Posted in Personal life, Travel

What’s in a Name? Plenty, When It Comes to Gloucestershire Sporting Events

Runner in the Tetbury Woolsack race
It’s an uphill struggle at the Tetbury Woolsack race (Image:

With the end of May heralding the Cotswolds’ most idiosyncratic sporting events – the Tetbury Woolsack Races and the Cooper’s Hill Cheese-Rolling –  I’ve been thinking about the inextricable link between event and setting. These two ancient rites would not attract the same following if removed to other places. Hefting a Woolsack the length of Chipping Sodbury’s level high street or rolling a cheese through Bourton-on-the-Water would be nowhere near as exciting. 

Artist's impression of the first every Marathon runner
The original Marathon – not a happy ending for the runner (Image: Wikipedia)

You can stage a marathon anywhere in the world, but it will never be the same race. Ask anyone who has run in London, Paris, New York, or, er, Marathon.

This fact first dawned on me when, in my pre-baby running days, my husband and I signed up to enter the Cheltenham 10K.

This will be a sedate little number, we thought, passing elegant Georgian facades and corporation planting. We warmed up with a few shorter runs: a pleasant 5K jaunt around Bourton-on-the-Water, followed by the Chippenham River Run, both events equally defined by their setting. The post-race refreshments left a bit to be desired, but we were looking forward to Cheltenham’s more genteel offering: cucumber sandwiches and Earl Grey, perhaps?

Running for Our Lives

Reconstruction of a fire service rescue scene
Where’s the fire? (Image:

But it was not to be. A week before the race, a letter announced that due to unforeseen circumstances (a row between the Town Council and the event organisers), the race would now take place at the Moreton-in-Marsh Fire Service College. Ok, we thought, Moreton-in-Marsh is pretty too. Not a problem.

Only on arrival did we discover that the College is set well away from the town and offers quite a different scenario: surreal mock-ups of emergencies in which firefighters may hone their skills. We ran past crashed aeroplanes, burnt-out buildings, overturned railway carriages and motorway pile-ups. It was like fleeing from the apocalypse. Well, that’s one way to cut minutes off your personal best.

Introducing the HU5K Run

Photo of the stretch of the Cotswold Way that will be part of the HU5K route (Photo: Steve Green Photography)
Follow HU5K’s Yellow Brick Road

Which is why I’m particularly pleased to be organising a race this month in a much more peaceful setting: what’s dubbed by local runners “The Yellow Brick Road” – the level stretch of the Cotswold Way that skirts Hawkesbury Upton, with fine views down to the Severn Valley. On a clear day, both Severn Bridges wink back at you in the sunshine. The HU5K Run will take place on Saturday 15th June, starting at 10am, giving woolsack-toting, cheese-rolling racers a couple of weeks to get their puff back first. All ages (7+) and abilities are welcome. Leading the way will be former Team GB Olympic runner Nick Rose, veteran of the Olympics in Moscow in 1980 and Los Angeles in 1984. Now there’s a man who can tell you what a difference a venue makes.

Former Olympic runner Nick Rose and Dave of the Hogweed Trotters
Former Team GB Olympic runner Nick Rose is an inspiration to runners of all ages

Registrations in advance are preferred, to make sure we’ve got enough medals to go round. For more information, visit our the official HU5K website or call 01454 238401. I’ll race you to the starting line!

This post was originally written for the Tetbury Advertiser’s June 2013 edition.

Posted in Writing

Tales of the The Unexpected Book

Beware of the Tetbury Advertiser – you never know where it might lead! I mean that in the nicest possible way, for a few years ago, the Advertiser was the starting point of a trail that led to the publication of my first book. Here’s the tale of how it came about.

Paul Newnton, author
Tetbury author Paul Newnton

In the summer of 2010, a few months after I’d started writing my Young By Name column in the Tetbury Advertiser, I was contacted by one of its regular readers, the writer Paul Newnton. Though now living on the other side of the country, he kept up with local news via a postal subscription to this popular monthly magazine. Having enjoyed my column, Paul asked me to help him promote his new novel, the first in a proposed series. Despite my protest that I had no experience of book promotion, I agreed to meet him for tea in the Snooty Fox on his next trip to Tetbury. With the help of an excellent cream tea, he convinced me that by drawing on my long career in journalism, PR and marketing, I could be of valuable assistance. He was right: within a very short time, I’d arranged for his book to be stocked in the Yellow-Lighted Bookshop, generated news coverage in the local press, and fixed up an interview on BBC Radio Gloucestershire.

