Posted in Reading, Travel, Writing

Travels with my Book #10: With Jean Gill to Wales

Jean in her native Wales with Mynydd in the background (Photo by Lesley Walters)

I’m delighted to welcome my prolific and versatile author friend, Jean Gill. Although she now lives in France, Jean is going to whisk us off to her adopted homeland of Wales.

Jean, living within sight of Wales myself, visibly on a clear day from my part of the Cotswolds, I know exactly where it is, but please tell us a little more about it as a setting for some of your books.  

In 1154, the medieval Welsh kingdom of Deheubarth was reduced by the Normans to a tiny part of what is now Carmarthenshire. Then Rhys Gryffydd, came to power and began the fight to reclaim his grandfather’s realm. Think ‘Uhtred, son of Uhtred’ in Bernard Cornwell’s The Last Kingdom and you’ll have some understanding of Lord Rhys.

Which of your many books have you set there?

Song Hereafter is the last book in The Troubadours Quartet ‘like Game of Thrones with real history’.

cover of Song Hereafter by Jean GillMy fictional French troubadour characters travel through twelfth century France, northern Spain and the Holy Land. I had no idea when their adventures began in Narbonne that they would end up in my homeland, Wales. Perhaps it was inevitable as I still love Wales, even after twenty years living in France and time and again I am drawn to both countries as settings.

I’ve published twenty-five books now, since my first poetry book in 1988, and eight of them are set all or partly in south Wales. The Love Heals duo, second chance love stories in a rural setting, are set in both Wales and France.

When I lived in Wales I wrote about France and now I live in France, I write about both countries.

What makes Wales such a great setting for your stories?

1154 was an exciting year in both Welsh and English history, and my troubadours, Dragonetz and Estela, are caught up in the intrigues of Eleanor of Aquitaine as her husband, Henri of Anjou, manoeuvres to become King of England. Who will the Welsh support?

To find out, the troubadours seek out the rulers of south Wales. They find a land and people of savage beauty and pagan customs, engaging in guerrilla warfare against the Norman barons.

What challenges do your characters face dealing with the local people?

Even in medieval times, Welsh sophistication in verse and song has much to teach the French troubadours. Dragonetz is an ex-crusader, accustomed to battle, but he has never seen archers as skilled as the southern Welshmen – nor armed bands as undisciplined.

The contrast between ‘civilised’ southern and ‘barbaric’ northern Europe creates the conflict at the heart of the story and was a dramatic way for me to show dangerous misunderstandings.

Estela had gained a reputation as a troubadour, graced the courts of queens, been rewarded for her performances with wealth and respect. As a woman in a Welsh military camp, she is once again a nobody, protected only by Dragonetz’ status.

Modern Wales is still mostly rural and the wild landscape hasn’t changed, with prehistoric stone circles, lethal marshes, sandy beaches and mud estuaries. And of course castles, stone reminders of tensions with neighbouring England that have still exist today. I love this land as an insider and even the ugliest industrial town in which I’ve ever worked, Port Talbot, has character, and features in my books (the Looking for Normal teen books).

What is your relationship with Wales and how much of your life have you spent there?

I moved to Wales when I was 22 and lived there for twenty-five years. I had a nomadic childhood so that was the longest I lived anywhere. So I adopted Wales as my home country.

You mentioned Welsh castles. Do you have a favourite?

I love them all! When I bred Birman cats, my prefix was ‘Drwslywyn’ so all my cats began with the name of a Welsh castle, also the name of my first house.

photo of Kidwelly Castle
Kidwelly Castle (PhotoL Jean Gill)

The ones that feature in Song Hereafter are Llansteffan, Carmarthen, Tenby and Kidwelly. I’ve just revisited Kidwelly, one of my special places. Lord Rhys’ mother was Gwenllian, the Warrior Princess (isn’t THAT a title and a half!). Rhys’ father had taken Kidwelly castle and Gwenllian was defending it while her husband was in North Wales when news came of an attack by the Norman, Maurice de Londres. She led her army to meet him, was betrayed, defeated and beheaded on the battlefield – unheard of as a punishment for any woman, let alone one nobly born. Rhys was only about four at the time, so he grew up with his mother’s legend to live up to. You’ll still see mention of Gwenllian all around Kidwelly and of course her ghost haunts the castle.

Rhys’ ambition was to build his own castle, better than the Norman castles built by the marcher barons along the southern Welsh coast to keep natives like Rhys in order. I love the fact that he did it! He built Dinefwr Castle, near Llandeilo, in the late twelfth century, later than my story is set or I would be in residence permanently.

