Posted in Events, Personal life, Writing

The End of an Era: The Chronicle of an Extraordinary Five Years

cover of Still Charmed
My latest book has just been launched to mark 30 years of life in Hawkesbury Upton

As regular readers of this blog will know, once a month I share here my latest column for the Hawkesbury Parish News, our local community magazine that is possibly the best-read journal in our little Cotswold village of Hawkesbury Upton, the real-life village that inspired my Sophie Sayers Village Mystery novels.  

If you’ve been following my blog for more than five years, (and if so, gold star to you!), you may also recall that I gathered together my earlier columns into a book called All Part of the Charm. The columns in that book ran from January 2010, when I gave up my last full-time day-job to write, through 2015. I also included some essays I wrote about moving to the village in 1991.

As the end of 2020 was approaching, being a fan of round numbers, and also to celebrate 30 years of living in Hawkesbury Upton, I decided it was time to collate my next batch of columns into a new book – 60 columns in all, one each month from 2016 to 2020. Rereading them to refresh my memory of their content before writing the introduction, I realised what an extraordinary five years they had been, and how much change – turmoil, even – they had brought to our lives. Yet throughout my columns, written for a local audience in our small corner of the Cotswolds, ran a common thread:

In an ever-changing world which seems to be lurching from one crisis to the next, it’s comforting to have some events in life that are dependably consistent – and to live in a community in which everyone looks out for their neighbours, not only in the season of goodwill, but all year round.

Wherever you are in the world, if you’d like to feel like an honorary or adoptive member of the parish of Hawkesbury, reading this little book will take you there as surely as the back of a certain wardrobe transports us to Narnia.

Below I’m sharing the introduction I wrote to this new book, which you can order now in ebook and paperback.

It’s a slimmer book than the first volume, as it doesn’t include any additional essays, and I’ve changed the layout to be less extravagant with paper, but I hope you’ll think it’s great value at that price – and that you will be what it says on the cover: still charmed.

 

The watercolour by my talented father has already been much admired by friends online

Foreword to Still Charmed:

Thirty Years On

This week, in celebration of 30 years since moving to the Cotswold village of Hawkesbury Upton on 4 January 1991, I dug out my old diary to revisit my initial impressions of village life, starting with a hectic first day in our new home.

“The log man came, bringing 15 sacks of logs, then the sweep came and cleaned both chimneys amazingly cleanly. I’d expected him to be covered in soot. Felt a little out of place when I realised that not only was I straining to understand his accent, but he was straining to understand mine.”

Next day, my husband “went to the shop for eggs and bread. Lots of people friendly there – one man knew he was from the old post office already.”

The house, unoccupied for eighteen months before we bought it, was somewhat spartan, the only heating provided by a vintage single-bar electric fire in the bathroom and an inefficient open fireplace in the front room. For several weeks, we slept on the floor in front of the fire, as everywhere else was too cold and damp. But by the second day, I was already acclimatising to our new home, a mid-nineteenth century stone cottage:

“Even though it seems in some respects that we’re roughing it, the convenience and comfort are infinitely greater than they would have been for the original occupants. When I put off going to the loo here as it’s so cold and damp, I ought to remember they would have gone down the bottom of the garden to the privy.” (Two outdoor toilets, buckets beneath holes in wooden planks, were still intact when we moved in.) “I understand the attraction of chamber pots for the first time.”

In the intervening 30 years, the house has been transformed to modern standards of comfort while we’ve retained many original features and added whimsical new ones of our own. My husband is building a mezzanine floor above the kitchen as I write. We’ve also become completely immersed in village life and are charmed by it.

During that time, I’ve served on many committees and volunteered for various community organisations in one way or another, and for the last 11 years, I’ve been writing a monthly column for our local parish magazine, the Hawkesbury Parish News, which, despite our village now boasting a high-speed internet connection, is just as much the hub of local news as it was when I first moved here. If you want to know about events, developments, future plans, and the traditional hatches, matches and despatches in our community, all you need to do is invest 50p a month in the parish mag, a fee that also includes optional delivery to your door. These days, electronic delivery is also available.