The author and publishing consultant Helen Hart
Helen Hart – the antidote to vanity publishers

A few weeks later, a graphic designer friend mentioned that his wife, who runs the Bristol-based assisted publishing company, SilverWood Books, was enjoying the online version of my Young By Name blog. We arranged to meet, and I came away with a commission to write a self-help promotion handbook for authors. The book was particularly to address the rapidly expanding group of self-published or independent authors – but what author doesn’t want to sell more books, even those commissioned by traditional publishers?

To explain the jargon, self-published authors are those who produce their books independently of traditional publishing companies. Thanks to the latest developments in digital printing and e-book technology, it’s possible to put your book on the market without a publisher’s contract, thus avoiding the nerve-wracking round of submissions and rejection letters. Authors who are willing and able to master the necessary technology do this themselves, but for technophobes – or for those who prefer to spend their time writing – there exist excellent publishing consultants who can do this for them, adding value and expertise. These are far removed from the “vanity publishers” of the past, who simply took your money and treated your manuscript as a routine print job, often with dire results.

To fulfil my commission, I undertook extensive research, interviewing many authors – including Tetbury’s Paul Newnton, of course – and members of the book trade, not least Hereward Corbett, proprietor of Tetbury’s Yellow-Lighted Bookshop.

Dr Alison Baverstock, MA Publishing Course Director at Kingston University
Dr Alison Baverstock, all-round publishing guru

Pre-publication, the first reviewer of Sell Your Books! was so enthusiastic that she even agreed to write a foreword. This was no small compliment, as this reviewer was Dr Alison Baverstock, senior lecturer in the MA in Publishing at Kingston University and all-round publishing guru. She deems it to give “motivating, practial and cheerful guidance on the process. It raises the spirits and promotes author confidence. It’s an investment in your writing now – and your future development.”

English: Westonbirt House Girls' School, Tetbu...
Westonbirt School (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In another bizarre demonstration of all roads leading to Tetbury, I discovered that I’d met Alison a few years before, when I was working at Westonbirt School and she was guest speaker at Speech Day. I’d taken her photo to include in the school’s newsletter.

I hope that knowing its local origins and inspiration, authors living in and around Tetbury will take a special interest in my book. I’d love to hear any feedback or input from them, which I might also be able to share, with their permission, on my blog of book promotion tips for authors at Off The Shelf Book Promotions.

Cover image of Sell Your Books! by Debbie Young
All my own work

Finally, a big thank you to the wonderful Barry Gibbs, editor of the marvellous multi-faceted Tetbury Advertiser for commissioning my Young By Name column in the first place. Without you, none of this might have happened!

This post was originally written for the Tetbury Advertiser and appeared in its February 2013 edition.

  • Sell Your Books!, a book promotion handbook for authors, is now available to order from good bookshops and online. (RRP £8.99, ISBN 978-1-906236-34-2, Publisher SilverWood Books) It is also available as an e-book.
  • SilverWood Books provides helpful, expert and services to authors seeking to self-publish their books. For an initial chat, free of charge and with no obligation, please call Helen, Sarah or Joanna on 0117 910 5829 or visit their website:
  • For more information about Paul Newnton and his books, visit his website or pop into the Yellow-Lighted Bookshop which stocks some copies and will always be happy to order more.
Posted in Family, Personal life

Back to School

American soldiers cross the Siegfried Line and...
Allied soldiers marching across the Siegfried Line (Image via Wikipedia)

As you will have noticed if you have been anywhere near a supermarket since June, this month it’s back to school, and for primary school children like my eight year old daughter Laura, another term means another topic.

When I was that age, a topic was a simple, self-driven task: four sheets of paper to fill on a set subject, the next on the list set by the teacher. I can see now that these topics were time-fillers, to occupy the brighter pupils who had completed all the workcards while the others caught up. I remember vividly picking bits of pebbledash off my suburban semi-detached house to sellotape on to my rather literal interpretation of the topic “My Home”.

These days, it’s not so simple. The modern topic is a whole-class, cross-curricular activity in which a single theme unites the many subjects to be taught throughout the term. Picture the topic a the spider at the heart of its web, the focal point of many subject strands woven cleverly together. The whole is definitely much greater than the sum of the parts. The result is a fun learning experience, leading to a broad, balanced outlook on life that I wish I’d had at Laura’s age (or indeed, now).

