Book Review – Death’s Bright Angel

One of the best things about the recent Historical Novel Society Conference was the Bookstall and the opportunity to buy a book and get it signed by the author.

I bought a few books, not too many – at least I could still lift my suitcase when I departed. Since the conference coincided with the 350th Anniversary of the Great Fire of London, I bought two books on that theme. I might buy a third; the reading by C. C. Humphreys at the Gala Dinner whetted my appetite.

I will write reviews of them all, but I start with Death’s Bright Angel by J. D. Davies. I didn’t actually buy this at the Conference. I had ordered it and intended to meet the author to get it signed. The book was released on 30th August but it didn’t arrive until after I had left home – thank you Amazon! I understand that copies arrived at the conference bookstall eventually.

Part of my haul from HNSOxford16

Part of my haul from HNSOxford16

Death’s Bright Angel is the sixth in the Quinton Journals series by J D Davies and Matthew Quinton has learned a few things. In the first of this series this Gentleman Captain knew nothing about sailing a ship – now he does. The book opens with a battle, a duel rather, between two ships. England is at war with both Holland and France and Matthew is searching the North Sea for their fleets. The ship he finds is French and they fight it out, cannons blazing and blood staining the decks, until one surrenders. Matthew wins, but his ship is damaged.

This theme continues. Success, but at a cost. He enthusiastically helps to burn the Dutch merchant fleet, an action to hit the economy of Holland and perhaps provoke rebellion. The destruction of a nearby, innocent village causes him to think again.

He is summoned back to England by the King and tasked with investigating a possible Dutch plot against the country. His pregnant wife is angry. She is Dutch and Matthew has bankrupted her father – his ships were among those burned. She has more to worry about when she discovers that her husband is working with the beautiful and enticing Aphra Behn, writer and secret agent. As the heat rises in early September 1666, Matthew Quinton, racked with guilt, must find the conspirators. What do they plan?

A fire starts in London, the East wind blows, the fire spreads. Should Matthew help to fight the fire or save his wife? Did the Dutch start the fire, or do they plan something worse?

This book is a thrilling race against time, combining action with a vast knowledge about the period. Historical characters make their appearances, King Charles II and his brother James, Samuel Pepys buries his cheese. The reader is there, in London during the Great Fire, walking, or rather running, through the streets, dodging the flames, pulling down houses and rescuing innocent people from xenophobic mobs.

There is more to this book, though, than a good read. Instead of the usual historical notes at the end, there is an essay, raising new theories about the causes of the Great Fire of London. The author is an expert on the period and has looked into original documents. When you consider that the burning of the Dutch ships occurred only two weeks before London’s fire, it would be difficult to conclude that there was no connection. Or perhaps it was just an out of control baker’s fire.

Two books for the price of one – what more could you want?

My next review will be The Ashes of London by Andrew Taylor

My first #HistFic Conference #HNSOxford16

Apologies for the strange title – I’ve been doing rather a lot of Tweeting recently!

Last week I promised to write about the Historical Novel Society conference in Oxford. With getting on for 300 attendees: writers, readers and others interested in writing historical novels, most of whom probably write blogs, why write another? Why read another?

Because I promised, and I always keep my promises and also because everyone’s experience will be different. This is mine.

I arrived at St Anne’s College about 4.30 Friday afternoon, pushed out of a car further down the road (where were you supposed to park?) in a torrential downpour. It didn’t seem like an auspicious start. A change of clothes and a cup of coffee later and I was ready to cross the road to the Andrew Wiles Building. Of course I was early, but there seemed to be no-one about – eventually I realised everything was happening downstairs. I collected my badge, picked out a goody bag and settled down to rummage through it. I discovered that others were more interested in the weight of the bag, rather than the contents. They were those who had travelled from afar – I was amazed to discover how many had come from the U.S. It put my one and a half hour drive in perspective.

Goody Bags

Plenty of Goody Bags – which to pick?

