Posted in Family, Personal life, Writing

A Trick of the Light

photo of sunset behind leafless trees
Sunset on Starveall Lane, one of the single-track roads that leads into Hawkesbury Upton

Every month, I write a topical column for the Hawkesbury Parish News, the local magazine run by an apparently tireless team of volunteers, for the benefit of everyone within our local community. What could be more topical for an English village in the middle of winter than a heartfelt longing for signs of spring?

Yesterday mid-morning, in a brief interlude between torrential downpours, there was a clear, fresh quality to the daylight in my back garden. If I were an artist, I would have been reaching for my paints, eager to capture the arrival of spring. Yet the calendar told me winter would last two more months.

I welcomed the arrival of this blackbird every morning last week as it worked its way through old apples left over from last autumn

Unlike my husband, I don’t always trust supposedly scientific evidence. Our bathroom scales are another case in point. Bringing them into the bedroom to weigh himself last week, he was startled to find he’d lost ten kilos. “Put them back in their usual place and try again,” I advised.

Sure enough, when returned to the bare boards of the bathroom floor, the scales showed his usual weight. Those ten kilos were never lost – they were just temporarily mislaid. Like his car keys and his phone, which go missing several times a week, I knew they’d turn up eventually.

Weight is in any case relative and not worth getting worked up about. At my health MOT at the GP surgery last week, the nurse congratulated me: “Well done, you’ve lost five pounds since this time last year.”

Taking the compliment with good grace, I chose not to confess that I’d actually lost a stone – and then regained nine pounds.

But I’ll store up my husband’s experience for future reference. Then when I really want to lose weight and keep it off, I’ll just put the scales on the bedroom carpet.

photo of snowdrops in the churchyard at Slad
More signs of spring in the Cotswolds: carpets of snowdrops at the churchyard in Slad, resting place of the writer Laurie Lee

And In Case You’re Impatient for Summer…

A Free Summer Read!

A fun story set in high summer in a classic English village – first in a series of five novels (book six due out at the end of February!)

If these signs of spring aren’t enough to lift your spirits, here’s a chance to download a free ebook of my novel set in high summer, Best Murder in Show.  For a limited time only, the ebook edition is available to download free of charge from all good ebook retailers (Kindle, Kobo, Apple, etc).

Just click this link to download your copy in the format of your choice. 

Why am I giving it away? I’m hoping readers will get hooked and go on to buy the rest of the series – especially as book six in the series, Murder Your Darlings, is due out at the end of February!

Fortunately, it costs me nothing to give away an ebook as the file is a digital download, with no print or delivery costs. I just wish I could do the same with paperbacks!

More news about Murder Your Darlings soon…

Posted in Personal life, Travel, Writing

A Penguin’s View of Tetbury

cover of February Tetbury Advertiser featuring penguin
My regular Young By Name column made the front cover in this issue (Click image to read whole issue online)

This post first appeared in the Tetbury Advertiser‘s February 2019 edition.

I make no secret of the fact that I hate February, with its dull, short days, and no redeeming feature besides brevity. At least January includes my birthday (the day I’m writing this). But by February, I am usually pining for blue skies, bright flowers, and green leaves, instead of grey, grey, grey, and I’m longing to flip the calendar to March.

But this year my attitude has changed after reading some books about early polar explorers, including Michael Palin’s Erebus: the Story of a Ship. These books have given me a new perspective not only on the frozen north and south but also on my home turf.

Armchair Travellers All

Although few of us have come close to the North or South Pole, these days we all feel we know what the Arctic and Antarctic landscapes looks like, thanks to television documentaries. Not so for the early explorers. Obviously there was no television, but even photography was in its very infancy. The daguerrotypes taken of officers before the Erebus set off in search of the North West passage were the very latest in 19th century technology. Only in the 20th century did we start to see photographic evidence such as the remarkable work of Frank Hurley, whose accompanied Shackleton and others. The only visual records of the Erebus’s journeys north and south are the crew’s drawings and paintings.

According to Michael Palin, one of the crew in the Erebus’s early 19th century polar voyages was startled at his first sight of icebergs, expecting them to be clear, like ice cubes in a glass of Scotch. They’d never seen Antarctic penguins, either, although they might have spotted variants native to South America, South Africa and Tasmania on their way south.

Picking Up On Penguins

But how much more remarkable would a penguin find the Cotswolds? There’s so much here that is completely absent from the Antarctic: trees, grass, and other terrestrial plants and flowers; stone walls dividing fields; rolling green hills instead of stark mountains; roads and automobiles; four-legged animals; and, for the most part, people.

