A new home for my blog!

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My blog has a new home on my new website!

Note: if you comment from this point forward on this blogger blog, I will likely not see it. All these posts are on my website now, so please comment there. Thank you!

Monday, March 29, 2010

Historic Sex Toys in the News!

Ok folks, I haven't posted a picture to go with this for reasons of delicacy. At least I've posted a picture of David Tennant as Casanova just for fun. Anyway, if you are of a nervous disposition or feeling particularly delicate this Monday morning my advice would be DON'T CLICK ON THIS LINK http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/essex/8589766.stm

The story is that an anonoymous bidder has paid £3,600 for a couple of "wooden items" as the BBC politely describes them, at auction. The sex toys date from the eighteenth century and are extremely rare and collectible. This is an investment opportunity, according to the auctioneer, who said: "You won't see another one in a long time."

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Swimming in the Stanway Fountain

As a result of the current contest on my website, I've had a number of enquiries from readers about the fountain that features in my book, Unmasked. What did it look like, how deep was it and is it really possible to swim in a fountain? Karen B referenced the wonderful water gardens at Alnwick Castle (pictured) and asked me if that was my inspiration. It wasn't, but now that I've seen them I am very keen to re-visit Alnwick. It looks wonderful.

The inspiration for the fountain in Unmasked comes from Stanway, a beautiful Jacobean manor house in the Cotswolds. I visited Stanway a few years ago and fell in love with it as soon as I saw it. Not only is it stunningly beautiful from the outside, all rich yellow stone and extravagant design, but it has a lived in feel to it, packed full of ancient furniture including a wonderful shuffleboard table dating from the reign of Charles I. And it is the only historic house I've visited where they allow you to take your dog inside, presumably because there are so many family dogs lying about the place in the patches of sunshine!

But it was the gardens at Stanway that provided my inspiration for Mari's garden designs in Unmasked, in particular the fountain in which Nick caught her skinny dipping. The original water gardens were created in the 1720s and included a formal canal on a terrace high above the house, the longest cascade in England, eight ponds and a fountain, all set amongst green lawns and avenues of specimen trees. The Stanway fountain was restored in 2004 and is now a spectacular single jet rising to over 300 feet, the tallest fountain in Britain and the tallest gravity fountain in the world. On the day we visited it was very hot and a dip in the water was extremely tempting but I resisted for fear of being thrown out! (I do my "wild swimming" in a Scottish loch each summer instead!)

Stanway is a must-visit if you are ever in the Cotswolds. Not only is it packed with hands-on quirky historical artefacts but it is peaceful and relaxing - and it has a marvellous tearoom! Do you have a favourite historical place off the beaten track? And for that matter, have you ever swum in a fountain, or somewhere other than a swimming pool?

Monday, March 22, 2010


Today I felt like writing about lighthouses. Why? Maybe it's the stormy weather. The fact is I live about as far away from the coast as it's possible to be in the UK, almost exactly in the centre of the country, and every so often I get a hankering for the sea.

There's something about lighthouses that is part of the British consciousness. We're an island race and for thousands of years we were reliant on trade at sea and lived in fear of death by shipwreck. Lighthouses are inspirational, offering a guiding light across treacherous waters. They are also lonely and the role of the lighthousekeeper is a fascinating one, solitude in wild and empty places.

Here are a few historic British lighthouses to celebrate the spirit of altruism of the lighthouse: I read this week that patents were traditionally never taken out on any lighthouse inventions as they were deemed good for humanity as a whole.

At the top is Leasowe Lighthouse, the oldest brick-built lighthouse in the country, built in 1763 and one of four lights on the North Wirral foreshore. Then Bell Rock, the oldest surviving sea-washed lighthouse in the world.

And this is Lundy Old Light, which was built on top of the island only for the authorities to realise that no one could see it because it was frequently obscured by fog!

Friday, March 19, 2010

Mystery Portraits!

This is one of the most imaginative and fascinating ideas I've heard for a while. The National Portrait Gallery in London and the National Trust's Montacute House are jointly mounting a new display of thirteen portraits where the identity of the sitter is lost, mistaken or uncertain. All the pictures date from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and are probably of courtiers, merchants, musicians and others who wished to be immortalised through art but whose identity is now forgotten.

