new ones.
It’s a quick read, at around 20% of the length of one of my novels, and it’s available either as an ebook or as a tiny postcard-sized paperback. If you’d like to read it, you’ll find the buying links at the end of this post.
In the meantime, my passion for knitting continues, and I’m currently alternating between tiny knitted flowers for fun and to use up lots of oddments:
and a “lockdown blanket” for function, made in colours to match my favourite Harris Tweed cushion. (There’s a nice piece about the concept of a lockdown blanket here.)
Perhaps because I write in the first person and I live in a village in the Cotswolds, readers sometimes assume that my Sophie Sayers Village Mysteries are partly autobiographical. One of my best friends, who has known me since we were 11, said to me after reading the first in the series, Best Murder in Show, “Sophie Sayers – she’s you, isn’t she?” Today I’d like to explain some of the similarities and differences between us.
First of all there is a disparity in our ages. I’m old enough to be Sophie’s mother, but I was only four years older than Sophie when I moved to the Cotswold cottage where I still live and work today.
Like Sophie, I had previously lived in towns and cities before moving to a village, but I moved here with my husband rather than as a single girl on the rebound from a failed relationship.
Sophie and I are both lucky enough to live in a Victorian Cotswold stone cottage with a pleasant established garden, but Sophie inherited hers. I had to buy mine, paying off my mortgage a few years ago. I envy Sophie her mortgage-free status from such a young age!
Strangely, when I write about Sophie’s cottage, I don’t picture my current home. That might seem the obvious choice, but it’s the wrong size and shape for my story. Mine is a three-bedroomed semi-detached cottage, whereas Sophie’s is a two-bedroomed terrace. (That’s a row house to American-English speaking readers.)
For the internal layout, I picture an amalgam of my maternal grandmother’s 1920s terraced house in Sidcup and my first house, a Victorian two-up, two-down workman’s villa in Tring, Hertfordshire. Both of those houses were brick-built, but Sophie’s is definitely made from the local honey-coloured Cotswold stone, like all the other old houses in her village.
Sophie and I both harboured writing ambitions since childhood. Like Sophie, when I decided the time was right to start taking my writing seriously, I took baby steps rather than plunging straight into writing novels. Having swapped my full-time job for a part-time one to give myself time to write, I committed, as Sophie does, to writing a monthly column in the village community magazine, in my case the Hawkesbury Parish News. This was to force myself into a regular writing habit and to nurture the discipline of writing to deadline and to length.
Unlike Sophie, I volunteered to write a second column for a magazine with a larger readership and circulation, the award-winning Tetbury Advertiser, which serves the nearby Cotswold market town.
For both publications, I write about seasonal or topical issues, and they’re generally humorous, ending with a smile even when addressing a serious issue such as Covid-19, but the editors give me free rein as to choice of topic.
Sophie, on the other hand, confines herself initially to writing for Wendlebury Barrow’s parish magazine, in which her column is called “Travels with my Aunt’s Garden“. The great aunt from whom she inherited her cottage was a travel writer and filled her cottage garden with plants that remind her of her favourite places around the world. Each month Sophie writes a seasonal piece about a plant currently thriving in her garden and its exotic origins.
There are many differences between us:
Sophie’s got light brown hair and blue eyes, my natural colour at Sophie’s age was dark brown, as are my eyes.
I’ve never worked in a bookshop or dated a bookseller, although I do love bookshops of all kinds.
Sophie is thriving in her job running the Hector’s House tearoom, whereas my only stint as a waitress was in a tea shop in York while I was at university. I was very bad at it and soon made my excuses and left.
Sophie’s parents live and work in Inverness; mine retired to Bristol after working in London, Frankfurt, Detroit and Los Angeles.
Sophie has taught at international schools, whereas I attended one as a pupil between the ages of 14 and 18.
Sophie is an only child, while I have a brother and sister.