Last term, for example, Laura’s topic was on World War II. I was astonished at how dextrously this sombre subject was presented to capture her young imagination. And capture her imagination it certainly did. The class didn’t want the term to end.

“I think this is probably the best topic I’ll ever do in my life, Mummy,” she declared at half term.

Digging for victory in the school’s new vegetable garden and comparing the effectiveness of different materials for black-out ticked the science box. Writing speeches for Churchill, composing propaganda slogans and drafting newspaper reports covered literacy. Calculating the best use of their sweet ration was about as compelling a numeracy task as you can get. Swing dance was a popular PE session and learning catchy war-time songs went down well for music. One of Laura’s friends spent most of a playdate at our house singing “We’ll be hanging out the washing on the Siegfried Line” at the top of her voice, with as much enthusiasm as any pop song.

I’m not sure what part of the National Curriculum was served by sitting under their desks for half hour for a mock air raid, but it’s certainly a lesson they will remember for the rest of their lives.

Ever the dutiful parent, I conscripted my parents to visit Laura’s class to talk about their experiences as evacuees from London, my father having been helpfully sent to the Cotswolds. Indeed his wartime love affair with the area (and one Dorothy Duckett) is what led me to live here myself. He brought his own children back for summer holidays and I vividly remember deciding when I was about Laura’s age that this was where I would live when I grew up.

To give some airtime to all sides, I also invited an elderly German friend, contemporary with my parents, to write the class a letter about her own experiences of evaculation to the German countryside. Many of her neighbours were killed in British air raids and she has suffered from claustrophobia ever since her numerous trips to the air raid shelter. An old Dutch school friend of mine recounted his mother’s experience of Nazi occupied Holland. Her greatest trauma was losing her mother and her home to an American (yes, an American) bomb. Friendly fire: it happened then too.

But just when I think the World War II topic has drawn to a close, and I’m packing for our summer holidays, I’m taken aback by Laura’s request to divert the itinerary. She thinks our leisurely tour of France in our camper van should now wander east: she wants us to annex Germany. I’d be less keen to change our plans, had I not overheard a game that she was playing with friends one afternoon towards the end of term. The trampoline had become a Nazi concentration camp, in which Laura and two of her friends were imprisoned. A fourth friend was playing the role of a German soldier. Fetching some glasses of squash from the kitchen, she shouted at them “Here, drink this slime, prisoners!” In the interests of international relations, I think I’d better take her there to make some German friends. But while we’re there, I don’t think I’ll mention the war.

(This post was originally written for the Tetbury Advertiser, September 2011)

Posted in Personal life, Travel

How to Pack for the Summer Holidays

Image by brandsvig via Flickr

Packing. The very thought of it takes the edge off the excitement of going on holiday, at least till we’re on our way.

It shouldn’t be such a difficult task. As we spend most holidays in our camper van, we don’t have to bother with suitcases. We pack our possessions straight into the van’s streamlined cupboards, and here they stay, out of sight, until we need them. Well, that’s the theory, anyway.

Years ago, when we were child-free, holidays meant sailing in Greece. Packing in those days meant shoehorning toy-sized toiletries and capsule wardrobes into a collapsible sausage-shaped bag, ready for decanting into ship’s lockers on arrival. A camera, notebook and pen (plus daily access to yesterday’s English newspaper for my husband) were our only desert-island luxuries. Leaving behind the clutter of everyday life at home and at work was exhilarating. Forget feng shui – there were barely any material items to arrange.

Then in time, we had a baby to pack too. Until babies are about three, there’s an inverse relationship between the size of the child and the volume of luggage it requires. Just as Laura’s own baggage was starting to reduce – no more bottles, bibs or buggies – she hit toddlerhood, when she didn’t want to be confined to a boat. She needed playparks full of children to become her new friends. Any nationality, language no object, provided the children were her size.

And so slickly we transferred, like Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, onto land. We traded in our boat for a camper van. Drier, less lurching, and less likely to strand us due to weather conditions, it was a welcome and natural evolution from amphibian to reptile. And while I was in charge of packing, it was still soothingly minimalist too.

But now that Laura packs her own bags for holidays, new challenges have arisen. Numerous cuddly toys and dolls anthropomorphise into inseparable friends who would simply pine away if left at home without her. By the end of last year’s summer holiday, Laura’s entourage took over the entire vehicle. So for our half-term trip to the Highlands, I decide to set a new rule: one bag of toys per person. A serious constraint for Gadget Man, but a less daunting challenge for me: most of my toys are books to read or write in. It is easy to smuggle extra rations onto the van’s built-in bookshelf.

