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Archive for the ‘Places that inspire me’ Category

I have just come back from beautiful Pembrokeshire and the Narberth Book Fair, organised by fellow Honno Press Authors Judith Barrow and Thorne Moore.

Last year, the book fair was in Tenby, so it was exciting to meet in a new venue and a new location. Sadly, there was no sea, but Narberth turned out to be a vibrant place – and there’s even a ruined castle!

The fair itself was bustling, with such a varied selection of authors, including plenty of us representing Honno Press. I had great fun talking to readers and other writers, as well as helping Carol Lovekin celebrate the publication of Snow Sisters – and grabbing a signed copy into the bargain.

It was definitely inspirational to have a day buzzing with books, and to meet up with fellow authors afterwards for even more book talk! Writing is such a solitary business, it’s always great to have a get together and exchange ideas.

It’s a long drive from Snowdonia to Pembrokeshire, so my adventures did not end with the book fair. The following day I took refuge from the rain in the dome at the Botanical Gardens of Wales, with its fascinating collection of plants. Not a bad place to have a Greek Salad in Mediterranean surroundings, while the Welsh rain does its thing outside!

I couldn’t quite leave Pembrokeshire without going to Tenby. By the time I got to the B&B, the sun was shining, so I spent the evening wandering through the walled town and along the beach, watching the surfers as the tide came in and the harbour lights come up as the light faded.

The final morning was also clear and sunny, so I headed off to Colby Woodland Gardens, a little inland from Tenby, with its atmospheric walled garden and miles of woodland walks.

A book fair with good company, sea and gardens – I’m already looking forward to next year!

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I love Bodnant Garden, near Llandudno on the North Wales coast. It’s the kind of place you can spend all day, and never grow tired of revisiting. There are winding paths through different plantings, formal gardens, wilderness gardens, and a steep dell with a lake and a river below.

 

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Living so near, it’s easy to not make a special time to visit, and so to miss the changing of the seasons. I’d been meaning to go with a couple of friends for weeks, but you know how it is, with three busy jobs, busy studying and busy lives. Then, this Monday we all happened to be able tobodnant-trees-5-small take the day off. So rain or shine, this was it.

At it turned out, we were incredibly lucky. The day dawned with perfect autumn sunshine, and stayed that way all day, while the late summer flowers were still going strong, and the trees were at their most spectacular. Because it was so unexpected, it was a truly magical day. We wandered around for hours, exploring this way and that, chatting and catching up with news and gossip, and pausing to talk to complete strangers who, like us, were marvelling at the vivid red of the leaves, and bodnant-trees-2-smallthe beauty brought out by the sunshine. And of course I couldn’t resist the opportunity of having a few author pictures taken in such lovely light and glorious surroundings.

 

It was only looking back at the photos afterwards that I realised just how relaxed we’d been, and how great it had been to take time out from our lives and have fun. I didn’t get a thing done on the next book that evening, the intentions didn’t last beyond a cup of tea and falling asleep in the chair, much to Phoebe the collie’s disgust (related to lack of squeaky duck action, rather bodnant-4than her human finishing the next chapter). But then the next morning, that particularly knotty bit in the middle of the soggy middle of the next book (ha!) that I’d been bashing away at for days, de-knotted itself without fuss and neatly fell into place as if it had always been there. Which just goes to show.

bodnant-2-smallI shall definitely be making my way back to Bodnant before long to enjoy another changing of the seasons, to return refreshed and invigorated, and ready to go. Here’s to precious autumn days, good friends, and the deep creative power of sharing the beauty of our world, and pure, unadulterated, fun.

 

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This weekend I went to beautiful Tenby in Pembrokeshire, South Wales, for the annual Tenby Book Fair, organised by fellow Honno authors Judith Barrow and Thorne Moore. It was very exciting for me this year, as the Fair came just days after the publication of my latest historical novel for Honno Press, The White Camellia. It was definitely a case of one proud author holding her book and not letting it out of her sight!

