In this column for the December 2018 issue of the Hawkesbury Parish News, I get ahead of myself with the seasons
In the retail trade, buyers plan at least a season ahead. While we’re Christmas shopping, they’re planning their stock for the spring.
I share their sense of being out of step with nature’s calendar. Today, for example, the deadline of the Hawkesbury Parish News’s December issue, I launched my latest novel, Springtime for Murder. I wrote it in the summer months, edited it in the autumn, and it’s set at Easter. Now I’m about to start writing a novel that takes place in May. No wonder I have to stop to think what month it is in the real world.
It doesn’t help that I can’t rely on the weather to give me a natural steer on the seasons. With it often so unseasonably hot/cold/wet/dry, a glance out of the window can be misleading.
Taking a break from my desk to go grocery shopping does nothing to put me straight. Why are supermarket shelves still full of fresh summer fruits in the winter? Every time I go to Waitrose lately, there are punnets of strawberries reduced for quick sale, because the shop has more than it can sell. Still, at least I’m full of Vitamin C to guard against winter colds.
Thank goodness for the man-made visual clues around the village. Impressively carved pumpkins dotted around the village heralded Halloween. Mid-November, the poppies on the Plain and in St Mary’s ensured we remember the date we should never forget. Now the Christmas lights will soon be upon us.
Even so, if you see me shivering in a summer dress in December, now you’ll know the reason why: I’ll have simply lost the plot. Which really shouldn’t happen to an author.
I wish you all a merry Christmas and a happy New Year!
PS And if you fancy some seasonal reading that is just right for December…
Dare I confess that in 27 years of living within walking distance of them, I’ve never been to the Badminton Horse Trials? And in the last few years, as a frequent traveller to Scotland, I’ve spent more time on Loch Ness than at Westonbirt Arboretum.
While in Inverness at the start of October to speak at the Ness Book Fest, I squeezed in a quick tourist cruise on the loch. When the tour guide asked at the end how many of our party of about 30 had spotted the legendary monster, an elderly lady put her hand up. One in 30 – that’s pretty good odds.
On my return, determined to make up for lost time, I renewed my Friends of Westonbirt Arboretum membership for not much more than my one-off Loch Ness boat trip had cost me. The new Welcome centre at which I signed up was not the only change I noticed. Last time I came, the treetop walk was just a glint in the Forestry Commission’s corporate eye. Nervous of heights, I was relieved to discover the broad, steady boardwalk, not a bit like the rickety rope bridge I’d imagined from watching travel documentaries about rainforests.
As I renewed my acquaintance with the familiar pathways of the Old Arboretum, I espied a life-sized Gruffalo (yes, of course Gruffaloes are real). I don’t remember seeing him before, but maybe he has been there all along, and it was just my lucky day to spot him. Perhaps he’s Westonbirt’s equivalent to Loch Ness’s monster or the Himalayas’ yeti.
Plus Ca Change…
But of course there was still so much that was the same. Just as I surprise myself by knowing all the words to pop songs from my youth, I remembered particular views before they appeared at each twist and turn of the skilfully designed paths. As I walked, I fell to reminiscing about the many times I used to come here in my lunch hour or after work, when I was employed across the road.
Working at Westonbirt School, originally the private house of Arboretum founder Robert Holford, gave me a special affinity for him, as if he were a family friend. 15 years ago, I even wrote a playscript performed as part of the school’s seventy-fifth birthday celebrations. I had fun putting words into the mouth of the great man, gamely played by the school’s then Head of Drama, Henry Moss-Blundell, sporting my knee-high brown leather boots as part of his costume. He reprised the role – and borrowed my boots – many times more to lead heritage tours. I still have the boots, so that’s another way I can walk in Holford’s footsteps.
Only when I was on my way home from renewing my Westonbirt membership, legs tingling after my bracing walk, did I realise that it’s not only the Arboretum that has changed since my earlier visits. In those days, I used to run round the paths. 27 years on, my Holford boots are strictly made for walking.
This post was originally written for the November issue of the wonderful Tetbury Advertiser, which has just won yet another award, this time for the quality of its editorial content. (Well, who am I to argue with that?!)
It also raised a huge amount of money for local good causes and helps local businesses raise awareness and attract custom. So all in all, a very worthwhile magazine to write for, and I’m proud to be associated with it.
Read the whole magazine online for free by clicking the image, left. If you’re into Twitter, it’s also worth following the magazine at @LionsTetbury – the editor never fails to make me laugh.
I’ve just spotted that this little paperback of my short story Lighting Up Time has been reduced to about half price (£1.52) by Amazon’s UK store just now, so I thought I’d flag that up for you before they put the price back up to its usual £2.99. (Usual price applies in other Amazon stores.)
