Posted in Personal life, Reading, Travel, Writing

Let the Holidays Begin!

With my daughter finishing school in June after completing her GCSE exams, our holiday season kicked off early with a week away in the Scottish Highlands at the start of July, showing a visiting aunt from Canada some of our favourite places. Even so, with views like this at the end of our lane, we’re always glad to come home to our beloved Cotswolds.

View of wheatfield full of poppies
Summertime, and the reading is easy… view from the Cotswolds lane in which I live and work

Even better to come home to a relatively empty diary, freeing me to tackle some ambitious writing and publishing deadlines during the rest of July:

  • Secrets at St Bride’s, the first in my new Staffroom at St Bride’s School series, which will go on sale from the end of July
  • my new short Sophie Sayers novella, The Pride of Peacocks, to be distributed free, exclusively to readers who subscribe to my mailing list, also at the end of July (those already subscribed will be sent a copy too)

If you haven’t yet signed up for my e-newsletter and would like to receive the new novella, and to be alerted to the publication date of the novel, just follow the simple instructions at the foot of this post.

I’m also planning to attend some bookish events this month. I’m looking forward to seeing Deborah Moggach in Tetbury next week at an event organised by the ever-fabulous Yellow-Lighted Bookshop. I loved her historical novel Tulip Fever and am looking forward to hearing her speak about her new novel, The Carer. Ticket info here if you’re interested in coming along. And tonight I’m off to the Stroud Book Festival‘s launch party. My good friend Caroline Sanderson, my fellow panelist on BBC Radio Gloucestershire’ Book Club, is the Festival’s Artistic Director, and is putting together an amazing programme for this autumn’s event. I’ll also be catching up with her on 24th July when, with radio presenter Dominic Cotter, our Book Club discusses Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, three hundred years old now and still a cracking read!

header advertising Stroud Book Festival 2019
http://www.stroudbookfestival.org.uk

I’ll be rounding the month off with a trip to the fabulous Rain or Shine Theatre Company‘s open-air production of Shakespeare‘s As You Like It at Swinhay House, near Wotton-under-Edge – a beautiful venue that has added literary appeal as being once used as a set for the Benedict Cumberbatch Sherlock series (my teenage daughter’s favourite programme). They’re touring nationwide in a series of terrific venues, and having seen other productions by them – they’re a great company, well worth seeing, so if you’re in the UK and you fancy seeing them, check out their website to find the nearest gig to you.

Highlights of the Scottish Highlands

But while my Scottish trip is still fresh in my head, I’d like to share a few highlights with you.

Staying in Callander, in the Trossachs region, we were on the edge of the Highlands – somewhere I’ve been holidaying for nearly two decades with my Scottish husband as he pursued his hobby of “Munro-bagging“, ie climbing every Scottish mountain over 3,000 feet, of which there are 227. He conquered #227 last year. So now we can pick and choose where we go, whether or not there’s a Munro nearby!

This year’s high points (ho ho) included a cruise in the century-old steamship SS Sir Walter Scott on peaceful Loch Katrine, a setting that inspired not only Scott but also, more surprisingly, Jules Verne to write a novel set there. Although Verne being Verne, his novel The Underground City was set beneath these peaceful waters!

Photo of SS Sir Walter Scott ready to depart for a cruise on Loch Katrine
No other pleasure craft beside the official cruise ships are allowed on Loch Katirne

We enjoyed wildlife encounters wherever we went, from spotting rare ospreys on Loch Katrine to giant pandas and koala bears at Edinburgh Zoo.

photo of giant panda at Edinburgh Zoo
Edinburgh Zoo has two giant pandas on loan from China
Sign on bear enclosure at Edinburgh Zoo saying "Please don't lean over or sit on the wall. We feed the bears enough protein."
We enjoyed the Zoo’s sense of humour too

We’re always on the lookout for Highland cattle. A tour party guide demonstrated his alarming party trick of sharing a carrot with Hamish, pictured below – one end in his own mouth, the other eagerly taken by Hamish. We didn’t take up his offer to try it ourselves!