Then it was time for the official Welcome and “The Big House Story” – a conversation with Fay Weldon and Jo Baker. This was an interesting discussion about writing from the point of view of servants, such as Longbourn, Jo’s book inspired by Pride and Prejudice. I think there might have been a problem with Fay Weldon’s microphone as I had difficulty hearing her. I should say here that apart from this, the sound was excellent in the main hall and the other venues.

This was followed by Wine and Canapés. I wish I had stopped chatting long enough to taste more of the enticing canapés. We were turned out at 8.30, so I retired to the pub opposite. Shared a table with three Americans and two other Brits. Interesting that I was the only one writing about British history.

Fay Weldon and Jo Baker discuss servants.

Fay Weldon and Jo Baker discuss servants.

I slept very well in my comfortable garret (up three flights of stairs) and was practically first in line for breakfast (very good). First on for Saturday was a Panel Session “The Next Big Thing in Historical Fiction.” To which the answer is “Nobody knows.” Agents are looking for one thing, publishers another; you must please the marketing department and attract the book shops. The Tudor era is overloaded, but a WW2 saga might be popular.

Straight after this was the session I was looking forward to: “Building a Shield Wall.”, run by Paula Lofting and other members of Regia Anglorum. The first thing we were told was that the Angl0-Saxons didn’t drink mead. So that’s half my book out the window! We found out a lot about the clothing – especially how difficult it is to get into a mail shirt, especially in front of a large audience in a very small room. We discovered the difference between round and kite shaped shields and the advantages, and disadvantages, of fighting on foot and on horseback. They moved out into the atrium to demonstrate the actual setting up of a shield wall, causing consternation to other delegates, who had their coffee break shattered by the cry of Ut! Ut! Ut!

(There is some film and a much shorter post about the conference on Ruth Downie’s blog)

So that's what the Anglo-Saxons used for their Powerpoint presentations

So that’s what the Anglo-Saxons used for their Powerpoint presentations!

Saxon warrior brought to his knees by lady in sensible shoes (and an axe)

Saxon warrior brought to his knees by lady in sensible shoes (and an axe)

Shield Wall

Ut! Ut! Ut!

After all that excitement we returned to the main hall for the Keynote address by Melvyn Bragg. His latest book, “Now Is The Time” is about the Peasants Revolt and he talked about the difference between Historical Fact, which you have to obey, and Historical Fiction, which is the bits that you don’t know. You can make it up but must stick to the spirit of the character. If you research enough around the events, you should be able to recreate what they might have said. Bought the book afterwards (although service at the bookstall was a bit slow.) and got it signed.

Melvyn Bragg making a point.

Melvyn Bragg making a point.

After that was lunch, sandwiches and fruit – very nice sliced pineapple, followed by the presentation of the awards.

Presentation to Joint winner of the HNA Indie Award, Lucienne Boyce

Presentation to Joint winner of the HNA Indie Award 2016, Lucienne Boyce

Straight after that was another panel, Battle Scenes: Guts, gore and glory. No, not a replay of the awards, but a talk by authors famous for writing dramatic and life-like scenes of battle. It was rather skewed towards the Romans – anyone would have thought that the Romans fought a lot of battles! There was much discussion of classical sources. Why did neither of the Anglo-Saxon supporters mention the Battle of Maldon! I’m not sure I learned much (about writing battle scenes) but it was an entertaining session.

Justin Hill, Matthew Harffy, Harry Sidebottom, Douglas Jackson and Simon Scarrow talk Battles

Justin Hill, Matthew Harffy, Harry Sidebottom, Douglas Jackson and Simon Scarrow talk Battles

Time for a cup of coffee. Biscuits were advertised but I didn’t see them – just as well. Then it was into another workshop: Creating Fictional Historical Characters, with Jean Fullerton. This was in the same small room that had been used for the Shield Wall re-enactors. I don’t know if someone had misjudged the numbers, but there was even less space. More people kept appearing and tables were shoved up and chairs brought in from elsewhere. We learned the does and don’ts of creating heroes and villains. I must have been getting tired as all I remember was the warning – “Don’t kill the kittens!” your reader will never forgive you.



