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Ghostly warriors

“Would Byron’s men haunt the Down in years to come, a restless and wild eyed horde charging into the guns of Waller’s army for evermore?”

(From The Welsh Linnet)

Visiting battle fields is a melancholy, but addictive, pursuit. At some places the air remains thick with the ghosts of the dead. I visited Culloden at the age of 11 with my parents and I still recall the shivers which ran down my spine as we inspected one weather-beaten clan memorial after another. In the days before the existence of a visitors’ centre, we were the only visitors on a summer’s day among a host of highland warrior war dead.

Since then (but sadly not in 2020) I have visited other battlefields, particularly those of the English Civil War.  Thanks to Zoom (and a certain amount of very early rising due to the time difference between the UK and Australia) I am currently able to participate in Battlefields Trust and National Army Museum talks on everything from Boudica to my personal consuming passion, Basing House. The other Zoomees clutch glasses of wine, while I hold a mug of coffee and wear a sweatshirt hastily tugged on over my PJs. It is an unexpected, beneficial side effect of the Plague Year.

But writing historical fiction about battlefields is so much easier when you have climbed the hill to appreciate a particular vantage point. Despite being partly obscured by trees, the view from Edgehill’s 700 ft high ridge of where the fighting took place below gives wonderful perspective.

“From his position high on Edgehill, Rafe … could see empty fields stretching before him, far down below…

So distant they could have been pieces on a chessboard, Rafe saw the forces of the enemy streaming onto the fields below the ridge. As he watched, the antlike columns assumed the shapes of men and horses. Regiments were taking their places, the patterns changing as they moved from marching order into battle formation.”

(From The Welsh Linnet)

View of the battlefield from Edgehill

In other places both view and landscape have remained the same. I was so haunted by the carpet of poppies on Roundway Down above Devizes, with its associations of the Great War overlaying those of the 1643 cavalry battle between the forces of King and Parliament, that the photo became my screensaver for many months.

“He shuddered at the thought his corpse might be left upon the Down to rot…until nothing remained of him but bones bleaching among the poppies.”

(From The Welsh Linnet)

Roundway Down, Devizes

As I discovered when I began writing historical fiction, and searching for “what really happened”, the location of a battle is not always clear. Those present at the battle were not generally concerned with pinpointing the location for future generations. “Facts” in their reports were obscured by clouds of gun smoke, their inability to see the entire battlefield from where they were fighting, and the desire to portray their own performance in the best possible light.

They would refer to “a little hill”, a wood, or rising ground. Sometimes archaeologists come to the rescue when a dig uncovers civil war ammunition. This may pinpoint where the action took place, and what types of soldiers were fighting. Musket balls mean infantry or dragoons, while pistol suggests cavalry. A complete lack of any pistol (or musket) balls suggests the battle took place in a different location. If they are lying thickly in the ground it is evidence of heavy fighting (but beware, it might also mean the baggage train, with its stores of ammunition, was waylaid at that point).

For a writer of fiction, a dispute is not necessarily a bad thing – it gives us more wiggle room. But it can be fantastic to get an indisputable feel and proof of how an event went horribly wrong.  Walking the site of the battle of Cheriton (March 1644), I became lost in the maze of narrow lanes the Royalist cavalry had charged down. So narrow I could touch them with both hands, no wonder the cavalry were beaten for the first time in open battle.

“Bramdean Lane was so narrow that it scarcely permitted the passage of two horses side by side. The enemy would pick his men off as they filed into the open two by two like the animals into Noah’s ark…

Behind him, the riders were forming up in two files, their movements hampered by the confinement of the lane and the musketeers crouching in the hedges.

… Ahead were confused sounds of fighting from the unseen battlefield, the clash of sword play, gunfire, screams of man and beast mingling with the urgent beat of drums.”

