Category Archives: England

West Wycombe Park – Sense and Sensibility (1811)

I’m off to visit West Wycombe Park in Buckinghamshire – stately home of the Dashwood family.

Why West Wycombe Park? Because it’s where they filmed the opening sequence of the classic 1986 fantasy movie Labyrinth. Fellow Labyrinth fans will know that’s the scene where Sarah (Jennifer Connelly) runs across a little flint bridge beside a lake, and starts reading lines from her book, The Labyrinth – watched by an owl/Goblin King (David Bowie).

I first spotted the lake in the background of a scene in another movie (The Importance of Being Earnest) which had the location listed in the end credits. The house appears in a lot of period drama, from Downton Abbey to Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. I’ve been meaning to visit for ages, but the house is only open June to August – and then only Thursday to Sunday – but only between 2 – 6 in the afternoon.

And as I rely on public transport – let’s see, bus-train-tube-tube-tube-train-bus-bus – it’s going to take a few hours. It’s not quite “Through dangers untold, and hardships unnumbered” – but it’s worth bringing a book, I think.

The surname Dashwood rings a bell – of course, the Dashwood sisters in Sense and Sensibility! Jane Austen accompanies me to the station.

Sense and Sensibility was her first published book. Like Pride and Prejudice, it starts with worries about what will happen when an estate is entailed away. As observation, it’s fun – I love the bit at the beginning where Mr Dashwood lets his wife Fanny persuade him to reduce his generosity to his stepmother – from three thousand pounds, to helping her move out. The widowed Mrs Dashwood and her three daughters – Elinor (the one with the sense), Marianne (the one with overly emotional sensibility) and Margaret (the one who is too young to get a suitor – or even much dialogue of her own!) – move into a cottage near a distant relative, where various romantic threads begin tangling.

Elinor has a thing for Fanny’s brother Edward – but he’s already engaged to Lucy. Marianne falls for the artistic and obviously dodgy Willoughby – because the laws of romantic novels state that you have to fall for anyone who helps you when you sprain your ankle – ignoring her devoted admirer Colonel Brandon because she thinks that at 35 he’s far too old for love. Personally I’d be more concerned by the fact that he falls in love virtually as soon as he sees her, because she reminds him of someone else – his first love (a fallen woman) – would you want to be loved like that?

The time flies by. For once I make all my connections, and arrive at the park before the gates are even open. I ask the National Trust lady at the entrance if she knows where the little flint bridge is. She doesn’t even know that Labyrinth was filmed here – and there’s a lot of park to search. The house is set in 42 acres of grounds, with several bridges, and lots of ornamental temples (installed by the second Baronet after a grand tour of Europe). Luckily it’s perfect weather for wandering.

I turn left down Broad Walk, past Britannia Pillar, then turn right when I reach the lake and carry on until I come to a stream. I see an owl’s feather on the grass – a sign I’m heading the right way?

There it is!


Thirty years later, some things have changed. Ivy and bindweed are taking over one end of the bridge, and as it’s high summer there’s a lot of pondweed growing in the stream – but it’s unmistakably the same place. I resist the urge to run across it, spouting lines from the film – but I do take a lot of photos.

There’s no obelisk for an owl to perch on, no bench for Sarah’s dog (they were just set dressing). The clock tower isn’t there either – that must have been shot in America, as was the sequence immediately after the scene by the bridge. But there is a family of swans on the lake. I wonder if they’re descendants of the swans you can spot in Labyrinth, and I start to imagine an elderly swan grandfather boasting to bored baby cygnets about the time he once starred in a film with Jennifer Connelly.

The lake itself is said by some to have been designed like a swan – lake as body, river as neck, two streams for legs. Was it deliberately included in the film as a reference to the ballet Swan Lake, which also features a villain (Rothbart) who’s an owl – with ballet dancer’s tights? Probably just coincidence. When you’ve watched a film as often as I’ve watched Labyrinth, it does get inside your head.

And that’s why I’m here. To mark the film’s thirtieth anniversary, I’ve written a sequence of poems telling the story of Labyrinth in fifty-five sonnets. I sit down on the grass under a tree and, like Sarah, begin to read aloud from my little leather book…

It takes me an hour. This has been a poignant year for Labyrinth fans, but reading these poems, in this location – I feel quite ridiculously happy.

By now the park is starting to get busy. I start up the grass slope toward the ochre north front of the house. Built in the early 18th century, it’s about a hundred years older than Sense and Sensibility.

The impoverished Dashwood sisters would have been envious of a house like this (although, their home described in the book as ‘But a cottage’ has two sitting rooms, four bedrooms, two attic rooms, offices, and a garden – I think I’m envious of them).

Although the property is now owned by the National Trust, the real Dashwood family still lives here. It’s quite odd to visit a stately home where the portraits are recent, and there are family photos. The ground floor is open to the public, so I take the tour.

The hallway is unusual, in that it’s painted to look like a Roman villa – painted ceiling and  walls that look like marble, with frescoes up the staircase, and statues of Roman emperors.

Around the house we go – big tapestries, painted ceilings, lots of marble paintings, elaborate chimney pieces, silk-lined walls. But it’s the antique chairs that stick in my memory – to stop people sitting on them, each seat has a spiky dried teasel – with a piece of ribbon tied around it to make it look more like a decorative feature, and less like a threat.

After looking at the house, I go back to the bridge. One of the swans is standing on the grass, gleaming in the sunlight. Swans look so beautiful when they’re out on the water, but a lot more imposing close up. More people are there now, and another girl is posing for a photo on the bridge. I’m glad I arrived early enough to read my poems aloud without a baffled audience.

If I miss the bus there won’t be another one for two hours, and although West Wycombe village is pretty, I don’t want to be stuck there on a Sunday afternoon – between the pubs and the traditional sweet shop, I would eat far too much (I recommend the crème brûlée fudge). But I don’t want to leave…

And then a bird swoops across the lake. It’s not an owl (that would be too perfect) but a red kite – one of Britain’s most beautiful birds of prey. It makes a couple of lazy turns over the lake, then soars off over the trees.

