Posted in Personal life, Travel, Writing

Back to the Future

My column for the September edition of the Tetbury Advertiser

There’s nothing like a holiday in a place very different from home to give you a fresh perspective. This summer we headed for East Anglia, as flat as the page of this magazine. Not only was the landscape a change from the gently undulating Cotswold hills, but we also learned a lot about British history.  

The Norfolk landscape, flat as your computer screen, but stunning all the same

Going Underground

Neolithic flint mines: who knew? I thought flint was just something you found on the surface. But Neolithic tribes discovered that the best type for spearheads lies in a vertical seam thirty feet below the ground and sank pits to dig it out. Near Thetford, my husband and daughter descended a mine-shaft ladder to bear witness. (Smart delegation on my part.)

Rising Up

In the city museum of Ely, birthplace of republican Oliver Cromwell and base for Hereward the Wake, resistance leader against the Norman invasion, we learned the remarkable story of how the flooded fenland has been reclaimed and made farmable over the centuries. They’re nothing if not determined, these East Anglians.

Ely Cathedral took my breath away

Rising High

But for me the highlight was a trip to a history festival at Castle Rising, once owned by William the Conqueror’s brother, Bishop Odo of Bayeux, commissioner of the famous tapestry. Dozens of linen tents pitched around the grounds housed historical reenactors in costumes from throughout the last couple of millennia.

A small boy toddling past me in homespun tunic clutched a green plastic Thomas the Tank Engine.

“Ah, a time travelling baby!” I observed.

“Just don’t ty to separate him from Thomas,” replied his dad, a medieval peasant. “Some Romans tried that earlier, and there’s not much left of them.”

A passing Agincourt archer showed me his quilted jacket, thirty-one layers thick to withstand arrowheads.

“I like your sunhat,” I smiled, thinking he must be melting in the heat.

“Armoured straw,” he said with a wink.

But this was no cosmetic exercise. Also on show were impressive demonstrations of historical skills, from handforging chainmail to armed combat with a vast array of authentic weapons. Now I know what a poleaxe looks like, I realise how devastating being poleaxed would be. This stout stick taller than the soldier ends in a combined dagger, axe and hammer – a medieval forerunner of the Swiss Army knife, on a grander scale.

How did ordinary people cope with such gruesome methods of fighting? A Redcoat, polishing his musket, explained.

“It was just normal life to them. When you’re used to slaughtering your own livestock to survive, the only difference in battle is that the blood and guts spilled are human.”

Afterwards, my daughter asked me which era I would choose to live in. I was quick to reply. “The modern era, but in ten years’ time, when all this Brexit nonsense is over and done with.”

And if it’s not, at least I now know how to fell a politician with a poleaxe.

Unfortunately my camera had a flat battery when we arrived at Castle Rising, so let’s close with some classic Norfolk lavender instead!

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Have You Read My Latest Novel?

Secrets at St Bride’s – A School Story for Grown-ups is now available in paperback and ebook. It’s a fun, gentle blend of cosy mystery and romantic comedy set in an eccentric English girls’ boarding school. As the series title suggests – “Staffroom at St Bride’s” – it’s about intrigues among the staff rather than the girls, but it will appeal to anyone who enjoyed reading school stories when they were younger, from Malory Towers to Chalet School to Molesworth! Click here to find out more about it and to read the opening two chapters for free.


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 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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To be among the first to know about my new booksspecial offerscoming events and free downloads, just type your email address into the box above and click the grey button. You’ll also receive a free download of a short novella, The Pride of Peacocks, a lighthearted quick read in the Sophie Sayers Village Mystery series, available exclusively to my subscribers. I promise I won’t share your email address with anyone else and you may unsubscribe at any time. Thank you!

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Posted in Personal life, Travel

I’m on the Train…

Pleasingly the April issue also featured the Hawkesbury Upton Literature Festival on the front page – click the image to jump to the Festival’s website

(My column for the April issue of the Hawkesbury Parish News)

Travelling by train to London yesterday for the first time in ages, I was pleasantly surprised by the changes in the rail service. So often corporate rebranding goes only skin-deep, but the changes at GWR are much more than a new logo, colour scheme and smart uniforms. Immaculate new rolling stock with thoughtful extras such as a recharging point for every seat, an efficient trolley service, and scrolling electronic displays with journey information all made the journey more relaxing. Not forgetting the high-tech new engines, of course!

But what really took my breath away was the toilet cubicle – and I mean that in a good way. It was big enough to hold a party. (I resisted that temptation.) The high-tech controls suggested I was about to be teleported, Star Trek style.

I wasn’t the only one enjoying the journey. The pleasant young man serving refreshments volunteered what a great company GWR is to work for. He confided that he’d applied for engine driver training. Engine driver – once the ambition of every small boy. I hope his application is successful.

In this anxious age of political uncertainty and turmoil, the whole experience soothed and reassured me. Britain can still be great, when it gets its act together, as GWR has done.

Meanwhile, I just wish we could persuade GWR to reverse the Beeching Cuts and even to add new lines.

Next stop, Hawkesbury Upton Station? In my dreams!