(From forthcoming novel The Tawny Sash)

Cheriton battle field

The best illustration for me was when visiting Chester in 2018. King Charles I was said to have “watched the battle” of Rowton Moor, which lay outside the city, from a tower on the city walls now known as “The King’s Tower”. My guide took me inside the tower where I inspected the view from the window. Then she drove me out to the site of the battle which, even today, remains well outside Chester’s suburbs. I tramped across the rising ground (now farmland) and agreed with her that even with a telescope (which did exist in 1644), It would have been totally impossible for the king to watch the battle. That particular battle is yet to feature in my writing, but watch this space…

Review of Thorne Moore’s “The Covenant”

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This historical saga, subtitled “The Life and Death of a Righteous Woman” is set in rural Wales in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It is a prequel to Moore’s first novel “A Time for Silence” and follows the lives of the Owen family, tenant farmers on a small piece of land “twenty-four acres, one rood, eight perches.”

The righteous woman is Leah Owen, daughter of Thomas Owen, “Tada”, a towering and uncompromising figure of biblical proportions whose relationship with the land he farms and his rigid attitudes to life and faith, dominate his family.

Leah herself is strong, patient and loving although she hides softer feelings beneath a rigid exterior born of duty and suffering. Her siblings gradually take different means of escape, leaving her with the responsibility of the farm and their father. Her younger brother Frank’s life is tainted from childhood because he is not their beloved older brother Tom, the lost heir to Cwmderwen. Gradually Frank himself becomes a malignant figure, struggling with an unwished-for destiny and the evil influence of his friend Eli John.

The other characters, Leah’s sisters, the rising man David George and the irritating but harmless Betty, contribute to the plot, providing a contrasting perspective and occasionally intervening in major events.

Each chapter is from a different time period as we follow Leah and the Owen family from the tragic prologue, back to their childhood and then forward, a few years at a time, from the 1880s until the 1920s. From the very start, we know that Leah’s life will not be a happy one. How the tragedy unfolds is gradually revealed as one after another the people she loves, those who might offer her support and save her, vanish from her sphere through fate, bad choices or the awful pressures of life on the Owen land.

If the prologue promises personal tragedy, it is Tom’s death aged 16 which seals it, shaping much of the ensuing succession of disappointments and disasters. My one criticism is that although we are told repeatedly that Tom’s early death changes his father’s character, the brief glimpses of Eden before the fall are insufficient to highlight the subsequent transformation.

The plot could not exist without the landscape, the harsh depiction of the Pembrokeshire countryside and claustrophobic village life reminiscent of Thomas Hardy’s Wessex. But, undoubtedly, we are in Wales not England, surrounded by the grim “chapel” culture without the male voice choirs. A light sprinkling of Welsh phrases reinforces the place and the time.

Sometimes the next chapter in the unfolding cataclysm is clearly foreshadowed so that I was mouthing “No, don’t do it”. Alas, my warnings did not prevent a single murder, accident or drowning.

This is a well-constructed novel, beautiful but painful and raw, filled with the inevitability of an inescapable fate. If you enjoy books like Tess of the d’Urbervilles or Anna Karenina, you will love The Covenant.

(This review by AJ Lyndon first appeared on Rosie Amber’s blog 6 December 2020.)

Interview with historical novelist Penny Ingham

If I had made it to the UK in 2020 as planned, I might have been able to sit in the same room with Penny as we chatted. But this year it was of course done remotely.

Penny has written three historical novels, all set in the early medieval period: The Saxon Wolves, The Saxon Plague, and The King’s Daughter (a story of Aethelflaed, the Lady of the Mercians).She is a keen amateur archaeologist and has dug at many different sites including Silchester Roman town, Fishbourne Roman Palace and Basing House in Hampshire (which endured an English Civil War siege, as featured in The Welsh Linnet). She has two grown up children and lives with her husband in rural Hampshire.

When and why did you start writing? How did your family feel about it?
My father was a journalist and novelist, and even from a young age I knew I wanted to follow in his footsteps. My first ‘novel’ (written when I was about 8 years old) was just five pages long and featured a wizard named Ambrosius. My husband and children have always been very supportive of my writing. I worked on my first novel in a small walk-in wardrobe. It was the only spare space in the house! My kids would say, ‘mum’s in the cupboard again.’

What got you interested in the Anglo Saxon period? Is it a long standing interest?
I’ve been fascinated by history and archaeology since I was a child. My interest began with the Roman occupation of Britain – The Eagle of the Ninth by Rosemary Sutcliffe is still a favourite novel of mine. I studied Classics at university, which in turn led to a curiosity about the post Roman period. What happened in Britain after the Empire fell? Just how ‘dark’ were these so called Dark Ages?

