In each episode of both my cozy mystery series, I introduce new characters and settings to old favourites from previous books. This post is about some new faces and an ancient manor house at the heart of my latest Gemma Lamb Cozy Mystery, Artful Antics at St Bride’s.
In this story, St Bride’s School acquires a secretive new pupil, Frieda Ehrlich, whose school fees are sponsored by enigmatic tycoon Sebastian Goldman-Coutts. He’s the new owner of Torrid Manor, which lies hidden behind high hedges and forbidding walls just a few miles from the school’s private grounds in the Cotswolds.
When English teacher Gemma Lamb is invited to visit Torrid Manor, she is astonished to find
the historic mansion is almost derelict. With only candles lighting the house, Gemma snatches shadowy glimpses of its former glory.
Why would a supposed billionaire choose such a shabby home? What is he hiding? Or who is he hiding from?
Cotswolds mansions are highly sought after by super-rich celebrities from actors and rock stars to politicians and royalty. Having made their fortunes elsewhere, they escape to a rural idyll. Yet the mansions’ original owners got rich through a very local trade: Cotswold wool.
Image by DRichards2, via Wikimedia under Creative Commons Licence
In medieval times, the thick, curly, golden fleeces of the ancient
produced the finest wool in the world. It was as prized and prestigious as precious metals and jewels. Cotswold merchants amassed great wealth by exporting wool throughout Europe. Cotswold Lion breed of sheep
I imagined Torrid Manor to be something like Hidcote Manor. (Picture via Wikimedia under Creative Commons licence.)
Like modern billionaires,
these rich merchants invested their riches in property. They commissioned the building of prestigious homes, fashioned from the distinctive golden-hued Cotswold stone.
Many also endowed the construction of magnificent churches. Pictured here is the parish church of St John the Baptist, Cirencester.
As demand soared, market towns sprang up throughout the region as trading centres for sheep and fleeces. If you’ve ever wondered why so many Cotswold town names include the word “Chipping”, it’s because
“Chipping” is the local word for “market”. Smaller buildings provided studios and workshops for wool processors: spinners, dyers and weavers. Street names bear witness to their original purpose, such as Dyer Street or Weavers’ Row. Laurie Lee’s local pub was The Woolpack.
The beautiful Cotswold wool town of Painswick (Public domain image via Wikimedia)
Sadly, the Cotswold wool trade declined during the
Industrial Revolution, with the rise of the steam-powered mills in the north. But the honey-coloured mansions, churches, and market towns are a lasting legacy of the Cotswolds’ Golden Age of Wool.
Artful Antics at St Bride’s, Gemma Lamb detects that Sebastian Goldman-Coutts is hiding dark secrets at Torrid Manor, including his own agenda for St Bride’s. So begins her latest quest to save the school, with unexpected consequences…
Extract from Artful Antics at St Bride’s
‘So we’re calling this term’s Essential Skills Challenge, “Raise the Roof with Your New Business”,’ Hairnet announced, making eye contact with each of the teachers in turn as if to ensure our cooperation. ‘As you know, several girls are already running successful businesses in their own modest – and safe – way, trading in home-made jewellery and handicrafts via Itsy Bitsy.’
I assumed she meant Etsy. Modern technology wasn’t her strong point.
‘Those girls can be mentors and role models for the others, in whatever line of business they choose. Although the purpose of these new businesses will be rather different: we will launch the programme with an inspirational and informative talk by someone seasoned in managing a successful business and who has much wisdom to share.’
The bursar seemed to grow a few centimetres taller at this remark, only to shrink back at her next statement.
‘A couple of you have already met Mr Goldman-Coutts, the generous sponsor of our delightful new sixth form pupil, Frieda Ehrlich.’
Hazel and I exchanged glances. Even though, like me, she always tried to see the best in our girls, I don’t think either of us would have applied the adjective ‘delightful’ to Frieda.
‘The rest of you will soon have the opportunity to meet the dear man. He has kindly agreed to address the girls after lunch tomorrow, despite his busy schedule.’
Mavis raised her hand. ‘Miss Harnett, just what is Mr Goldman-Coutts’ line of business that qualifies him to advise a hundred adolescent girls?’
Oriana raised a well-manicured forefinger, as if too indolent to put up her whole hand.
‘Whatever it is, it’s making him extremely rich. I looked up his estate on Google Earth and it’s massive. Torrid Manor’s a huge mansion, with countless outhouses, far more than a home of that size might need for stables or coach houses or garden bothies. He must be fabulously good at whatever his line of business is.’
‘Torrid Manor?’ Judith raised an eyebrow. ‘I didn’t think anyone had lived there for years.’
‘Nonsense,’ retorted Oriana. ‘He told Hazel and Gemma that’s where he lives.’
Silenced by Oriana’s curt manner, Judith pressed her lips together. I suspected Judith knew more than she was letting on. I decided to have a quiet word with her as soon as I could get her on her own. She had been a wise and supportive friend to me, and I trusted her judgement more than Oriana’s.
‘It doesn’t follow,’ said Mavis. ‘He might have inherited an even property portfolio from his father and be in the process of squandering it on decadent living and business ineptitude. I’m sure we can all think of figures in public life with a similar record.’
‘Actual wealth trumps earning power in my book,’ retorted Oriana. ‘Provided a man’s rich enough for life, I don’t care whether or not he’s an entrepreneurial genius. What matters is the here and now.’
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(This post first appeared on my publisher’s blog at www.boldwoodbooks.com.)