Photo of Highland cattle

Exploring Stirling Castle, I discovered a recipe topical to my new short novella, The Pride of Peacocks. (Join my mailing list via the link at the foot of this post if you’d like me to send you a free copy as soon as it’s ready – a copy of the novella that is, not the roast peacock!)

Linlithgow Palace and Doune Castle were both fascinating in different ways. We especially enjoyed the guided tour by local twelve-year-old schoolgirls in Stuart costume at Linlithgow, birthplace of Mary, Queen of Scots. They really brought it to life for us.

At Doune, pictured below, we enjoyed Terry Jones’ narration on an audio guide. Doune was one of the sets for the film Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Remember the scene where the French hurl abuse – and a black and white cow – from the battlements onto our brave knights below? You can now buy plastic cows as souvenirs from the shop, as well as coconut shells, with which to provide your own horsey sound effects. The first time I visited Doune a few years ago, on a wet, windy day, the only other visitor was a solitary chap surreptitiously filming his own tour, coconut shells in hand.

Photo of Doune Castle from approach
Doune Castle was used as a set for the film Monty Python and the Holy Grail
inside the medieval Great Hall at Doune Castle
Picture this Hall full of Pythons – scene of the Spamalot song
photo of sign for shop showing availability of coconut shells
Oh no, forgot to bring your coconut shells? The souvenir shop can oblige.

We stepped even further back in time at the recreated Iron Age settlement at the Scottish Crannog Centre on Loch Tay.

Photo of Scottish Crannog - a reconstructed Iron Age hut on stilts over Loch Tay
The Scottish Crannog Centre is a fascinating reconstruction of an Iron Age settlement. You can’t go far in Scotland without stumbling across historic curiosities.

We also managed to fit in Glencoe, Oban, the Highland Folk Museum (one of the settings for my planned eighth Sophie Sayers novel – I’m currently writing the sixth), the Beatrix Potter Garden in Birnam (yes, as in Birnam Wood moving to Dunsinane in Shakespeare’s Macbeth – two literary references for the price of one, there!) but my camera was playing up so I’ve no photos to share, but here’s the website if you’d like to take a look: It’s a delightful museum all about her childhood holidays spent in Scotland before her family started going to the Lake District, with which she’s more famously connected.

Back at base in our holiday flat in Callander, we enjoyed exploring this little market town, and especially visiting the secondhand bookshop, where I bought Early in Orcadia, an extraordinary novel by Scottish author Naomi Mitchison imagining the lives of the early settlers of the Orkneys, another part of Scotland that we enjoyed visiting a couple of years ago.

The secondhand bookshop in Callander
The unassuming but absorbing and very well-stocked secondhand bookshop in Callander

I’m always glad to bring home a new book about Scotland, but this visit I also returned with a cuddlier souvenir.

Och Aye the Panda’s kilt is in a tartan especially created to incorporate the panda’s distinctive black and white fur; red, deemed lucky in China and auspicious of birth (they’re hoping the Edinburgh pandas will breed); and green to represent bamboo, the panda’s staple diet

Back to the Writing Desk

I hope your summer has started as well as mine, if you’re in the northern hemisphere – and if you’re south of the equator, I hope you’re already starting to see early signs of your spring, now that your shortest day has passed.

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Posted in Personal life, Reading, Travel

Thank You, Matthew Paris – Now I Don’t Have To Go To Peru

A post about holiday reading, discussed after my holiday on the BBC Radio Gloucestershire Book Club this week

Photo of Debbie in hat and coat at northernmost point of mainland Britain
Fending off the most northerly midges of mainland Scotland this summer

Although I love travelling, and rarely turn down an opportunity to travel anywhere, I do love putting in extra miles via the pages of a good travel book, whether to places I know well, to places I plan to go, or places I know will always be off my agenda. Continue reading “Thank You, Matthew Paris – Now I Don’t Have To Go To Peru”

Posted in Travel

A Summer of Extremes: From Ithaca to Inverness

This post about my summer holidays first appeared in the Tetbury Advertiser’s September issue.