What research techniques do you use? Do you ever get lost down the Google rabbit hole?
Yes, I do! But initially, I buy a lot of books, and make notes – although the original source material for The Saxon Wolves and the Saxon Plague was extremely thin on the ground. Gildas, a monk writing in the sixth century AD, tells us the Anglo Saxons invaded Britain with fire and slaughter, but modern historians are divided on this. some insisting it was a relatively peaceful migration.
I was delighted to learn that recent archaeological discoveries are beginning to shed light on these so called Dark Ages. Both The Saxon Wolves and The Saxon Plague feature Tintagel in Cornwall, birth place of the legendary King Arthur. Excavations have shown there was a thriving high status settlement on the cliff top in the fifth century AD. I love that archaeology is finally proving there is a grain of truth in these ancient legends.
There was more original source material available for The King’s Daughter, which is set in the late ninth century. However, the Anglo Saxon Chronicle can’t be taken at face value either. It was compiled at King Alfred’s instigation, so it can also be seen as the PR exercise of an Anglo Saxon king determined to enhance his reputation for future generations!
And finally… volunteering at Butser Ancient Farm in Hampshire is one of the most enjoyable ways to immersive myself in the Anglo Saxon world. I love donning my costume and spending a day in their authentically constructed Saxon Hall. I grind wheat on the quern stones with the younger visitors, make bread cakes and bake them on the hearth. Like King Alfred, we do occasionally burn them!

I’ve been lucky enough to visit all the sites in my novels and I’ve ‘dug’ at quite a few of them. King Alfred’s capital at Winchester has largely disappeared beneath the modern city – which was a chance for me to use my imagination. But the Roman baths complex at Bath has survived largely intact. So too have the towering walls and towers of the Roman ‘Saxon Shore Fort’ at Portchester on the south coast. But my favourite site has to be Tintagel with it’s spectacular cliff top setting.

What are you working on at the moment? When will it be published and how has Covid affected your writing techniques?
My current work in progress, which will be published in late 2021, is quite a departure from my previous novels. It’s set in Elizabethan London and features William Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe. Elizabethans endured recurring outbreaks of the plague and the theatres regularly closed whenever the death toll rose. Living through the current Covid pandemic has certainly given me an unexpected insight into their terrifying plight.

Who are your favourite authors? What 3 books would you take to a desert island with you and why?
If I had to choose three historical novelists, they would be Philippa Gregory, Bernard Cornwell and Mandy Haggith.

Three books to take to a desert island:
The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, because I can get lost in it for hours and it never fails to inspire me.
The Complete Works of Shakespeare, because for me, he is the greatest wordsmith of all time. It’s all there – history, tragedy, comedy, romance!
And finally, because it makes me feel warm inside : Still Me by JoJo Moyes (the third book in her Me Before You trilogy).

Bloody Dock

(extract from short story published by Sundial historical literary journal)

Ned’s sudden, violent death had left no clues as to his wishes for the disposal of his body, nor the settling of his affairs. “Roses,” was his final word as blood gurgled from his mouth.

Robert had paid the sexton to dig a grave in a quiet corner of the Oxford churchyard, bought a shroud and wrapped its woollen folds about the bloated, lifeless flesh. The parson had read in English from the Book of Common Prayer while Robert, the only mourner, bowed his head, praying silently in other, different, words. He took note of the spot so that Ned’s family might visit the anonymous mound. It was May, and Robert heaped a cloud of bluebells from a nearby wood upon the piled earth.

The City of Oxford surrendered to Parliament’s red-coated New Model Army in June. The civil war was over, and Robert was released to resume his bleak and cheerless existence. Now he was writing a letter to Ned’s family. It was not easy informing a father of his son’s death. He stared at the blank sheet of paper as if willing the words to write themselves while the ink dried on the nib and the tallow candle smoked its way down the untrimmed wick. There was a creak from the door and his mother entered silently, her skirts brushing the worn rush matting.

“Robert, why did you not call for a fire? How many hours have you sat like this, my son, growing chilled?”

He lifted his head, the flickering flame throwing the long scar on his cheek into grotesque relief.