Although I often write articles for the various local organisations I’m involved in, such as the annual Hawkesbury Upton Literature Festival which I founded in 2015, my monthly column has no particular brief. I just write about whatever is front of mind as the deadline looms, which is usually seasonal or otherwise topical. The aim of my contribution is to entertain, amuse, divert and share experiences that I think will make my local friends and neighbours smile. There are plenty of jokes at my own expense, and my chosen topics are often village-centric.

But although Hawkesbury Upton is surrounded by fields and reached only by winding country lanes, most of them single track, our rural idyll does not escape the harsh realities of the outside world. The period this volume covers began in the run-up to the EU referendum and ended literally on the day we in the UK left the European Union. One of the last things I did in 2020 was apply for a new passport, as my old one was due to expire on 2 January 2021. The new one will be blue, not red, and will not bear the words European Union on the cover.

Also, as I wrote the first column shared here, the US presidential election that resulted in a win for Trump was in full swing. As I wrote the final piece, Biden’s victory was assured.

Collating these columns for the collection last week, I gasped when I realised the first entry would be titled “Flu Fury”, a jokey piece written while I was on the mend from a dose of winter flu. I’m glad I didn’t know then about the coming Covid-19 pandemic, nor the disruption and devastation it would bring to the whole world. Even Hawkesbury Upton, tucked away in the Cotswolds, with its moat-like surround of agricultural land, has not escaped unscathed, and my heart goes out to all those who have lost loved ones or suffered long-term health complications.

During this extraordinary five-year period, I have lost count of the number of times I have said to my daughter while watching Trump supporters invade the Capitol, “Take note of this, we’re witnessing history in the making”, and last night, as I was planning what to write in this foreword, I said it again.

This time, she replied in her teenaged wisdom, “Everything is history these days”.

Yet truer than ever are the pieces I’ve written celebrating the joy of coming home to Hawkesbury after holidays away and my gratitude for living “in a community in which everyone looks out for their neighbours, and not only in times of crisis or the season of goodwill”. (Who Needs Wifi When You’ve Got Good Neighbours, January 2018). I also often remark upon the continuity of village life. “In an ever-changing world which seems to be lurching from one crisis to the next, it’s comforting to have some events in life that are dependably consistent.” (The Comfort of Consistency, July 2019)

During the pandemic, we may have lost the events that provide the consistency – the Hawkesbury Horticultural Show, the Hawkesbury Upton Literature Festival, the midnight carol singing on Christmas Eve – but the community spirit is stronger than ever, not least due to the continuing presence of the Hawkesbury Parish News, which appeared as regularly as ever throughout lockdown, a comforting dose of normality in the midst of the most abnormal of years. In the absence of events news to fill the pages, the editor, Colin Dixon, persuaded more villagers to write articles, reproduced copy from the archives, and kindly shared extracts from my novels to help keep people entertained.

On a brighter note, the five years represented in this volume have included the culmination of my lifelong ambition to become a novelist, with the first of my eight novels published so far unveiled on 1 April 2017. It may have been no surprise to anyone familiar with my columns that my novels have been inspired by my delight in village life, although I hasten to add that all the characters, settings, and situations in my Sophie Sayers Village Mysteries, my Staffroom at St Bride’s series, and my Tales from Wendlebury Barrow Quick Reads are entirely made up. So if you enjoy reading these columns, you should find my novels just your cup of tea – and vice versa. (You’ll find a full list of the novels published so far in the back of this book, and there are plenty more to come.)

Now writing my ninth novel, and with the deadline of my 134th column for the Hawkesbury Parish News looming, I’m grateful for the enthusiasm and support of its readers and production team spurring me on. First Fiona Rowe and now Colin Dixon have worked tirelessly and meticulously, with the support of a hardworking and efficient team behind the scenes, to take the magazine from strength to strength, growing it thicker and more interesting each year. Whatever history has in store for us, I will be proud to write for the Hawkesbury Parish News for as long as I am able, and may it forever be a source of comfort, entertainment and pleasure to its readers.