Today’s not going to get any better than this. Time to head home.

On the way out the National Trust lady asks me if I found the bridge. She said two other  people today asked her about it as well – probably the girl I saw posing on the bridge – and definitely the guy who was taking pictures of his special edition Labyrinth DVD!

Back I go – bus-bus-train-tube-tube-tube-train-bus. And back into the book.

Marianne is brutally dumped by Willoughby, and becomes physically ill. Brandon reveals that Willoughby had also seduced his ward (possibly he should have mentioned that sooner). But Willoughby, concerned for Marianne, visits Elinor and tells her that although he has had to marry for money, he did really love Marianne.

Marianne gradually recovers, and starts to appreciate the devoted Colonel Brandon, eventually marrying him.
Edward’s mother finds out about Lucy, and demands that he break up with her. He refuses, so she disinherits him in favour of his brother Robert. Lucy then shamelessly marries Robert instead – leaving Edward free to marry Elinor.

It’s not Pride and Prejudice. It’s well observed, and funny in places, but it’s not really romantic (although, Jane Austen’s books are not as romantic as the films which are made of them). Jane Austen had clearly improved as a writer by her next book – just look at how well the characters of the five Bennet sisters are developed, compared to Margaret Dashwood, who might as well not be in this book.

I kept thinking Elinor was going to end up with Colonel Brandon, as they seem to spend more time talking to each other than anyone else. Marianne eventually wants to be more like Elinor, but Elinor seems too good to be true – making up excuses for Edward, putting up with Lucy – wanting to forgive Willoughby?!

And Marianne just seems to settle for Colonel Brandon at the end. I think that the way their relationship develops – stated in text, rather than revealed through dialogue – means it loses something. I kept mentally contrasting it with how well the way Charlotte’s marriage of convenience with Mr Collins is drawn in just a few sentences in Pride and Prejudice

On the way over here, I thought Marianne was a bit of an idiot, but you know what? Spending six hours travelling to recite commemorative poetry in the setting for a work of fiction – Marianne would totally get that.

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Posted by on September 30, 2016 in Books, England, United Kingdom & Ireland


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Cullercoats – Limerick Nation: The UK in Verse

One of my poems has been included in an anthology by Iron Press. I’m quite chuffed by this, as their Haiku Hundred was the very first book of haiku I bought. I’ve been asked to read at the book launch at the Eclectic Iron Festival, which is in Cullercoats, Northumberland – basically, head north until you reach Newcastle-upon-Tyne, then head east until you reach the North Sea. It’s quite a distance, so instead of going for the day, I decide to go by coach, stay in Newcastle and have a weekend of it – slower than the train, but cheaper and less hassle. Well, that’s the plan…

My lift to the coach station falls through at the last minute, so I have to race out for a bus at 8am. Foolishly, I skip coffee…

My first coach is late. However the driver seems confident we’ll make up the time, and catch the connecting coach in London. But there are roadworks. Lots and lots of roadworks. Despite having an hour in hand, we miss the coach by ten minutes. At Victoria, I join a long queue of cranky people who’ve also missed connections due to roadworks, and get booked onto the next coach to Newcastle – which isn’t for another three hours. I consider having a coffee, but it’s the hottest day of the year so far, and it’s absolutely sweltering in the coach station. I ring the hotel to confirm my reservation (as now I should be arriving at 11pm). The place is too packed with people for me to sit and read comfortably, but somehow I find myself working on a poem, and three hours pass surprisingly quickly.

The second coach also struggles with roadworks. I’m struggling too – with caffeine withdrawal – but we’re running so late that by the time we stop for a break, the coffee shop at the station has closed. I get out to stretch my legs, and find myself swaying slightly, trying to adjust from the motion of the coach.

By the time we reach Newcastle-upon-Tyne, it’s after midnight. The taxi rank by the coach station is deserted, except for a large rat. It looks at me dismissively before scampering off behind a nightclub. But this sort of thing happens to me a lot, so when I rang the hotel earlier I asked for the number of a cab company. Soon, I’m on my way to the hotel.

Unfortunately when I try to check in it turns out there’s been a glitch with the hotel booking system, and it’s completely full – of hen nights, if the drunk lady in the bar clutching a giant inflatable penis is anything to go by…

The receptionist is clearly having a chaotic evening, but asks me to take a seat in the bar while they arrange something with a nearby hotel for me and the other people who are also room-less. When I’m offered a drink, even I’m surprised how quickly I say “Coffee! Sweet, sweet caffeine!”

By the time a taxi drops me off at hotel number 2, I’m really tired – I’ve been travelling for 17 hours, and I’m still in the same country! I black out as soon as my head hits the pillow.

Next morning I have a swift breakfast in hotel number 2 (nice hotel, incredibly bitter coffee), then go back to hotel number 1 to see what’s happening with my room. They tell me check-in is at 2pm. I point out that I really need a room, as I’m supposed to be at Cullercoats for 3pm, and it’s going to take me at least half an hour to get there – plus, I’d really like to get changed first. They agree to let me have the first room that becomes available.

So – back to hotel number 2! Check out, lug my stuff to hotel number 1, and wait in the bar, again. I’m not expecting there to be a lot of early risers, but it’s 11:30 before I can finally check in.

I change quickly, then head back down to the lobby, and ask where the nearest Metro station is. “Well, first you have to get to the city centre…” I am, of course, in Newcastle Gateshead – the wrong side of the river Tyne. Never trust Expedia SuperSaver’s definition of city centre…

I ask them to call me a cab, and I go back to wait in the bar – for what seems like quite a while. I go back to reception to check, and they say that the cab came, but someone else took it, so they’ve called another. Back to the bar I go. By now, the hen night crowd is leaving – to be replaced by an incoming crowd wearing stag night T-shirts! Are there a lot of weddings in Newcastle this weekend? Does this hotel offer some kind of special rate if you book an entire floor? Am I still asleep on the coach, dreaming the whole thing?