The final session was back in the main hall Kate Williams, Margaret George and Manda Scott on “Faith and Morality in historical fiction and biography.” Like the last session, this was  about thinking about the differences between how people lived and believed in earlier times and how we think about things nowadays. There was a discussion  about how you can never get the truth of any event, however modern. We can only do the best we can with what we have. This was followed by an Introduction to HNSUS17 to be held in Portland, Oregon on June 22nd-24th, 2017. We were then allowed to go, to prepare for the Gala Dinner.

Is it Dinner Time yet?

Is it Dinner Time yet?

Back in my room at St Anne’s, I lay exhausted on the bed. Could I take any more? Yes I could. After a wash and brush up I descended the three flights of concrete stairs in my posh dress and glittery shoes. It was a short walk to the Dining Hall. It seemed a long time since breakfast that morning. Music was playing and wine bottles were on the tables. Here and there were delegates dressed in historical costume, ready for the Costume Pageant. I was joined by Clare Lehovsky whom I had met on an Arvon course at The Hurst, a year ago. I had met other friends from that course during the conference, so it was something of a reunion. An American gentleman sat opposite, Christopher Cevasco. We discussed our books and discovered he was also writing about the 10th century. I don’t know if there were any more in the room, not many I suspect. Also sitting opposite was Richard Buxton, a Welshman writing about the U.S. Confused and I hadn’t even had a drink – yet.

Chris and Richard. Managed to include the menu as well

Chris and Richard. Managed to include the menu as well

Queuing up for the Costume Pageant. Clare in white top - 1920s

Queuing up for the Costume Pageant. Clare in white top – 1920s

C C Humphreys reading from his book "Fire" I've already bought two books about 1666, do I need another?

C C Humphreys reading from his book “Fire” I’ve already bought two books about 1666, do I need another?

The highlight of the evening was an invitation (after much nagging) to handle a Seax.

Thank You Matthew (Come up to my room and I'll show you my Seax) Harffy

Thank You, Matthew “Come up to my room and I’ll show you my Seax” Harffy

I was up bright and early the next morning for my Full English breakfast, ready for the final day of the conference. There was to be a lot of running back and forth today. I had two pitch sessions booked. I will draw a veil over them, except to say that they have given me a lot to think about.

I just managed to get to the “Streets through the Ages” Panel just before it started.  Here we were given descriptions of life in different eras. Gordon Jackson spoke about Romans, Carol McGrath about Medieval – 14th century (not Anglo-Saxon I’m afraid) Jenny Barden took us back to the Elizabethan period and Charlotte was not left much time for the 17th century. We were running late and everyone wanted to get to the main hall for the talk by Tracy Chevalier.

Tracy Chevalier addressing a packed Hall

Tracy Chevalier addressing a packed Hall

It was strange to discover that such and English seeming author as Tracy Chevalier spoke with an American accent. Although she has lived here a long time but hasn’t lost it. She talked about how distancing yourself in history makes it easier to write, although you have to spend a lot of time on research. If you write about the modern-day everyone asks if it’s autobiographical! That said, we heard something about a book she has been working on recently: a re-working of Othello set in a 1970s school playground.

Unfortunately I had to miss the questions part of this talk, but made it to the Session on “Time Slip; Time Travel” This is a genre which I enjoy reading. I might have a go at it myself, sometime. Anna Belfrage and Christina Courtenay explained about the difference between Time Slip, in which the characters do not actually physically travel back in time and Time Travel, when they do. You have to think carefully about the method of travel, how to emphasise the differences between your two eras. We finished with a competition. Who could think of the best method of time travel – the winner was someone who suggested shoes.

I didn’t make the HistFictionalist Challenge – too busy talking again. Missed the wrap up as well. I think my sense of time was getting adrift! I had some lunch, drifted around for a bit and then left. I didn’t want to leave. I walked into the centre of Oxford and as I returned to pick up my lift, got lost. I eventually found my way back, tired and foot worn. I had to return to real life.

So, what did I think of my first HNA Conference? I enjoyed it immensely – so much to do, so many people to meet: old friends, new friends, twitter friends. Sorry if I haven’t mentioned you in this blog, but you are in my thoughts.

Would I go again? Like a shot. Perhaps not next year, but when it is held in the UK again.


