A new home for my blog!

This Blogger blog is no longer updated...

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!

Friday, July 30, 2010

Off to the Regency Races!

Here is a picture of Manchester racecourse during the nineteenth century. Today I'm blogging over at the Word Wenches about the Georgian and Regency experience of the races and race-going. As this is a blog about gambling there is an ARC of my new book Whisper of Scandal to be won! Please come and join me!

Monday, July 26, 2010

The case of the rival 17th century swimming pools!

Yes, I'm blogging about swimming again, which for someone who is afraid of water seems a bit odd. It must be all the hot and sunny weather we're having. But something caught my eye when I was reading the newspaper over the weekend and sent me off researching the gardens of Oxford and Cambridge colleges, a mysterious and secret world that is fascinating to explore.

And so to Emmanuel College Cambridge which claims that it has (probably!) the oldest swimming bath in the country that is still in use. This glorious little pool was in use as early as 1690 or possibly even earlier. A changing hut in the classical style was built about 1745 and the present thatched hut dates from the mid-19th century. By 1745 a 'plunge' was regarded as good for headache, and 'against the vapours and impotence'. In living memory the water in the pool was dark green with algae, so dark that a Fellow who liked to swim the whole length along the bottom complained that he lost his way. A line was painted to help him and known as Jones's Line. That sort of water quality doesn't sound very tempting and it's good to hear that these days the water is purified and re-circulated.

Emmanuel College's pool has a rival, however. In the paper this weekend was an article about the refurbishment of the pool at Christ's College. Archives there suggested that their Fellows' Bathing Pool was dug from the alluvial soil in a corner of the college garden in the mid-17th century. It was known to be in use by 1688, pipping Emmanuel by two years. The design of Christ College's bathing pool is classical with a perimeter decorated by busts of Christ's scholars including the astronomer Ralph Cudworth, poet John Milton, mathematician Nicholas Saunderson and polymath Joseph Mede.

Until its renovation earlier this year, Christ's pool was fed by Hobson's Conduit, a 400-year-old water course originally built to bring clean water into a disease ridden town. Over the past twenty years the pool had slipped into decline with various alternative uses being suggested including turning it into an ornamental duck pond. However it is now restored to its original beauty.
I like the idea of the rival colleges feverishly digging away in the mid 17th century to see who would be first with the bathing pool. Or possibly of Emmanuel College Fellows peering over the wall at Christ's College, envying them their new swimming pool, and wanting one of their own. No doubt the issue of which college, Emmanuel or Christ's, has the most ancient waters will continue to provoke debate!

Friday, July 23, 2010

Academic Crush of the Week - Doctor Who

Well, it's a sort of academic crush of the week plus the opportunity to post some lovely pictures. I missed this debate when it happened a month ago and have only just caught up with it but apparently at the Annual TV Lecture at the British Academy of Film and Television Arts, Stephen Fry, broadcaster, presenter, comedian and much more, criticised the BBC programmes Merlin and Doctor Who as being "like a chicken nugget. Every now and again we all like it … But if you are an adult you want something surprising, savoury, sharp, unusual, cosmopolitan, alien, challenging, complex, ambiguous, possibly even slightly disturbing and wrong... You want to try those things, because that's what being adult means.... The only drama the BBC will boast about are Merlin and Doctor Who, which are fine, but they're children's programmes. They're not for adults. And they're very good children's programmes, don't get me wrong, they're wonderfully written … but they are not for adults."

I like Stephen Fry very much. I think much of his work is witty, clever, thought-provoking, savoury, sharp, challenging and many of those other words he used above. I particularly admire him for the visibility he has brought to mental health issues and all the work he has done to combat prejudice in that area. But on this particular point, as both a writer and a viewer - oh, and as an adult - I think he is simply wrong.

First of all, a general point that a lot of commenters on this subject seem to have missed. We don't all like the same things in either our reading or our viewing. This doesn't make them right or wrong, it just means that some people don't like science fiction or westerns or thrillers or romance or whatever. The problem comes when people decide that because they don't like a particular genre it must mean that there is something wrong with it or that it is in some way intrinsically inferior. Now that really is wrong and patronising and snobbish and discourteous.

But back to Stephen Fry's comments. Personally I could (almost) live on a diet of chicken nuggets but I don't actually see either Doctor Who or Merlin in those terms. They are surely family shows for a start, neither exclusively for children or for adults but with a crossover appeal in the same sense that the Harry Potter books have crossover appeal. Some people "get" them, some don't. It doesn't mean that they are infantile. Besides, a childlike as opposed to childish perspective is not necessarily inferior to an adult one. Children see life in a very different way and I find that interesting. I'm frequently floored by questions from my nephews and nieces because their approach to the world is so different from my "adult" view. This alternative perspective can be stimulating and challenging. Let's not assume it's simplistic.