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I love Tenby, with its wide sweep of coastline and the bright colours of its houses. This is the second dsc_0176time I’ve been, so I’d got my bearings and was able to explore a little more of the winding streets and the sheltered harbour. Tenby is small, bustling and friendly, held inside ancient town walls and overlooking Cardigan Bay, with Caldey Island on one side, and the distant view of the Gower and Worm’s Head on the other. Cornwall and Pembrokeshire share a similar wild coastline and sheltered coves – there are even palm trees on the sea front at Tenby, thanks to the Gulf Stream bringing in a mild climate this far north.dsc_0109

The Book Fair itself is part of Tenby Arts Festival, and was a real buzz. Not only was the hall packed with authors of all different kinds of genres, but quite a few were from my own publishers, Honno Press, and authors I’d met last time. And of course all those lovely friends on Facebook dsc_0098and Twitter who it always great to meet up with in real life – or meet for the first time, finally putting the real person to the photos online.

 

 

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My lovely friend and fellow Honno author Carol Lovekin and her breathtaking debut novel ‘Ghostbird’

The day itself went by with in a blur. I always love meeting readers and chatting about books and stories and the enthusiasm for reading that we all share. It was also fun to have a get together with fellow authors and catch up with news, and the inevitable struggle with the this book or the next. I’m always glad to be reminded it isn’t just me who struggles with the logistics of writing and housework adsc_0178nd not feeling guilty that the housework never wins! It was also good to have a relaxed meal together. Writing is such a solitary business, it’s always a buzz to be sociable, and simply have fun.

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I had a great time at the Tenby Book Fair, and come home tired, but also feeling refreshed, replenished and ready to go. So thank you everyone at Tenby Book Fair – and see you next year!

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Mousehole

If you follow me on Facebook, you will know that I’ve just spent a week in Devon and Cornwall collecting photographs for the launch of my next book with Honno Press, out next year.

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Inspiration at Westwood Ho!

‘The White Camellia’ is based around a mansion with a tragic past on the North Cornwall coast, near St Ives. So when I was invited to be one of the panel of writers at the Exeter Short Story and Trisha Ashley Awards, it was a chance I couldn’t resist.

 

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A riot of colour at Lanhydrock

Of course, I couldn’t go straight from Exeter to St Ives without stopping off at St Austell and visit the Lost Gardens of Heligan and the Eden Project. I’d regretfully decided I would have time for Lanhydrock, but my satnav had other ideas, and I’m so glad she did. The sun came out as I found myself passing by – so of course I had to go in.

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The melon house at Heligan

I didn’t have time to see the house (next time), but the grounds were a riot of colour, and the views spectacular. I could have gone back the next day, but I had a date with what will always be the highlight of my trips to Cornwall – the Lost Gardens of Heligan, whose flower gardens inspired ‘Eden’s Garden’, and whose greenhouses inspired Elin’s beloved kitchen garden of ‘We That are Left’.

 

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The office at Heligan

PotsI loved every minute of my day in the Lost Gardens. Having lived through the First World War with my characters, it was very moving to see the offices and greenhouses that, with a way of life, were lost due to the ravages of the war.

I’ve been longing for ages to visit the Eden Project – and it definitely didn’t disappoint! I could have stayed much longer, but rain was forecast for the next day, and I wanted to get photographs of Mousehole and Limorna Cove while the sun was still shining. After a day in beautiful St Ives, I made my way up the wild north coast, ending up back in Devon, in Westwood Ho!, where I’ve spent several happy holidays, before making the drive back to Wales.

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It was a blast of a week. I drove nearly 1,000 miles in all, and packed so much in, all I could do in the evenings was stagger back to the B&B and just about manage dinner and a bath before collapsing into bed. I had never been to Cornwall so late in the year, so it was a pleasure to see the late flowers and autumn colours. I was very lucky with the weather, with none of the promised rain arriving, and I’ve got all the photographs I could need.

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I’m still absorbing my week in Cornwall. This blog post has been a whirlwind tour, but there will be many more to come, exploring the sights and the sounds. I’m buzzing with ideas and feel energized and inspired and ready to go. And I shall most definitely be going down again. I saw so much – but I know there’s plenty more to see!