Inspired by the mystery portraits, authors including Tracy Chevalier, Minette Waters, Terry Pratchett and Joanna Trollope have written short stories of what the lives of these sitters might have been like and have created fictional biographies and character sketches. These draw on the details in the paintings; the costumes, the background, the pets, decorations, furniture etc etc to create a richer picture. Minette Walters has written a poignant letter from the perspective of the wife of a man shown in a portrait, which brims with despair at her husband's extravagance. Sarah Singleton has written about the adventures of a spice merchant and amateur musician struggling to make his way in the world despite his illegitimate status. Full details of the exhibition and the intriguing ideas behind the stories are here. I can't wait to check it out and I don't mind admitting that I wish I'd been invited to take part! But since I wasn't, I plan a little mystery portrait event of my own at Ashdown House. Writing or re-writing the stories of the people in our fabulous Ashdown portrait collection would be a lot of fun!

Thursday, March 18, 2010

The Film of the Book - Can it ever be as good?

You wait fifty six years for a film and then two come along at the same time. What are the chances? Rosemary Sutcliff's book The Eagle of the Ninth has been an all time favourite of mine since I read it at school (which wasn't quite 56 years ago - that was when it was first published) and when I heard it was going to be turned into a film I was ecstatic. For me that story has everything: a spooky historical mystery at its heart - the disappearance of a Roman legion north of Hadrian's Wall - adventure, romance and a great setting. So I hurried off to find out all about the film... And discovered both of them.

First up, in April, is Centurion. This appears to be inspired by the story of the Roman Ninth Legion rather than actually based on Rosemary Sutcliff's book. It stars Michael Fassbender and Dominic West, two good reasons to go and see it, aside from the actual story. I like the idea of a plucky band of seven warriors fighting back against overwhelming odds deep inside enemy territory. (Shades of the King Arthur film with Clive Owen there.) The tagline "Fight or Die" certainly goes for the throat.

Then, in the summer, there is The Eagle of the Ninth, the film of the book, starring Channing Tatum and an all star cast. So what to do? Either or both? And at the back of my mind is that thought that always lurks when I go to see the film of a favourite book: Can the film possibly do the book justice?
I call this the "Frenchman's Creek" experience. Years ago there was a made-for-TV-movie of Daphne Du Maurier's Frenchman's Creek, a fabulous book that is on my all time favourites list. But oh dear, the disappointment and the disillusionment of the film! Sometimes it really is better to stay away from that movie screen and relish the printed word and the power of your own imagination.

What do you think? Did you read and enjoy Rosemary Sutcliff's book? Will you be going to see either of these movies? And have you seen a film of a book that equalled or exceeded the original?

Monday, March 15, 2010

Cheese Rolling and Flaming Torches

The ancient pastime of cheese rolling was in the headlines this weekend when the annual cheese rolling contest at Cooper's Hill in Gloucestershire was cancelled because of concerns over the sizes of the crowd turning out to see the event. It was refreshing that no one was concerned about potential injury to the participants (or the cheeses) and that the problem simply related to issues of traffic and crowd control.

The Cooper's Hill cheese rolling dates back at least 200 years. The rules are relatively simple; a round of Double Gloucester Cheese is rolled down the hill and competitors race after it. In theory they are aiming to catch the cheese but since it has a head start and can gather momentum to reach speeds of up to 70mph, this is unlikely to happen. The first person over the finish line at the bottom of the hill gets to keep the cheese, assuming that it is still in a fit state to be eaten. It is hoped that the event will be re-arranged.

Meanwhile, elsewhere in the country, Hadrian's Wall, the Roman monument spanning England from Wallsend to Bowness-on-Solway, was lit up by a spectacular line of light to mark British Tourism Week. I wish I had been on the northern side of the wall to see the line of flaming torches. I imagine it would be the closest you could get to time travel back to the period when each milecastle along the wall was manned by Roman soldiers. Shiver down the spine.

Friday, March 12, 2010

(Vanished) House of the Week!

Yes, that's it. Eight pairs of elaborate gate piers and part of a walled garden are all that is left of the First Earl of Craven's splendid house at Hamstead Marshall in Berkshire, yet despite that the site is one of the most fascinating and atmospheric places to visit, perhaps because you can let your imagination run riot. There are pieces of roof slates, floor tiles and window glass still lying in the fields as testament to the magnificence of the house and you can walk across the whole area, imagining that you are strolling in the pleasure grounds. Aerial photographs still clearly show the outlines of the parterre and box gardens and the foundation line of the front of the house.

The house was built by Sir Balthazar Gerbier in the early 1660s, modelled on Elizabeth of Bohemia's palace at Heidelberg. It burned down in 1718, only 21 years after the first Earl's death. Some of the design paperwork survives today in the form of 40 drawings in the Bodleian Library. They show designs for gateways, porticos and some very grand stabling, ceilings and window ornaments. They also show a floor which contains no fewer than 30 rooms, each with its own purpose such as “Withdrawing room to repaire the records”, “Roome to repose after Bathing” and separate accommodations for the Distiller, the Spicery, the Confectioner and the Lardery.