What are your top tips for any readers planning to travel to Wales?

Take every waterproof item you possess, definitely an umbrella and plenty of rainy-day books to read. Then you can be sure of unbroken sunshine and the impression that nowhere is more beautiful than Wales. Which is true. If it’s not pouring with rain.

Are there any other authors’ books set in Wales that you’d like to recommend?

Mary Stewart’s Merlin trilogy; Susan Cooper The Dark is Rising series; Lloyd Alexander Black Cauldron series.

Wales is the perfect setting for fantasy!

Two recent crime novels come to mind as well: Clare Mackintosh I Let You Go and JJ Marsh Raw Material. And for contemporary rural family drama, Jan Ruth’s novels have a vivid sense of place and lifestyle.

photo of Llansteffan Castle
Llansteffan Castle (Photo: Jean Gill)

Where is your latest book set?

I’ve just finished a fantasy trilogy, Natural Forces, set in the sterile Citadel and the vibrant Forest. The settings symbolise the growing gulf between humans and ‘nature’, as if we can go to war with nature and not destroy ourselves.

Where will your next book be set?

I’m back in the twelfth century, in Viking Orkney, and enjoying every minute of the research and the writing. Did you know that Vikings of this period thought that trading travel and experience of other cultures broadened the mind and was an educational experience for young men? Not all pillage! The new series will be called The Midwinter Dragon.

promotional image for Song Hereafter


Song Hereafter: 1154 in Hispania and the Isles of Albion

‘Perfect,’ she said. ‘There’s nothing like being out at night in the pitch-black on the sort of river men drown in by daylight, with a man so jealous of you he’d let a tree accidentally knock you unconscious.’

That was exactly what Dragonetz was looking forward to – a challenge that could win hearts without sacking a castle, where the only risk was to himself. That, and the sheer enjoyment of learning something new in the company of young men as desperate for action as he was.

‘They’re placing high bets on the outcome. We’re the longest odds,’ he told her with satisfaction. Trying to sound responsible, he added, ‘The men need an outlet for their high spirits, after campaigning hard.’

She wasn’t fooled. ‘As do you,’ she said. ‘Well, if the odds are stacked against you, then you’d better win.’

He felt the rush of excitement coursing through him. ‘I intend to,’ he said.

Her lips tightened in a way that suggested the wise traveller’s disapproval but she said nothing more.

‘I’ll take care,’ he promised her and kissed her. ‘Sleep well.’


Within the hour, Maredudd and Dragonetz were at work, trailing a net between the two coracles, with Rhys and Halfpenny somewhere behind them. Going first should be an advantage thought Dragonetz. We’ll have first pickings and if the fish are disturbed by us, they’ll be wary. But then, perhaps disturbed fish would jump more readily into the net? He had no idea whatsoever, and no intention of asking Maredudd, who would probably bite his head off for making a noise.

Pitch-black overestimated the light provided by the obligatory seven stars but Dragonetz’ elation was only slightly dampened by the chill mist hanging over the water, which rolled endlessly before his fragile craft. His paddle dipped and rose, caught an awkward angle and made a scudding series of splashes. His partner hissed disapproval.

Although unseen, Maredudd was but a net’s length away in his identical one-man boat. The coracle reminded Dragonetz of half a walnut shell, magicked to giant size for some children’s tale of adventure. So light it bobbed and swung with each whim of the current, the coracle was more highly-strung than any horse Dragonetz had ever ridden. Through trial and error, he was learning to place and pace the paddle-stroke or the boat danced in a dizzy circle and tangled the net, earning more tsks through gritted teeth.

Dragonetz could see his end of the net but not where it reached the other coracle and his invisible partner. Maredudd’s skilled paddle made barely a splash above the gush of rills entering the main flow or splitting round drowned trees.

 Boulders near the bank broke the verses and the water music sang its journey in Dragonetz’ imagination until he could read the darkness. The east bank was more hazardous, whirls and stops, like a trumpet call then a flute, jarring; the west bank smoother, a consistent shake of tambour, an underlying rhythm. The coracles held to the middle and now Dragonetz could hear where the middle was, by listening to the banks either side. He could hear where Maredudd was by the noises the water made round the other coracle, the soft parting as men, boats and all creatures on and in the river, ran with the current.