Researching Ango-Saxons in Northumbria – Part 2

The second full day was more holiday than research trip. A long drive round the area in which I demonstrated my map reading skills.

We visited Cragside, a National Trust property. I won’t say too much about it. This is an Anglo-Saxon blog and Cragside is (very) Victorian. It was built by industrialist Lord Armstrong and was the first house to be lit by electricity. If you are interested in hydraulics, bridges and large Victorian paintings of dead animals, it is worth a visit.

Cragside and bridge

Cragside and bridge

On the way back, we stopped at Warkworth Castle which belongs to English Heritage. There was a “Fighting Knights” event on, so this magnificent medieval castle was packed with children. We arrived as the fighting finished, so it soon quietened down. I was attracted to the swords (wrong era I know, but a sword is still better than Victorian lampshades.) and had a chat with the knights. Turned out they had travelled up from Warwick and Kenilworth – practically next door.


Warkworth Castle, entrance

Warkworth Castle, Bailey

Warkworth Castle, after the battle.

Another long day, but I was looking forward to tomorrow.

On my list of places to visit was Yeavering, or Ad Gefrin as it was known. This was the site of King Edwin’s Palace in the 7th Century. Yes, I know there is nothing to see nowadays, but I wanted to use the location in my book.

I had sold it to my husband as an interesting location for a walk and again we found a route online. It included another section of St Cuthbert’s Way (see my last post). We like to have a theme to a holiday!

The route started in the village of Kirknewton, climbed Yeavering Bell and returned via the Ad Gefrin site. Although I was looking forward to it, I was bit apprehensive. I am not the fittest of walkers and the hill, topped by a hillfort, was high. I looked at the map and found a short cut back “just in case.”

I am glad to say that I didn’t need it. The ascent was gradual, the weather was beautiful and the views were stupendous. In fact the worse bit was coming down, straight down what seemed the steepest slope.

Looking back at Kirknewton. The first stretch was a gentle uphill farm track.

Looking back at Kirknewton. The first stretch was a gentle uphill farm track.

"Go through the gate, and bear right to reach a waymarked post beside the track." Not even reached the short cut yet!

“Go through the gate, and bear right to reach a waymarked post beside the track.” Not even reached the short cut yet!

"Do you think it's that peak straight ahead?"

“Do you think it’s that peak straight ahead?”

Yeavering Bell mean s "Goat Hill". Must be the right place. That's the wall of the hillfort ahead, nearly there!

Yeavering Bell means “Goat Hill”. Must be the right place. And that’s the wall of the hillfort ahead, nearly there!

Reached the top! Looking south along the Cheviots

Reached the top! Looking south along the Cheviots.

View North. Not far to Scotland.

View North. Can you see the Scottish border?

Ad Gefrin can't be seen from the summit. View from a few yards down.

Ad Gefrin can’t be seen from the summit. This view is from a few yards down.

And here is a close up if you can't pick it out.

And here is a close up if you can’t pick it out.

The way down. Just follow the signs

The way down. Just follow the signs – is that one in the distance?

As I mentioned in my last post, for the purposes of my research I wanted bad weather. I’m not sure I would have enjoyed it as much though.

I did try to imagine it. When we walked though a small stream, we discussed whether it would be frozen when Byrhtnoth came this way, or just a bit of ice along the edges. Would it be snowing or raining? Perhaps a bit of sleet? Well, it helped to pass the time.
You will have to read the book to find out what happens – but first I’ve got to write it. One thing I do know – Byrhtnoth would have made it up a bit quicker than me!

We reached the bottom of the hill at last, legs quivering, and visited the site of Ad Gefrin. As expected, there was nothing to see but a grassy field and a lot of sheep. I tried to imagine the great mead hall and the “theatre”. The place in the river Glen where Paulinus spent 36 days baptising new converts to Christianity.

Site of King Edwin's palace at Ad Gefrin. Explanation board needed!

Site of King Edwin’s palace at Ad Gefrin. Explanation board needed!