Photo of an Ithacan beach with clear blue sky
Soaking up the sun beside the Ithacan sea

I shall remember this summer break as the holiday of two extremes – scorching, dry sunshine and chill, torrential rain, as I flitted from Ithaca to Inverness.

Bust of Homer on a pillar on Ithaca
Statue of Homer on Ithaca at daybreak

Our trip to Ithaca was a busman’s holiday for me. I was helping to run the Homeric Writers’ Workshop and Retreat, so called because the island was the start and finishing point of perhaps the most famous journey of all, that of Odysseus, as chronicled by the ancient Greek master storyteller, Homer.

Our Scottish trip was occasioned by my husband’s own odyssey – to climb all 282 Munros, the Scottish mountains of 3,000 feet or more, named after the man who first mapped them.

On Ithaca, the weather was idyllic: constant sunshine, cornflower-blue skies, refreshing sea breezes, all day every day. The locals apologised that there were clouds in the sky – tiny Persil-white puffballs – apparently not usually seen between June and September.

A few days later, when we flew into Inverness to meet my husband (already there in our camper van, with 20 more Munros crossed off his list before we arrived), steady rain was falling from steely skies. As we headed west for Ullapool, the clouds became more leaden. Linen sundresses, so comfortable on Ithaca, were supplemented with leggings, t-shirts, cardigans, shawls – all at once.

Steely-skied Aberdeen beach with sign listing all the hazards there
Not quite so enticing – the beach at Aberdeen

On Ithaca there are constant reminders to conserve water, always in short supply on this tiny island. In Scotland, there is evidence everywhere of the abundance of local water: high and raging rivers, waterfalls and landslips beside the roads. New flood defences are under construction wherever we go, and not a moment too soon. If there’s ever a global shortage of water, Scotland’s a dead cert for world domination.

Yet as we retreated southwards, I realised that my two holiday destinations weren’t so different after all, and not just because they both prompted us to haemorrhage money on dubious souvenirs.

Both have a vast diaspora, thanks to economic migrants driven to North America, Australia, and South Africa by the Highland Clearances in Scotland and by the 1953 earthquake in Ithaca.

Both landscapes are scarred by the ruins of abandoned, simple stone houses, surprisingly similar in structure and appearance.

magnetBoth populations departed with a deep love of their homeland imprinted on their hearts. Whenever they can, they return. Australian, American and South African accents abound on Ithaca. In Scotland, 2014 has been declared Homecoming year, to mark the 700th anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn, at which the Scots trounced the English. (By chance, my husband hails from Bannockburn.)

I feel privileged to have been able to holiday in places that so many people, all over the world, will always regard as home. Yet I’m also glad to return to the Cotswolds, which, as a small child on holiday there, I resolved I would one day make my home.

Because as Homer himself once said: “Nothing is sweeter than home”. At least, that’s what it says on my Ithacan souvenir fridge magnet.

 

Posted in Family, Personal life, Travel

The Role of the Hill in Children’s Summer Holidays

Laura on top of a hill
Hurrah, I’m on holiday!

If you have ever travelled anywhere with a child, you will know that young eyes can spot a play park miles away. It’s strange how much their eyesight improves on holiday. If only they had the same visual acuity when searching for their shoes before school!

On the first day of our Scottish holiday, we are scooped up from Inverness Airport by my husband, who has already spent 10 days in the Highlands in our camper van. The sun is shining, so we head east for an afternoon at the beach, at the unpretentious seaside resort that is reputed to have been Charlie Chaplin’s favourite. Apparently he used to fly all the way from Hollywood to bask on the beach at Nairn. (Or so the Rough Guide to Scotland tells us.)

Ignoring the spectacular views across the Moray Firth that may have lured Chaplin all that way, my daughter Laura homes in on the large tiled paddling pool a stone’s throw from the seafront (but doesn’t throw any stones). It’s knee-deep on a child, and the local council kindly provides a lifeguard in the form of a kindly middle-aged lady in a cardigan. It’s not exactly Baywatch, but who cares?