I expect a rebellion before our departure. But no, Laura sits demurely on her booster seat with an old black barrel handbag of mine bulging at her side. On her lap is a single cuddly toy: Heather the Best-Dressed Rabbit. (Heather even has her own gas-mask case for this term’s World War II topic). I’ve suggested that instead of taking lots of toys Laura pack a bag of Heather’s clothes to ring the changes along the way. I am pleasantly startled to see she’s taken my advice.

Pointing the van north, we hit the road. The half-grown crops in the Cotswold fields undulate as we pass, as if waving goodbye. They will seem so soft and green on our return from serious Scottish mountains.

Four hours later, when we stop for the night at Morecambe Bay, the true contents of the little black bag are revealed. With a coy, self-satisfied smile, Laura unzips it and begins to pull out an endless stream of toys. It’s like watching a conjuror do the handkerchief trick. Three rag dolls, four horses, two dogs, a bird…. all these and more are soon strewn around the camper van, leaving my husband and I scrabbling, as ever, for a space big enough to sit in. One bag of toys it is, so I cannot complain. But what an astonishing mastery of the art of packing for one so young. I sigh and sit down next to Heather. When the summer holidays come round, I think I’ll put Laura in charge of loading the van.

(This post was originally written for the Tetbury Advertiser, July 2011)

Posted in Writing

Saying it with Trees

Royal Wedding of William and Catherine Duke & ...
Image by Defence Images via Flickr

So what did you like best about the royal wedding? For me, near the top of the list was the prayer penned jointly by the bride and groom.  Like the confessional pledge made by Charles and Camilla at their ceremony, it was disarmingly candid and sincere.  A touching testimony to the strength of their relationship, it was more impressive than any amount of pageantry.

But it wasn’t the couple’s eloquence that moved me the most.  It was something far more surprising.    Can you guess?  I’ll give you a clue: they were the tallest guests.  They were welcomed by Kate’s new father-in-law.  And they’ll soon be taking root at Highgrove.

Yes, I’m talking about the trees.  Before we were allowed to see inside Westminster Abbey, Huw Edwards gave the floral decorations a big build-up, but trees?  Totally unexpected, they took my breath away.  It was startling to see their branches rising up, bringing life, youth and vigour to the ancient stone edifice. They softened the vast heights of the Abbey roof, while symbolising shelter from the elements and adversity.  For the young couple they alluded to the promise of future growth and life far beyond the ceremony of the day.  I wondered whether their leaves were rustling in anticipation as warm air rose from the excited mass of illustrious guests below.

Yet what more natural a decoration for the wedding of a country boy raised in rural Gloucestershire, a stone’s throw from our National Arboretum, the magnificent Highgrove Gardens his childhood back yard?  I’ve twice toured the grounds at Highgrove and each time they have struck me as a wonderful place to grow up, and not only for the spectacular treehouse.  Remarkable features pepper the place as you move from one garden room to another, from the amusing black and white garden, to the colourful potager, from the fragrant thyme walk to open meadow views.  I particularly adore the stumpery, where spent trees gain new dignity.  (At Highgrove, old trees never die – Prince Charles just finds another use for them.)

So the wedding trees will now be planted at Highgrove, where they will bring a tear to the eye of many a future garden visitor.  As the years go by, tourists will marvel at how much the trees have grown.  Maybe in time royal offspring will be photographed playing beneath them.  Rather more accessible to general public view will be the new wedding cake tree, rather sweetly planted in the churchyard of St Mary’s by the Duchess of Cornwall for the local WI of which she is pleasingly a member.

I predict that tree nurseries nationwide will now experience a boom in sales, thanks to Will and Kate’s inspired idea.  Engaged couples everywhere will be adding saplings to their guest list. No wedding will be complete without a tree or two in the congregation.  If I were in charge of wedding bookings at Westonbirt Arboretum, I’d be rubbing my hands together with glee, pound signs ringing up in my eyes: where better to hold a local tree-themed wedding?

Mind you, I hope that the trees don’t completely supplant flowers in the wedding ceremony.  If they do, one popular custom will surely disappear: the throwing of the bridal bouquet over the shoulder, to be caught by single girls wishing to be the next to marry.  Tossing the caber may be fun to watch, but there aren’t many girls who’d want to catch one.

(This post originally appeared in the Tetbury Advertiser, June 2011)