Okay there have been times when I have plotted myself into a corner and wished that I was a science fiction writer who could invoke the space time continuum to get me out of the situation I've got myself into. But the reason that I love both Doctor Who and Merlin is that they can be surprising, savoury, sharp, unusual, cosmopolitan, alien, challenging, complex, ambiguous, possibly even slightly disturbing and wrong. I care about the characters. They are multi-dimensional and strong. The stories have fundamental truths to tell. The characters have difficult, even heartbreaking, choices to make. On top of that the episodes are fast-moving, they are funny and they are clever. For me that's the heart of good storytelling. The penultimate episode of the most recent series of Doctor Who was one of the best pieces of writing I've ever seen. Of course a balanced diet is important in many ways. But stories such as these are far more than junk food.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010


I was tidying up my study and came across this article on gargoyles and it was so interesting I thought I would share it. Aren't they pretty!

The gargoyle originated as plumbing. They can be traced back to Ancient Greece, Egypt and Rome when decorated terracotta waterspouts depicting lions, eagles and other creatures were common. Today they are still visible on the Parthenon in Athens and at the ruins of Pompeii. The word "gargoyle" comes from the French gargouille (throat) from which the verb to gargle also derives.

The gargoyle was, however, a rather splashy way to dispose of rainwater and in 1241 King Henry III invented the drainpipe, instructing the Keeper of Works at the Tower of London "to cause all leaden gutters... to be carried down to the ground." Lead drainpipes began appearing in quantity in the Tudor period. At the top of these pipes where the gargoyle had originally sat, there was often an open-topped box known as a rainwater head. In the great houses this was often decorated with a coat of arms. It took until 1724 however for the drainpipe to catch on in cities. Prior to that a Londoner venturing out in a downpour would run the risk of a hundred water spouts cascading onto his head.

It was around 1220 that the gargoyle as decoration really leapt to fame, clinging to the corners and roofs of buildings. Medieval carvers let their imaginations run riot and created fantastical figures, animals, humans, some half and half. Magdalen College Oxford has a collection of hippopotami, wrestlers, a jester, a griffin, a greyhound, a camel and several monsters.

Some gargoyles were intended to ward off evil spirits. The gargoyles on Notre Dame in Paris are said to watch for drowning victims in the Seine and fly down at night to rescue them. I thought this picture was enough to inspire a paranormal romance! Some gargoyles display the physical characteristics of the devil including wings, fangs and clawed feet. A few gargoyles also represent real people, including those on the church at Winchcombe where the gargoyles include the Lord of the Manor.

The Victorian age saw a revival in gargoyles with many churches and country houses from the era bedecked with them, including Knightshayes Court in Devon and Knebworth House in Hertfordshire. Gargoyles also found new homes on the churches and skyscrapers of New York, Washington and Chicago. Washington National Cathedral has 112 gargoyles including one of a hippie, one of a crooked politician and one of Darth Vader!

So which gargoyle is your favourite?

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Recipe of the Week - Do you like Piccalilli?

I almost didn't post up the recipe becaue I don't like pickles and chutneys. Then I thought this is like licorice - just because I don't like piccalilli doesn't mean that there aren't hundreds of people who do. So here is the recipe for those who do.

The origins of this familiar mustard-coloured pickle and its name are open to conjecture. Recipes date from the 18th century and because of the inclusion of spices they may have developed with Britain's expansion into India and the East. The most likely explanation is that the name is a pun on the words pickle and chilli.

1lb peeled button onions
1lb 8oz cauliflour florets
1lb 3oz chopped cucumber or courgette
1lb chopped green beans
3 red chillis cut into strips
Half a teaspoon cayenne pepper
2 tablespoons mild curry powder
2 tablespoons mustard powder
2 teaspoons turmeric
2 teaspoons allspice
2 tablespoons ground ginger
8oz sugar
2 tablespoons black peppercorns
3 oz plain flour
2 and a half pints of malt vinegar

Add 3oz salt to 2 and a half pints of water and bring to the boil in a large pan. Add the vegetables and blanch for 5 minutes then drain well and run under cold water to cool. Put the sugar, flour and spices (except for the peppercorns) into a bowl with 3 or 4 tablespoons of vinegar and stir to form a paste. Put the rest of the vinegar, the peppercorns and the spice paste into a large pan and bring to the boil, stirring all the time. Lower the heat and cook for a little while until the sauce begins to thicken. Keep stirring! Take the pan off the hob and let it cool, stirring to get rid of any skin that may form. Combine the sauce and the vegetables in a clean bowl and leave in a cool place for 24 hours. After that make sure that the vegetables are mixed in well and covered by the sauce.. Bottle and label. For best results leave the mixture to mature in a cool, dark place for a couple of months.