To her parents’ delight, the pool is also a stone’s throw from an old-fashioned seafront cafe dispensing excellent cups of tea and ice-cream – bubble gum flavour for Laura, Irn Bru blend for her dad, while I favour the Scottish Tablet variety. Well, we are on holiday.

We savour our ice-creams while Laura cavorts in the paddling pool until closing time, the kindly lifeguard lady breaking it gently to the splashing children that they’ll have to get out so she can go home to have her tea. Baywatch, it ain’t. Then follows a short spell on the swings and slide, cleverly built into the side of slope between the pool and the beach, before we persuade Laura to head vanward for our own evening meal.

But the fun’s not over yet, as on the way back to the van she spots an even better source of fun: a good old-fashioned hill. Health and safety be blowed, you can’ t expect a small child on the first day of an exciting holiday to trip to pass by a hill without rolling down it a few dozen times.

Who needs theme parks anyway?

Laura on top of a hill
I came

Laura half way down the hill
I saw

Laura at the bottom of the hill
I conquered

I’m gradually catching up with posts written on my 2013 summer holiday, and more will follow soon, but in the meantime, if you liked this post, you might like to read the others that have made it onto the blog so far:

What Not to Discover on Your Summer Holidays

The Unusual Souvernirs of Camper Van Travel

Beachcombing in Ullapool – A Story Behind Every Stone

Posted in Family, Travel, Writing

“Murder, I Wrote” – Or What Not To Discover On Your Holiday

Following this summer, I have a new standard for measuring the quality of a holiday: it should not involve:

  1. the emergency services
  2. any mention of us in the local paper
  3. a dead body

By day two of our summer holiday this year, we’d already failed on all three counts, through no fault of our own.

Mindful of the feelings of the relatives of number 3 on the list, I won’t go into details, for fear of making the incident identifiable. Sufficient to say the experience was enough to make me empathise with the famous author/detective Jessica Fletcher, as played by Angela Lansbury in the ever-popular television series, “Murder She Wrote”. Like Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple, Jessica Fletcher never seems to be able to take a holiday without stumbling over a corpse.

We’d stopped for the night in our camper van in a delightful, safe place that we’ve stayed many times, in a scenic corner of a pleasant town, popular with dog-walkers, cyclists, skateboarders and motor-homes. Returning from an enjoyable family cycle ride, we noticed a cluster of anxious-looking dog-walkers around a vehicle parked within sight of ours. My husband went to find out what the fuss was about, only to return, pallid, moments later, telling us the vehicle contained a dead body. Being a trained first-aider, he’d instinctively reached out to check the body for vital signs. It was cold. A dog-walker dialled 999. The emergency services, quick to arrive, diagnosed natural causes.

On the pretext that It was starting to get dark, we drew the curtains in our van, to shield our young daughter and ourselves from the distressing sight of the emergency services removing the body. For our daughter’s sake, we went out of our way to carry on with the evening as planned, putting on a calm, non-alarmist front. We played cards till bedtime, interrupted only by a knock on the door from a pleasant Polish policewoman who came to take a statement from my husband as a witness to the discovery. We made small-talk with her and she rewarded us with great advice about the best nearby beach to visit.

When she’d gone, we retired to bed and slept well until awoken by a knock on the door around 9.30am. It was another policeman.

“If I were you, I’d move on now, sir, because the local press have got wind of the incident and they’ll be coming round asking you questions.”

We took his advice and made ready to depart. Only on opening the curtains did we discover that, overnight, the area had been deserted by every vehicle but ours. We were now alone and conspicuous within a large empty parking lot, cordoned off by police tape signalling a crime scene.

A courteous bobby moved the cordon aside for us to drive out, and for the rest of the day we tried to put the incident behind us.

That is, until we were in a supermarket that afternoon, where I spotted a front-page article about the event. We were mentioned in despatches:

A camper van was parked within the cordoned off area, but police confirmed it was not involved with the incident.

I think Jessica Fletcher may have put in a word on our behalf.

You might enjoy these other posts about this summer’s adventures in our camper van – and there’ll be more to follow soon.

Beachcombing in Ullapool: A Story Behind Every Stone

The Unusual Souvenirs of Camper Van Travel