Yes, but… That was in the seventh century. The palace was burnt down not long after and the site abandoned. It will be three hundred years later that Byrhtnoth visits. It would probably look much like it does today. Would there even be any memory of it? Something to think about.

We finished the day with a cream tea in Wooler in a cafe called “ramblers” – very appropriate.

The next morning we had to leave. Would you believe that the weather was grey and misty? All the way down the A1 and M1 we never saw the sun, plenty of fog and rain. If only it had arrived a few days earlier – or perhaps not.

On my Kindle during this trip I was reading (not that I had much time to read, but I have finished it since) The King of the North by Max Adams. It added greatly to the trip and I learned a lot.

This weekend I am of to the Historical Novel Society conference in Oxford.
Say hello if you see me, and you might appear in next week’s post.

Goat gate to Ad Gefrin, looking back to Yeavering Bell

Goat gate to Ad Gefrin, looking back to Yeavering Bell

Researching Ango-Saxons in Northumbria

Today is a bank holiday (in some places) so I thought I would talk about a recent holiday, or research trip as writers call them.

When I first started writing I made up the places where events took place, I knew exactly what they looked like. Unfortunately I then tried to find the location “in real life”. It made for some interesting holidays and was surprisingly successful. However I am growing up and have started to become more organised. I am visiting before I write – but how useful is it?

I have set part of my second book in Northumberland, at Bebbenburh (Bamburgh). The first problem was that I wanted to visit in autumn, but my husband insisted we go in August. Actually August is autumn according to the Anglo-Saxon calendar, but I was thinking howling winds and lashing rain. Perhaps I would be lucky with the weather – I wasn’t. We had the most pleasant weather imaginable; warm and sunny.

We had booked four nights at the Blue Bell Hotel in Belford. It was very comfortable and the food was good. We didn’t even need a clock as the village church was next door and struck the hour, every hour, even though the night.

Blue Bell Hotel, Belford

Blue Bell Hotel, Belford

View from our room.

View from our room.

We had planned a walk for the next day, but it was a bit cloudy. Since the forecast was for sun later, we decided to postpone the walk and drove the few miles to Bamburgh. We parked in the (free) car park and walked up to the entrance. We had explored the castle some years ago, so we intended an external circuit, for me to soak up the atmosphere. We were early and I don’t think it had opened anyway. We peered through gates until we came to a dead-end. We found a path down to the beach and the tide was out. I had a nice paddle and took lots of photos of the castle silhouetted against the dramatic sky. I started planning a scene of my hero galloping along the wide sands, with his dog. First mistake – it seems that the wide sandy beach wasn’t there at the time – scratch that scene!

Bamburgh Castle from Beach plus dog

Bamburgh Castle from Beach plus dog

Farne Islands from Bamburgh Beach

Farne Islands from Bamburgh Beach

Lindesfarne from Bamburgh Beach

Lindisfarne from Bamburgh Beach

Of course I already knew that the castle would not have looked like it does now. It would have been smaller with a wooden Hall and other buildings surrounded by a wooden palisade. At least that is how it was originally built, but might the walls have been replaced by stone by Byrhtnoth’s time (the tenth century)? More research needed! I was sure where the entrance had been. Anyone who has read Matthew Harffy’s book The Serpent Sword (and if you haven’t, why not? Buy it here for only 99p) will remember the opening scene of Beobrand’s arrival by ship (somewhere near the bouncy castle) and entry up the narrow steps – in wind and rain, of course! Interestingly, when I re-read that piece, I noticed that neither the width of the beach nor the composition of the walls is mentioned. A good lesson. If you don’t know the answer, leave it to your readers to imagine it – if they get it wrong it is their fault, not yours!

Steps to entrance of Bamburgh Castle

Steps to entrance of Bamburgh Castle

After a coffee and a toasted teacake at the Copper Kettle Tearoom in the village, we visited the local church, originally founded by St Aiden in 635, the first church to be built in Northumbria. The reredos, which dates from the end of the 19th century contains images of many Northumbrian saints.

