Posted in Personal life, Travel, Writing

With Love to Ithaca & Other Ionian Islands

In this post I reminisce about my travels to the Ionian islands off the west cost of Greece, which inspired my latest novel, and I send my love to all those affected by the Medicane (Mediterranean hurricane) Storm Ianosthat affected the area a week ago.

(You can read the BBC’s news report about the storm here.)

Back in the early 2000s, I spent a lot of time sailing in the Ionian Sea. This was not as extravagant as it sounds. My husband and I purchased a share in a small refurbished sailing yacht, (sadly in the days before digital photography and smart phones, so apologies for the lack of photos!) Our share entitled us to six weeks aboard each year. It cost us just £3,000, and a few years later we sold it on for exactly the same sum.

The Idyllic Ionian Islands

From my first trip to Kefalonia in the summer of 2000, I adored the beautiful islands, their big-hearted people, and their idyllic climate, with its clear blue skies and sunshine every day. As a sailor who prefers calm waters, I appreciated that there was just enough warm wind for gentle sailing from around 10am until the dependable “five o’clock blow”, which gave you just enough puff to get you into the harbour of your choice for the night.

Several years after selling our boat share, I attended a writers’ retreat run by Jessica Bell at the excellent Hotel Nostos on Ithaca, and was amused when its proprietor Nicki Anagnostatos apologised to her guests for the presence of a few tiny clouds in the azure sky.

Ithaca photo
Wonderful memories and much knowledge gained from the retreat organised by Jessica Bell six years ago

Ithaca was just one of the islands we’d sailed to. Our yacht was based in Nidri on Lefkas, and we also sailed to  Meganisi, Kefalonia, many smaller islands, and occasionally to the mainland.

Not So Safe Harbour

One year, on arrival, we passed a small private marina full of boats that looked as if they’d been in the seafaring equivalent of a motorway pile-up. The marina belonged to a sailing school, and at first we assumed either teachers or pupils or both were shockingly inept. Then we discovered a spring storm had hurtled across the islands not long before our arrival, wrecking everything in its path.

We found it hard to believe that such freak weather could affect what we’d come to regard as a haven, until we experienced it at first hand.

Storm over Asos

A year or two later, after mooring our yacht in the beautiful horseshoe-shaped harbour at Asos on Kefalonia, having sailed calmly across from Lefkas, we were awoken at 2am by howling gales rocking our boat vigorously from side to side. Ropes and chains were rattling all around us, amid frantic shouts in Greek, English and other languages.

Peering up through the hatch to see what was going on, we discovered a storm in full force. The larger boats were moving out to anchor in the middle of the bay, away from anything that could damage their sides, while the smaller boats like ours were advised to turn ninety degrees to park sideways on to the harbour wall, rather than nose or tail on as was the usual practice to allow more boats to access the town. That way we could secure both ends of the boat to dry land, and reduce the chances of crashing into neighbouring vessels.

Still our boat rolled, and first thing in the morning we fled to the town to rent a room till the winds had dropped. In this very sheltered bay, nestling at the bottom of steep cliffs, it was still beach weather, and the storm will have made no difference to holidaymakers staying on land. But it was several days before the water was safe enough for us to leave.

Earthquake Legacy

Storms were not the only weather extremes that have affected the Ionian islands over the years. On Kefalonia, we were conscious of the legacy of the devastating earthquake of 1953 – 7.3 on the RIchter Scale. The quake changed the face of the island destroying numerous buildings, many of which still lie in ruins, and causing some settlements to be abandoned forever.  (Read more about the history of the earthquake here.)

So while it’s true that whenever we went to the Greek islands we expected idyllic weather, the ghosts of past natural catastrophes were always with us and with the residents of the islands.

Inspiration for a Novel

image of a glass of iced coffee with a copy of Murder Your Darlings against a blue cotton sarong
The backdrop is the sarong I bought in Kefalonia on my first trip, patterned with the indigenous turtles. A similar sarong is one of the clues in my Greek island mystery, “Murder Your Darlings”.

The latent threat beneath the idyllic weather inspired the latest novel in my Sophie Sayers Village Mysteries series, Murder Your Darlings. It’s set on a small fictitious island just off the tip of Ithaca. An old windmill damaged by the 1953 earthquake is the scene of the mysterious disappearance of a famous romantic novelist, Marina Milanese. When a summer storm prevents the police from reaching the island, Sophie and her fellow guests must solve the mystery themselves – not easy, when just about everyone on the island, including Sophie herself, is deemed to have a motive to murder Marina Milanese.