I check again on the status of my cab, to be told the second one was also poached by someone else, so they’ve ordered a third. By now I’ve had enough of the bar so I go outside, determined to grab the next vehicle that arrives. It turns out to be a 12-seater booked for a hen night – luckily I don’t have to hijack it, as my cab is immediately behind it.

Into the cab – and into more roadworks. Apparently there are five major projects taking place in Newcastle at the moment – great news for the infrastructure long-term, a pain in the derriere right now. After crawling for a while, the driver asks where I need to go to, then offers to drive me all the way to Cullercoats. It’ll be quicker than driving into the city centre, then getting the Metro out again. I agree, and we head off, leaving the city and its roadworks behind.

Finally – Cullercoats! It’s a fishing village, with picturesque ruins, sandy beach and rocky shore, cottages with old rowing boats filled with flowers in their gardens.
In Victorian times it became very popular with day-trippers and artists, including American artist Winslow Homer.

It’s a sunny day, but it’s breezy walking along the sea front above the beach. I usually wear something long and flowing for readings, and my skirt has decided it’s time for a Marilyn Monroe impression (I apologise to any Cullercoats residents who got an inadvertent eyeful!)

I make my way to the venue for the book launch – a  fisherman’s mission, easily the prettiest place I’ve ever read in. I’m surprised how many people there have a ukulele with them, but it turns out there’ll be a band playing before and after the readings.

The book, Limerick Nation, contains limericks from all around the country, and one of the rules was that the last word of the first line had to be a part of your postal address – so no cheating! Readers have been organised geographically, so it’s interesting hearing how accents change as we read from north to south and back up again. It’s fun – the venue is full and we get a lot of laughs from the audience.

Afterwards I go to the book fair – a community centre that’s been taken over for the day by independent publishers. I’ve never seen so many lovely little poetry books in one place before, and I want to take all of them home with me, but I restrain myself and just buy what I can fit in my handbag. Luckily, books of haiku tend to be tiny.

Elsewhere, live bands are playing in the garden of a house on the sea front. Cyclists are trying to compose haiku about a bike ride. A writer is sitting out on the rocks trying to compose a poem before the tide comes in. This festival even has its own specially brewed pale ale – but I manage to catch the last train back into Newcastle.

I’m back again the next day – this time wearing more practical shoes and jeans, so I can walk on the sand,  gathering sea glass, watching swallows. I attend another launch, for two poetry books – this time in a lifeboat station, again with musical accompaniment (guitar). I particularly like the readings from The She Chronicles (poems about women from history).

On the sea front, there’s an ice-cream parlour selling some unusual flavours, like Horlicks with Maltesers, and Turkish Delight. I can’t choose, so have both –  both delicious, but eating them together does taste a little peculiar.

In the evening there’s a talk by Ann Cleeves – author of the series of novels televised as ‘Shetland’ and ‘Vera’ – a very interesting lady. Someone else beats me to it asking her what she thought of the casting of Douglas Henshall (good, but blond) as Jimmy Perez (dark, and of Spanish descent). She said there are going to be eight Shetland books in total, so that’s a few more to look forward to. This time the accompaniment is a traditional Shetland fiddler, with a beautiful instrument.

Easily the best literary festival I’ve been to – I wish I’d seen more of it, including the play about fracking – but next time I’ll go by train, not coach! As I leave Newcastle, I catch sight of that massive sculpture, the Angel of the North. I hope it will watch over my journey home…


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Exeter – Raw Spirit (2004)

I’m travelling to Exeter, in Devon – by coach, which means that first I have to get in to London. Traffic is barely crawling, which I later find out is due to a traffic light failure. I’m worried I’ll arrive too late to make my connection at Victoria coach station – but the connecting coach has been delayed by this as well, so instead of missing it I end up standing for over an hour at the station. Many others are in the same position, and eventually the place becomes too crowded to move.

Luckily, I have a book to read – Raw Spirit, by the late Iain Banks. I’m actually reading it for a friend, who’d tried to read his Use of Weapons, but was struggling with it. Having read Use of Weapons, I can understand – it all makes perfect sense once you get to the end, but if you gave up after three chapters, you’d never know that. But Iain Banks (or Iain M Banks, if he was writing science fiction) wrote some great stuff, so I’m trying to find something my friend might find more enjoyable.

Raw Spirit – In search of the perfect dram is an account of his travels around Scotland in search of the perfect whisky. (Friend is into home brewing, so is likely to appreciate such a quest.) But although that’s what it’s about, and there’s plenty of information about how whisky is made, descriptions of whisky, trips around distilleries – it’s so much more than that. It’s got Scottish travel, childhood memories, social commentary and even science-fiction conventions. It’s a lot of fun, I’m sure my friend will enjoy it – and it’s a very welcome distraction for me.

The coach finally arrives and we board – only to find out there’s been a road traffic accident outside the coach station. By the time the traffic clears, ninety coaches are trying to get out of the station all at once. We’re an hour and half late getting to our first stop – I had originally been scheduled to arrive at 10, but that’s not going to happen. I don’t know if the hotel will still be open, and my phone has decided to stop working.

Then there’s a message from the coach driver – he’s almost over the legal limit of hours he’s allowed to drive. So we have to stop at a service station and wait for a new driver to come and replace him. Finally, we reach Exeter – which is when I discover that although the coach station is near the train station, and my hotel is near the train station – Exeter has more than one train station. It’s not far, but I don’t want to go stumbling around in the dark, so I get a cab. It’s 1am when I reach the hotel. I walk into my room – and straight into a shelf for a DVD player. I’m shattered, so for once I go straight to sleep.

