Jedburgh abbey

Borders country – inspiration for writers (and terrific places to visit)

Do you ever visit places because you’ve read about them in fiction? Writing can do that—conjure up places, educate you and inspire curiosity.. Years ago, I visited Rosslyn Chapel thanks to Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, and this year’s spring break featured a trip to Vindolanda.

Vindolanda, in case you haven’t heard of it, is the remains of a Roman army camp in Northumbria, what was the edge of the empire for centuries. I’d read a couple of historical fiction books by Adiran Goldsworthy that featured Vindolanda, and as I find the Romans fascinating I was desperate to visit.

VindolandaWhat a place… Northumbria is wild and rugged in places so picturing a Roman army in situ and their guarding of the fort and the nearby Hadrian’s Wall is easy to imagine. The remains of the fort and the surrounding villages are complemented by a museum, every artefact in there excavated from Vindolanda.

Preserved shoes

A remarkable set of conditions resulted in the find of the largest number of Roman empire leather goods in the world. (I know; in cold, damp England of all places.)

And Vindolanda is also famous for its collection of wax tablets—basically, cards people wrote on, from an invite to a child’s birthday party, to a letter to the commander from a soldier protesting at the injustice of a severe beating.

How does the past come alive? When people in those times write about their ordinary lives, and the curators of Vindolanda view the tablets as their most precious find. Rightly so.

Sir Walter Scott

Still on the writer theme, we visited Smailholm Tower, made famous by Sir Walter Scott. The famous Scots writer stayed at the nearby Sandyknowe farm when he was a child to recover from illness.

There, his aunt Jenny taught him how to read and the tower, by then unoccupied and derelict, stirred in him a lie-long passion for the history and ballads of the Scottish borders, from fairy tales to the legends of the Reivers. His second publication, The Minstrelsy of the Scottish Borders, tells many of those tales.

Tamlane figurine displayThe tower has lots of little models that enact some of those ballads and fairy tales, created by a local artist. (I wish I’d taken note of her name because I can’t find mention of her anywhere.)

I loved them, and my picture here doesn’t do The Young Tamlane justice. The ghost horses, the woman who sits on his cloak to save him from the fairy queen… again, powerful imagery.

Abbeys

The Scottish Borders are studded with the remains of abbeys, and we visited three of them.

In the 12th century, King David I thought their construction would impress and awe his English neighbours—look how wealthy and sophisticated we Scots are, kind of thing.

Mel;rose abbeyUnfortunately for the abbeys of the Borders, their proximity to the English made them easy targets in times of war. Of the three we went to, Jedburgh (featured image), Kelso and Melrose (left), the most intact one is the Cistercian abbey at Melrose and it’s awe-inspiring.

 

Old churches and abbeys fascinate me, especially when you consider the work that went into building them. And given what happened to Notre Dame this week, the abbey visits felt particularly fitting.

Food, glorious food

picture of woman with a glass of wine sitting in front of a ruined abbeyIf greed is your motto, Northumbria and the Borders offer plenty of choice when it comes to food and drink. We stopped off at a quirky place near Hadrian’s Wall for lunch one day, its walls festooned with beagle pictures and horse brasses. The Belter’s Bar in Jedbugh specialises in home-made beefburgers and the choice of toppings huge so we ate there twice.

And finally, the weather in Scotland hasn’t been great so far this year but on the final night of our holiday, it was warm enough to have that first drink outside. As you can seen from the background, drinking in the shadow of historical monuments adds gravitas to the occasion…

Harrogate, Literary Tours and Good Grub

This week, I…

Visited Harrogate! As any hardy British holiday-maker knows, sunny weather is never guaranteed but the gods of fortune smiled on us. The sun shone brightly. No jackets required. We did our fair bit of sitting out in beer gardens to support the local economy. I know. Aren’t we good ‘uns?!

Harry’s Free Walking Tours offers you a guided walk around the main attractions and explains the town’s history from Roman times to its best-known period, the late Georgian and Victorian era when it was THE choice for the hoi-polloi wanting to take the waters.

The Royal Pump museum details what a typical spa day might involve. No surprise to see that drinking lots of water and taking gentle strolls is the main point. For some patients, the advice stresses, massage might be better than exercise… Heavens, wouldn’t want the rich and far too privileged to over-exert themselves, would we?!

Haworth Museum

Yorkshire has plenty of literary connections; the best known being the Brontë sisters. The museum in Haworth feels perfectly preserved in its 19th Century past. This year is the bicentennial of Emily Brontë’s birth, and the original of Branwell’s famous painting (below) is on display.

Various theories abound about why Branwell painted himself out. The first is that he didn’t—his oldest sister ordered it years later because of his subsequent alcoholism and drug abuse, and the effect it had on the family. Experts at the National Gallery, however, have studied the painting and their view is that he painted himself out at the time.

So, perhaps he was too critical of his self-portrait. Or the composition didn’t work. If you step back from the painting, it’s easy to see that four people would make it crowded.

A Typical Teenager?

My husband’s theory is that having three teenage sisters pissed seventeen-year-old Branwell off sometimes. He painted himself with them, took a hissy fit one day and thought, “Sod it, I’m not immortalising myself with those b****es.”