Return to Ithaca

This summer a natural phenomenon of a different kind has ruled out travel to the Greek islands for many of us, but I’m hoping that once the storm that is Covid-19 has passed, we’ll be returning to the Ionian islands to continue our love affair with them. If you’ve never been, add them to your bucket list for post-Covid holidays. You’ll be glad you did – and you’ll be helping the islanders rebuild their economy, for the benefit of us all.

Posted in Events, Personal life

Weathering Storms

Every month, I write a column for our local community magazine, the Hawkesbury Parish News. The copy deadline is the middle of the month prior to the cover date. After having spent much of today in my garden enjoying balmy spring sunshine and spring flowers, it seems odd to recall the stormy weather that had come to seem the norm when I was writing my March column, mid-February, which I’m sharing below.

Image by @valentinmuellerandalanmueller via unsplash.com

With Storm Dennis raging outside my study window, I decided to research the naming of storms. The Met Office started this practice just five years ago to make it easier for the media to talk about storms, and so to raise awareness of the dangers they might bring.

A storm is given a human name if it is likely to trigger an amber or red weather warning for wind, rain or snow. A list of 26 named storms is announced at the start of each year, one for each letter of the alphabet. Their names are picked from suggestions submitted by the general public to represent the nation’s cultural mix – hence the likes of Asian Samir and Gaelic Roisin, alongside the solidly English Ellen. The alphabetical list alternates between male and female names. It’s probably only a matter of time before there’s a gender-neutral Robin or Vivan, but Stormy McStormface is a non-starter.

The appearance of Storm Willow in the 2020 list surprised me. I’d always thought of Willow as a good name for a cat, as in Pussy Willow, and it’s currently #23 in the cat name charts. But it’s now also in the top ten for baby girls born in 2020. Who knew? It’s still not a name I’d associate with a scary storm.

But then nor is Dennis, even though psychologists claim that unconscious bias makes us most fear storms with male names. The name Dennis makes me picture a genial old man sitting by the fire with pipe and slippers doing the newspaper crossword. The trees in my garden currently being buffeted about by Storm Dennis beg to differ.

Casting my eye down the list of names for the rest of 2020, there is one that leaps out as easily the most ominous. I can’t help wondering whether the Met Office really thought this particular choice through. In the meantime, look out for Storm Noah, folks – and better start building that ark…

image of double rainbow over landscape
Image by @plasticmind via unsplash.com

Cover of All Part of the Charm
Available as an ebook and in paperback

If you enjoy reading my entries for the Hawkesbury Parish News, you may like to know I have published a collection of my columns from the 2010-2015 issues as an ebook and paperback. 

Click here to buy the ebook on the ereader of your choice.

Click here to order the paperback from Amazon.

Or order from your local bookshop, quoting ISBN 978-1911223023.

Posted in Events, Personal life

A Not So Indian Summer

a tree with leaves turned the colours of flame
Autumn colour at Westonbirt Arboretum, just down the road from me

My column from the October 2019 Hawkesbury Parish News

It’s a truth universally acknowledged that autumn begins the day after the Hawkesbury Village Show. This year cooler autumn weather arrived right on cue on 1st September. A couple of weeks later, with chestnut leaves already starting to turn bronze as I write this column, we’re basking in an ‘Indian summer’.

Or so I thought, until I decided to investigate what actual Indian summers are like.

It turns out they’re nothing like this at all. Having never been to India, I had no idea that their summers can bring winds so strong as to be fatal and thunderstorms accompanied by hailstorms. And once they’re over, there’s a four-month monsoon season to look forward to.

It turns out that what we’ve been having is a Native American summer.

Nineteenth century settlers coined the phrase ‘Indian summer’ to describe the unseasonably warm, dry spells in the fall which the indigenous people (termed Red Indians by European immigrants) favoured for hunting.

Outside of the English language, different terms are used for this phenomenon. Germans called it ‘Altweibersommer’ which means ‘old wives’ summer’, as do Eastern Europeans in their own languages. I’m not sure why. Perhaps because the elderly find a less aggressive heat of a good autumn easier to bear than high summer?

The concept can also be used metaphorically. In the English translation of Boris Pasternak’s Dr Zhivago, the term Indian summer is used to describe the run-up to the October Revolution: the calm before the storm.

Given the current political climate, I prefer a more soothing philosophy. This autumn, whatever the weather may bring, I’ll be bearing in mind that optimistic closing line from Shelley’s Ode to Autumn: “If winter comes, can spring be far behind?” Let’s hope so.


PS For a more seasonal read for October, you might like to try the second in my Sophie Sayers Village Mysteries, Trick or Murder?, in which a village finds itself divided by a conflict between Halloween and Guy Fawkes’ Night. Read the first chapter here for free.


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Posted in Personal life

Where the Grass is Greener

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

sample of our lawn grass

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Posted in 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.