Of course, I oversleep – there’s no clock or phone in my room, and my phone’s still not working. I walk smack into the DVD shelf again on the way to the bathroom – I have to turn sideways to get between it and the end of the bed. I dress hastily as, I need to catch a bus to Totnes, but there’s only one every two hours and, as I found out last night, I’m in the wrong part of town. I’m running late, so I catch another cab. The driver asks me where I’m heading, so I tell him Totnes. “Ah” says he. “Full of hippies.”

I get to the station just in time to see my bus pulling away. Another woman turns up seconds later – she wanted that bus as well, so we find a cafe and commiserate over scones. She asks where I’m going and, when I tell her Totnes, says “Ah – full of hippies”. Hmm…

Scones make two hours fly by. We head back to the station early, to make sure that we don’t miss the bus again. It’s a pretty drive out to Totnes. Is it full of hippies? Well – let’s just say if you want to hear a busker play Hotel California on a mandolin, you’ve come to the right place.

I had meant to have more of a wander around Totnes, but once I step inside the Devon Harp Centre, that’s it. I spend hours sitting on the floor, talking to the owner, trying out musical instruments. An adorable Wee Bonnie harp, like something a fairy would play. A Smartwood harp – assembled from a flat pack, but with a surprisingly bright tone. A mahogany Reverie harp which I would happily hold and strum forever…

I catch the last bus back to Exeter, and start getting ready to go out – which is when I realise just how incredibly annoying this hotel room really is.

I’m staying at the Abode, Exeter – originally called The Royal Clarence Hotel, it was built in 1769, and claims to be the first hotel in England. Normally I prefer to stay in old hotels – they have character, and for that I’m prepared to put up with things like uneven floors and temperamental antique lifts – but this one! I have stayed in worse hotels, and in smaller rooms – but that was reflected in the price. This place is claiming to be a four star hotel, but this is one of the pokiest rooms I’ve ever seen – basically, a single room, but with a double bed crammed into it. It’s a good thing I’m here on my own, as there’s no way two people could share this room for any length of time without wanting to kill each other.

First, and most irritating – why have a DVD player on a shelf that juts out from the wall, too close to the end of the bed – why not get a combined TV/DVD that can be wall mounted? I’d rather have no DVD player at all than keep bruising myself on it.

The sink in the bathroom is tiny – really tiny – about the size of a sheet of A4 paper. The glasses in the room are much bigger than a usual bathroom tumbler, and barely fit under the faucet. Taps?! Awkward to operate, to say the least. I can barely get my fingers between the tap and the wall to turn it – in fact, the easiest way to use it seems to be whilst sitting on the toilet. Of course, sitting on the toilet means banging your elbows on the sink and the shower…

The shelf above the sink is too small to hold much more than a toothbrush, but still manages to stick out far enough over the tiny sink to make cleaning your teeth difficult – if I lean over to spit into the tiny sink, I bang my head on the damn shelf!

Towels and facecloths – not soft. My towels at home are better, and I never thought I’d be able to say that about hotel towels. The hand towels, strangely, aren’t with the other towels on the rail behind the door, but on a rail tucked tightly underneath the sink, which leads to scraped knuckles – and stops me getting at the bin.

The light above the sink is alarmingly hot and casts huge dark shadows over my face, so I have to use the mirror in the bedroom – inconveniently located half over the desk. I try to stand in front of it, but the chair is in the way. I can’t slide the chair across (it’s too close to the bed in one direction, and the DVD shelf in the other) so I have to physically manoeuvre it up and over the desk to get it out of the way. Don’t even get me started on trying to use the ironing board…

And the bed! The mattress is too soft and saggy, and whenever I try to sit on the edge (because I can’t use the chair), I keep sliding off. Their website raves about the beds – presumably whoever writes it has never tried to sleep here. What sadist designs a hotel room with glass bedside shelves at knee height? Judging by the mended crack in the headboard, I’m not the first to catch myself on the damn things (more bruises). Surely they must realise that people in a hotel room may be moving around in a strange environment, in the dark?

That night I get no sleep whatsoever – and I’d already finished reading my book on the journey down here. I had been planning to get some work done, but cannot get onto the hotel wi-fi, despite repeated attempts. In the morning, I give up and go to find somewhere that can make my phone work again. That’s the one thing the hotel does have going for it – location. It’s directly opposite the cathedral – shame my room has a view of a back alley, covered in pigeon netting.

With my phone restored to working order, I start to explore. On the high street, there’s someone pretending to be a gargoyle (like those people who impersonate statues) but this one has a sign saying it’s coin-operated, so people pay to see it move, in a slow and creepy fashion – most ingenious.

I have a quick look around the cathedral, but cut it short to join a tour group, following what’s left of the old city walls. A lot of Exeter has been redeveloped (some sensitively, like the area down by the river Exe – other areas are less fortunate) but there are still plenty of interesting buildings dating back to medieval times – including The House That Moved, a Tudor building which was moved back in the Sixties to make way for a new road to be built. We also go through a park which has a plaque commemorating Mary, a racing pigeon who received the Animal VC for gallantry during World War Two!

Surprisingly, the tour group isn’t all tourists – some are local ladies, who’ve done the walk before, and afterwards invite me for more scones. When I tell them I’m staying at the Abode Exeter, they think this is hilarious, and suggest that if I want to stay in a good hotel I’d be better off staying at the Magdalen Chapter next time I come.

Some last minute souvenir shopping next, and I settle on a local speciality, saffron buns – like fruit buns but with a yellow tint, and that delicate saffron flavour.

I also buy a book to read on the coach. I can’t find a classic that I fancy, so I treat myself to White Corridor, by Christopher Fowler (an old favourite). In this adventure, detectives Bryant and May of the Peculiar Crimes Unit stumble across a murder while they’re trapped on a motorway by a blizzard. I just hope my trip home is nothing like that…

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Posted by on November 30, 2014 in England


Hampshire – My Dear Cassandra (Jane Austen’s letters)

I’m heading down to Winchester for a couple of days for a poetry festival. I was going to bring something by Jane Austen (she died in Winchester, and was buried in Winchester Cathedral) but then I came across a second-hand copy of My Dear Cassandra – a selection of extracts from Jane Austen’s letters, that’s slim enough to slip into my handbag.