St Aiden's Church, Bamburgh

St Aiden’s Church, Bamburgh

Reredos in St Aidens Church

Reredos in St Aiden’s Church

As we left Bamburgh the sun came out. We headed inland to start our planned walk. We had found a suitable walk online to St Cuthbert’s Cave and round the surrounding area. It included part of St Cuthbert’s Way, a long distance footpath from Melrose to Lindisfarne marking events in the life of St Cuthbert.

The cave is supposed to be the place where monks carrying the body of the saint rested on their journey from Lindisfarne Abbey after it was raided by Vikings in 875. The bones eventually arrived in Durham several years later.

Climbing the hill towards St Cuthberts Cave. Looking west towards the Cheviots (not the sheep!)

Climbing the hill towards St Cuthbert’s Cave. Looking west towards the Cheviots (not the sheep!)

St Cuthbert's Cave

St Cuthbert’s Cave

Owned by the National Trust - spot the error!

Owned by the National Trust – spot the error!

"Pass through this gate and then the gate on your left" Would you? We did - quickly.

“Pass through this gate and then the gate on your left” Would you? We did – quickly.

The next field had cows and calves. We walked very slowly, under intense observation.

The next field had cows and calves. We walked very slowly, under intense observation.

The views were worth it. Linisfarne in the distance

The views were worth it, though. Lindisfarne in the distance

After the walk, we returned to our hotel. It had been a long day and there would be another tomorrow.

To be continued

Weekend in Wessex – Part 2

I had been looking forward to the Chalke Valley History Festival for a long time. I had been following the lead up to the event on Twitter and noticed a comment that it was “Glastonbury for Historians” – I didn’t realise they were talking about the mud!

I already knew before we left home that Wellingtons would be needed. However there was not room in the car for them, but we had our walking boots. They would have to do.

We set off  from Shaftesbury on Sunday morning. The forecast was cloudy, but rain was not expected. We followed the signposts from the main road. We drove on, and on, down narrow country roads. We seemed to be driving in circles. Finally we reached the back of a queue of cars – nearly there.

End of the queue

End of the queue

It must have been getting on for an hour before we reached the entrance and discovered why the progress was so slow. The car park was a muddy field. Cars drove up the hill on a road of boards. At the top, marshals directed each car individually to a parking spot – a mad dash through the mud. I imagine they still wake in the night shouting “Keep going! Second gear!” Tractors were available for those who couldn’t make it.

Next came a logistics problem. Sitting in front of car in ordinary footwear. Walking boots in boot. In between, thick mud. Another pair of shoes to clean later.

After a muddy walk to the entrance we finally arrived. More mud. After locating the loos (plenty of them and no queues), we headed uphill to the Living History area. There was less mud here and we talked to Celts about the usefulness of lime for sun protection and their everlasting cauldron. We found out about  from Vikings about making chain mail and how often Anglo-Saxons washed. We heard from a Roman doctor about trepanning and a falconer about hunting with hawks. We watched  fights by Saxons and another between medieval knights. We saw men and women from different eras mingling and unusual juxtapositions.

Multi Era Team meeting. Romans telling everyone else what to do.

Multi Era Team Meeting. Romans telling everyone else what to do.



and Romans.

…and Romans.

Viking Ship with a rather superfluous sign.

Viking Ship with a rather superfluous sign.

Viking Warrior - not an Anglo-Saxon. How do you tell the difference?

Viking Warrior – not an Anglo-Saxon. How do you tell the difference?

Q. How do you keep the gun deck of HMS Temeraire clean? A. Leave your boots outside.

Q. How do you keep the gun deck of HMS Temeraire clean? A. Leave your boots outside.

Famous Historian holds court in muddy field.

Famous Historian holds court in muddy field.



By now we were getting tired and hungry. We found a cafe, but it was difficult to sit at a picnic table without getting mud all over the seat – the cakes were nice though.

We visited the book shop – another disconcerting experience. You appear to be browsing in an ordinary Waterstones, but the floor is covered in mud.

I was starting to get fed up. It was difficult to wander round some of the damper areas. You had to look where you were going, then stop to look around. Spend too much time in one place and it was difficult to move on. If we hadn’t booked for a late talk, we might have left – that and the thought of the long walk back to the car.