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The Giant’s Head at Heligan

 

 

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In the V&A

 

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Downton …..

I loved my time in London at the Historical Novelists Association Conference this summer. It was great meeting up with old friends and new, along with the inspiring talks and discussions to set the little grey cells racing. I arrived a day early, as I hadn’t been to London for a while and was looking forward doing a bit of research – not least in the V&A. Seeing costumes of a time is so different from a photograph, for one thing you see how tiny they were, and just how constricting some of the dresses. The transition from Victorian to Edwardian were my favourite exhibits, and especially this one. I had to suppress a giggle, though, when two Italian girls arrived behind me, took one glance and announced ‘Ah, Downton!”. And so it is.

It was also a visit to another past. The Conference and the accommodation were a few minutes from Regent’s Park, with Baker Street nearest tube station. Once, long ago, I used to trudge from Hammersmith to an office in Baker Street, escaping each lunchtime into Regent’s Park and my dream of becoming an author. It was very strange walking once again by the lake and between the flowerbeds, and retracing my steps from Baker Street tube up to the offices in Baker Street. After all this time, it looked very much the same. The tube station even smelt the same.

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The flowerbeds in Regent’s Park

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Walking among the swans and the moorhens (who also looked very much the same) I couldn’t help but wonder what I might have said to my 23 year-old self, if I had met her coming the other way.

So, with my hindsight of thirty-odd years, what would I have told her? Like most writers, I beat myself up quite enough, so I think I would be kind. I’d tell her not to worry that the manuscripts bashed out on a dusty old typewriter in every spare minute always came winging back. It takes years, and rewrite after rewrite, rejection after rejection, to make a writer. This was only the start. I’d tell her not to worry that she couldn’t quite find a career her heart could follow. She already had one. I’d tell her not to be frustrated by the slightly ramshackled variety of jobs. Each was a learning curve, each a learning experience being stashed away to be brought out later. And I’d tell her that twenty-five was not old. Nor thirty-five, forty-five, even fifty-five. Most of all, I’d tell her to live her life, work her socks off, and make her dream come true. Just dreaming never got anyone anywhere.

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Practice!

My 23 year-old self (being horribly lacking in confidence and filled with youthful angst, and taking herself so impossibly seriously, I’d probably have wanted to shake her) would not have believed me. Wouldn’t dared to have believed me, just in case. But hey, that’s youth.

Meanwhile, I wandered through old haunts, stumbling across cavalry practice (where else can you say that?), before heading back to meet up with my fellow authors.

My own revisiting of the past made me appreciate the present, big time. It’s been a long, hard journey, and it’s only just begun. I’m sure my 23 year-old self would never have believed me –  but now’s the time I’m having the time of my life!

 

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Buskers in Covent Garden

 

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Suffragette at Blists Hill

One of the highlights of this year’s RNA Conference was definitely the historical author’s event at Blists Hill, the reconstructed Victorian town at Ironbridge, the birthplace of the industrial revolution. As you can see, I went as a suffragette (what else?).

There was a great atmosphere, being there in company with so many talented historical novelists and meeting the visitors coming through on their way to experience times gone by. In a brief lull in proceedings, I took myself off to visit my favourite cottage, the squatter’s cottage.

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It’s so hard to remember, even in times of recession, the reality of life for the majority of people at a time that – in terms of human evolution – is only a breath away. The squatter’s cottage, at the edges of existence outside the Workhouse, in an age before the Welfare State, is a poignant reminder of just how little our forebears had. Ten people lived in this cottage. The beds crammed together, with more than one child to each. The single change of clothes hung up. The tiny kitchen and living area. No room (let alone light) to study for the chance to escape such poverty. No privacy. No running water and the outside toilet at the bottom of the garden next to the pig stye. And always just a broken leg or a lung infection away from losing any kind of income, and the shame of the Workhouse where families were split up and might never see each other again. And yet the cottage is warm and homely, as I’m sure it would have been, crammed to bursting with the family making the most of what they had. It was also the world that shocked the recruiters of soldiers for WW1 at the appalling state of health of so many of the inhabitants of one the richest nations in the world.

