We would have died that night, if it hadn’t been for the dog.

I’ve come the end of the first phase of editing. Reduced the manuscript from 104,381 to 93,924 losing over 10k words.

Not bad – unfortunately I celebrated by putting some words back. I had removed a scene which I didn’t think mattered. I decided it did matter, so back it went, suitably edited. I then had to get rid of the rubbish I had written to plug the gap. I now have a spare 746 words floating around looking for a home – I wonder if anyone would notice if I deleted them?

I didn’t much like the final chapter. I tried rewriting using a different Point of View, but it was worse.

I’m still not happy with the first chapter, even after the edit, but the first line isn’t bad. That’s it at the top of this post. Do you like it? Does it drag you in? Do you want to read the rest of the book? Don’t worry, it will probably change!

I have put it aside for a while, am having a rest, discovering that another life is happening out there. After several beautiful summer days of refusing to stir from the computer because “I just want to finish this edit.” I was lured out with the promise of a garden visit. A nice drive in the sun down the Fosse Way to Hidcote Manor Gardens. There was no way I would be tempted to think about anything Anglo-Saxon. Would Byrhtnoth have strolled round, inspecting the herbaceous borders or admiring the subtle blends of colour?

Hidcote Gardens, The Red Border

Hidcote Gardens, Fuchsia Garden

Which got me thinking – if he was alive today, what would my protagonist be doing? Probably not a gardener. A soldier seems the obvious choice, but I don’t know. Our heroes nowadays tend to be actors, singers, sportsmen. Some writers have a certain actor in mind – the person to play the character in the film. Chris Hemsworth as Thor has the right look for Byrhtnoth, but I wasn’t sure. Anyway, he’s not tall enough.

Then one day, when I watching some Rugby, I saw him. Richie Gray plays for Scotland (but I won’t hold that against him). He’s the right height 6ft 9in, blond hair, and a Rugby scrum is probably the closest you can come to a shield wall.

One of the known facts about the real Byrhtnoth is that he married a relative of the king. Wasn’t there a Rugby player who married a member of the royal family? And no, my Byrhtnoth doesn’t look like Mike Tindall!

I think I will end the comparison there, because I don’t like to think what the modern equivalent of the Battle of Maldon might be!

Brexit?

(Isn’t it amazing the number of different subjects you can cram in when you’ve got a blog post to fill?)

I don’t like August

Most people have a a favourite month. I quite like May with it’s promise of summer, and October; a month of autumn colour and fruits, December brings Christmas, then there is the relief of January and new year. Other months I tolerate, except they pass too quickly nowadays. But I don’t like August. I should – after all, it is the time of heat, holidays and nothing much to do. I’m sure I must have enjoyed it when I was young, that long school holiday, all that time to read!

Somehow I have come to dislike it. People die (see last two posts – sorry about those!) then a few days ago I was reminded, by the excellent Captain Thomas Bowrey blog that it was on the 12th of August, in 1704, that the ship Worcester was seized in Scotland. I have an interest in John Madder, although he died in April, but this was the event that led to it. Come to think of it – I’m not too keen on April.

We don’t often take holidays in August – too expensive, too crowded and we have found, too wet. Every time we have tried to go away in that month, it has rained.

But this year I am enjoying August. If it rains, I am glad. I shut myself away and edit. Enjoy editing? I can hear the shocked gasps! Perhaps I should say that I enjoy this stage of editing. I have written my first draft and I know my writing is bad (Please don’t shout in agreement!). When the words flow, I am not concentrating on perfect prose, I just need to get it down. That is why I enjoy the editing. I now know what is wrong, and I can put it right.

I know my spelling is erratic. I know I have a tendency to use the passive voice and my verbs are progressive rather than simple (see that “am not concentrating” above? – it should be “do not concentrate”). As for my punctuation, we will ignore that for now – as I usually do!

Just for fun, here is something, picked at random and how I dealt with it.

We raced along the hard sand, close to the waves. The wind had picked up and the waves were larger. We laughed as we tried to dodge their attack upon the shore. Then the torrent of rain hit us. The shape of Bebbenburgh disappeared. We slowed slightly; there was no point in breaking a horse’s leg, or our own necks on some hidden obstacle. (64 words)

The first thing is that Spellcheck didn’t like “Bebbenburgh”. I’m not sure about it myself! About half the book takes place at Bamburgh. I am still undecided on which version to use – the modern or contemporary to the story. The text is scattered with alternate versions. This is something I will sort out later – decide which to use, and the spelling, and do a mass correction.

The next thing – is this scene actually needed? Does it progress the plot, or can I delete it? It follows a rather static scene; a conversation where characters exchange pieces of back story. A bit too much telling instead of showing. There has to be some “telling”,  but with this scene I can “show” what the characters feel about it.