I do like Winchester. A historic city, with a beautiful cathedral, lots of lovely old buildings. Some of the shops on the high street still have old metal signs hanging outside – a big boot for a shoe shop, parchment and quill for a stationers. Then there’s the statue of Alfred the Great, a medieval version of the Round Table, a butter cross – and Montezuma’s, a shop that sells delicious chocolate.

There are lots of poetical events going on this weekend – including a lady cycling around the town, stopping to recite poetry at slightly bewildered shoppers. I go to a very interesting workshop on self-publishing, and an evening event with poet Christopher Reid. Given that he’s probably best known for A Scattering, (a book of poems about his wife’s death), it’s a lot more light-hearted than I was expecting, He’s discussing things which inspire him, and he’s brought along a beautiful quilt which his wife made for him from second-hand silk ties. He also shows a classic Goon Show sketch – What time is it, Eccles?

There’s also a guided tour of Winchester, discussing its literary links – but that’s fully booked. Apart from the Austen connection, Watership Down was set nearby, and Keats composed his ode To Autumn (“Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness”) while walking here. Next day I get a leaflet with details of the route – but it runs beside a river, and the weather is not looking promising, so maybe not this time. Instead, my sister and I head off to nearby Alton, and Chawton Cottage, where Jane Austen spent the most creative years of her life.

It’s the right choice – by the time we reach Alton, it’s pouring down. Luckily, just across the road from Chawton is a little coffee shop, appropriately named Cassandra’s Cup. We head inside for coffee and cake, and chat until the weather clears. I’m also tempted by some raspberry and lavender jam.

Lavender seems to be a recurring theme today. Once we get inside Jane Austen’s house there are little bunches of it on the furniture, and you can make your own lavender bag in one of the outbuildings.

The house has been restored to how it would have looked when Jane lived there. The sitting room door still creaks – Jane liked it that way, as it warned her when people were entering, giving her time to put her writing away. (Cassandra would most of the household chores, allowing Jane more time to write). Her writing table is so small – when I think of the hours of enjoyment I’ve had from the work she produced on it…

There are some of her letters on display – such tiny writing! – she then turned the letter upside down, writing again between the lines. Common practice back then, as postage costs depended on the size of the letter, and it was the recipient who paid – but I don’t think I could write that small, legibly, with a quill pen.

The bedroom the two sisters shared is so small – if the room my sister and I shared for so many years had been this small, I doubt that we’d still be friends now. The library has more books about Jane Austen than I ever knew existed, and copies of her works in all manner of languages.

It’s a good thing we came early. This little house is now full of visitors – five of the women (and one brave man) are in period costume. Nice to see men here – I’m always trying to persuade more men to read Austen. Her work isn’t simply romantic fluff – she has such a wonderful way of observing people. Mr Collins has to be one of the most memorable characters in literature – deliciously grovelly.

And the museum isn’t just for the ladies – two of Jane’s brothers were in the navy, so there is naval memorabilia as well (brother Frank was disappointed to miss the battle of Trafalgar).

It’s quite sunny now, so we go out into the garden. It’s smaller than it would have been in Jane’s time, but thanks to a high hedge (and the fact that a bypass takes most of the traffic away from the village) it’s still very quiet. Jane’s little donkey cart is on display – it must have been fun, going for a ride around the grounds. The garden also has some activities for children, such as word magnets, and signs with information about the birds which live here. I could sit here and write all day.

Then there’s the gift shop. More Mr Darcy merchandise than anyone could ever need. Most of it looks like Colin Firth (from the wonderful 1995 BBC production of Pride and Prejudice) – he must just cringe at some of it. (Personally, I always preferred Mr Rochester – he has more of a sense of humour).

And what about the book? Published in 1990, selections chosen by Penelope Hughes-Hallett.
There are extracts from Jane Austen’s letters, mainly to her beloved sister Cassandra, but also to other relatives, friends – and even an unco-operative publisher. There are relevant passages from her novels, and illustrations from the period, so you get a better idea of what the clothes, the carriages, looked like.

There is talk of balls and bonnets, buying fabric for dresses. There are descriptions of visits to Bath and Lyme Regis (later to feature in Persuasion), and of going to art exhibitions, trying to find portraits that look like her characters. She gives advice to her niece Fanny, who also wanted to be a novelist.

(I love where she describes Pride and Prejudice as “My own darling child” – I felt the same way when I first had a poem published.)

I always wondered what Jane Austen would have been like to meet in person – these letters show her to be just as mischievous as Elizabeth Bennet. And a moving letter written by Cassandra after Jane’s death shows that she was a beloved sister.

There are probably more complete books of Jane Austen’s letters, for the academically inclined – but for the average reader, this is a treat.

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Posted by on October 22, 2014 in Books, England, United Kingdom & Ireland



The Annotated Alice (2000)

I’m treating myself to a hat making course. Now, what’s in my pile of books that would go with that? Don’t know about you, but I can only think of one hatter in literature – the Hatter from Alice in Wonderland – so into my suitcase goes The Annotated Alice.

I’m staying in a little village outside Evesham, in Worcestershire. There’s not a lot here apart from a church, a school, a shop, and the pub I’m staying in. It’s an old inn, and the stables have been converted into bedrooms, with an equine theme – prints, plates, brass – and the bathroom has what looks like a stable door. As is so often the case with the places I visit, mobile phone reception is pretty patchy, but it’s a good excuse for a wander along the edges of fields, with occasional pauses while I wave my phone around hopefully.

The millinery school is like a little haberdashery version of Aladdin’s cave – threads, ribbons, feathers, buckles, scraps of silk. And there are shelves full of hat moulds – some modern polystyrene, some antique wood – one which looks a lot like the Hatter’s hat. There’s also a cat, which (appropriately enough) keeps disappearing.