Debbie Young
January 2021

Buying Links for Still Charmed

Paperback

Ebook

cover of Still Charmed

Buying Links for All Part of the Charm

Paperback

Ebook

Cover of All Part of the Charm

Click here for more information about my Sophie Sayers Village Mysteries


COMING SOON: Travels with my Books – a new monthly series of guest posts by authors talking about the setting for their novels

First on the list: B M Allsopp, author of the Fiji Islands Mysteries – follow my blog (click button in the sidebar to the right of this post), if you don’t already, to make sure you don’t miss this intriguing exclusive interview!

Posted in Personal life, Writing

Planning for a Better Year

In my first column of 2021 for the Hawkesbury Parish News, I wrote about the art of planning ahead – or, more accurately, my life as a Last-minute Martha.

As the editor of the Parish News will no doubt agree, I am something of a last-minuter. Ever since I started work as a journalist back in the 80s, nothing makes me as productive as a deadline. Above my desk hangs a framed Posy Simmonds cartoon strip I cut out of The Guardian back then, featuring a hapless hack racing to meet a copy deadline and doing everything but writing. She meets friends at a wine bar (well, this was the 80s), takes clothes to the dry cleaners, and washes her hair, while accruing sympathy from her friends about the pressure of her wretched deadline. She submits her piece to her long-suffering editor at absolutely the last minute, having pulled an all-nighter, garnering further sympathy from her gullible husband.

cartoon of journalist complaining about her deadline - then going for a drink with her friend
(c) Posy Simmonds

Remembering the Filofax

Inspired by that cartoon for over thirty years (so much so that I named my first cat Posy – Ms Simmonds was very pleased when I told her, after I’d heard her speak at the Cheltenham Literature Festival), I’m always pleased to discover a new method of planning my workload more effectively. I’ve tried everything from the Filofax (another craze from the 80s, when we had to file copy by telex and fax to our head office) to an electronic diary. None of these methods have lasted long. Although I’m comfortable with computers, at heart I am a low-technology girl.

More recently, I tried this tip: let your daily to-do list be no longer than would fit on a Post-it Note. My solution: buy bigger Post-it Notes.

photo of book of post-it notes in various sizes

Buying into the Bullet Journal

Then I discovered the Bullet Journal, invented by Ryder Carroll. (Watch his free four-minute tutorial here.) refuse to use the affectionate abbreviation of BuJo that many users prefer, because it reminds me of our Prime Minister’s nickname, which distracts me from any thoughts of efficient planning.

The Bullet Journal starts life as a blank notebook, preferably dotted so you can draw grids for various lists. It includes an index at the front to keep track of the lists you create, such as books to read, creative ideas, and long-term goals, as well as daily, weekly, monthly and quarterly to-do lists. A key provides an appropriate symbol so you can see at a glance how your day is shaping up: a bullet point (no surprises there) for a task, a circle for an event, and so on. You number the top three priorities and put a cross through items as they are completed, so it’s easy to see progress.

image of spread in my bullet journal

So far so good, until I discover one more recommended symbol, a forward arrow named “task migration”, indicating an item to be moved to the next day. In my head, I’ve already labelled it the mañana option – Spanish for “an indefinite time in the future”. So much for deadlines!

But with a year like 2020 behind us, planning no longer seems relevant. In 2021, let’s just seize the day, take our pleasures where we can find them, and do the best we can. If what I do happens to feature on my daily to-do list – like writing this column – I’m counting that as a win.

Wishing you a very happy and healthy New Year, however you plan to spend yours.


IN OTHER NEWS

cover of Still Charmed
Coming soon!

New Non-fiction Book Out Soon

This week marks my thirtieth anniversary of moving to Hawkesbury Upton. To celebrate, I’m working on Still Charmed, the second volume of my collected columns from the Hawkesbury Parish News, which I hope to publish as an ebook and paperback later this month. I’ll announce it here when it’s ready to order, but in the meantime, here’s the cover, featuring a watercolour by my talented father. (The first collection, All Part of the Charm, featured another section of the same painting.)

New Novel Bubbling Under

I’m also working on the seventh Sophie Sayers novel, Murder Lost and Found, which I’m hoping to publish in the spring.