Set a penguin down in the middle of Tetbury, or anywhere in the Cotswold countryside, and its mind would surely be blown by the extraordinary display of colour, texture, shapes and sizes, even in the middle of winter, compared to the whites, blues and greys down south. If you wanted to break your penguin in gently, you could show a bit of camaraderie by wearing a dinner suit, and find it a field carpeted with snowdrops.

So this year I have a new strategy to stop me succumbing to the February blues. Instead of bemoaning the grey winter days, I will try to view the local landscape through the eyes of a visiting Antarctic penguin. The transformation is remarkable, like the scene in The Wizard of Oz where Dorothy opens the door of her black-and-white house to reveal the glorious Technicolor Munchkinland.

Even so, I’ll still be craving the spring.


cover of Springtime for Murder
And in the spring, Sophie Sayers’ fancy lightly turn to thoughts of… murder!

If you’d like a bit of spring reading to cheer you up, Springtime for Murder, Sophie Sayers’ fifth village mystery, could just hit the spot. Available in paperback online and to order from all good bookshops, and also as an ebook for Kindle. For more information, and to read the first chapter on my website, please click here

Posted in Travel

The Green Hills of Home

From the May issue of the Hawkesbury Parish News, a post about coming home from holiday to our Gloucestershire village

Panoramic photo of hills around Hawkesbury
The Somerset Monument that towers above my village, Hawkesbury Upton

It’s always good to come back to Hawkesbury after any holiday, no matter how enjoyable. This Easter was no exception.

Gordon and Laura on path by Baltic
Somehow wed expected our first sight of the Baltic to be cold, grey and wet

We’d just spent two weeks in our camper van, touring the flatter parts of northern Europe. It was unnerving to know we were often driving below sea level, but the flip side was it made cycling a joy. Taking our bikes off the back of the van to go for a family cycle, we didn’t so much pedal as glide. The level roadways provided the perfect surface for lazy, unmuscled cyclists like me. Continue reading “The Green Hills of Home”

Posted in Family, Travel

Putting the Up in Sidcup

(This post about revisiting Sidcup, where I was born and raised, was originally written for the February 2015 issue of the Tetbury Advertiser)

 

Cotswold landscape photo across green fields to SomersetM Monument
View from the village in which I live now

“Quaint”, “timeless”, “historic” – all of these epithets will drip from the lips of tourists as they return to the Cotswolds, their numbers growing as the days lengthen. They will inevitably marvel at the ancient architecture and landscape that we take for granted, and they will boost the local economy via our tourist attractions and shops. (That’s always my excuse for splashing out when I’m on holiday: “Just boosting the local economy, dear”.)

When I first visited the Cotswolds decades ago, I would have been one of those tourists. Now that I’ve lived here for nearly a quarter of a century, a refugee from London suburbia, I realise the area is not as static as it looks. Edge-of-town superstores have effected a sea-change, while high streets evolve less perceptibly but just as unstoppably. I can’t even remember now what preceded Tetbury’s Tardis-like Yellow-Lighted Bookshop (was it the bike shop?), which feels and looks, in the nicest possible way, as if it’s been there forever, and I’m glad that it’s there. The same goes for Hobbs House Bakery.

While some changes will always be more welcome than others, it’s natural to be sceptical and even fearful if too much changes too fast, even though change often brings fresh blood, new ideas and younger populations to keep cherished traditions and old institutions alive.

Photo of house in Burnt Oak Lane
The house in which I lived from ages 3-14

A recent trip to the land of my birth – Sidcup, Kent, on the edge of London’s urban sprawl – made me look afresh at the nature of change in residential areas. Many years ago, I was outraged to discover that half the garden of the house I grew up in had been sold to developers. A three-bed semi on a corner plot in a 1930s garden suburb, it had the generous proportions that came as standard in an era when housebuilding land was cheap and plentiful. When subsequent owners built a new house on that plot required the demolition of my old swing, my father’s garage and his beautiful rose bed, I was outraged.

Photo of 52 Corbylands Road
The house where I was born (when it had neither loft conversion, garage nor cars)
Photo of woodland with brook
The brook in which we played behind my Grandma’s house still looked the same

Revisiting just before Christmas with a more mature eye, I noticed that newcomers had addded style, substance and care to the whole neighbourhood – double glazing, extensions, new doors, smart signage. Even the humble bungalow where I was born had been extended upwards and outwards and had expensive cars on the drive. As a child, I travelled everywhere by bus. The area had leapt upmarket, yet the many parks and green spaces remained. I found myself thinking: “What a lovely place to bring up a child!”