All but the fish they sought. This was the season the salmon and sewin ran upriver, driven by an instinct stronger than any current, stronger even than waterfalls, the Welsh Lords had told Dragonetz. Hold your net until they come and they will rush into it like a man to a woman’s arms, for the same urge drives them and they can’t hold back or escape.

Could it really be so easy? Only if the fish came. An owl hooted and a small furry beast screamed. Night noises. And in the swirl of waters, Dragonetz heard something else, something he had only heard in his opium dreams. The river songs took different parts, played each its own melody and yet all harmonised in a beauty that brought tears.

Mists gathered, parted, streaked dragon’s breath across the waters, whispered legends. Caerfyrddin, Myrddin’s place, full of magic. On such a night, anything was possible. Dragonetz’ paddle dipped and rose. He was more alone than he’d ever been in his life yet he felt no fear. The mists thickened, confused the music of the banks but the angle of the net told him he was still heading true, if Maredudd knew his way.

The mist breathed in and out, a living being, and in it shapes formed and murmured to him in the language of another world. Beyond the dragon’s breath, he saw another vessel loom, a barque, one he’d seen before, the heart of the siren-song. He could even distinguish words, ‘Dragon, Dragonetz…’ then the vision wavered into white flames, shivered to wisps and disappeared, taking the ethereal music, leaving the slap of water.

‘You know I could kill you here,’ the voice whispered, disembodied. Dragonetz had been so lost in the night world, he took a minute to adjust, to realise the voice was all too human. ‘Coracles tip so easily and the water is deep and cold. You would not get back into the boat without help.’


Visit Jean Gill’s website:


Posted in Family, Travel

Travelling Light, Laura’s Way

A post about our latest trip in our camper van Debbie and her husband on their walk in Wales


Over a decade after buying our first camper van, I like to think we’ve mastered the art of travelling light. We’ve acquired all sorts of tips and tricks that I’m compiling into a little book, along with some anecdotes about our adventures, to be called Travels With My Camper Van. (I’m a bit of a one for obvious book titles, me.)

One of my top tips is not to pack bags at all. You can load some stuff straight into the cupboards before you set off – food, toiletries, books, games. Clothes can be easily transferred on their hangers from your wardrobe at home to the van’s slim wardrobe. Non-hanging items, such as pyjamas and underwear, are best stashed into cheap Ikea laundry baskets – one per person, plus a spare. During our travels, we gradually transfer clothes, as we use them, from the clean baskets to the laundry one – and that gets unpacked straight into the utility room on our return home. Laura crossing a stile


Or so the theory goes. We have had a few hiccups along the way. For example, we once carefully packed a weekend basket for the three of us and didn’t realise till we reached our destination, Ross-on-Wye, that we’d left the basked tidily on the bed at home. Fortunately Ross-on-Wye is well equipped with cheap clothes shops and charity shops, so we bought what we needed to remain clothed and hygienic until we returned home. (We always manage to boost the local economy wherever we go.)

Earlier this week, as it’s the half-term holiday (which means a week off school in this country), we were packing for three days and four nights away to walk the next stage of the Offa’s Dyke Path. That’s an ancient and historic footpath that traverses Wales. We’ve done about half of it so far. Laura had turned 11 a few days before, and in her enthusiasm to embark on this trip had packed her own basket before I had to ask her. This ability, like her new-found enthusiasm for making a cup of tea, is a welcome bonus of growing up.

Laura and Gordon on the path ahead


Only when I took out her basket on the first day of the holiday did I realise my confidence in her efficiency had been misplaced. She had packed precisely one pair of leggings, one t-shirt and a party dress. She was clearly expecting this walking holiday to be more fun than we were. Her constant companion, Heather the rabbit, who serves as ventriloquist’s dummy rather than cuddly toy these days, had packed her roller skates. WP_20140527_001


Still, I could hardly take either of them to task for bad packing: I had only one walking boot. Fortunately I wear the same size shoes as my husband, and he never travels with fewer than three pairs. Half term May 2014 Offa's Dyke Path - Copy


As he’d be the first to remind me, travelling light is all very well, but it’s possible to go too far.

