Category Archives: History

Friday Five: time-shift novels

P1030049I’ve always been fascinated by the concept of different time lines, or time that moves in different ways in different places. So it’s hardly a surprise that some of my favourite books share this subject:

The Lion, the Witch and The Wardrobe: C S Lewis

I loved this book as a kid – the adventure, the talking animals, but most of all the concept that people could grow into adults in another world, then come back home and have only aged by seconds. The later book The Magician’s Nephew examines the whole subject in more detail but this was the one I read first and it remains a favourite.

Tom’s Midnight Garden: Philippa Pearce

Another classic, this time using the device of a beautiful garden as a kind of ‘time portal’ for a young lad to go back into the grand Victorian past of the house he’s staying in. I loved it as a kid and I still love it now – the descriptions of the past are vivid and magical and the explanation comes as a complete – but satisfying – surprise.

The House on the Strand: Daphne du Maurier

Not one of du Maurier’s better known works but it should be in my opinion! This time it’s an experimental drug which appears to send the book’s narrator into the past, based around the (real) village of Tywardreath in Cornwall. The medieval landscape and characters are brought to life so strongly it’s as though we’re walking the same paths and streets as Dick. Quite possibly my favourite book of all time, with a terrific knock-out punch of a twist.

The Time Traveller’s Wife: Audrey Niffenegger

A much more recent book that plays wonderfully with the concept of time, by having it passing in different directions for two characters who meet and fall in love, at totally different stages of their lives. For me, the violent ending spoiled the poignancy of the rest of the book, but I still loved the sheer originality and the deeply unusual romance.

Roses in December: Fiona Glass

*cough* One of mine included on the list. But given how much I loved most of the above, it’s hardly surprising I’d try my hand at a similar theme myself. Like Tom’s Midnight Garden, in Roses it’s a garden which acts as a portal for characters to slip between past and present, with shocking but ultimately heart-warming results. It’s currently out of print but I’m hopeful of getting it re-published at some point.

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Most Haunted: real, fake, or somewhere in between?

Most-Haunted-Derek-Acorah-and-Yvette-Fielding-679x382I don’t know if anyone else remembers Most Haunted, the incredibly popular ghost-hunting show that was all the rage on Cable TV a few years ago? It starred (amongst others) former Blue Peter presenter Yvette Fielding and a well-known medium called Derek Acorah, and each episode visited a different haunted property or location to film the ghosts.

From that write-up you’ll guess that it provided inspiration for my own book ‘Got Ghosts?’. However, where the Got Ghosts? mob are a pretty dodgy lot, I’ve never entirely made up my mind about Most Haunted. But I do still have my doubts, and now you can read about those doubts over at The Spooky Isles magazine.

While you’re there, check out some of the other articles because they have a wide range of paranormal and supernatural stuff from Britain and Ireland: ghosts, history, TV and film reviews, folklore to name but a few.

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Historical, not hysterical!

Friend and fellow Westmorland Writer member Deborah Swift has been kind enough to run a guest (ghost?) blog post of mine on the background to Got Ghosts?

Since Deborah writes historical novels (including The Gilded Lily and Pleasing Mr Pepys), I wanted something that would be vaguely interesting to her readers, so rather than concentrating on the ghosts, I looked back over some of the historical influences on the book. These include stately homes, artworks, priest holes, and Lord Byron – but to find out more, why not head over to Deborah’s blog and check out the details? Hopefully they’re more historical than hysterical, as the title suggests.

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Mr Pepys is pleased

pepysYesterday afternoon I trotted along to Windermere library to hear a talk by local author Deborah Swift about her new book, Pleasing Mr Pepys. You may remember that I was hoping to attend the launch for this book a couple of weeks ago, only to be driven back by flash floods. This time, in spite of ex-Hurricane Ophelia bearing down on the town, I prevailed, and I’m really glad I did.

The talk was great fun. Deborah spent a good twenty minutes giving us some background on Samuel Pepys (pronounced ‘peeps’) – a seventeenth century bigwig in the English Admiralty who kept a series of diaries which are both entertaining and exceptionally useful for historical research. The diaries depict him as something of a loveable rogue but he was also a serial womaniser who seems to have chased after anything in skirts!

Three of the women in his life feature in Pleasing Mr Pepys – his French wife Elizabeth, a rather superior maid-cum-companion called Deb, and an actress who was also a spy. Deborah weaves a plot full of intrigue and excitement around these three women and Samuel himself, and cleverly, she does it within the confines of events and descriptions from his own diaries.

The book sounds like an absolute blast. Deborah read out an excerpt from the first chapter which had us all on the edge of our seats – and by way of contrast, also read a couple of brief extracts of Samuel Pepys’s own diaries to show us the language, style and sheer detail of his entries.

And on top of that, we had tea, cake and a chance for a good natter afterwards. Not bad value for the princely sum of £1!

Mr Pepys is set to appear in two follow-up volumes, including A Plague on Mr Pepys. So if 17th century intrigue and naughtiness is your thing, grab this one and make sure you look out for that, too.

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Friday Five – Windermere ‘peaks’

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I’m cheating a tiny bit with this one. There is indeed a flippantly-named “Windermere Three Peaks Challenge” which takes in three of the low hills at the back of the town (Orrest Head, School Knott and Brant Fell). However, two others are so close to the route that they might just as well be on it, so five it is.

Orrest Head

This was the very first Lakeland fell that Alfred Wainwright climbed, during a day trip to the area on the train. He was so bowled over by the view from the top that he vowed there and then to move to the Lake District and write a series of guidebooks to the fells.  The rest is history. The view is spectacular for such a low hill; it’s one of the few places you can see most of England’s longest lake from. The local council and/or charities are in the process of making the summit fully accessible – no bad thing as there’s a tricky, scrambly rock section just below the top which invariably defeats me. Although pushing a wheelchair up the steep hairpins to reach the top might be quite a feat.