 

Photo of 262 Old Farm Avenue
Where my maternal grandparents lived (the house with the blue car)

So I started the New Year feeling twice blessed for the double life I have led: half in the suburbs, half in the country, and grateful for the subtle changes that help both places to evolve and survive for future generations to enjoy.

Photo of 34 Oaklands Avenue
Where my paternal grandparents lived the house with the black front door – it still has the same 34 on the wall by the door as when they lived there)
Photo of Beaverwood School for Girls
My secondary school – once Chislehurst & Sidcup Grammar School for Girls, then Beaverwood School for Girls in my day (and still a Grammar), and now Chislehurst School for Girls
Photo of Days Lane School
My primary school – exactly how I remember it, without the new security gates (not in photo)

Do you ever revisit the place you grew up? Or do you prefer to keep your memories intact? I’d love to hear your story. 

 

Posted in Travel

Dorothy Was Right: There’s No Place Like Home

Living as I do in an area that’s a tourist destination, I’m always curious when I go away on holiday to see whether I can find any other tourist spots that are equally homely. It’s rare to find another place that’s a match for our little corner of the Cotswolds.

Cropped screenshot of Judy Garland from the tr...
"But, Toto, how will I ever get home to the Cotswolds?" (Photo: Wikipedia)

I’m therefore taken aback to come across a small Scottish town that seems on first glance to meet my demanding criteria.

Late one afternoon, en route in our camper van from Perth to the coast of Fife, we encounter a small market town with a familiar air. Spotting brown tourist information signs to a nearby castle, we decide to stay the night and visit it in the morning. We find a place to park near the centre of town, and while my husband reads the paper and my daughter plays with her toys, I combine a recce with a run (I’m in training for the Bristol 10K).

I gently jog down the narrow high street, making a mental note of the facilities. There’s a craft bakers, an award-winning butchers, two charity shops with a high class of junk, and a useful old-fashioned hardware shop.There are signs to a library and a leisure centre and an edge-of-town supermarket. (Sound familiar, anyone?)

The calorific perils of a chippy, a Chinese and an Indian take-away are offset by a slimming club in the old market hall,which also hosts a cafe offering hearty soups, sandwiches and cakes. (Well, this is Scotland). I jog on to the end of town and I’m immediately amidst farmland, where fingerposts beckon me on to pleasant footpaths through sheep-strewn green fields.

Hmmm, this is home from home, I begin to think. I could get to like this place.

Mary, Queen of Scots
Mary, Queen of Scots, wishing she had Dorothy's ruby slippers (Photo: Wikipedia)

There’s even a local royal connection, albeit not one to ever make the pages of Hello magazine: Mary, Queen of Scots, was once a guest at the local castle and later a prisoner.

Turning left onto a footpath, I jog happily round the perimeter of the town and am rewarded with a glimpse of the castle, in the middle of a small loch. I pause to catch my breath by the ticket office and mentally book a family boat trip to it for tomorrow. Culture, a boat and a spooky-looking setting that would do Scooby-Doo proud – there’s something here to keep all the family happy.

When I head back into town, the charity shops are opposite me, and I notice for the first time that they are in aid of a Scottish children’s hospice. A little further down the road, in the direction of the other end of town, is a sign to that very hospice. A few yards further I pass the high school. It is closed down and boarded up, peppered with danger signs. I’m sure there’s no connection between the closure of the (dangerous) school and the presence of a children’s hospice, but it still makes me shudder with horror. I’m so sad for the children affected by either building.

I run on, hoping to find something cheery to negate the effect of these discoveries. A little ahead of me is a large building, by far the most grand and imposing on the high street. I run a little faster, spirits rising. Level with the gated entrance, I read the sign. It is a funeral directors.  Now feeling thoroughly chilled, I turn on the heel of my trainers and plod back to the van, to find my family waiting. I couldn’t live here, not amidst all this sadness. After all, there is no place like home.

(This post was originally written for the Tetbury Advertiser, May 2012 issue.)

If you enjoyed this post, you might also like this one about the lure of home: East, West, Our Village Show’s Best or this one about another country dear to Mary, Queen of Scots’ heart:   Lost In France.