Writers’ Retreat as a Turning Point
But there is one final similarity that unites us: we have both attended writers’ retreats on Greek islands. Mine was on Ithaca, run by author, designer, poet and musician Jessica Bell, an Australian living in Athens. Sophie’s is on a tiny fictitious island just off the end of Ithaca and is run by a specialist company based in London.
Sophie wins her place on her retreat as a competition prize, whereas I attended Jessica’s as a paid speaker.
Yet both Sophie and I returned from our retreats significantly changed.
For me, the retreat was the turning point that made me realise that I really could write novels. Previously I’d focused on short stories, nervous of tackling the larger canvas of full-length fiction. My eighth novel, Stranger at St Bride’s, is due to launch on 1st July.
Sophie enters her retreat questioning not only her ambition to write books, but also the future of her relationship with Hector.
How is Sophie changed by her retreat? You’ll have to read Murder Your Darlingsto find out!
While the coronavirus pandemic hampers foreign travel, writers’ retreats abroad can be only a fantasy. That’s a great shame, because writing is terrific therapy in a time of crisis, even if you write only for yourself.
But here’s news of a different kind of writers’ retreat that you can set up for yourself at home – the new Fictionfire – you may be interested in a different kind of this talk of retreats has got you hankering after taking such a trip yourself.
My friend Lorna Fergusson, an award-winning author, writing coach and editor, has set up this course online at a very reasonable price ($17 earlybird rate until 21st June, $37 after that). This gives you a lifetime access to the course materials.
Lorna also runs free online writing retreat sessions, and having enjoyed a couple of those during lockdown, I know that her course will be of a high standard (and yes, I have already snapped one up at the earlybird rate!) Click here for more information.
During lockdown, our community magazine, the Hawkesbury Parish News, has heroically continued to publish, thanks to its dedicated team of volunteers writing, editing, printing and distributing it about the village.
In the absence of news of events, which usually makes up a large part of its content, the editor, Colin Dixon, has solicited plenty of new and interesting editorial to fill the space, including personal lockdown diaries by local residents.
Although many of the services advertised in its pages are suspended during lockdown, these companies are continuing to support the magazine, as they book and pay for a year’s advertising each January. They deserve our support in return when normal life returns.
In these strange times, it is comforting to see the Hawkesbury Parish News drop through our letterbox each month, giving some semblance of normality and regularity to the disrupted pattern of life in the time of Covid-19. A huge thank you to the whole team for your continuing service to our community.
Now here’s the column that I wrote for the June issue.
My top tip for lockdown entertainment is to acquire a pair of kittens.
We did this only by chance, collecting Bingo and Bertie (named after P G Wodehouse characters) at nine weeks old, two days before lockdown.
21st March seemed a particularly auspicious day for us to bring them home. Not only is it the Spring Solstice, but it was also my parents’ 67th wedding anniversary.
Reading the adoption paperwork when we got home, I was astonished to find that they were also born on my birthday, January 18th – the same day that our older cat Dorothy moved in. Dorothy was a stray found by neighbours (the Rounds) in their garage on a school snow day. She was personally delivered by another neighbour, Roland Starling, when I joked on Facebook that she could be my birthday present – that’ll teach me to be flippant! Best birthday present ever, though!
As Dorothy did when she first came to live with us, the kittens have provided daily cheer and distraction. The timing of their arrival has meant that we have spent as much time as possible bonding with them, and they settled very quickly.
Much as we love the kittens, my daughter has already declared that she is looking forward to seeing how they turn out when they’re full grown. I know just what she means. When she was born 17 years ago, I worried that I might be sad when she grew up. I soon realised that at each stage of development, I loved her even more.
Of course, kittens are for life, not just for lockdown, but I’m glad to have at least this one positive souvenir of these challenging times.
We are very grateful to the Cats’ Protection League for caring for our kittens until they were old enough to leave their mother. Their loving care gave Bertie and Bingo a wonderful start, and I’m sure that’s one of the reasons that they are such affectionate, good-natured creatures now.