Still, a good time was had by all – and the fact that we’d packed so little made the task of unpacking afterwards even less irksome. Like mother, like daughter – ever the optimists.

sheep in the fields

If you enjoyed this post, you’ll like this one about Laura’s earlier packing triumph: How to Pack for the Summer Holidays

And this one about my husband’s attitude to packing for a scientific field study course: Travelling Light

Plus another cautionary tale for travellers – be careful who you sit next to on the plane: Flight of Fancy

Posted in Travel

Wye I Run: 4 Miles Along the River Bank

My daughter and two swans on the WyeThe first sunny Sunday for weeks finds me on an action replay of one of my favourite runs, along the banks of the River Wye. We’re in Monmouth, Wales, for the Bank Holiday weekend and the sun is out in full force to remind us that it’s Spring. I don my running kit and before stepping out along the riverbank path, I retrieve my phone from my daughter, who has been snapping a pair of extrovert ducks from every angle. They are very obliging models, realising that she is the same little girl who earlier dispensed half a loaf of Hobb’s House finest sliced amongst them.

our camper van parked by the boathouse on the WyeThe path alongside the River Wye offers a varied, scenic, level route with plenty to see along the way, distracting my brain from just how far I’m running. The sky is cornflower blue, the grass a lush Granny-Smith green after all the rainfall, and the river is rushing by high and fast.

There’s surprisingly little mud along the way, considering we’ve just emerged from the wettest April on record. Eager teams of rowers are issuing forth from the boathouse, alongside which we’ve parked our camper van. They are swept along at a ferocious pace. Their return journey will tax their arm muscles, for sure.

sheep in a field by the River  Wye in MonmouthWatching the rowers is one of the great pleasures of this run. There are also plenty of creatures that are watching me. Sheep and cows turn their heads as if synchronised, as if to monitor my progress through their particular fields. Ducks and swans, gliding gently by, look slightly pityingly at my less graceful progress. Their silent sailing makes my running seem all too clumsy and energy-inefficient.

a Red Indian style tipi in a field on the River WyeI know this route well, field by field,  but, as ever, my run is not without surprises. As I enter a field that is usually empty of everything but pasture, I am startled to discover that since my last visit it’s been colonised by Red Indians. But then I spot an array of 4x4s nearby and I realise that these are not Pawnees but townies, following the latest camping trend. I wonder how they got their tent-poles in these cars.

photo with view through the gatehouse on the Monnow Bridge, MonmouthThis is indeed a timeless route, surrounded by a sense of genuine history, both cultural (I’m thinking of you, Mr Wordsworth) and imperial (pay attention,  Offa, and Admiral Nelson). I cross bridges ancient and modern, running through the narrow gatehouse on the landmark Monnow Bridge. A blue plaque informs me that the Monnow Bridge was built in 1270 and is the only medieval bridge in Britain to support its own gatetower. And, my overseas readers, I mean Britain, not England: as the Welsh translation reminds me, we are in proudly Welsh territory here. (Yes, Owain Glyndwr, I haven’t forgotten you either.)  I’m so overwhelmed that I add a few loops to my run so that I can cross this unique bridge several times more.

bilingual sign for Offa's Dyke PathBeyond the Monnow Bridge, I travel further back in time, reaching a stretch of Offa’s Dyke Path. Very loosely speaking, this is Wales’ answer to Scotland’s Hadrian’s Wall, only a few hundred years newer.

In all, I think I cross the Monnow seven times, but with hindsight I think it must have been six or eight, or else I’d still be on the other side of it.

old bridge across the MonnowIt beats me how an athletics track or treadmill can hold anyone’s interest when our countryside is awash (lately quite literally) with such scenic routes, all free to access. This run is satisfying on so many levels: luscious fresh air, stunning scenery, pensive solitude, and an inescapable feeling of being a part of national history. The whole experience is enormously life-affirming.

church near MonmouthExcept when  I’m passing the beautiful, tiny medieval church whose churchyard borders the river the other side of the boathouse. Its whitewashed walls are luminous in the morning’s brilliant sunshine. If I were an artist, I’d want to whip out an easel and capture nature’s bright blues and greens that set it off so well. But then I notice, also glinting in the sun, two shiny new gravestones at my feet: these weren’t here last time I ran this route, less than a year ago. I pick up  my pace and scarper. It feels very good to be alive.

If you enjoyed this post, you might like this piece about Running  In Wonderland or this one about our walk along more of  Offa’s Dyke Path

Posted in Family, Reading, Travel

Offa’s Dyke Path, Laura’s Way

When my daughter Laura had just turned two years old, we decided we’d walk the Offa’s Dyke Path – the national trail that runs along the ancient English-Welsh border.

From the start, on the banks of the River Severn near Chepstow, we agreed we’d be realistic about our ambition. Accordingly, each year, we’ve done just two or three short segments of the 177 mile long Path. At first she would tire easily and we’d have to carry her, but lately the problem has not been her energy – she literally skips up some steep slopes – but her willingness. With the squeamishness of most seven year olds, she has developed an aversion to cross country routes due to the presence of animal poo. So we’re developed some handy diversionary strategies to keep her marching on.