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The pig style and privy

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The bedroom

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The kitchen

I’ve been here several times before, but this time I found myself part of the exhibits. Well, I was a bit hard to miss with my extravagant hat and my ‘votes for women’ sash. The policeman on his bike was a bit uncertain meeting an unscheduled suffragette, and despite the heat peddled off rather fast, and possibly hanging on to his hat. But next to the pig stye of the squatter’s cottage I had a lively discussion on universal suffrage with a 21st century gentleman entering into the spirit of the thing. It wasn’t exactly an argument, as we both, in the end, agreed. Because, of course, all that window smashing was not where the the suffragettes began, but with the long, peaceful struggle, in the face of appalling brutality, for universal suffrage to give a voice to both men and women –  and eventually even to the inhabitants of the squatter’s cottage.

I shall be wearing my hat again – and with pride!

 

If you would like to learn more about the squatter’s cottage (which was inhabited until the 1970s), there is an excellent blog post here. And if you would like to know more about Blists Hill Victorian Town the website is here.

 

 

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The pantry – with a spot of poaching?

 

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A window into a lost world.

 STOP PRESS! The Kindle edition of ‘We That Are Left’ is currently only £1.99 – you can find the link HERE or click on the cover below.

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When I was first trying to get a feel for the world in 1914, I returned to the beautiful Glynllifon Estate, near Caernarfon. I hadn’t been there for years, and it was just as I remembered it, green and magical. The grounds had been created as a miniature world in themselves. There are woodland walks past rushing streams, a secret cave, and even a hermit’s grotto. It was easy to imagine the Victorian and Edwardian inhabitants of the grand house rambling through this secret, fantasy version of a wilderness, lying beneath the shadow of the vast, and in those days, dangerous and inaccessible wilderness, of the mountains of Snowdonia.

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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWhile I was catching up with the first episode of ‘The Crimson Field’ this week, I was reminded of Glynllifon. It was this protected, settled world that those three new VAD recruits, like so many of the young women on the front line, had left behind when they set off to face the horrors of the Great War. Okay, maybe not always so grand as Glynllifon, but the with the same opulence and order that had probably changed very little since medieval times. The same protected confidence that the world could be managed through money, status and force of will. The same pre-Raphaelite, daring-do, heroic idealism that had sent their brothers into the trenches to save the world.

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Of course, there were other women, too. Many of them older women of intelligence, energy and ambition, who- like their Victorian mothers – were not content to stay idle and look decorous at dinner parties. These were the women who, behind closed doors and under the safe guise of ‘charity’, had set up, staffed and ran hospitals for the poor – fighting the legacy of extreme poverty and disease among so many of the inhabitants of a rich nation, that was only generally recognised when so many men were found to be unfit to fight.

It was this experience that took many of these women out to use their skills and experience on the front line, including setting up and running their own field hospitals, often in the face of prejudice and non-cooperation. When women first set up an women’s ambulance corps, they were simply laughed at.

 

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I was thinking of all those women, as I returned to the entrance of the Glynllifon estate, and how their lives were changed forever. The grand house is not a museum piece, the nearest you come to it is ‘Yr Iard’, the yard, which houses some of the tools belonging to the vast army of workers who built, maintained and fed this opulence. Theirs is also a story of lives changed forever.

It was this photograph, taken at harvest time 1913, that had me stopping in my tracks.

 

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The last harvest of a world that, on the day the photograph was taken, must have seemed to have lasted forever, and would never end. The last harvest of a lost world. There were terrible injustices and inequalities in that world, and, as a woman, I have no hankering to live there – particularly as my ancestors would have been in the yard rather than the house, and my life would most probably have been one of daily physical drudgery and perilous childbearing, accompanied by the pain of watching many of my children die. But it was – and still is – haunting to look into the eyes of a lost world. And to know, as none of them could have ever foreseen in their darkest nightmares, the fields where the men would be by the time of the next harvest, and the courage and resilience those girls would need to do – as women always do – to pick up the pieces and forge a new world, one that would never be the same again.

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