How this scene is edited depends on the situation. For example, if they were being chased by rampaging Vikings, I would choose short sentences, get rid of surplus detail. It might end up something like:
We raced along the beach, dodging spears. The rain hit. Vision narrowed. We rode faster.
Down from 64 words to 15 and much more exciting, you feel your heart beat faster in response.

But there are no Vikings, they are riding for pleasure, they have enjoyed their conversation. They are excited, not terrified. Are there any words we can get rid of?

In the first sentence, would “across” be better than “along”? More suggestive of speed?

I mention the waves twice. Everyone knows that the hard sand is close to the waves, we can delete that phrase.

I have previously mentioned the wind, so no problem with it picking up, but that “had” is clumsy and the linking “and”. Merge the two events into one.

The torrent of rain is OK, but is that “us” really needed? Why not an example of how heavy the rain is, how it affects them?

The shape of Bebbenburgh disappeared. They are riding along the beach towards it, of course they can see it to start with (and not just the shape of it!). The rain comes, so heavy that it disappears , but it isn’t the only thing that disappears, the beach, sea, sky also disappear.  Just say “Everything”? (I’m not sure about this, I must think of a different word.)

How do you slow “slightly”? Another word gone.

Then that final sentence: again two clumsy phrases connected in this case by “or”. Can I amalgamate them, anyway isn’t breaking your neck more important than the horse’s leg?

Finally, what about that hidden obstacle? If it wasn’t hidden they would see and avoid it. It isn’t needed.

So, final version:

We raced across the hard sand. Wind drove the waves higher and we laughed as we dodged their attack upon the shore. A torrent of rain hit, drenching us to the skin, and everything disappeared. We slowed, no point breaking our necks or a horse’s leg. (46 words)

I think it reads better, the action is sharper, the emotion clearer, and I have avoided the Bebbenburgh question.

This fragment has reduced from 64 to 46 words. Then it’s on to the next sentence – that’s editing for you.

I started editing a manuscript of 104,542 words. With about 15k to go, I’m at 95,174. Not sure if I’ll get down to 90k, but I’m a lot closer!

And in case you wondered, “we” were not on the beach in August, it was the end of October! If you want to find out what they were doing there, and why they were laughing, I’ll be looking for Beta readers, as soon as I’ve finished this round of editing!!

Bamburgh beach in August 2005

 

and in August 2016!

Elegy for a Dead Warrior – 10th August 991

On this day, in 991, Byrhtnoth died at the Battle of Maldon.

In his memory I give you a piece of writing. A version of it acted as a prologue to my book, but was discarded in the editing.

I hope you enjoy it.

Elegy for a Dead Warrior 

It has come. The day I never thought to see. My friend is dead.

We were of an age, but I thought I would be the first to go. Not him, so strong and vital.

We talked briefly when he passed through Ely, a few brief days ago. We spoke of old times, a little about the battle to come, but nothing of the future. We both knew the truth; that he would die. It was his time.

I followed behind the battle host. They moved fast, eager for the fight. I brought a slow cart, with which to carry his body home.

Now it is finished. The sea wolves have gone, their boats sliding away, back to the sea. Triumphant but sorely depleted. They will not be back again this year. Perhaps next, but who will there be to send them home then, now he is dead?

He did his duty, now I must do mine. The field is wide. The earth cut and bloodied from the fight. The smell of blood and death overwhelms me. There are others, searching for friends and relatives, hoping against hope that they will find a living body and not a corpse. Some perhaps look for plunder. They will look in vain; the victors will have taken everything of value.

It is difficult to walk. I slip and fall to my knees. As I struggle to stand the body beside me moves. Is he alive still? No. Just the tug on his scattered guts that gave him the semblance of life and like a child’s toy he drops back to his everlasting sleep. I sketch a cross above his body and move on. The course wool of my cassock feels damp against my legs. At least the blood, and worse, will not show against the black Benedictine cloth.

As I try to identify the lines of battle, the world turns red. The sky reflects the blood spilled on the ground below. The sun sinks towards the nearby town, set upon its hill. Flat land and water surrounds it. Ahead the island floats; separate, for now, from the land. That must be where the bridge joined it to this land, for there is the greatest spread of bodies.

As I approach, I recognise some faces, or if they have no faces, the colour of some clothing or a pair of shoes. There is old Edward, my lord’s steward. What is he doing here? He should be at home, preparing for the harvest or sitting, watching his grandchildren play. Why did he come? To serve his lord, of course. It was his duty. But who is left to harvest the crops now?