Over the next three days I learn how to measure and cut silk, iron on stiffener, then block it (stretch it over the mould, then push in blocking pins to hold it in place) and put it in a heated cabinet to dry.

The straw hat is made from a cone of parasisal, which has to be soaked before being blocked (slippery, and a lot harder to get the pins through), cut to size, and then brushed with an incredibly stinky stiffener before that too goes into the drying cabinet.

Of course once they’re dry, you have to try to get the pins out. And I thought getting the things in was difficult…

I learn how to sew stab stitch, wire stitch, and back stitch (the neatest the tutor has ever seen). I wrestle with artificial flowers, and try to slide a buckle on without distorting my neat box pleat.

The straw hat is finally dry, so the tutor shows me how to bend a straw off-cut into a bow, add a little black lace motif, and position a little cockade of feathers at a suitably jaunty angle.

The last afternoon is spent cutting and sewing linings to the hats, then adding pretty lace ribbon to hide the join. I am now the proud owner of four beautiful little pillbox hats.

By day I make hats – by night, I’m exploring The Annotated Alice, by Martin Gardner.

It’s the definitive edition, in hardback – and the paper is creamy and smooth. It has the full text of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) and Through the Looking Glass (1872) and the combined notes from Gardner’s previous two editions of The Annotated Alice. There are lengthy notes at the side of page – the text is smaller than the story text, but still big enough to read easily – which is just as well, as there are a lot of them Very few pages are without some comments shedding more light on the stories, and the life of Lewis Carroll.

Alice is a classic children’s story, which I imagine would be pretty impenetrable to most modern children of Alice’s age – even more so if they haven’t been brought up in England.

Strangely, I never read Alice as a child, although we had a book of the poems from the stories, with the Tenniel illustrations (anyone know the name of it? Hardback, blue square, 70s?) so Jabberwocky was the first poem I knew by heart.

I suspect most people are familiar with Alice from seeing one of the film/television versions, which is not ideal. I know, I know – people always whinge that the book was better – but most movies of Alice are a mixture of episodes from both Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass.

In Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, she falls down a rabbit hole and meets a variety of strange characters, including playing cards.

Through the Looking Glass is more structured – she goes through a mirror and becomes a pawn in a game of chess (there’s even an illustration and a list of the moves in the introduction).

You can’t just take chunks of two different stories, with different plots and characters, squash them together and expect it to work – no wonder the recent Tim Burton adaptation was a confused mess. Just one example – the Red Queen should have been called the Queen of Hearts. There is a Red Queen in Through the Looking Glass, but she helps Alice, and doesn’t want to have anyone’s head cut off.

(And it’s not really clear if the two stories are happening in the same place. Apart from Alice, the only characters to appear in both books are the Hatter and the Hare – but they don’t recognise Alice, or she them. In Through the Looking Glass they are called Hatta and Haigha, and it’s only the illustration that shows they are the same characters.)

One of my pet hates is when I see something really imaginative, and someone makes a comment about the creator being on drugs. It annoys me to see creativity dismissed – although there are some things where you do wonder, and I can understand why they might say that about Alice. But this edition shows you that a lot of the seemingly whacky rhymes are in fact parodies of popular songs of the time, which Victorian readers would have recognised, though we do not.

The wonderful Jabberwocky was completely original and here there are examples of it in French and German (I don’t envy the translators that job).

There are explanations of lots of in-jokes, some best appreciated by lovers of mathematics, some which would have been known to local people, and some just for Alice and her family. I can’t begin to list all the interesting little nuggets of information.

One of my favourites is the theory that Cheshire cheese used to be moulded in shape of a smiling cat – you would start cutting it at the tail, so eventually only the smile would be left, which could be the origin of the Cheshire Cat.

I also like “Jam tomorrow and jam yesterday – but never jam today” – said by the White Queen, it’s used as a mnemonic by Latin teachers. In Latin, now is ‘iam’ (jam) in the past and future tense (yesterday and tomorrow), but in the present tense (today) it’s ‘nunc’.

Reading The Annotated Alice is like reading a whole new book. It adds another dimension to a classic, making it clear that it’s skilful piece of satire, not simply nonsense for children.

It’s an impressive piece of research and it’s hard to think of many other stories originally intended for children which have inspired this much adult interest.

If you’ve been confused by Alice – read this book. If you already love Alice – buy this book.

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Posted by on September 30, 2014 in Books, England, United Kingdom & Ireland


Glastonbury – The Mists Of Avalon (1983)

I’m off to Glastonbury – not the music festival, the town itself. As it doesn’t have a railway station, I’m taking the coach – and as it’s a seven hour trip, I can bring something chunky – The Mists of Avalon, by Marion Zimmer Bradley.
It’s the story of King Arthur, but told by the women – mainly his half-sister Morgaine (Morgan le Fay), his wife Gwenhwyfar, and Viviane, the Lady of the Lake. And at over a thousand pages, it should keep me engrossed on the coach.

I’ve been really lucky with the hotel – this is a short break, and my coach home will be leaving very early in the morning, so I booked as close as I could get to the coach stop – the George and Pilgrim Hotel. I didn’t realise that it was built in 1475 to accommodate wealthy pilgrims, so it’s all exposed timber, arched doorways and spiral staircases – good thing I’m travelling light, as there’s no lift. I’m staying in the ‘new’ part of the building – only 250 years old!

Next morning I wake up to the sound of a bell tolling. Thinking it’s from the church next door, I start counting to see what time it is – 10, 11, 12 – surely I haven’t slept away the whole morning? But the bell keeps tolling. I keep counting, and when it gets to 100 the church bells start to ring. Whatever I’ve been hearing doesn’t stop, but gradually fades away.