Further reading inspired by cats: “Springtime for Murder”
Don’t worry, no cats come to any harm in this book!
In the fifth Sophie Sayers Village Mystery, I wanted to write about cats and so I introduced some new characters – an elderly neighbour, Bunny Carter, who has a house full of cats, and an irritating do-gooder who keeps trying to foist more cats upon her while also trying to persuade her to leave her fortune to the local cat charity (not a bit like the wonderful Cats’ Protection League, I hasten to add!)
Sophie, as a cat person like me, is easily persuaded to adopt a black kitten, whom she names Blossom, a name nominated by my friend Sue, and not Beelzebub, which was suggested by my friend John, whom I suspect is more of a dog lover! Unfortunately Sophie discovers too late that Hector, her boss and her boyfriend, is a dog lover too…
Full of fun about cats and cat-lovers, and featuring the usual banter between the regular cast of characters in this series, this story is underpinned by serious thoughts about family relationships and the importance of solving family feuds before it’s too late. (Bunny, who earned her nickname by producing so many children in her younger days, has fallen out with all of her offspring.)
The book is available as both a paperback and an ebook, and makes a relaxing escapist read at any time of year.
A nostalgic travel piece about coffee in Greece & Albania
During lockdown, I’m drinking much more coffee courtesy of my Nespresso machine, which I continue to love, despite a Times journalist recently referring to it as “the Fisher Price of coffee makers”. (Besides, what’s not to love about Fisher Price, maker of the iconic chunky toy telephone?)
Yesterday, during an afternoon in which my garden was as hot as a Greek island, I forgot to collect a cup from the machine until it was cold. Not wanting to waste the coffee capsule, I decided to recreate the iced coffee that I used to enjoy on holiday in Greece – or café frappé, as they call it there. This refreshing long drink is not to be confused with the tiny cups of stronger stuff supped by backgammon players in the local kafenio.
With echoes of Proust‘s madeleine, the first sip took me back to the Greek islands where I spent a lot of time in the early Noughties, frequenting touristy tavernas and bars as we island-hopped around Zakynthos, Kefalonia, Ithaca, Lefkas, Corfu, and more.
More recently, spending an idyllic week at a writers’ retreat on Ithaca, run Jessica Bell at the delightful Hotel Nostos (which I highly recommend, by the way, once lockdown is over), café frappés sustained us through our daily writing sessions. (I’ll be writing more about that experience in a later post.)
A Durrell Pilgrimage
But my favourite coffee-related memory relates to an earlier stay in Corfu. When my daughter Laura was three, I booked a Durrell-inspired pilgrimage to the island setting of Gerald Durrell‘s My Family and Other Animals, staying in Kalamis, the village in which his brother Lawrence lived and wrote. I’d had this ambition since first reading the book at the age of 12.
I hadn’t realised until I travelled to Corfu that just a few miles across the water lay Albania, a closed communist country which had somehow managed to fall out with the entire Eastern European bloc, leaving China as its only trading ally. Its repressive regime was notorious, and many of its citizens tried to flee Albania for Greece in search of a better life. This was illegal in Albania and any would-be migrants faced harsh punishment.
The only Albanian national I’d ever met was in Lefkas, where we used to have a small share in a small sailing yacht. Commonly known as Albanian George, he was a former circus performer who ran the Ola Kala Bar on the main drag in Nidri. He’d lure in tourists by doing handstands on the tables and riding through his taverna on a unicycle. We liked him very much.
From Corfu to Albania
When in Corfu Town I spotted a boat running day trips to Albania, I couldn’t resist. I had assumed its borders were closed to tourists, so snapped up the chance to visit. The journey to the Albanian harbour of Sarandawas only a few miles, but was topped and tailed with strict immigration procedures. The tight control continued when we reached our destination. It became clear that our excursion would be spent in the company of official government guides wherever we went.