Saxon Settlement

Saxon Settlement

It was while we were searching for drier ground that we found the Anglo-Saxon Settlement. I had been looking for it, but it was hidden away in some trees.

This was run by The Ancient Technology Centre

We watched a smith working to make iron on a small fire and children having a go at turning wood.

We were taught (unsuccessfully) to make bird calls and I had a lesson in spinning wool using only a twig.

Smelting Iron

Smelting Iron

Bodging a chair leg

Bodging a chair leg

I become a spinster - How to spin wool

I become a spinster – How to spin wool

Clouds - can you spot the plane?

Clouds – can you spot the plane?

The sun had come out and things were starting to dry out a bit.

We heard that there was a display of weapons through the ages before the Saxon v Viking battle, so we made our way over to watch that.

Of course, throughout the day, heads turned to the sky to watch old planes pass over. The commentaries and announcements in general were very clear and easy to hear.

The demonstration of weapons through the ages was fascinating, from the earliest spears and bows, to “black powder” muskets and rifles. Larger weapons; a Roman trebuchet and ballista, cannon and field guns. The display finished with a Napoleonic battle between France and English, although the French refused to die.


The archers show off their bows while redcoats wait their turn.

The archers show off their bows while redcoats wait their turn.

Roman Balista. Efficient but takes a long time to load.

Roman Ballista. Efficient but takes a long time to load.

Viking arrive in time to finish off the French.

The Saxons  arrive in time to finish off the French.

At last it was time for the Battle of Ethandun. Just when we needed it the commentary was intermittent and difficult to hear, but I managed to identify who was who – the Saxons had the blue flag. There was a bit of discussion and the armies lined up and then attacked. After some fighting, they separated and there was more parlaying. King Alfred and his Saxons eventually defeated Guthrum and his Viking Army. They ran away, back to their ships (presumably waiting over the hill!)

The Anglo-Saxon Shield Wall.

The Anglo-Saxon Shield Wall.

The Vikings wait on the hill.

The Vikings wait on the hill.

The Battle of Athendun

The Battle of Ethandun.

The beaten Vikings run away

The beaten Vikings run away.



The dead were re-animated and there were other fights  – a “Circle” – a knockout fight with one winner. It turns out that there are rules in these re-enactment encounters. You don’t get the full experience of a proper Anglo-Saxon battle, they aren’t actually trying to kill each other, after all. But it is the closest I will get and it’s quite scary when they charge you head on – I regretted having wormed my way to the front of the crowd! See the video here.

When the battle was over, we went and found an ice cream. While waiting at the van, the tanks nearby started up and moved away. Later we could hear their battle from our place in the queue for our booked talk.

At last, somewhere to sit down.

The talk by Tom Holland on Athelstan was interesting. He told us about the coins he has acquired that tell the story of how Athelstan became King of all England. English history does not start in 1066, but over a hundred years earlier with King Athelstan.

Tom has written a biography of Athelstan, published just before the Festival. I intended to buy a copy and get it signed, but by the time I reached the bookshop, I couldn’t get in the door. Time to leave.

The sun had dried some of the mud. It was surprising it cleared so quickly, but with the underlying chalk it had not been thick, just wet and slippy.

So, had I enjoyed my day at Chalke Valley History Festival? By the end of the day, yes. I might have enjoyed it more without the mud, but at least it didn’t rain as well – in fact I got sunburned!

I learned a lot, took loads of photographs to inspire my writing and gained an understanding of life in the past – how on earth did they manage without paved roads?


Boot Selfie

Muddy Boot Selfie

Weekend in Wessex – Part 1

If you are trying to write Historical Fiction (or, I suppose, proper history) you can’t beat a little hands-on experience. So when I heard about the Chalk Valley History Festival, I had to go. With re-enactors from many different periods and talks by famous historians – it seemed to be essential research. I booked a talk by Tom Holland on “Athelstan and the Battle for Britain: The Making of Britain Part 2”. This talk was at 5 o’clock on Sunday 3rd July and the price included entrance to the whole event for that day. On the programme was the Battle of Ethandun, when King Alfred defeated Guthrum in 878. Never mind anything else, that was enough for me!