“A cold hearth is no hardship to an old soldier like me. You should go to bed, Mother. I too. The candle is almost burned down, and they are too precious to waste now that we must pay Parliament to live on our own estates.”

“Robert, will you not say the rosary with me first?” He kissed her hand and picked up the candlestick.

“Tomorrow, Mother.” He must beg the forgiveness of man before he sought that of God. He must finish the letter.

* * *

https://sites.google.com/view/sundial-magazine/short-stories_1/bloody-dock?authuser=0

The Google rabbit hole (trivial research worries of an historical novelist)

When Lewis Carroll decided to make a white rabbit a central character in Alice in Wonderland, did he wonder what breed of rabbit it was? Did he dress him in a suit and waistcoat because it was easier than working out what breed of rabbit was likely to frequent the Surrey countryside? Rabbit holes remain a major trip hazard in 2020 for the novelist. Google rabbit holes, that is.
In the case of my novel The Tawny Sash, the rabbit hole is not just a metaphor.

Gabriel Vaughan is hiding from some enemy soldiers and a rabbit runs past. The soldiers go in pursuit of the welcome addition to their dinner and one says ‘should be some more varmints about’.
Which got me wondering – was ‘varmint’ a word in use in 1644? Online dictionaries are good for this -giving the origin of words and the date when they were first used. So the answer was yes. I might have left well alone then, but decided (second question), I had better find out the literal meaning of the word.
The answer to this was ‘vermin’. Oh – but were rabbits considered vermin in 1640s England? Rabbits were introduced into Britain by the Romans, but were prized for their meat and fur for many centuries. Landowners were still cultivating burrows for the meat and fur. As we all know rabbits breed like… So at some point they became a pest. Might they have been protected under the Gaming Acts at that time? Were the Gaming Acts in force?

Conclusion – it was really not worth the effort. I deleted the word ‘varmints’, having just got lost down THE GOOGLE RABBIT HOLE!!

Not only rabbits, but hares. Like rabbits, introduced to Britain by the Romans in all probability. Earlier in the book, Will Lucie’s cavalry troop is saved because he catches sight of a hare.

This caused another brief diversion – what colour were hares? Were they considered a delicacy at the time? How were they caught? With dogs as it turns out, but I decided a dissertation on hare coursing was probably superfluous as the hare only had a bit part.

A movement behind a bush caught his eye. He inched towards it. A flash of long, black-tipped ears as the brown hare, disturbed, lolloped away at great speed. They were good eating, if you could catch them, he thought regretfully.

Fortunately for the hare, Will was too busy on cavalry patrol to round up a dog or two and give chase. It had fulfilled its purpose – catching Will’s eye so that he spots an enemy troop emerging from the direction the hare has obligingly vanished in.

A fine day for killing

It would be a fine day tomorrow, a fine day for killing or being killed.” My hero, wandering through the camp the night before the 1644 battle of Cropredy Bridge (a bit like Henry V), muses philosophically on the weather.

Living in Melbourne, it is sometimes hard to remember how cold and wet British summers can be. During the English Civil War, the weather was particularly bad. The battle of Edgehill in 1642 was renowned for the cold night after the battle. As darkness fell on that October day, the armies remained on the field along with the dead and wounded and (in all likelihood) some of the prisoners taken in the battle.

The cold and damp of the muddy ground is soaking into his breeches and chilling him to the bone. He is beginning to believe he will freeze to death before being moved.

Visiting the UK to research the civil war while writing The Welsh Linnet, my tour of the Naseby battlefield coincided with a particularly wet day, one of many in June 2016. My hire car sloshed manfully through muddy lanes. I peered through the misted windscreen for signposts among hedgerows bursting with green and dripping vegetation. On my return to Melbourne I wrote bad weather into the book. A lot of bad weather. I was not making it up.

And bad weather would have had many adverse effects. Baggage and artillery carts would have become bogged down, horses likewise. On a cold March day, as at Cheriton in 1644, a lengthy delay posed a risk to the armies before the fighting even started.