According to Penelope Stokes in her excellent History of Hamstead Marshall, the surviving gate piers have attracted admiration and derision in equal measure:

Lysons, in Magna Britannica (1813): “Some clumsy brick piers which remain in the park, ornamented with sphinxes and gryphons, afford but an unfavourable specimen of the architect’s taste.”

Oliver Hill and John Cornforth in English Country Houses (1966): “..a sense of vanished magnificence expressed in the richly decorated but isolated gate piers which now rise from a pastoral landscape setting.”

I prefer the latter description. I love a romantic ruin and a walk around Hamstead Park conjures the ghosts of the past.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Pub Names!

Here are some of my favourite British pub names that celebrate the more lawless elements of our society!

The Wicked Lady - A pub in No Man's Land, Hertfordshire. named in honour of Lady Kathleen Ferrers, 1634 - 59, who became a highwaywoman at the age of 18. She was shot dead seven years later as she attempted to rob customers leaving the Park Inn. Her story was made into a film in 1945 starring Margaret Lockwood. Dick Turpin also has pubs named after him. Of similar ilk is The Highwayman in Liskeard, Cornwall, named for James Elliott, who was convicted for highway robbery in 1787 and hanged at Bodmin.

The Poacher - There are poachers' inns and poachers' pockets across the country. One sign for the latter shows a man with particularly capacious pockets from which a brace of pheasant are falling.

The Smugglers - A pub in Anstruther, Fife, which was the favourite watering hole of the men who supplied contraband to the Earl of Strathmore. A passage from the inn led directly to their hideout. Smugglers' inns are found in the West Country and across the south coast, including the Smugglers Haunt in Dorset and the Smugglers Roost in Sussex.

The Wreckers - another Cornish speciality, named after those who lit false signals to deliberately lure ships onto the rocks and steal the cargo.

And some of the more obscure:

I Am The Only Running Footman - A pub in London. The running footman was the servant who ran ahead of a carriage, clearing the crowds, paying tolls and carrying a torch at night. By the beginning of the 19th century only one such servant remained in London, working for the 4th Duke of Queensberry. The inn sign shows him in action. Unfortunately I couldn't find a picture of it.
The Poppinjay - Another London pub, built on the site of a 13th century house called The Popyngaye. The Popyngaye was a dummy parrot that was suspended from a pole and used in archery practice.

The Five (or four) Alls - Cheltenham and elsewhere. Dating from the 17th century, this sign usually shows a King "I rule for all," a parson "I pray for all", a lawyer "I plead for all", a soldier "I fight for all" and a labourer "I work for all." At Chepstow the labourer has become John Bull, the everyman, with the cynical caption "I pay for all." We all know how he feels! There was a popular rhyme in the 17th century: "King William thinks all, Queen Mary talks all, Prince George eats all and Princess Anne eats all."

The Flying Bull - a pub in Hampshire where two mail coaches, the Fly and the Bull, called on the London to Portsmouth Run.
Do you have any personal favourites?

Friday, March 5, 2010

New "website" contest for March!

My website is out of action at the moment, suffering from a fault that means that I can't update it. So whilst the engineers try to fix it for me I have decided that I will post up the contest details here because it is such a lovely prize this month that I don't want anyone to miss the chance to enter. Here are the details:

This month I am offering a trio of books as the website contest prize. First up is a copy of Tempt the Devil by incomparable historical author Anna Campbell. Next is a copy of To Sin with a Scoundrel, the sizzling debut historical from fabulous author Cara Elliott. And finally there is a copy of my own award-winning book, Unmasked.

To enter the contest email the answer to me at ncornick@madasafish.com Here's the question:

In the extract from Unmasked on my website, where has Nick caught Mari swimming? The answer's here! Good luck and thank you for entering the contest!

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Extinctions in the UK - the implications for historical romance books

Every so often I'm reading a book and a wolf stalks across the historical landscape, or a red kite swoops down in the streets of London and carries off a kitten. Fascinating background colour, but it did get me wondering about extinction dates for various species in the UK because nothing will pull me out of a book faster than a beaver splashing around in a Regency era river.

So here's a round up of a few extinction dates for species in Britain, although some of these are in dispute.

The Brown Bear - Circa 1000 AD

Bears are thought to have died out in Britain shortly before the medieval period due to heavy deforestation and hunting by humans. Bones and skulls have been found scattered in many parts of the Scottish Highlands while bears are often depicted on Pictish stones. This is pretty amazing to me. Despite having seen bears in the French Pyrenees I just can't get my head around the thought that shortly before the Norman Conquest you could have been wandering around a forest somewhere in the UK and bump into a bear.