Our first tactic was to let her play with my mobile phone. As it was loaded with the Mamma Mia soundtrack, Laura positively danced past the sheep that day. On her sixth birthday, this was replaced with a pink iPod shuffle, featuring all her favourite songs and stories, and providing the important benefit of earphones. (The sheep had a whip-round.)

Second, we now always load our pockets with snacks, preferably the kind that can be made to last a long time. As Laura’s diabetic, I always have a packet of LoveHearts to hand in case of hypos. Not only are these handy for instant inflight refuelling, they also provide entertainment as we read and discuss the slogan printed on each one. These have moved with the times since I was a child, now saying things like “Text Me” and most recently (and bizarrely) “Me Julie”.

Thirdly, we allow a couple of lightweight toys to stow away in our rucksacks. These are useful for impromptu games along the way. This week, the sight of Ken helping Barbie courteously over stiles provided excellent entertainment for us all.

Community singing is a great standby, especially songs that can be adapted to suit our walks. “The Wheels on the Bus” easily accomodates “sheep on the bus”, “cows on the bus” and so on, though I wouldn’t like to be a passenger on that particular double-decker. “One Man Went to Mow” proved popular during our Easter walks, with the dog-mad Laura enthusiastically providing the “Woof-woofs” for up to 27 men going to mow before the game started to pall (and Mummy to run out of puff). I’m keeping “10 Green Bottles” up my sleeve.

But best of all is my latest ploy: to read books as we walk along. “Multi-tasking at its finest,” as a friend described it when I told her about our Easter trip.

For some reason, Roald Dahl has become a natural companion on Offa’s Dyke. Maybe it’s his Welsh upbringing coming into play. “The Fantastic Mr Fox” saw us out of Hay-on-Wye and will be forever associated in my mind with the sublime views from Hergest Ridge. (Though I did manage to finish it in time to catch Mike Oldfield’s glorious eponymous album on my own iPod before we descended.) “The Giraffe, The Pelly and Me” took us up the steep rise out of Kington, and “Danny the Champion of the World” saw us down the other side.

I think I may have discovered a whole new pastime here. I’m keen to find further books that will take us on appropriate walks. Some are blindingly obvious: “Three Men in a Boat” along the Thames towpath, “Cider with Rosie” for the Cotswold Way. But contrasts would be fun too: the alpine story of “Heidi” in Holland, “Born Free” on a city break. There’ll be a packet of LoveHearts for the sender of the best suggestion.

Posted in Personal life, Travel

Let the Sunshine In

What a difference a week of sunshine makes!  On returning home yesterday after our walking holiday in Wales, the first thing I notice is that my front garden seems to have exploded.

In a good way, I mean.  Having suddenly appeared from nowhere is a  deep pink curtain of flowering currant blossom, theatrically suspended  above the front wall from a bush that seemed so much smaller when its branches were bare.  Behind the wall,  what had before my departure been bare soil is now festooned with a tangle of deliciously bright lime-green leaves.  This blanket of ground cover is dotted with the violet starbursts of periwinkle flowers.

In the back garden what first catches my eye is a triffid-like mass of rhubarb that I swear wasn’t there last week.  A mini forest of thick deep stems, marbled green and pink, underpin a volcanic eruption of sturdy curling leaves which look far more healthy and vibrant than should be allowed for something so notoriously poisonous.   Closer to hand, the grassy bank immediately behind the house is peppered with yellow and russet primroses, little joyous bursts of colour, random as sparks from fireworks.  Nearby, ancient plum, chestnut and apple trees that looked quite dead just a week ago now bear thick buds, their fruit apparently under starters’ orders.

Forget the holiday laundry, I think to myself, abandoning on the utility room floor the armfuls of clothes that I’ve just brought in from the camper van.  We’d better get straight out into that garden and take charge, before it gets the wrong idea of who’s in control here.  There’s clearly not a moment to lose.

I stride back through the house to call my husband who is busy detaching the bikes from the back of the van.  The sun is sending beams as strong as spotlights through the flowering currant and into the living room, and I suddenly realise that it’s not only the plants that have multiplied  at logarithmic rate while we’ve been away. I run my finger along the top of the piano.  Yes, the same has happened to the dust.
Oh well, at least I had a rest on holiday.