It’s only 8 am. On my way down to breakfast I meet a member of staff, and ask her which part of the hotel is haunted. She laughs, then says it all is. People are more likely to see things in the older part, but odd things happen everywhere – and they often hear a bell tolling in the kitchen…

Glastonbury has an unusual atmosphere, and it’s something that seems vaguely familiar. It takes a while for me to pin it down, but eventually I realise it feels a lot like St John’s, Newfoundland. But the energy there is more raw, so you don’t know whether to get creative or get drunk – here, it’s been harnessed, focussed for spirituality, for a long, long time.

There’s definitely something here that people react to. Talking to various locals I hear of people who’ve come here, stopped taking their medication, and got better – or worse. One tells me that people come to his shop looking for spare parts for time machines. He’s also had one man ask for a crystal with a chemical formula he saw in a dream – turns out there was such a crystal! The man never came back, so maybe his time machine worked…

The weather is surprisingly good, so I want to go up Glastonbury Tor – but first I need a new memory card for my camera. If you ever go to Glastonbury, make sure you bring all your supplies with you. I try two pharmacies, a post office, a newsagent, an art supply shop and tourist information (who suggest getting a bus to another town!) before finding a computer store which sells memory cards. I’m not the only one with this problem – I hear another woman lament “Dozens of places where I can buy crystals – nowhere I can buy knickers?!”

On to the Tor. It’s the highest point for miles around, and I’m walking up the steepest route, but the view is worth it. Recent floods have left nearby fields looking like lakes, and it’s a lot easier to picture Glastonbury as the island it once was, as it’s described in The Mists of Avalon. There are quite a few people here already, including some children who are trying to play hide and seek (though the only place to hide here is the one room of the tower on top of the Tor) and a lot of photographers – taking pictures of the tower, the Tor, the valley, the clouds. I take a photo of my own shadow, stretching away down the hillside.

I make my way down the less steep slope, and on to Chalice Well. I didn’t really know what to expect from this – but I loved it. It’s a garden, but it’s landscaped so it’s almost like a series of rooms, with several water features – pools, streams, an iron-rich spring flowing from a lion’s mouth – and seats where people can rest, contemplate. There are ammonites set into the stone walkways, little carvings of angels set in niches, and a view of the Tor, with a bright moon visible high above in the afternoon sky.

Then I get to the Well itself – and if there is anything special about Glastonbury, this is where it comes from. There are other people there; we look at each other, smile – but no-one says a word. The feeling – I still can’t put it into words. I feel relaxed, but invigorated. I want to hug the whole world, and apologise to anyone I’ve ever hurt. And I never want to leave – but I am also feeling a little overwhelmed. I mention this to a lady in the gift shop – she smiles, says “We get that a lot”, and suggests I try some apple juice, which helps.

Back at the hotel, I take photos of this wonderful old building. The walls are decorated with murals, copies of Arthurian themed paintings, by local artist Yuri Leitch. There are images of the Tor carved into plaster, images of the Round Table, the Green Man. Later I find that a couple of the rooms (the Nun’s Cell, the Confessional) seem to have lots of little white orbs hovering around them in the photos – something I’ve heard of, but never seen before.

Time for tea. I choose a table (beneath a mural about Morgan le Fay) and order a steak and otter pie. It’s not actually made with otter (that’s the name of a local ale) – but when it arrives it’s so big that I ask the waitress if there’s a whole otter in there. She laughs, then says “No – but it does weigh more than my dog!”. It’s a bowl filled with a full dinner – steak, potatoes, vegetables and gravy – with a big puff pastry pillow on top. I abandon all thoughts of dessert, or even a pint of cider, and tuck in. It’s lovely. My floaty feeling is soon gone, replaced by a feeling of wanting to curl up and snooze. I was going to read a little more – but post-pie drowsiness prevails.

Next morning is grey, with a light drizzle – perfect weather for visiting the ruins of Glastonbury Abbey. There’s a good little exhibition centre before you enter the abbey itself – I love it when these places have things you can touch, like bits of sculpture. They even have some vestments (not to be touched) – the embroidery looks very good for something so old. Paper and pencils are available if you want to sketch, and there’s a lot of material for children. For some reason there’s also the jawbone of a whale.

The damp weather means I have the ruins to myself. It also gives a suitably mournful atmosphere. Doves perch in a broken archway, until a crow swoops down – and suddenly I can feel a poem coming on. Apparently Henry VIII stayed at my hotel to watch as the abbey was destroyed. In a way, I almost prefer ruined churches, but I wish I could have seen this one while it was intact – it was one of the wealthiest in the country and, judging by what remains, it must have been stunning. Some traces of the original paint remain, so there’s a picture of how the Lady Chapel was probably decorated. There are little wooden flaps which you can lift up to touch the medieval tiles beneath. There are signs showing where the high altar once stood, and where monks found what they believed were the bodies of Arthur and Guinevere.

There are two ponds and a small nature area behind the abbey, so I spot fifteen species of bird in as many minutes, as well as squirrels, and one stealthy cat. Apparently there are badgers here – persuaded (somehow) to move from their former home, which was undermining the ruins.

The drizzle finally stops, so I go back into the town. Most of the shops here are goddess-oriented, but one, the Wild Hunt is decidedly masculine – not so many girly accessories, and more pictures of the Horned God. I wander around the crystal shops – and there are a lot of them. I have already told myself I can only buy one crystal, so I don’t know how many shops I browse in before choosing a charming little labradorite bear.

In my room I scribble down some notes for a poem. Then I head down to the bar. Just a light meal this evening – tempting though the pies are, it’s an early start in the morning so I mustn’t oversleep – and I want to get back into The Mists of Avalon.

Avalon has helped (schemed?) to make Arthur king, on the understanding that he will defend the old religion – but Christianity is starting to take hold of the British Isles, and Avalon is starting to drift away from Glastonbury, possibly to be lost from our world forever. Will Arthur keep his promise, or will Morgaine, his sister and a priestess of Avalon, have to put someone else on the throne?