Miller, Williams! Stand straight in your files.” An exasperated corporal shepherded the two men back towards the infantry lines. “Baaaa,” mocked one of Will’s men. Will could not repress a chuckle. The corporals of the Foot were hard pressed, keeping their hungry, half-frozen men from wandering off to forage for food or find shelter from the cold.

On a rare sunny day I visited Roundway Down outside Devizes. The presence of a blue sky helped enormously in imagining the fleeing roundhead cavalry, blinded by the setting sun, galloping full tilt over an escarpment to their deaths.

I discovered that the marshy area by the River Loddon near Basing House in Hampshire is prone to fog. This helped Sir William Waller’s army in 1643 as they launched a surprise attack on the royalist fortress.

Gabriel, standing on the roof of the Great Gate House, was peering out. A thick fog had descended, making it difficult to see very far beyond the precincts of the house.

Foggy day tick! How far could you see from the roof of a (now demolished) gatehouse which was four storeys high? Descend from upper floor of my city office down to fourth floor and peer out of window towards distant cyclists, (who are unaware they are standing in for galloping horses). Tick!

At this point my research came unstuck. Despite visiting the ruins of Basing House (another day wet enough for Noah), I had failed to ask my historian guide about the movements of the local fog. The thick fog should have risen, not descended. It rises, apparently, from the river on a regular basis.

This is why historical novelists invariably have a disclaimer in their books “All mistakes are my own”. I am no exception.

(Photo of Basing House N.Turton )

Letting Go

Don’t be afraid to “murder your darlings” is frequent advice to writers. Letting go of scenes (or characters) can be tricky. When writing my first novel The Welsh Linnet I set an early scene at Petworth House in Sussex, where the heroine met a charming young man who I later killed off in battle. As readers of this blog know, I do try to visit the locations in my books, but Petworth made it no further than my ‘to-do’ list. In the course of writing the Petworth scene, I researched what it is like now, what it was like then, (before it was rebuilt in 1688), the tennis court, and whether the Earl of Northumberland was likely to have been in residence at the requisite time (early 1641).

Eventually I decided reluctantly that the scene wasn’t needed. Dashing Rafe became a friend of the heroine’s eldest brother Will, and Bess met him when Will brought a party of friends home for Christmas. Much simpler, and it cut out unnecessary complications in the lengthy lead up to the start of the English Civil War.

And then there was the prologue – 2 prologues to be precise. Both ended up on the cutting-room  floor. I was a bit sad about scrapping the first one, which featured 12 -year- old Bess running away from home like Maggie Tulliver in George Eliot’s Mill on the Floss. I had spent days on it, with several rewrites and much checking of facts. The sheepdog, for example, which featured at the opening of the scene had to be replaced by an authentic 17th century hunting spaniel (see photo).  But although it illustrated Bess’s adventurous spirit, it also suggested the book was going to be a light-hearted romp. Readers attracted by the prologue were unlikely to enjoy “The stench of smoke has faded, replaced with that of sweat, fear, blood. The cold and damp of the muddy ground is soaking into his breeches and chilling him to the bone” once the fighting starts…

Undeterred by my own decision, I then wrote a prologue to Tawny Sash, but dropped that too. Prologues are a bit ‘love them or hate them’. To be honest, I think their main use is at the start of murder mysteries when the prologue features the murderer or victim and the reader spends most of the book waiting for a clue to how the events of the prologue relate to the plot. But in my civil war saga? Not so far.

Let them eat cake

If Marie Antoinette had little idea, supposedly, of what her own, poorer fellow countrymen ate, the task for the historical novelist is of course harder.

So what was available in 1640s England? “Can’t they eat something but stew?” my editor complained, tired of the monotonous diet of the roving armies. They could, of course. But army rations, for the luckier soldiers whose commanders had organised food for them, were pretty unexciting – bread or biscuit, cheese, bacon, pease pudding (a kind of lentil stew) were the staples. Sometimes an army took their meat on the hoof, driving cattle and sheep along with the foot soldiers – and making for a very slow pace of march.

Vegetables were generally conspicuous by their absence. This was partly because they had a shorter life than hard cheese and salted bacon; and partly because diets, at least for those with the means, were very meat-centred. A soldier in the field, marching long distances while carrying heavy weapons and his personal possessions, needed 4000-5000 calories a day. That meant around 1lb of meat and 2lbs of bread. And beer was part of the daily ration.