I move on, the bodies thick on the ground now, the wounds greater. He must be here, in the heart of the battle dead. Ah, there is Wulfmaer, cheeks rosy in the dying light, but beneath the lying glow, cold and bloodless. His eyes stare into mine, surprised in death. I close them and remember. He was son of my lord’s sister, brought up by him, who had no sons to call his own. So many men’s sons came to him, when he was great in fame, to be trained in weapons, to learn to become great men, but none as great as him.

Close by is Aelfwine, another kinsman of my lord. I knew his father, his grandfather as well. His uncle was an Ealdorman of Mercia for many years. Young Aelfwine will never attain such high rank now.

A flash of colour holds my eye. This was my lord’s banner, sewn by his wife. She will mourn his loss, perhaps. She has long wanted to embroider a cloth to celebrate his great deeds. A modest man, he always forbade it. Now she will have her way. Perhaps she will hang it in the Abbey, above his grave, for men to remember him, evermore. I smooth the cool silk. I need no reminder.

He must be somewhere near. I search the gloom. The light is fading. There! A hand. I crawl closer. Yes, that is his. Long fingers relaxed that should be clasped around his sword’s hilt. I trace the scars that map the surface. Some old wounds, barely visible, others new, red raw, unhealed.

It is hard to see now. Either the fall of night or tears dim my eyes, I know not which. I run my hand up the arm. It is starting to grow stiff. I must straighten it before the immobility of death falls upon his body. A wound near separates limb from body, nothing else could have caused him to drop his sword. This is what caused his death. Without his golden hilted sword he could not fight, and so he died. What other wounds will I find upon his body?

I reach the shoulder, still broad and strongly muscled, even after all these years. He may have been a venerable adviser to the king, but he never let himself grow soft. I hesitate. Something is not right. I stretch my hand to touch his face and encounter… nothing. I hold my breath and feel the blood, still sticky, that covers the knob of bone that is all that remains. Was he dead when it happened, or did that noble blood spurt like a fountain to mark his murderers?

Once he stood tall, towering above others. Now he is diminished, reduced to the stature of an ordinary man. The enemy knew his worth. They have taken the head of this famous warrior, to prove their own prowess in battle. Thieves steal honour that they cannot achieve themselves.

I arrange the body. Straighten the long legs and place his arms at his side. I tumble other bodies away. I would know who they are, but I do not care, they are mere lumps of meat, I feel around the blood sodden ground for his sword. It is not there. Did one of his companions scoop it up to continue the fight, or was that taken as well by the invaders?

It is quiet now. I hear the distant sound of celebration from the town. Why do they celebrate when my lord is dead? Because they are safe; safe to eat and drink, then go to their beds without fear. While he lies here, on the old ground, his duty done. They think the raiders have gone forever. They have not. They will be back, but who will defend this land then? The councillors who advise the king say that our land is rich. We can afford to pay them to go away. It will fail. They will always come back, greedy for our gold. Then when we have no more to give them, they will come and take our land as well, and make us slaves.

A mournful note echoes across the field of dead. A pale shape floats on silent wings. Another soul ascending to heaven? Or just an owl hunting for a meal? Other animals will be searching for food. I must remain and defend his body until the day returns. It will not be hard; the nights are short this time of year. I will sit here beside him and pray for his soul. And remember. So much to remember.

Days were warmer then and winters colder. The sun always shone. We would ride all day, racing on the hills or hunting in the forest. Our horses were strong and our dogs were swift. I remember hunting wolves in the north. He still possessed the skin of one. Whose body will it warm now? I remember fishing in the rivers, the fish were shinier and their flesh more tender than those I find on my plate nowadays.

At night we would eat and drink. Many times the mead horn would circulate and we would drink deep of it. We would listen to the scop, telling tales of heroes long ago. Later we would boast of our own deeds; our battles always ended in victory. Then there were the women… but monks are not supposed to think of that.

Life was so much simpler then. A man knew what he should do and did it. Not like now, when everything is politics and rich men strive for more riches, even the churchmen. Especially the churchmen. Have times changed or is it we who have grown old?

They say the world will end soon; a thousand years after the birth of Our Saviour. I will see my friend again, if not before. I do not think I will long outlive him. But I have work to do.

Does the sky brighten? Nearby, the dark treacherous river laps against a muddy shore. Is the bridge covered now, or open to the island? Yesterday it was important but now it no longer matters. A gentle breeze stirs the battle stink. Somewhere a bird begins to sing. Soon the cart will come. I stretch my legs, stiff from the night watch.

I find the piece of silk and before it light enough to see the damage, I place it over the area of his missing head. Despite the desecration, I am glad I do not have to look into his dead eyes. That I could not have borne. I puzzle at the white feathers that move in the wind. No, not feathers; wisps of hair, white as swan’s down. Shorn from his beard when his head was roughly hacked off. I carefully collect them and save them between the pages of my prayer book. I will place them in the coffin, most of them. Perhaps one small tuft I will keep, for remembrance.