This is a classic. I really enjoyed it, even though it’s a sad story. It has a huge cast, covers several generations and is beautifully written. Clearly, a lot of research has gone into this; the world feels authentic, and the dialogue rings true. All the women feel like people you actually know, with their own insecurities and inconsistencies, torn by conflicting loyalties of family and faith. And all the characters are acting with the best intentions, in many cases out of love – but we already know the Arthurian story is a tragedy. However, in spite of this, the book manages to end on a hopeful note.

My only criticism of this book is that the male characters aren’t as fully developed as the female ones. Also, it is very critical of Christianity, which might be an issue for some readers. It is really a book for women rather than men, but that doesn’t mean it should be dismissed as chick-lit. One day, when my niece is old enough, I will give her a copy of this book.

It’s still dark when I creep out of the hotel next morning, and it’s cold waiting for the coach. But as I leave Glastonbury the sun rises, and I drift off to sleep listening to harp music.


Reading – Wolf Brother (2004)

Today I’m taking Nephew, who shares my love of things furry and ferocious, to a writing workshop with Michelle Paver (one of his favourite authors) at a wolf sanctuary.

In Reading.

Yes, the UK Wolf Conservation Trust is based at a 50 acre farm on the outskirts of Reading. Wolves aren’t always popular in England, so the trust seems to be keeping a low profile – we’re almost on top of the place before we see any signs for it. Michelle Paver came here to do research for Wolf Brother, and is now one of the trust’s patrons. She’s written several books for children, including the Chronicles of Ancient  Darkness.

There’s some rubbish written for children (I’m looking at you, School For Good And Evil!) but I thoroughly enjoyed Wolf Brother. I want to find out what happens next, so I’ll have to borrow the rest of the series (five volumes)  from my nephew.

(In fact, I enjoyed it more than a similar book for adults I read recently – Shaman, by Kim Stanley Robinson. That’s also about the adventures of a young hunter, but any believable prehistoric atmosphere keeps being shattered by the use of modern language. It’s very hard to suspend your disbelief when people from the Stone Age keep exclaiming “Mama mia”! I’m not making this up – see page 108).

But back to Wolf Brother. All his life, Torak has lived in the forest with his father, the Wolf Clan mage. But when his father is killed by a supernatural bear, Torak, just twelve years old, has to fend for himself. He finds an orphan wolf cub and discovers that they can communicate. Together with Renn, a girl from Raven Clan, they go on a quest to the Mountain of the World Spirit, to find a way to defeat the demon bear.

It’s a good story, simply told but all the better for it. It rattles along at quite a pace – I kept saying to myself “Just one more chapter, then I’ll stop” – but I read it in one sitting. The world is described vividly, but concisely, without the dense blocks of text which can be too much for younger readers. I particularly enjoyed the descriptions of the world seen through Wolf’s eyes. And although Torak and Wolf communicate, it’s as you would with a dog – no cute talking animals!

About twenty children and adults have come for the workshop today. Michelle is very good with the children. She talks to them about writing, and how important it is to involve all your senses. She’s brought things for them to handle – wolf hair, an antler, a pair of mittens made from caribou hide sewn with sinew, and a stone axe head.

The weather’s been dreadful, but as soon as there’s a break in the rain we go outside for a walk with Mai, a Canadian wolf. She’s a big girl, and there are two handlers holding her leash – if she did choose to make a run for it, one man alone simply wouldn’t be able to stop her. The wolf dictates the direction of the walk, and we all follow, at a respectful distance. Nephew is thrilled to be this close to a real live wolf, and is beaming – I’m pretty excited myself.

Mai leads us across a very squelchy field, pausing to roll in interesting smells and mark her territory, and regularly howls to the other wolves, who howl back – a wonderful sound. At one point it looks like she’s going to go for a swim in a stream, but she changes her mind – I suspect the handlers are relieved, as they’re muddy enough already. Wolves aren’t the only animals welcome here – there’s also a small pool for frogs, and the trees have nesting boxes for birds and bats. Overhead I can see a red kite – one of England’s rarest and most beautiful birds of prey.

When Mai decides to head back, the handlers show us the rest of the wolves. The enclosures here are good, with plenty of room to run, trees, running water. The wolves look healthy, and seem pleased to see their handlers. The trust views them as ambassadors for their species, thinking that people are more likely to care about animals they’ve seen in the flesh, rather than ones they’ve only seen on television. My favourites are Pukak, Sikko and Massak – Arctic wolves, who are totally white (or would be, apart from the mud). Nephew’s favourite is Torak, who is named after the character in the book.

Then the heavens open. We dash back into the classroom. Michelle talks a little more about writing, then we eat our packed lunches, and try to write something ourselves. Nephew starts writing a story about wolves that worship a mysterious box. I can’t think of a story, so I scribble down a poem about eating my way through the animal kingdom, and listen to the rain drumming on the roof.

The rain stops – would we like to watch the wolves being fed? Of course we would. But as the wolves hold down chunks of deer carcass with their paws, peel back the hide with their teeth and start crunching on ribs, I hear a small girl beside me say “Mummy, I don’t think I want to be a wolf keeper after all…” A couple of people who are feeding the wolves are new, so the wolves are unsure whether to accept food from them. This is what the red kites have been waiting for – four of them swoop down, looking for scraps.

The heavens open once more – so it’s back into the classroom we go. While we were watching the wolves eat, Michelle was busy reading our literary efforts. She has something constructive to say about all of them. She asks Nephew what exactly it is the wolves are worshipping in his story, and is amused to find out that it’s a toaster. She reads out part of my poem, and everyone in the room laughs. Then it’s time for a quick Q&A, book signing, and a visit to the gift shop to choose a toy wolf for smaller nephew (who can’t come on a wolf walk yet because he’s too small – bite-size!)

We’re the last to leave. As we head out, Torak, who is usually shy around people, stands at the edge of the enclosure, looking right at us.

Nephew isn’t usually talkative – but he’ll be talking about this for days.

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Posted by on January 25, 2014 in Books, England