99p Offer on Murder by the Book

I’ve currently got a special seasonal offer running on the fourth Sophie Sayers novel, Murder by the Book, with the ebook just 99p/99c or local currency equivalent until the end of the month. (Also available in paperback at the usual RRP.) This story takes place from the start of January and finishes on Valentine’s Day, when Sophie and her friend Ella plan to hold an event to help stop the village pub, The Bluebird, from going bust – an especially topical theme right now when so many pubs are struggling to survive the pandemic. Revealing fun surprises about Hector’s past, and with the addition of two lively new characters who are siblings to regulars in the series (no plot spoilers here!), Murder by the Book is the perfect pick-me-up for these dreary, dark days and long nights. Click here to order the ebook from the ebook store of your choice and click here to order the paperback.

image of murder by the book on a sofa with blankets
Cuddle up with a book this winter

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Posted in Personal life, Writing

Dwelling in Marble Halls

My column for the November 2020 issue of the Hawkesbury Parish News (written part way through October), I’m reminiscing about a vivid memory of an unusual building that I admired as a child. 

One of the cheerier aspects of our strange times is the trend for displaying something interesting in our front windows and gardens. Rainbows, teddy bears and thank-you messages to essential workers lift our spirits and foster a sense of community.

photo of teddy bears on window seat

As this issue goes to press and the clocks go back, many of us are putting out pumpkins and scarecrows for two village trails set to brighten half term week, bringing pleasure to adults and children alike.

David Bowie scarecrow with poppy buttonhole
I kept my David Bowie scarecrow topical for a bit longer by adding a poppy buttonhole for Remembrance Day

Such expressions of public spirit remind me of the window displays I love to see on holiday in historic harbour villages. In cobbled streets running higgledy-piggledy down to the sea, the deep windowsills of old fishermen’s cottages are filled with shells, driftwood, glass fishing floats and other maritime treasures, arranged to face the street for the entertainment of tourists.

Marvellous Marbles

My favourite gesture of this kind dates back to my childhood. A few streets from where I was born stood a bungalow whose lower front wall was studded with glass marbles, the currency of the school playground. Not for this householder the boring grey pebbledash that adorned every other house on our interwar estate. To my childish eye, the substitution of marbles for pebbles seemed genius.

Why would anyone bother with dreary pebbles when they could have marbles instead?

It was not as if any children ever pinched the marbles, which were firmly embedded in cement. This bungalow wasn’t Sidcup’s answer to the Parthenon: these weren’t the Elgin Marbles. Besides, we were too much in awe of their beauty to even touch them, and every single marble stayed put.

I used to detour past this house every week on my way home from school to visit Mam, my maternal grandmother, yet I never once saw who lived in the marble house. I hoped he or she knew what joy their random act of fun had brought to local children.

I vowed that when I grew up, I’d decorate my house the same way.

photo of a single marble on my deskUnfortunately, Cotswold stone and pebbledash are not a good mix. I’ve therefore had to content myself with sharing my love of books instead of my love of marbles, via the Little Free Library on my own front wall. At least the books aren’t cemented into place, and passers-by are actively encouraged to extract a book to take home.

But on my writing desk there sits a marble, and it never fails to reignite my childish sense of wonder at simple pleasures.


IN OTHER NEWS

New Quick Read: The Clutch of Eggs

image of paperback edition of The Clutch of EggsMeanwhile I’ve just published a new story that I wrote in the summer, The Clutch of Eggs, the second in my Tales from Wendlebury Barrow Quick Reads series.

This series of stories is set in the village from my Sophie Sayers Village Mysteries, and which also appears briefly in my St Bride’s School novels.

The short novellas (about 25-35% of the length of one of my novels) feature Sophie Sayers, Hector Munro and friends, and each one regales a series of incidents revolving around a specific theme. There is an element of mystery, as with my novels, and some minor crimes and misdemeanours, but definitely no murders!

As you might guess from the title, The Clutch of Eggs involves wild birds, birdwatchers and oologists – the technical term I learned recently for anyone who studies or collects birds’ eggs. The mysterious appearance of two wild birds’ eggs starts a train of events that ends up putting the village on the map for all the wrong reasons.

Among the new characters joining the regular cast are a handsome oologist and a trio of birdwatching brothers.