Echoes of Hong Kong
It reminded me of a day trip I’d had a decade before, from Hong Kong while still under British rule to mainland China, where we were only allowed to see the official version of the country. I soon wised up that when our sweet Chinese tour guide, Polly, said “Look left”, it was more interesting to look right to spot what they didn’t want us to see. (Polly was enchanted when a member of our party introduced her to the old nursery rhyme “Polly, Put the Kettle on”.)
Kickstarted with Coffee
In Albania, our day included a walking tour of Saranda, a town very much under construction, which the government was hoping to turn into a major attraction for the yachties that flocked to the Ionian. Our first port of call was where the coffee connection comes in. The coach took us to a small, old-fashioned hotel for a restorative drink after our journey. There was no menu – just instant coffee all round, in chunky white mugs emblazoned with the international Nescafé logo. The staff were clearly proud and excited to offer it to us, so we tried hard to look suitably impressed and grateful.
Charmed by the Children
As we got back on our coach, numerous small children crowded around, pressing us to buy their souvenirs in exchange for valuable Euros, chattering in English. Charmed by these dark-eyed, glossy haired young entrepreneurs, whose average age must have been about ten, I quickly parted company with all the Euro coins in my purse in exchange for trinkets made in China: plastic bead bracelets and cotton handkerchiefs. I wondered whether the Nescafé mugs had also come from China.
Bowled over byButrint, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that gave us a potted history of Albania, we returned passing fields where the crops were being hand-harvested with scythes, to Saranda for a walking tour. This included a stop at the official government souvenir shop that stocked virtually no souvenirs. Still, I was pleased with an Albanian colouring book, a board book of Albanian words and pictures, and a small bag bearing the Albanian double-headed eagle, all for Laura.
The tour ended with an invitation to sample the local spirit. Our Greek tour operator had warned us against this firewater. With a three year old in tow, we decided to spend the rest of our time in Albania enjoying a stroll along the seafront, inspecting the marina under construction. Everyone else hit the harbourside bar.
An Unusual Carousel
Further down the promenade, Laura’s eyes lit up when she spotted an off-duty carousel bearing the most unchildish assortment of rides. Instead of the traditional painted horses, there were only miniature government vehicles: tanks, jeeps, police motorbikes and other symbols of state authority.
With no staff in attendance, the best we could do was to let her climb up on the platform to walk around. Suddenly a throng of olive-skinned Albanian children appeared from nowhere. Entranced by Laura’s blonde hair, blue eyes, and fair skin, they scooped her up, sat her in a tank, and jumped down onto the promenade, where they proceeded to push the carousel round manually, delighted at her obvious pleasure. After a while they stopped and sat her in a police car, and so it continued.
“I’m sorry, I have no money to pay you,” I said, opening my empty change purse to show them.
They understood, but were not downhearted. They may have hoped for a tip, but they were motivated by kindness, not money. One boy even ran home to fetch a packet of biscuits, offering them to Laura and to us. They carried on entertaining her until it was time for us to leave to catch our return ferry.
The Perfect Ambassadors
Touched by their generosity, we were sorry to have to say goodbye and felt guilty to be returning to our comfortable holiday back on Corfu. We’d heard how impoverished the Albanian people were and feared for the children’s future in their totalitarian state.
But perhaps we need to not have worried. The Albanian government’s plans for Saranda paid off, and apparently it’s now a favoured cruise ship destination. With hospitality like that, I’d return in a heartbeat if I could – although I suspect I saw it at its best, before the crowds descended. I certainly count that day trip it as one of the best holidays in my life. It even made me think a little more kindly of Nescafé,
(Apologies for the lack of photos – I have no idea where my photos from so long ago are stored. Sorting out my photo archives should be my next lockdown project!)
Café frappés prove popular with Sophie Sayers when she spends a week at a writers’ retreat on a tiny Greek island in my latest novel, Murder Your Darlings, available now in ebook and paperback.