Set just before Christmas at the winter solstice, 21st December, it’s a timely read for these dark, wet, windy winter nights, telling the story of a young woman trying to come to terms with her fear of the dark as she babysits her nephew and niece in a remote country house.
With equal touches of spookiness and humour, it’s a touching, feel-good quick read that’s just right for this time of year.
The small format paperback is the size of a postcard, which makes it a great stocking-filler or Secret Santa gift, and just the right size to slip inside a Christmas card. It’s also available as an ebook for just 99p/99c.
What Readers Say:
“Lovely story that perfectly captures that big sister/little sister thing, and Aunt Sophie is a lovely gentle presence throughout – I especially like the way you use scent (perfume, flowers) to evoke her.” – Lucienne Boyce, historical novelist
“You had me scared of the dark with you!” Melanie Spiller
“Lovely story and a great, feel-good ending .” – Christina Courtenay, romantic novelist
“Debbie Young packs so much into her short and poignant stories.” – Tom Evans
I don’t know how long Amazon will be running this special offer, so if you fancy it, best snap it up while you can!
This post first appeared in the November 2018 issue of the Hawkesbury Parish News
While I was growing up in a suburb where many roads were lined with horse chestnut trees, playing conkers was one of my favourite autumn games. I still can’t walk past a freshly fallen conker without picking it up and slipping it into my pocket. My grown-up excuse for collecting conkers and taking them home is that they’re an effective spider deterrent.
Nature’s timing is perfect, because the conker harvest coincides with the mass migration of spiders from our gardens into our homes. Escaping from the chill and damp outdoors is the arachnid equivalent of flying south for the winter.
However, I’ve just heard on the radio that ingesting conkers can be harmful to dogs. They contain a toxin called aesculin, also present in every other part of the horse chestnut tree, which can make dogs very ill and in rare cases prove fatal.
On his podcast, the radio presenter, Rhod Gilbert, wondered how to reconcile his arachnophobic wife who fills their house with conkers and a pet dog who perceives every conker to be a dog toy. How to keep both of them happy and safe?
My cat Dorothy suggests the answer. All summer she’s been snacking on flies and moths. Rhod just needs to follow her example and cut out the middleman (the conker).
If he trains his dog to eat spiders, his problem will be solved.
This post was originally published in the October issue of the award-winning Tetbury Advertiser.
After my husband’s summer war against overgrown trees, shrubs and flowerbeds, some old outbuildings, no longer camouflaged by ivy, were just asking to be given a new lease of life.
The first step in our resurrection of two old privies, a pigsty and a Wendy House was to discharge their contents onto the lawn. (Thankfully the privy buckets had disappeared decades before.) I liked to think of the resulting installation as “Tracy Emin’s Shed”.
After multiple trips to the tip and a couple more to IKEA, the conversions were complete. A few coats of pastel-coloured fence paint and the addition of minimal furnishings turned the Wendy House into an art studio fit for our teenage daughter. Once a new clear roof panel had linked the privy building to the pigsty, the introduction of a workbench provided my husband with a carpenter’s workshop. I was the only one in the family without my own outhouse.
A Room with a View
Then one day, admiring the orderly view of the restored buildings from my favourite armchair, I realised we’d done much more than tidy the garden. We’d evolved our own little village.
Not that we’ve been slashing and burning like a fast-food chain through rainforest. Our approach was far more respectful of local wildlife. I’ve never heard as much birdsong in our garden, and the frogs in the pond are flourishing.
Not Strictly for the Birds
Like any decent village, our garden includes plenty of facilities for humans too. There’s a play area with a swing set and trampoline for the benefit of young visitors. For older, wearier souls there are plenty of benches at strategic intervals. For the peckish, there’s plenty of nourishment to be had from the trees. It’s been our best year ever for pears. Once we’ve finished resurrecting the kitchen garden beds, the last task on our list, there’ll be soft fruit and vegetables too.
If it’s spiritual nourishment you’re after, a buddha statue holds court in the shade beneath the damson tree. He’s a handy distraction from our miniature civic amenity centre: a row of compost bins offering their own “ashes to ashes” message about the circle of life.
Finally, for everyone’s peace of mind, Dorothy, our stately calico cat, provides a round-the-clock Neighbourhood Watch service.
As the dark nights of winter approach, it’s a comfort to be able to look out on my own little world. This Englishwoman’s home is her castle.
And if Brexit goes horribly haywire, I can always place an order with the carpenter’s shop to set about making a drawbridge.
If you’d like to read more of my columns from the Tetbury Advertiser, Young By Name, this collection of pieces from 2010-2015 is available in paperback (ISBN 978-1911223030) and ebook.