Fish was a normal part of the diet of most of the population, whether it came from their nearest river or lake or from the ocean. So much so that London apprentices petitioned to be given salmon no more than 3 times a week. But during the civil war Parliament controlled the fishing ports. This led to King Charles, in his capacity as head of the Church of England, suspending the statutes prohibiting the consumption of meat during Lent for fear his soldiers, deprived of fish, the usual substitute during Lent, would be too weak to fight.

When billeted in a town or village overnight, soldiers dined on whatever their host family did. They did better if they were part of a garrison, for the inhabitants of the town and surrounding villages would be obliged to supply cattle, pigs, poultry and eggs. This might be a formal procedure in the form of demands sent to each “hundred”. Cavalry attached to a garrison spent much time on the mundane task of collecting these levies. Sometimes the garrison just raided the local market town, as did the Basing House garrison in 1644.

“Villains, papist thieves!” Men and women traders grabbed at their baskets of cheeses, herbs or ribbons. Eggs smashed as stalls overturned. Shop keepers yelled at their apprentices to get the shutters up again. Those with livestock vainly tried to herd their startled beasts from the square. Two loose bullocks added to the confusion. (The Tawny Sash)

And in our own days of obsessive hand washing, I was interested to discover that in an earlier era of “share plates” it was the height of bad manners not to wash your hands immediately before eating. Forks were a very recent invention and even the gentry ate with knife, spoon and fingers. Most soldiers (and civilians) carried their own spoon and knife around as a matter of course. More on that another day.

References: Going to the Wars by Charles Carlton and Malmesbury Garrison Accounts

Fog rising from the Loddon- a place as well as a time

“Don’t go any further.” The guide at Warwick Castle put a cautionary hand on my arm. The room at the top of the ancient gatehouse had once been the quarters of the military governor during the English Civil War – but the floorboards were rotten. I had written scenes set in the governor’s quarters for my (then half written) first book, The Welsh Linnet.

I found myself in a warm and spacious room, clearly the Governor’s living quarters.  The roof was lofty and the room well lit by large, curtained windows at either end. The stone walls were whitewashed, unadorned other than by two racks for clothing. On the one nearer the door dangled a sword in an ornate scabbard, a lobster pot helmet and buff coat hanging next to it. The further rack held a cloak or two. 

The wooden rack just inside the door was what really excited me, for I had already written:

Will shoved him aside and erupted into the room. He snatched Major Chatterton’s sword from its hook and drew it from its scabbard in one fluid motion.

Guy’s Tower, Warwick castle

Setting a series of novels in the past is all about recreating the time and the place. Writing convincingly about the place is easiest when I have visited, got the feel for it and ideally talked to someone- the owner, a guide or a “local”, who knows it well. After that, I can decide whether to present it as accurately as possible, as I did with Warwick castle, or I can play with it a little. This is generally when I have used a real place as a fictitious one. Tretower Court and castle in south Wales appears as The Allt. I have used many features of the real house but shifted it nearer to the town of Crickhowell, added a room or two and did not worry too much about the details of the local topography.

Warwick Castle was very easy – everything was there but the furniture. At the other extreme was Banbury Castle, of which not a trace exists today, having been destroyed by Parliament in 1648 for its loyalty to King Charles I. Chester Castle was nearly as bad. I walked the city walls with a knowledgeable guide, but my schedule did not allow me to go inside the surviving Agricola Tower. Rolling up my sleeves, back in Melbourne, I dug into the internet, which helpfully produced plans of the layout of the castle as it had once been.

John, Lord Byron, Field Marshal General of North Wales, … resumed his former posture, leaning on the windowsill. The spartan quarters at the top of the gatehouse, known as Agricola’s Tower, commanded an excellent view of the ancient castle’s outer and inner bailey; and Byron appeared wholly engrossed in watching the comings and goings below him.

At first, I felt aggrieved at the winners of the war who had ordered the demolition of a number of castles which had been garrisoned for the king. But in fairness the draughty and uncomfortable medieval buildings were already falling out of use. The Vaughans of Tretower had used some of the stone from their own castle when they decided it was time to build a modern gentleman’s house 200 years earlier. Much hasty patching up of such abandoned castles ensued when war came to Britain once more in 1642.