People return, some with pallets or carts to carry away their friends. Others bring spades to bury the unknown dead. Soon the grass will grow again, thicker than before, fed by the blood spilt here. Eventually they will forget that anything important ever happened, in this field beside the cold dark Panta river.

It must not be forgotten. That will be my final work.

We will take his broken body to Ely. I will wash it in and anoint it with precious oils. I will wrap it with costly cloths and place it in the coffin. A ball of scented beeswax, studded with his hair, to replace his head.

Then, when all is over.

When I have spoken to those few men that survived or witnessed from afar.

Then I will select the palest, smoothest parchment. I will grind the finest colours to make the ink. I will find the best of geese, select the straightest of their feathers and cut them to the perfect point.

Then I will write. I will tell the story of this battle on the field near Maldon.

I will tell of the words they spoke and the weapons they used.

And I will tell of the death of the great Lord Byrhtnoth, son of Byrhthelm, Ealdorman of Essex, leader of the army of Aethelraed, King of England.

My friend.

© Christine Hancock 2017

Sutton Hoo through time

If you mention Anglo-Saxons, the first thing most people think about is Sutton Hoo – the famous helmet and shield, the beautiful jewellery and the mounds that stand on a hill near Woodbridge in Suffolk. In recent years the Staffordshire Hoard has become famous, but it was probably made by the same artists, and in the same place as the Sutton Hoo treasure.

Since I am writing about the Anglo-Saxon period, I must take my characters to Sutton Hoo. After all, Byrhtnoth was Ealdorman of Essex, not far away. But what was the site like when he visited? The Anglo-Saxon period lasted a long time – over four hundred years from the 7th century to 1066. Byrhtnoth died in 991. I wanted his sword to have a beautiful gold and garnet hilt, but he lived too late. King Rædwald, probable owner of the treasure died about 624. It would be like a modern soldier using a flintlock pistol. I don’t suppose swords changed that much, but how they were decorated would. A warrior would be ashamed to wear “last season’s” sword. And Byrhtnoth was a Christian, no one was buried in burial mounds with treasure any more. You gave it to the church to pray for your soul

Sutton Hoo has meant many things to many different people. As you will see, I am one of them.

There were prehistoric farmers on the site, the woodland was cleared in the neolithic period, they placed pots in pits there. There were bronze age roundhouses but the land became infertile and farming was abandoned, used for sheep and cattle. Farming returned in the Romano-British period, perhaps growing grape vines. Then came the Anglo-Saxons.

A little while ago I read Monsters by C R May the third of his Sword of Woden series about Beowulf, which includes a scene where Beowulf himself visits Sutton Hoo and buries a body there.  It’s fiction, but a nice idea,  someone must have made the first burial there. It was followed by others.

There are about 17 burial mounds at Sutton Hoo, dating to the sixth and early seventh centuries. King Rædwald ruled from 599 to around 624. He was the greatest of the East Anglian kings. He defeated Northumbria, installing Edwin as king. He was called Bretwalda, chief of all the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. Therefore we assume he was the king buried with the great treasure, but we cannot truly know. Who was buried in the other mounds? His relatives and family? Possessions of both men and women have been found; one boy was buried with his horse. On this hilltop, the clan of the Wuffingas demonstrated their power.

By Byrhtnoth’s time there was no longer a king of East Anglia. King Alfred’s Wessex had expanded to form a single country, England. Danes had invaded the eastern part of the country. Æthelstan was Ealdorman of East Anglia. He was called half-king because of his power. In later life he became a monk at Glastonbury and presumably buried there, his sons were buried at Ramsey Abbey. Sutton Hoo had been abandoned, at least by royalty. Archaeologists have discovered graves from the later Anglo-Saxon period. There was a gallows on one of the mounds and criminals were buried there.

So it stayed, seemingly forgotten, until the 20th century, but not untouched. A boundary ditch was dug, destroying part of the largest mound, so looters in the 16th century missed the burial. although other mounds had been robbed.

Now, a slight diversion. Before I became a writer, I was a genealogist, in fact that was what started me writing. I gradually became interested in one unusual name, Madder. The family came from Norfolk and I got stuck in the mid 18th century. In my efforts to break this brick wall I extended my search. I came across a family of that name in Suffolk. They lived in Sutton. I didn’t realise the significance of this until I was transcribing the will of Robert Mather (both names appear in records for this family) in 1639. He leaves the property etc “in which I dwell called the Howe”.