Works for me…

Harrogate’s literary connections involve Agatha Christie, who turned up there in 1926 at the Old Swan Hotel following a brief disappearance and country-wide manhunt. She claimed amnesia. Most theories for the disappearance relate to her husband, whom she divorced two years later.

In 2006, biographer Andrew Norman said he thought her disappearance related to ‘fugue state’, a rare, deluded condition brought on by stress or depression.

Writing Festival

The Old Swan Hotel is still there, and in July writers will gather there for the annual Theakston’s Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival. I’m willing to bet the room Agatha spent her week there in 1926 is booked months in advance, if progress didn’t demolish it.

In another (sort of) literary connection to my holiday, I met up with an online chum. Caron Allan edited my book, The Girl Who Swapped, last year, and we struck up an online friendship. As a writer you spend a lot of time in your own head, battling voices that tell you, why oh why oh why do you think you can do this? Fool! Email exchanges with someone who shares your plight are invaluable.

Caron has also been very successful this year, and her story is hugely inspirational. She’s done all the right things—she has a website, she’s writing a popular genre (crime) and a series, and she’s figured out what works on Amazon advertising. We met at the National Rail Museum café and the three hours flew past in no time.

Gorgeous Grub

Finally, Sandy and I are greedy guts one and two. And by ‘eck (to use a local expression) did Yorkshire serve our unregulated appetites well. Thanks to its spa past, beautiful location and many conferences and festivals, the town’s well-served for restaurants, cafes and pubs. If there was a doozy, we never saw it.

The most famous of Harrogate’s five-star places is Betty’s Tea Rooms, a fairy-tale looking place from the outside, its windows displaying rainbow-coloured piles of macaroons. We, er, didn’t go. However, my standout meal was from the Blues Bar on Montpelier Parade. Yorkshire tapas are new on me, but blimey it makes sense to offer folks a small sample of imaginative interpretations of local dishes, doesn’t it? If they over-order as a consequence, on their heads be it.

My favourite was their Yorkshire rarebit mac and cheese, carb heaven for someone who avoids them in daily life. The resultant high blood sugars were well worth it.

 

 

 

Friday Flash Fiction – It’s A Holiday Theme

Ay yes, Cava was consumed. It helps with creativity, scientists have proven.

Ay yes, Cava was consumed. It helps with creativity, scientists have proven.

Dear reader, Friday 1 November finds me back staring out of windows as the rain lashes down. Autumn is here and it’s being shoved heavily from behind by winter, desperate to join the party too. How is 1 November with you?

It’s a far cry from my activities of last week which included spending the bulk of my time outdoors dressed in shorts and t’shirts. Did I fulfil my mission, did the lap top I took with me make an appearance out of the rucksack? Was it fired up? Were writing duties undertaken, despite the siren call of Cava, sunshine and walks on the beach?

Well reader dear, ahem – WRITING WAS UNDERTAKEN. Sorry for shouting, but it’s just that I did rather surprise myself. There is a lot to be said about sitting on a balcony to write. Since returning home, I’ve been Googling ‘living abroad’ and indulging in fantasies which involve six months of the year spent in sunnier climes and a little apartment, complete with bijou balcony, where I perch myself every day and tip-tap-type out words of wisdom. Or words that get me paid at least.

Anyway, back to the Friday flash fiction challenge! I’ve taken on a holiday theme for this one. Of course, it does not reflect anything that may or may not have happened last week…

Manners Maketh The Man

Penny bristled to herself – was it really that hard for holiday-makers to learn the words ‘por favor’ or ‘gracias’?

The group had been getting on her nerves all week. The loud singing, the crass remarks and the lack of manners particularly piqued Penny.

Tony, the biggest and loudest of them, was now at the bar. “Oi Manuel,” he snapped his fingers. “Six vodkas and cokes.”

As he passed Penny’s lounger, she stuck out a foot. Tony and his tray went flying. A nasty accident, but not one which could be blamed on the hotel. The waiter and Penny gave each other the ghost of a wink.

Words, Words and Superfluous U’s

Greetings friends. I wish you Friday felicitations from afar this week. As you read this, I am sunning myself and sipping on a Cava or two in Costa Teguisa, Lanzarote.

I have, as you may have guessed, scheduled this post well in advance. How organised of moi! As I write this, my intent is to take Katie and the Deelans (working title) with me and proof-read it, edit it and re-write the ending as per a friend’s excellent suggestions. Have lap top, will travel and will WRITE.

You are allowed, mes amis, to have a little bet to yourself. “Friend,” you may well be thinking, “you do kid yourself if you think an iota of work will be done when there is sunshine abounding and drinks a-pouring. C’mon, know yourself dear girl and know that little if anything will be done to that book.”

10 to one I do anything? Or would 100 to one be more accurate?

Anyway, in the mean time here is a teeny piece of fiction for you to enjoy…

Words, Words, Words

  • What’s with the z’s instead of s’s friend? I’m not a fan.
  • Hey, it makes sense. When you hear the word, the sound is closer to an ‘ess’ or a zed. Say it out loud for yourself.
  • I maintain the s’s rock. I’m not keen on all your missing u’s either. Neighbor, flavor etc. Urgh. And as for your missing o’s. Really, estrogen and celiac are vulgar.
  • Haven’t you heard about the world’s letter shortage? Our economic policies re letters will ensure that words never run out. Did you hear me? You’ve gone awfully quiet.