Meanwhile an endearing sausage dog called Bunty inadvertently fuels Sophie and Hector’s ongoing argument about which is better: cats or dogs.

Can Sophie save the day and create order out of chaos? Not to mention keeping everyone on the right side of the law – collecting wild birds’ eggs has been illegal for decades.

This story was inspired by a wonderful exhibition that I saw last year at Bristol City Museum, called Natural Selection, staged by father-and-son team Peter Holden (ornithologist) and Andy Holden (artist). It piqued my interest in birds’ eggs and in the psychology of egg collecting, and during the summer I read a lot of fascinating books about birds, eggs and birdwatching.

You don’t need to know or care about birds or their eggs to enjoy this book – just to enjoy tales of village life with engaging characters, quirky events and gentle humour.

knitted bird with bookThe Clutch of Eggs is available as an ebook and as a compact paperback. The cute postcard format (6″ x 4″) that is a great size to slip in your pocket or handback for reading on the move, or to tuck inside a birthday or Christmas card as an easy-to-post present.

It should be available to order from your local bookshop soon, but if you have any problems sourcing it, just send me a message via my contact form here, and I’ll pop one in the post to you.

As always, if you read and enjoy The Clutch of Eggs or any of my books, I would be very grateful if you could spare a moment to leave a brief review on the site at which you bought it. Reviews help attract new readers to my books, and new readers are always welcome! 

 

Posted in Personal life

“And A Marrow!”

In this month’s issue of the Hawkesbury Parish News, I’m talking about late summer gluts in the garden. The copy deadline is half way through the previous month to the cover date, and a month after writing this article, we’ve only just finished dealing with our surplus fruit, but still the lanes round here are dotted with baskets of free apples, squash, and other produce for sale or for free at the garden gate.

close-up photo of apples on tree
One of several apple varieties in our garden

Before I moved to Hawkesbury Upton, I couldn’t understand how people could leave windfall fruit to rot. My previous house, in Tring, Hertfordshire, was a tiny two-up, two-down Victorian terrace with a back yard rather than a garden, so growing fruit and vegetables was out of the question. So when a neighbour encouraged us to strip her crab apple tree of all its fruit for our new hobby of winemaking, we were overwhelmed by her generosity. Only now that my kitchen is full of baskets of windfall apples – plus a bucket containing 27 pints of fresh apple juice – can I empathise with her relief at offloading her surplus to a grateful home.

When we moved here from Tring, the garden was one of the biggest attractions of our new house. Its substantial lawn was edged with mature plum trees, and an apple tree divided the lawn from the kitchen garden, where soft fruit bushes flourished. Over the years, we’ve added crab-apple, pear and more apple varieties, and damson and cherry trees have planted themselves. (Thank you, wild birds!)

Our plum trees have also multiplied, due to our habit of picking a ripe plum to eat on the move before chucking the stone on the ground wherever we happen to be. One summer, I anticipated a fairy ring of plum trees springing up where my aunt had sat in the garden, working  her way through a dish of plums and leaving a circle of their stones around her chair.

row of seven flagons of cider fermenting
One way of coping with a glut of apples: cider!

This year we’ve had our largest yield of plums yet.

In the year of the Covid-19 pandemic, it’s good to have a reminder that nature can also be benevolent – so much so that it’s been hard work even to give away our surplus.

There’s only so much jam one can use. When I put my latest jars of plum jam in the larder, I discovered we still had four jars from last year.

At least our plums are delicious, unlike the marrows that Nick Cragg throws in with every lot at the Show Day auction. His cry of “And a marrow!” always raises a laugh.

But in the absence of this year’s Village Show, what are we going to do with all our marrows? At the 2021 Show, I predict record entry levels in the spirits category.

Anyone for marrow rum?


image of square version of Best Murder in Show cover, ready for new audiobook
Now available as an audiobook as well as in paperback and ebook

If you like the idea of the Village Show, you might enjoy my novel Best Murder in Show, the first in my lighthearted Sophie Sayers Village Mysteries series. Available in paperback, ebook and audiobook, it’s a cheery read to help you eke out the summer for a little longer. 

Buy from online retailers here.