Line from will of Robert Mather 1639 (Suffolk Record Office ref:
IC/AA1/77/74

Old map (date unknown) from website of The Sutton Hoo Society

Robert is referred to as “gentleman”. There are twelve wills of the Madder/Mather family dating back to 1474, early members were “yeoman”. They owned the site of Sutton Hoo, they became richer over the years – Robert’s son, Henry moved away and I lost track of them. Are they related to my family? Did they dig up some of the Anglo-Saxon treasure?

I will leave it there for now.

There were a few digs in the 19th century, but it was not until 1939 that the then landowner, Mrs Edith Pretty, employed Basil Brown, a self-taught archaeologist, to dig the largest mound.

When he found the burial chamber the dig was taken over by “professionals”. It was the eve of WW2 and the objects were whisked away to the British Museum. A later coroners inquest awarded everything to Mrs Pretty, who eventually donated the collection to the BM. There is an interesting book, The Dig by John Preston which tells the story of the 1939 events. Fiction, but it gives a good description of the atmosphere and the characters involved.

This should be the end of the story, but there is one more event in the history of this place.

In July 2002, it was my birthday. I was visiting my parents in Essex and decided what we would do. We had visited Sutton Hoo before, but the National Trust had recently opened in new visitor centre, the British Museum had loaned objects. We would go there, have lunch, visit the display and walk around the site.

At this time my father (centre in the above picture) had health problems; he had trouble gripping things with his hands and sometimes swallowing, but he walked round the site (We told him that although he had problems with his hands, his legs were OK.) and enjoyed the day out. Three weeks later he went into hospital, for tests. Motor Neurone Disease was diagnosed, I visited him (he was in a London Hospital.) and we talked about how he would cope, make alterations to their house. He died, peacefully, three days later, on 4th August 2002. Exactly fifteen years ago last Friday.

I don’t know why; perhaps I had a premonition, but I took a photograph of him at Sutton Hoo, standing outside the exhibition, beneath a representation of the Sutton Hoo helmet. It is the last picture I took of him.

Sutton Hoo has a long and interesting history, that is why have included it in my book (you will have to wait to see how). It is also a special place for me.

RIP Kenneth Bernard Madder-Smith (1926-2002)

 

 

Where are my characters going?

When we talk about a character’s “journey” we are usually talking about his (or her) emotional or spiritual journey, But what about the physical, boots on the ground, journey? There are the obstacles, the bumps in the road. There is the weather and where to seek shelter. Why is the journey necessary? But also, there is the decision on which way to go, especially with historical fiction.

Recently, by compete coincidence, I was following the same route that my protagonist was taking, in book two. Of course I was in a comfortable car and he was walking, but we were both following the same road to the north. I started a bit further south, but the section I am thinking of is from York northwards, nowadays the A68, in his day perhaps Dere Street. One of the great Roman roads that continued to be the main travel routes in Anglo-Saxon times and still serve today.

I have been thinking a lot about why roads are where they are. Rivers came first and it is difficult to move a river, so roads had to go where rivers permitted. Most rivers, close to the sea, are difficult to cross. The road must cross where the river was narrow enough to ford, or someone has built a bridge. Ships can sail up rivers – usually to roughly the same point as the road crosses. That is where a town is built. Nowadays roads can go anywhere, across rivers, under hills, even under the sea, but look at a map and you can see the same arrangement of roads laid down by the Romans, often following more ancient prehistoric track ways.

The Portgate on Hadrian’s Wall. What would it have looked like when Byrhtnoth passed this way?

I can look out of the car window and see the same hills and rivers, my character saw, over a thousand years ago. Although the architecture and vegetation may have changed, the bones of the country are the same. Stand on the Holy Island of Lindisfarne and you can see Bamburgh Castle (or you can if it’s not raining, as when I was there recently!)

Have you ever looked at a map and noticed a cluster of those little crossed sword symbols that mark a battle site? Close to York we passed Fulford and Stamford Bridge (1066) and Towton (1461). I’m not sure about Towton, but the other two demonstrate the ford/bridge connection. Battle sites are usually close to one of those road/river pinch points.

Heading North – was that the right junction?

I hope you don’t think that these thoughts were distracting me from driving. I was the passenger, or perhaps I should say, performing the more important job of navigator. I find these long journeys are good for thinking, and thinking nowadays means thinking about my writing. When you are on a motorway and the next instruction is 20+ junctions away, you have nothing to do. Normally, when I have the unusual experience of “nothing to do”, I read – difficult in a car – although there are times when I have been desperate enough! We could listen to the radio, but that is difficult with the noise of a motorway. So I sit, looking out the window. Sometimes there are things to look at. Everything passes quickly but sometimes, something will catch your eye; a certain arrangement of clouds, a house in an unusual place, a group of people or just one person. You have no time to study it but you continue thinking about it, you weave a story around it, it might be the start of a new book, or just a brief scene in what you are writing now.