Now that does look tasty...

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Blogging with Deanna Jewel!

Thank you to everyone who helped me reach the 50 blog followers milestone this week!

Today I am blogging with the lovely Deanna Jewel at http://deannajewel.blogspot.com/ Please drop by to say hello and join us for tea and cakes in the virtual parlour of Ashdown House. There is a set of the Brides of Fortune trilogy books up for grabs too!

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

The RNA Conference - Seminars and Shoes, Ceilings and Ghosts!

“Romantic fiction, at its best, has a lot of truth to say about the human heart. It gives readers the chance to dream and aspire.” So said Joanna Trollope, keynote speaker at this year’s RNA Conference summing up two of the most enduring and appealing aspects of the genre.

Yes, I’ve just returned from the Romantic Novelists Association annual conference, this year held at the Old Royal Naval College in Greenwich, London. As if the conference itself is not inspiring enough for a writer, to be in the surroundings of this extraordinary historical site was enough to take my breath away. Permanently. For the entire three days.

In Tudor times Greenwich Palace, reputedly Henry VIII’s favourite palace and the birthplace of Elizabeth I, lay on the site. Then in 1694 The Old Royal Naval College was established by charter with the aim of providing relief and support to seamen and their dependents. The site was planned by Sir Christopher Wren and during the first half of the eighteenth century various illustrious architects, such as Hawksmoor, Vanbrugh and James ‘Athenian’ Stuart completed the design. The outcome is magnificence on a vast scale as you can see here on the ORNC website.

The conference took place in Queen Anne Court, built between 1696 and 1733. To be walking (and enjoying our Saturday night barbecue!) in a place with such a long history and such illustrious connections was staggering. I attended the most stimulating and inspiring talks from, amongst others, jay Dixon on adding colour to your manuscript – literally a discussion of the effect that different colours can have on a story – and Susanna Kearsley on the fascinating byways of historical research. Sarah Duncan did one of the best presentations I have ever seen on the most common mistakes in manuscripts (and after my last book I needed that!) Kate Hardy was incredibly helpful to a pantser like me with her guide to planning your manuscript.

But it wasn’t all work! On Saturday afternoon I played truant from the conference for an hour and went to take a look at The Painted Hall. Christopher Wren had submitted the designs for the hall in 1698, and the roof and the dome above were already in place five years later. James Thornhill's decoration, however, took nineteen years to complete. For his ‘great and laborious undertaking’ Thornhill was paid by the yard – and eventually knighted. While Thornhill worked, more and more pensioners were coming to Greenwich. They couldn't eat in the Hall while he was working and once it was finished it was both too grand and too much of a tourist attraction to be used for regular dining.

The allegorical theme of the huge and exuberant Lower Hall ceiling is apparently the triumph of Peace and Liberty over Tyranny, and it pays due tribute to William and Mary and British maritime power. Within the oval frame are the four seasons represented. the most interesting is Winter, which was modelled by one of the Greenwich pensioners, John Worley, an energetic fellow who was still being punished for drunkenness and swearing at the age of 96. Beyond the arch in the Upper Hall (you can just see it in the photo) Queen Anne surveys the continents of the world. America is reputedly represented by an image of Pocahontas. On the west wall Anne's Hanoverian successors, George I and his family, are shown in sober glory. The whole Hall is overwhelming in scale. Fortunately mirrors are provided to help visitors avoid neck strain so we could all enjoy looking at the ceiling without the danger of injuring ourselves!

Once The Painted Hall was completed it stood empty until January 1806, when the body of Admiral Lord Nelson was brought here to lie in state after his death at the Battle of Trafalgar. It felt extraordinary to be standing on the spot where Nelson had lain and where so many people had come to pay tribute to him and his achievement.
In 1824 the Hall became the ‘National Gallery of Naval Art’ or Naval Gallery for short – and remained so until 1930s, when its contents were transferred to the newly created National Maritime Museum. By 1939 the Painted Hall was once again in use as a dining room. It remained in daily use until the Royal Navy's departure in 1998. On the day that we visited there was a wedding reception taking place in the hall which I should think would be the most memorable venue imaginable!

Our own dining was in no way inferior. On the Friday night we held our Gala Dinner in the Trafalgar Tavern. Built on the site of the Old George Inn in the year of Queen Victoria’s ascension, 1837, The Trafalgar Tavern is a stunning late Regency building. We took our pre-dinner champagne outside on one of the elegant balconies and for dinner I was lucky enough to sit in one of the bay windows with a view across the Thames to the City of London.