School Knott

You can see the prominence of School Knott from almost everywhere in the town, poking up above the rooftops. It’s not massive at 760′ above sea level but the walk up it is surprisingly steep and goes through some varied and stunning scenery. I actually prefer the ‘back route’ via the old Droomer farm and bridleway, which takes you up to the pretty School Knott Tarn before heading up a grassy slope to the top. The view of the Lakeland Fells, and parts of Windermere lake, is lovely.

Grandsire

This oddly-named fell is separated from School Knott by the tarn, and by a horribly rickety stile which you really don’t want to tackle twice on the same walk.  It’s higher (818′) than its neighbour, and also rockier, and you get a real feeling of having ‘climbed’ something once you get to the top. The view is less of the lake and more of the eastern fells and the low undulating countryside between Windermere and Troutbeck, but no less beautiful for that.

Post Knott

A lovely Sunday afternoon stroll up the steep streets at the back of Bowness, then through woodland dotted with slate benches set into the thickness of the stone wall, takes you to the top of this locally-popular look-out point and picnic site. There’s a lovely view of the lake and the rooftops of the old bit of Bowness, lots of rabbits, and a small tarn where deer sometimes come to drink.

Brant Fell

Down a bit and then up a lot from Post Knott is the abrupt little Brant Fell, which looks almost like a tiny volcano from some directions.  It’s a steep climb and you need plenty of puff to get to the 629′ top, but again the reward is stunning views, plus some odd bits of stonework which are all that remains of an old summerhouse, destroyed by fire (according to the small print in Wainwright’s ‘The Outlying Fells of Lakeland’). Combining this with Post Knott (actually it’s quite hard not to) makes an enjoyable walk on a sunny afternoon.

Here’s a shot of the view over Windermere (town) to Windermere (lake) from School Knott.

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Two go exploring in Appleby

For a complete change on Saturday we headed to the east of Cumbria, to a small town we’d never been to before – Appleby, or Appleby-in-Westmorland to give it its full name.

Appleby lies on the River Eden not far from the Pennine heights of Cross Fell, Great Dun Fell and the like. It’s famous for a number of reasons – being the only town to retain the original county name of Westmorland in its title; holding an annual horse fair which attracts hundreds of travellers and horse traders, many in colourful traditional caravans; and flooding with monotonous regularity. It flooded during Storm Desmond, and the effects are still being felt. Indeed, there was a massive earth-mover trundling around in the river bed while we were walking around, no doubt carrying out dredging or restructuring of some sort.

Appleby is also a very ancient settlement, with a Norman church and a castle that dates back to around 1100, and many beautiful old houses surrounding the market place, the main street up the hill towards the castle, and the river crossing. It’s surprisingly small, though, with a population of only around 3,000.  We were both expecting something a little larger, with more streets, more shops, more cafes, more, well, everything really!

We had a good potter round anyway and took lots of photos. But there was a keen wind blowing off the river, the temperature was only about 11c, there’s an admission charge to go in the castle (even though it’s a hotel?!), and we sort of ran out of things to do. I was particularly annoyed about the castle, as it’s reputed to be haunted and holds regular paranormal tours and events, but the main bit was closed on Saturday anyway. So we hopped in the car and headed back to the pretty village of Orton, in the moors a few miles to the south, where we had an excellent home-made lunch at the Orton Scar café and came away with a neat little wooden cabinet for the kitchen wall.

It was lovely to see Appleby; it’s old and full of character and interesting nooks and crannies, and on a warmer day we’d have been tempted to do a long walk along the banks of the river. As it is, we’ll almost certainly go back some day for another look. As long as it isn’t under water!

Here’s a handful of photos of the church, the castle and the main street.  Oh, and that digger in the river, which suddenly decided to drive straight at me while I was taking the photo!

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Friday Five – unusual historicals

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There’s a tendency sometimes for historical novels to be set in very similar time periods – Henry VIII, the English Civil War, Victorian Britain.  So it’s a breath of fresh air to discover books set in some much more unusual times and places that you might not otherwise have come across.  Here’s a handful I’ve read over the years.

Across the Nightingale Floor by Lian Hearn

Beautiful, lyrical and incredibly authentic story set in medieval Japan, with all the elements of Japanese literature including romance, destruction and tragedy. I believe it’s actually a YA title, but really doesn’t read like it and tackles some amazingly adult themes.

As Meat Loves Salt by Maria McCann

This is actually set against the backdrop of the English Civil War, but stands out for two reasons.  One is the sheer sensory overload of sights, smells and sounds of the time, which gives it a strong sense of authenticity. The other is that the main character is a gay man.  The romance is affecting, the characters strongly drawn, and I found it hard to put down.

Death of a Monk by Alon Hilu

A simply extraordinary book written by an Israeli author and translated into English in a volume I found in a second hand book store in London. The story involves another gay man struggling to cope with marriage, relationships and life in 1840s Damascus, when the city was subdivided into a number of racially divided but surprisingly well integrated quarters. A unique and mesmerising book.

People’s Act of Love by James Meek

A searing romance-cum-historical-cum mystery set against the wilderness backdrop of early twentieth century Siberia during the early years of the Revolution. At times brutal, but also imbued with a mischievous sense of humour – and the final revelation is almost literally to die for!

The Sleeper in the Sands by Tom Holland

A sort of ‘thousand and one nights’ for ancient Egypt, with a storyline that moves from Howard Carter’s discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb to a series of ancient myths and legends that form a story within a story within a story. Slightly confusing at times and I’d have like more about Carter, but it was gripping and unusual.

 

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