If the journey is boring, as motorways often are, I drift off into my book, enjoyable scenes or something that is causing problems. On our recent trip I started thinking about book three. With book one with the publisher and book two in the midst of editing, I allowed myself to catch the individual strands that had started to float around my brain; in which order should they be placed? How do I connect them together? The main characters are easy – I have a rough idea about their future, although that may change (I have already killed someone off and resurrected them!) It is the minor characters, the ones that pop in and out, how can I re-use them – recycle rather than invent new ones?

I started getting confused, it was difficult remembering what happened in which book. I was horrified to find myself thinking: I really could do with a notebook, to write things down.  Now anyone who reads this blog regularly knows that I am not a planner. Am I changing? I can’t imagine doing anything as drastic as actually dividing the book into chapters – before I’d written a word!

Perhaps a timeline, or a few brief biographies, even a family tree. And of course I’ll need a map, to track where people are and how long they take to get there.

But definitely not post-it notes!

Finally, with all this travelling about, I have lost track of where I had got to with recording my editing progress. So I will give a general overview. I have divided book two into four sections, well three sections and a bit on the end. With this edit I have got through the first two (roughly half way). 47,448 words have been reduced to 44,460, a loss of around three thousand words. There is a scene that I have decided to cut, perhaps another. I have hopes I will get under 100,00, perhaps closer to the planned 90k.

So – I’d better get back to it. I have been told I will be getting the book one proofs “sometime”.

Digging at #Lindisfarne – a beginners guide

Last year I came across plans for an archaeological excavation on Lindisfarne, to find the remains of the original Anglo-Saxon monastery; a crowd funded project run by DigVentures.

I have been interested in archaeology for a long time – watching it on TV, reading about it and attending talks at  Rugby Archaeological Society. I have always wanted to “have a go” but had accepted I was too inexperienced, too old and lacked the time to take on another new hobby.

But this was one of those unusual digs that was looking at the Anglo-Saxon period. I studied the website – there were various options. I could become a Digital Digger – In other words, I could sit at home and keep up to date with what happened, day by day with information; videos, some live, everything other than actually being there on the ground. I would also be listed in the report and I picked the option to receive a special team t-shirt.

I enjoyed the event, it became “my” excavation.

When, later, their (our) discovery of a rare Anglo-Saxon namestone was featured on the BBC TV series, Digging For Britain, I was hooked. When it was announced that the team would be returning to Lindisfarne, I wondered. Could I actually go? Could I take part in the dig? Again there were various options – the whole dig, a week, a weekend, a single day. I settled for a single day – if I made a fool of myself, it wouldn’t matter. I checked tide timetables (see below) and accommodation (at the Blue Bell Inn in Belford, where we had stayed on our visit last year.) and in a rush of enthusiasm, we booked – two people to dig on Sunday 23rd July 2017. This is about that day.

By the time we drove up to Northumbria on the Friday, we knew the weather was not going to be good. On Saturday we spent some time in Berwick. We got halfway round the walls before it started raining, so not quite a washout. Then early Sunday morning we headed for Holy Island. We had been asked to report at 9.00 am. The causeway was open by that time. We had to leave by 1.05 pm or stay until 7.30 pm. We had paid for our day, we would be there for the day. It stayed dry(ish) until we reached the car park.

Causeway to Lindisfarne, but where is the island?

Pilgrim’s route back to the mainland.

When we got to the Site Hut (the village Reading Room) well before 9.00 we were already wet. We found a notice on the door saying work would not begin until 9.30. There were already people waiting, so we joined them. Gradually more arrived.  Finally the room, it was not very big, was full of about 20 people and two dogs, all damp.

Site Hut in Lindisfarne village

Someone eventually arrived who knew what was going on, and after some discussion, most people left for the dig site, leaving four newbies, us, another one day digger and someone who had met the organisers in the pub. We were given the introductory talk, filled in forms (including next of kin – how dangerous was this archaeology?), and had our photos taken (to distinguish us from the skeletons in the trench?). Finally, trowels in hand we were marched, through the village, to the actual excavation.

Approaching the excavation.

Health and Safety talk – basically, watch where you put your feet!

One of the two skeletons already found. The other is under the plastic sheet!

We stood in the rain for a talk on health and safety – keep away from the edges, don’t slip over etc. We were given a look at one of the two skeletons that have been found. Both have now been raised and will be on their way to Durham University for further study. Apart from these complete skeletons there were pieces of bone scattered all over the site. This was probably the monk’s cemetery and the upper level had been disturbed by later ploughing, or levelling for the Norman monastery, whose ruins loomed over our trench.