The Lynx - Circa 400AD

As recently as 2005 it was believed that the lynx had died out in the UK about 4000 BC when the climate turned cooler and wetter. Then animal bones were discovered in a cave in Yorkshire that were carbon dated to about 400 - 500 AD. Just as I love to think that the Scottish Wild Cat still prowls the glens, so the thought of a lynx adds a perfect touch of mystery to a book set in the Dark Ages.

The Wolf – Circa 1740 AD (unless it's a werewolf, of course)
I love Scotland and sometimes when I'm standing in the forest listening to the silence I imagine what it would be like to hear the night split by a wolf's unearthly howl. The wolf was exterminated in Britain after centuries of persecution. The last wolves were in the Scottish Highlands and the last one was reputed killed in 1740. I think it would be pretty cool to feature a wolf in a book set in the Highlands in the 18th century.

As someone who has walked with wolves at the Wolf Trust, I admit to a huge admiration for these fabulous animals. The one licking my face in the photograph was 6 months old and a big cub.

The Wild Boar – Circa 1300AD

The extinction of the Wild Boar in the UK is complicated by the fact that it was re-introduced several times, notably in the 17th century. The re-introductions were not successful as many people saw the boar as a threat to agriculture and hunted it. Wild boar farming in England began in the 1970s and 1980s and since then populations of escapees have established themselves in the wild. On the basis of this evidence I think it would be quite credible to have a wild boar featuring in a Regency-set book!

The Beaver - Circa 1300 AD

For many years I believed that beavers were still around in the early 19th century because of all the curly-brimmed beaver hats that featured in Regency romances. In fact the beaver was hunted to extinction many years before, for its fur and the pain-relieving properties of its anal gland secretions. The beaver hats of the Regency were made from imported American beaver fur.

St Kilda House Mouse Circa 1930

With all the Regency historicals that are being located in unusual setting these days it's always possible that someone might think to set a book on the island of St Kilda, in which case they need to be reassured that the St Kilda house mouse was live and well until about 1930. This was the date on which the final settlers left St Kilda. It's reasonable to imagine that some of the mice survived for a while after this but the departure of the human population led eventually to the end of the mouse as well.

Red Kite

The Red Kite was never completely eradicated in the UK. Whilst you wouldn't see many kites in a city these days a remnant of the population survived in Wales and it was recently re-introduced into the Chilterns and has spread very successfully across parts of the south of the UK. Indeed it was reported in 2006 that a Red Kite had been seen over London after an absence of 150 years.

The streets of Shakespeare's capital were full of red kites. He referred to it as "The city of kites and crows." The birds were scavengers, never short of a meal at a time when people threw their rubbish in the street. They also stole washing off lines for their nests. But gradually improving public hygiene and waste-disposal robbed the red kite of its niche in the London ecosystem, and by the end of the 18th century it was extinct as a breeding bird. The last sighting on the streets of the capital was in 1859.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Customs of St David's Day

Happy St David's Day! David, or Dewi, the patron saint of Wales celebrates his national day today and heralds the arrival of spring. Customs associated with St David's Day include the wearing of one of the national symbols of Wales, either a leek in the hatband or a daffodil in the buttonhole. The daffodil has been preferred in recent times because it's a little more practical than trying to fix a leek in a hatband. The similarity of the word daffodil to the name Dafydd, a Welsh form of David, is however probably co-incidental because the saint is known as Dewi in Wales and the name daffodil comes from affodil, a variant of the asphodel.

The significance of the leek has been the subject of a certain amount of debate. It is suggested that St David ordered his men to wear leeks in battle so that they could be identified from the enemy. Shakespeare makes reference to this in Henry V. An alternative explanation may be that leeks and daffodils are both supposed to be readily available at this time of year although there are no daffodils here yet; the coldest winter in 31 years has set them back a bit!

It was formerly customary on 1st March for visitors to help out any neighbours who had not yet finished their ploughing before the end of February. Each would bring a contribution, often in the form of a leek, to the communal meal at the end of the day.

The Scottish tradition of Whuppity Scoorie also takes place today. In the Royal Burgh of Lanark, children race around St Nicholas Church making lots of noise and armed with balls of paper on string with which they try to hit each other. The origins of the tradition are obscure but it is thought that it may relate to the lengthening of the days and the coming of spring, and have an element of chasing out evil spirits.

Traditions related in Chambers Book of Days.