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 Family, Personal life, Writing

The Other Man’s Grass

My column for the June 2019 issue of the Hawkesbury Parish News

My husband spent a large part of last summer turning our lawn emerald green.

He rolled and mowed and fed the grass so much that our lawn started to resemble the top of a billiard table. Although he had yet to implement the stripes pictured on grass seed and feed packets, that gave him something to aim for this summer. The man in B&Q didn’t know whether he was being serious when he asked for a pack of the stuff that makes your grass grow in stripes.

But now I’ve thrown a spanner in his lawnmower’s works by informing him that, according to The Guardian, the single best thing he can do for our garden’s ecology is to mow only once a month to a height of no less than 10cm (4 inches).

“How can you tell it’s 10cm?” asked my daughter, never having operated a lawnmower in her life. She was ready to lend him her ruler.

Apparently if we resist the lure of the lawnmower, without any further action on our part, our grass will naturally transform itself into a wildflower meadow, benefiting birds, bees and other insects.

So while the other man’s grass may be greener, my husband can claim the moral high ground, environmentally speaking. He’ll also have more time to sit in a deckchair enjoying the sights, scents and sounds of flourishing flowers and wildlife.

And at least our deckchairs are green and stripey.


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Posted in Personal life, Writing

In My English Country Garden

Cover of October Issue of Tetbury AdvertiserThis 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”.

Photo of new-look shed
From Wendy House to Art Studio

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.

photo of garden with ladders, tools etc
A work-in-progress: the taming of the garden

Not Strictly for the Birds

photo of buddha statue with pear
As the old poem goes, “You’re nearer God’s heart in the garden, than anywhere else on earth”

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.


cover of Young by NameIf 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.

To find out more about the award-winning Tetbury Advertiser, visit their website: www.tetburyadvertiser.co.uk.

Posted in Personal life

Where the Grass is Greener

Every month I write a column for our village newspaper, the Hawkesbury Parish News. This is my column for the August issue, written for its mid-July deadline. The weather has changed a little since then, but our garden has felt the benefit!

sample of our lawn grass

Ours must be one of the few lawns in the parish that has become progressively greener during this hot, dry weather, rather than turning to hay. However, the lawn had to get worse before it got better. It turned chocolate brown, in fact, as my husband, who never does anything by halves, dug for victory over the weeds and took large parts of the lawn back to bare soil.

Top tip here: if you want to cultivate a forest of dandelions, leave a trampoline in place for a few years, and they’ll colonise what was once grass. Until we moved the trampoline to clear that patch, it became our cat Dorothy’s favourite shady retreat, the thick bed of sap-filled leaves cooling her furry tummy.

view of lawn with ladders, husband doing woodwork, tools, etc
Our back garden is a hive of activity these summer days

photo of grass bordering flower bed
Lush new turf provides a neat edge to a parched flower bed

But then out came the grass seed, scattered across the fine tilth he’d created, and lovingly watered in, until that part of the garden began to resemble the early stages of a hair transplant (for someone with lime-green hair, that is).

A few days later, a kind neighbour gave us some leftover rolls of turf. Now parts of our lawn look like a thick, emerald-green wig.

But if you really want your grass to keep its colour, come rain or shine, my dad’s solution is hard to beat: astroturf in his Bristol townhouse back yard. It’s the perfect answer for those who are allergic to grass pollens (I wrote about hay fever in last month’s column) – or indeed for those who are allergic to lawnmowers.


set of four Sophie Sayers books
Best Murder in Show is first in a growing series of village mystery stories

Fancy a summer read while it’s still just about summer? (in the northern hemisphere, anyway!) Best Murder in Show kicks off at the time of a classic English village show – just like the one we’re currently preparing for where I live (though preferably without any murders).

Posted in Personal life, Writing

Remembering Forget-me-nots in the Sophie Sayers Village Mysteries

My contribution to the Authors Electric collective blog this month
Visit their website to find a different post by a different author,
every day of the month (I post on the 30th)

Photo of Debbie in a bluebell wood
I’m also very partial to bluebells (Photo: Angela Fitch Photography)

As a novelist, I like to think I make everything up. 

While the standard disclaimer appears on my copyright pages declaring each book a work of fiction, little details creep in from real life.

Snippets and snapshots are dredged up from the ragbag of my memory.

Sometimes this is for no apparent reason, such as the recycling bins that appeared in three separate stories in my flash fiction collection, Quick Change. I didn’t even notice the repetition until one of my beta readers asked why they kept cropping up. For fear of seeming obsessive, I replaced one bin with a bonfire, which made for a much better story.

Other times I manage to wrestle the reasons from my subconscious after I’ve finished writing the story, such as the forget-me-not motif that runs throughout my Sophie Sayers Village Mystery series.

In the first novel, Best Murder in Show, Hector, the local bookseller, remarks on the colour of Sophie’s eyes. She’s in fancy dress as Virginia Woolf on a book-themed carnival float, while he’s playing Homer, togged out in a toga.

“Your eyes are the wrong colour for Virginia Woolf,” he tells her. “Hers were grey. Yours are forget-me-not blue.”

As the series progresses, forget-me-nots become a symbol of all that Sophie stands for. (I won’t spoil the plot by explaining what that means.)

The Roots of My Fondness for Forget-me-nots

Only after weaving this motif into the story did I realise my affection for this humble little flower dates back much further. It originates in the unlikely setting of a suburban London garden most unlike Sophie’s home in the idyllic Cotswold village of Wendlebury Barrow.

arrangement of book cover, candle and vase
Forget-me-nots in my grandmother’s treasured old vase

You see, forget-me-nots flourished in my grandmother’s back garden, in my childhood home town of Sidcup. Visiting after school, I’d skip up her garden path, admiring the low clouds of tiny blue flowers edging the concrete path beneath her washing line. Often I’d pick a bunch to present to her on my arrival, complimenting her on how beautiful the garden was looking.

Compared to the carefully cultivated garden of my other grandmother – the one I picture when I write about Sophie’s Auntie May’s cottage garden – the forget-me-not grandmother’s garden was sparsely planted. The only reason those flowers appeared there in such profusion was that she often didn’t bother to plant much else. With no competition, they quickly took over the flowerbeds. My grandmother may even have regarded them as weeds.

To my childish eyes, with their sky-blue colour and fairytale name, they were as precious and exotic as the very best hothouse roses.

I’m very glad that Sophie likes them too.

A Growing Fancy for the Little Blue Flower

Since writing them into Sophie’s stories, I’ve started to acquire forget-me-nots all around my writing desk – fake ones, of course, so they last all year round. The latest addition is a vintage pottery candleholder decorated with forget-me-not transfers, a must-buy at the local Guides’ jumble sale. Seeing my little forget-me-knot collection every day spurs me on to write more and makes me happy.

What Next for Sophie Sayers?

save the date notice for Hawkesbury Upton Lit FestTheir manifestation in my current work-in-progress, Murder by the Book, came to me in a flash, and I’m very pleased with how it’s worked out. Set between New Year and Valentine’s Day, this fourth Sophie Sayers adventure will be launched at the Hawkesbury Upton Literature Festival on Saturday 21st April.

But I’ll have to wait till book five, Springtime for Murder, before I can allow the real flowers to blossom in Wendlebury Barrow. Oh no, hang on, I mean fictitious ones.

Roll on, spring, I’m ready for you, real or not.

FIND OUT MORE ABOUT THE SOPHIE SAYERS VILLAGE MYSTERIES HERE