We were told to find a shovel and bucket – I found a shovel, but all the buckets were being used and at last we were led into the other half of the trench.  We were shown where to dig and left to get on with it. I tried to find somewhere to kneel – there was a pile of rocks in the way, and there were no kneelers left either, but I had a plastic bag with me, so I used that, together with the gardening gloves we had been told to bring. Later I realised that I should have worn the gloves – they keep your hands comparatively clean. Have you ever tried to use a mobile phone to take photos with muddy hands? I’m surprised it still works!

Trenches of the four “beginners” Mine at the top with plastic bag and red trowel. “Bone” below next trowel.

So what was it like? Actually digging on an archaeological site? Well, imagine kneeling on a hard rough surface, bones and rocks sticking out of the ground all around. You are focused on the small patch of ground in front of you. You must scrape away the top centimetre of this soil. When you have scrapped enough soil, you shovel it up, twist round and dump it in the bucket behind you (oh, someone must have found one!). All this in the pouring rain. I seemed to be faced with a solid mass of sticky soil – a few feet away others seemed to have better soil, but mine stuck to the trowel, it had to be scraped off, onto the shovel, then into the bucket. What if I missed something important, or more worrying, what if I did find something? We only had about an hour of this before things were called off because of the weather, but I enjoyed every minute – apart from the rain running down my neck.

So did I find anything? My Better Half kneeling beside me (with the better soil, or was it just his technique?) found a lump of something shiny. It looked like glass to start with, but it caused some interest – it got listed as a small find. It was entered into the computer system there and then, numbered, and put in a small plastic bag of its own. There were a few problems writing the number on the bag in the rain, but it is now in the database (the find is registered to me, because only my name was in the system!) You can find the details here, number 54 “Black unidentifiable shiny object maybe production waste”. That is the wonderful thing about DigVenture digs – everything is recorded immediately and put online, for anyone to look at.

He also found a bone starting to appear in his area. What did I find? A stone, that turned out to be “just a stone” and was chucked in the bucket, and an earthworm, alive. I didn’t think I needed to report that.

There was a break at about 11 and I went up on the Hough to take some pictures, but the rain was coming down even heavier. By the time I got back, the dig had been abandoned for the day.

 

Heavy rain – discussion  on whether to abandon excavation!

We all trooped back to the Site Hut. There was fiddle playing and birthday cake – we were not sure whose birthday it was, but we sang happy birthday and accepted a piece of cake – it was very good. There was a lot of waiting around and discussions as to who would go and who stay. If anyone wanted to leave the island, they had to go before the causeway flooded at 1.05. A lot of the “regulars” disappeared, but we were determined to stay. We were sent off to find some lunch, but we had a walk around the village – for some reason the rain had stopped!

When we returned, we were offered some work, washing finds. “Bone or stone?” we were asked. We picked bone, it sounded more interesting. So we were settled at the table with a washing up bowl of water, a pot of wooden skewers and toothpicks (for removing soil) and toothbrushes (for cleaning). We were given a finds tray (which gardeners would recognise as a seed tray) containing a mixture of soil and small pieces of bone. This kept us busy for hours (BH found a tooth – well what else are tooth brushes for?). I liked the pieces of skull – flat both sides and no awkward corners, but most of what we cleaned could have been anything. We enjoyed it so much, that when we had finished the box, we asked for more, but bigger. We did longer bits of bone and vertebrae etc. We hung on for a while past 5.00 when we were due to leave – just to finish that box. It was wet and messy, but surprisingly restful.

Washing Finds in the Reading Room.

We helped to pack things away, but then had to say goodbye. There were over two hours to kill before we could leave, so we decided to return to our car to change out of our boots. We had planned to find somewhere for a drink, but the rain was too heavy – we couldn’t face any more. We had water and “emergency rations” in the car, so stayed there. I had my Kindle and read for a while (Edwin: High King of Britain by Edoardo Albert – I do like to coordinate my books with my activities!) plus a recording of Hilary Mantel’s Reith Lecture “Can These Bones Live?” which seems an appropriate way to end this post; writing and bones.

Rain through car windscreen.

We made our way back to our hotel, in time for dinner. It had been an exhausting day, but one I shall never forget. Thank you DigVentures for having us.

Will I do it again? I’ll let you know when I’ve dried out!

Review – King Hereafter

I don’t know why I never read any of Dorothy Dunnett’s books. I was aware of her as an author – I had noticed a set of books set in 15th century Italy, but it was not a period that interested me. It was only once I started to write myself, and take notice of what other authors thought, that I realised that many writers of historical fiction revered her. I wanted to find out why.