Oh, and a word on the accommodation. There wasn’t enough room for all of us in the purpose built new university accommodation so about 15 of us were in Devonport House, a five-minute walk away. I later discovered that the lawns fronting Devonport House used to be the main burial ground for the Greenwich Hospital and that there are still some monuments there plus the odd grave or two. This was a purpose-built graveyard that already included a mausoleum for officers built by Nicholas Hawksmoor between 1713 and 1714. When it was first built it had open arched columns but they were filled in sometime about 1820 and the whole building re-roofed, possibly to deter grave robbers. Admiral “Kiss me” or “Kismet” Hardy was buried there in 1837 as was Tom Allen, Nelson’s personal servant. When building work took place at Devonport House in the 1920s, 1247 skulls and 58 boxes of bones were dug up for removal to East Greenwich. Which puts an entirely different complexion on the things that went bump in the night whilst we were staying there!

All in all a fabulous time! Here I am at the barbecue with my wonderful editor Kim Young and last but not least, here is a pair of my conference shoes!

Thursday, July 8, 2010

July Website Contest

I'm mentioning my July website contest here on the blog because it is a very special one. I'm celebrating the fact that next month I will have be launching a beautiful new website - so this is the very last contest on the current site. The prize is an ARC of my new Regency historical Whisper of Scandal which is out in October. There's also a silver charm bracelet up for grabs. So if you would like an advance copy of Whisper of Scandal just click here to enter!

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Butterflies and Battlefields

A couple of weeks ago I played truant from the writing and went on a trip to Somerset. Somerset is one of my favourite places. I lived there for seven years in my haunted cottage and it's a place I love re-visiting whenever I can. It's a county that feels particularly steeped in history and folkore.

On this occasion I was combining some natural history with some English Civil War history. We were on a trip to find the Large Blue Butterfly at Collard Hill, a few miles from Glastonbury. The Large Blue died out in the UK in 1979 but has been brought back from UK extinction as a result of the re-introduction of butterflies from Sweden combined with some very hard work on the part of the National Trust to make sure it has exactly the right habitat and conditions to flourish. At Collard Hill visitors are allowed to wander freely trying to spot this rarest of butterflies.

We had a hot day for our visit and our sense of anticpation rose as we toiled up the hill in the sunshine. I was looking around for something the size of a Morpho, such as I had seen in Costa Rica. After all, this was called the Large Blue butterfly, clue in the name. As it turns out, the Large Blue is tiny. But it is bigger that the Small Blue so that makes sense. We spotted quite a number of them and they are exquisite. It was difficult to get a good look at them because they didn't keep still for long. It was even more difficult to get a photograph. They weren't really opening their wings much either as it was a breezy day and they are so small that when the wind blew they would get carried away. Even so it was a wonderful experience and lots of fun.

After the butterflies the battle, and we went to visit the site of the Battle of Marshal's Elm, August 4th 1642. This was one of the earliest battles - or more properly a skirmish - in the English Civil War. The Royalist Sir John Stawell led a troop of eighty horse to prevent the MP John Pyne and a troop of 600 Parliamentarian foot soldiers from reaching Shepton Mallet. Stawell drew up his troops on Walton Hill as the Parliamentarian column approached and sent dragoons to take up positions in quarry-pits at the foot of the hill in preparation for an ambush. The Parliamentarians faltered when the Royalist dragoons opened fire, then Lt Colonel Henry Lunsford led a charge down the hill with the rest of the cavalry. The inexperienced Parliamentarians broke and fled, leaving seven dead and twenty wounded. This was the start of a very active period in the Civil War in the South West of England. This is Walton Hill today (above) a place where the present tranquility hides a rather more martial past.

A couple of weeks ago I went to a talk about life during the Tudor and Stuart period in the villages around North Wiltshire. (Cue excuse to show a picture of Prince Rupert of the Rhine!) One of the most interesting slides was a graph showing death rates (it doesn't sound fascinating but it was!) So there would be peaks at times of national epidemic, such as the plague of 1665, and also local epidemics of influenza, cholera and typhus. But in the early 1640s there was the most enormous spike in deaths in the area which co-incided with the English Civil War. The nature of the war was as described above; there were some big set piece battles but a lot of the action was skirmishes between small groups of soldiers, which couldn't account for the huge increase in death rates in small villages. Most people weren't fighting - they were trying to go about their daily business. In fact only one person in my local village was killed by a soldier during the Civil War period. The speaker explained that the huge rise in the death rate was because of the Royalist and parliamentarian armies travelling through and occupying the area. Not only did they bring disease with them, a seventy percent increase, but they also stripped the countryside of all resources so that people were starving and so were far more likely to succumb to illness. This more than anything brought home to me the effect of something like a Civil War on the ordinary population.