Tretower Castle

 “The old castle is the only defensible part of The Allt. I believed you were to make a few repairs. A little work will render it capable of withstanding attack. The ramparts on the house may enhance its majesty and impress visitors, but, alas, they will not withstand ordnance for a single day.” Gabriel Vaughan reproaches his father in The Tawny Sash.

Thanks to the staff of Loseley Park in Surrey, I discovered that the house, which appears as Chadshunt Hall in my novels, once had a west wing incorporating a long gallery, the coach house and a chapel.

Boconnoc House in Cornwall was a bit of a challenge. Beautifully restored in recent years, it retains few of the medieval features of the original house. The owner kindly allowed me to look around house and grounds and I bought a copy of the fine book about Boconnoc and its history. From visit and book, I discovered that the original house was an S shape, with towers and that it originally faced west.

Boconnoc House, Cornwall

The mass of the house, a tower at each end, loomed as a dark and silent presence in the night. The thick walls shut out any sound of those within, and no candles could be seen. It could have been deserted, but the family were held prisoners.

And what would a wander around Britain’s historic places be without a visit to a pub at the end? In this case it was the 16th century Globe Inn in Lostwithiel at which I stayed, gleefully inserting it into Tawny Sash. Sadly, the owner, although telling me something of its history, could not tell me what its name was in the 1640s when the roundhead army occupied the town. A dramatic moment ensued there.

Emerging from the inn was a tall officer. Walking briskly, he grabbed the drunkard by the arm and thrust him out of the way. He wore a tawny sash knotted across his shoulder which marked him as one of Essex’s officers. …

“Wait!” The anguished cry went unheard in the hubbub of the crowded street.

Globe inn, Lostwithiel

I had intended a further visit to such places in 2020, for the War without an enemy of 1640s Britain is not yet at an end. Sadly, there is another war we are all fighting in 2020 and so, for the moment, I can only visit these places through books, the miracles of technology and in my imagination.

And the fog rising from the Loddon? That must wait for a separate blog about Basing House.

The Rider of the Black Horse

I was quite content with the rider of the black horse scene until a member of my writers’ group suggested it could do with a little more tension in between the unpleasant enemy officer condemning the hero to immediate death and the timely intervention of a more principled (and historical) figure.

The scene took place near the English River Cherwell and the intervention took place beside a nearby, and imaginary, watermill. Several hours later I confessed to my husband I was having problems with the revised watermill scene. I had spent most of that time on Google, calling up photos, designs and online brochures of English watermills dating from Tudor times.

“They’re really quite simple,” he soothed. “No they’re not,” I wailed. “Where do I put the mill pond and the weir?”

“Are you writing an engineering manual or a scenic backdrop?” he asked. If he were the hero in a period drama he would have said it with a raised eyebrow, a curl of the lip or a flick of his tail coat. But this was 2020, so he grinned and went back to watching soccer on tv.

Suitably chastened, I decided the top floor of the mill could be referred to simply as “the uppermost floor” instead of spending a further half hour researching whether it was called the “bin floor” in 1644, because were they in fact using bins?Did any of this add to the tension? Probably not. And so, returning to my hero’s peril, I rewrote the scene and forgot about the weir.

Candles caused me to burn the midnight oil on other occasions (apologies). Those familiar with Jane Austen’s Emma may recall a character breathlessly extolling the virtues of a country house so luxurious that there are wax candles in the school room. Contemporary readers would have understood without explanation that inferior tallow candles were the norm for children, servants and the poorer classes.

Hours and hours of research ended with my characters trimming wicks and using snuffers and drip trays. Heady stuff! Did you know that self-trimming wicks were not invented until the 1800s? Or that “burning the candle at both ends” was literally that- setting fire to both ends of a rush light to maximise its feeble glow? My hero does this, poring over a hand drawn map of Cornwall as the roundhead cavalry make a daring midnight break for freedom.

And finally it was back to the point of that scene.

The mist clung to the fleeing horses and their riders, muffling the sounds of the 3000.

Another small victory during lock down, against the evil forces of Covid-19.

Original image by G Tozer

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