Two years ago I bought a copy of King Hereafter. I started reading and knew that this was something special. It is a long book, over 700 pages, and I was busy. I wanted time to savour it, so I put it to one side. Recently I came back to it and last night I got to the end. I am still held in its spell and want to get down my thoughts while they are fresh.

For those who have never read it, this is the story of Macbeth, but not Shakespeare’s Macbeth. This is the real man, Thorfinn, Earl of Orkney, who might have become King of Scotland, if Scotland had existed at that time. Because of him, it nearly did. It is the story of one man’s life, but also the story of a whole world.

The Macbeth we think we know is set in Scotland, a country north of England. This book opens out to reveal the whole world; of the interconnections between countries when borders were fluid, of families connected by blood and marriage, where who you married was sometimes more important than who your father was and cousins could be friends or enemies depending on circumstances.

Thorfinn is sent to England, to the court of King Canute and his wife Emma, who controls events like a spider in a web. He meets Earl Leofric of Mercia, and his wife Godiva (who had ever considered that Macbeth probably met Lady Godiva?). Thorfinn is an heir to Orkney, he must fight for his share. Later, he gains Alba, by battle and keeps it by marriage to the widow of the previous king. It becomes a great love story.

Movement is central to the story. The action moves, with Thorfinn, not just across Scotland and the isles, but to Norway and Denmark. There is a long journey to Rome to meet the Pope. Always Thorfinn, plans, makes alliances. It is only towards the end of this trip that you realise that one reason for the journey is to bind together the young men who will be the leaders of the future, the heir of his ideas, if not his body.

The book is about religion. Not just the conflict between Christian and Pagan, but the different branches of the church. It is important that the bishop that controls your priests, is consecrated by the right person, for whichever king controls him has power over you, and your country.

I was astounded by the authors breadth of knowledge, how could she know so much about the period. I had occasion to look up some fact (I think it was the date the “historical” Macbeth died.) and found that there are little known facts about his life. In fact, the merging of the characters Torfinn of Orkney and Macbeth the king is only speculation. But the world she has created, is so real that you believe it happened as she tells it, or if it didn’t, it should have. It explains so well the state of the world in the mid-eleventh century, the rise of Harold Godwinson in England, the battles of William for possession of Normandy, the arrival of that other Harold from the east, to take over the throne of Norway. Men who would meet a few years later, in 1066, to decide the direction history would take.

But enough of history. If all the characters were fantasy, it would still be worth reading, so beautifully is it written. There are great set pieces; The firing of the hall at Ophir where Thorfinn and his wife nearly die and the storm, again on Orkney which acts as the trigger for the final downfall.

And the battle which ends at Dunsinane, four chapters, sixty odd pages of frantic action, fighting, riding across the landscape of Scotland, moments, only moments, of rest. The plot twists, from success to failure and back, as allegiances change or fade away, there is bluff and double bluff, treachery on every side. But still, there is time for beauty. From page 616, but I could have picked an example from almost any page. Siward waits outside Dunsinane:

Above, the sky hung, changing colour like fine China silk, with homing birds on its surface like powder. Here, emptied by space of all texture, men’s voices spoke and called and were thrown back from hill to hill, as every channel glinted with spears and with acorn helmets of dulled steel or leather and shields like shells on a necklace. Behind, when he twisted round, he saw that the black smoke obscuring the sun had been joined by another burst, this time of pure flame, rising over the river. He said, “It looks as if Perth has gone…”

It then continues, for a page with practical discussion on when to attack. The section ends:

Ligulf was smiling. The black moustaches opened like pincers. “No indeed,” Ligulf said. “So what were you thinking of?
And smiled all the time that he listened, so that Siward thought the moustache-ends would be hooked on his ears.

I could quote much more, but I haven’t the time, or space.

I was dreading the end. I knew there would be death. The death of a man I had come to love. A man who had started with nothing, achieved so much with his strength and intelligence and lost it through forces he was unable to control. I delayed the last few pages, until I was alone. I knew I would cry, I am close to tears now.

The ending was heartrending, but magnificent, the only way it could end. A man must die but his memory lives on.

A quote from near the end, Thorfinn and his stepson Lulach, who sees things.

“What am I thinking? I was wondering,” said Thorfinn slowly, “what story the river will carry of me?”
Lulach smiled his sweet smile, and his swan-white hair shone in the sunshine. “So many stories,” he said, “that a thousand years from today, every name from this world will have faded save those of yourself and your lady. That is immortality.”

I do not just cry for the death of a man. I cry because I now know that this is the sort of book I want to write – and I know I never shall.

A book like this takes great talent and a lifetime of writing. It is too late for me. If I had read this earlier, would I have started writing earlier, or is it only now that I know a little about writing that I can appreciate it?

Who know? I’ll just have to try my best – it’s all anyone can do.