The paperback is also available at Hawkesbury Stores and to order from all good local bookshops.

Posted in Family, Personal life, Writing

A Lockdown Date with Kittens

photo of two kittens on fleecy blanket
Two sources of comfort in lockdown: kittens & the Hawkesbury Parish News

During lockdown, our community magazine, the Hawkesbury Parish News, has heroically continued to publish, thanks to its dedicated team of volunteers writing, editing, printing and distributing it about the village.

In the absence of news of events, which usually makes up a large part of its content, the editor, Colin Dixon, has solicited plenty of new and interesting editorial to fill the space, including personal lockdown diaries by local residents.

Although many of the services advertised in its pages are suspended during lockdown, these companies are continuing to support the magazine, as they book and pay for a year’s advertising each January. They deserve our support in return when normal life returns.

In these strange times, it is comforting to see the Hawkesbury Parish News drop through our letterbox each month, giving some semblance of normality and regularity to the disrupted pattern of life in the time of Covid-19. A huge thank you to the whole team for your continuing service to our community.

Now here’s the column that I wrote for the June issue. 

 

Photo of cat gazing into fish tank
Bertie enjoys cat television

My top tip for lockdown entertainment is to acquire a pair of kittens.

We did this only by chance, collecting Bingo and Bertie (named after P G Wodehouse characters) at nine weeks old, two days before lockdown.

21st March seemed a particularly auspicious day for us to bring them home. Not only is it the Spring Solstice, but it was also my parents’ 67th wedding anniversary.

Reading the adoption paperwork when we got home, I was astonished to find that they were also born on my birthday, January 18th – the same day that our older cat Dorothy moved in. Dorothy was a stray found by neighbours (the Rounds) in their garage on a school snow day. She was personally delivered by another neighbour, Roland Starling, when I joked on Facebook that she could be my birthday present – that’ll teach me to be flippant! Best birthday present ever, though!

Dorothy, my personal assistant, reporting for duty at my writing desk
Photo of cat with head in mug of tea
A nice cup of tea always goes done well. (Bertie likes to search for teabags and lift them out with his paw.)

As Dorothy did when she first came to live with us, the kittens have provided daily cheer and distraction. The timing of their arrival has meant that we have spent as much time as possible bonding with them, and they settled very quickly.

Much as we love the kittens, my daughter has already declared that she is looking forward to seeing how they turn out when they’re full grown. I know just what she means. When she was born 17 years ago, I worried that I might be sad when she grew up. I soon realised that at each stage of development, I loved her even more.

Of course, kittens are for life, not just for lockdown, but I’m glad to have at least this one positive souvenir of these challenging times.


We are very grateful to the Cats’ Protection League for caring for our kittens until they were old enough to leave their mother. Their loving care gave Bertie and Bingo a wonderful start, and I’m sure that’s one of the reasons that they are such affectionate, good-natured creatures now.


Further reading inspired by cats: “Springtime for Murder”

cover of Springtime for MurderDon’t worry, no cats come to any harm in this book!

In the fifth Sophie Sayers Village Mystery, I wanted to write about cats and so I introduced some new characters – an elderly neighbour, Bunny Carter, who has a house full of cats, and an irritating do-gooder who keeps trying to foist more cats upon her while also trying to persuade her to leave her fortune to the local cat charity (not a bit like the wonderful Cats’ Protection League, I hasten to add!)

Sophie, as a cat person like me, is easily persuaded to adopt a black kitten, whom she names Blossom, a name nominated by my friend Sue, and not Beelzebub, which was suggested by my friend John, whom I suspect is more of a dog lover! Unfortunately Sophie discovers too late that Hector, her boss and her boyfriend, is a dog lover too…

Full of fun about cats and cat-lovers, and featuring the usual banter between the regular cast of characters in this series, this story is underpinned by serious thoughts about family relationships and the importance of solving family feuds before it’s too late. (Bunny, who earned her nickname by producing so many children in her younger days, has fallen out with all of her offspring.)

The book is available as both a paperback and an ebook, and makes a relaxing escapist read at any time of year.

Click here to order the paperback

Click here to order the ebook from your favourite ebook retailer