We decided to make a weekend of it and booked a hotel in Shaftesbury for three nights (Friday to Monday). It was such a busy visit, I have divided it into two posts. Sunday at he Festival will be in Part 2.


Every adventure starts with a journey and as we planned our route, straight down the Fosse Way to Cirencester, then head south. I noticed that we would be passing close to Malmesbury.

Tomb of Athelstan

Tomb of Athelstan in Malmesbury Abbey

What is so special about Malmesbury? Well, since we had tickets for a talk about Athelstan, we had to visit the site of his grave. Athelstan was the grandson of Alfred the Great. He was King of the Anglo-Saxons from 924 to 927 and King of the English from 927 to 939. He favoured the Abbey at Malmesbury and had buried relatives there who died at the Battle of Brunanburh (937).

The site of his grave is lost but he is commemorated by an empty fifteenth-century tomb.


Malmesbury Abbey

Malmesbury Abbey

Malmesbury Abbey, Norman doorway

Malmesbury Abbey, Norman doorway


The Abbey is interesting in its own right, half ruin and half parish church. Very light inside and with some beautiful Norman carving.

Other Saxon connections with the Abbey are:

Aldhelm, the scholar and first Abbot (died 709).

In the early 11th century, the monk Eilmer built wings and tried to fly from a tower. He flew over 200 yards (200 m) before landing, breaking both legs. He was forbidden to try again but calculated that he would have succeeded if he had included a tail!

William of Malmesbury (1095-1143) was another monk at the Abbey. He has been described as “a gifted historical scholar and an omnivorous reader, impressively well versed in the literature of classical, patristic and earlier medieval times as well as in the writings of his own contemporaries. Indeed William may well have been the most learned man in twelfth-century Western Europe.”

Malmesbury Market Cross - with market

Malmesbury Market Cross – with market

Can you tell we went round the town museum as well? It’s called the Athelstan Museum. It also has displays of the later history of the town.

Just outside the Abbey is an ornate market cross. There was a market on while we were there – a handful of stalls including one selling some very nice fudge (not Anglo-Saxon, but I do have other interests!)



THE view of Shaftesbury

THE view of Shaftesbury

We continued our trip and arrived in Shaftesbury to time to have a short walk around the town to see the sights. We didn’t know when we booked, but there were a number of events on in the town that weekend:  The Shaftesbury Fringe and Gold Hill Fair.

When we stood at the top of Gold Hill that afternoon, music could be heard from nearby. It was The Wandering Winds on their World Tour of Dorset. We didn’t wait long enough for Dvorak’s New World Symphony, that would be too much of a cliché, but it added to the atmosphere.

We were booked into La Fleur de Lys (who let those Normans in?) which is described as a restaurant with rooms, so we enjoyed a delicious meal and a comfortable night, before waking to a new day.

La Fleur de Lys, Shaftesbury

La Fleur de Lys, Shaftesbury


We like to get to know a place where we stay and we had found a walk online,  so it was walking boots on.

Gold Hill, Shaftesbury. looking back up the hill

Gold Hill, Shaftesbury. looking back up the hill

It started by going down Gold Hill, through lanes and across fields to the south of the town, returning to the town via Stoney Path (a narrower but no less steep alternative to Gold Hill) and finishing at Castle Hill View.

Distant view of Shaftesbury

Distant view of Shaftesbury

View from Castle Hill, Shaftesbury, towards King Alfred's Tower

View from Castle Hill, Shaftesbury, towards King Alfred’s Tower

This was the site of the original Saxon town, founded by King Alfred in AD880 and faced north.The walk was only four miles so we were back in the town in time for lunch

 Onion seller at French Market, Shaftesbury

Onion seller at French Market, Shaftesbury

Part of the Gold Hill Fair was a French (Boo!) Market on Park Walk, so we bought some french tarts and sat on a bench, contemplating the route of our morning’s walk.

What to do now? Visit the Abbey museum and garden (just behind us) or travel further afield.
From Castle Hill we had spotted King Alfred’s Tower.


The weather seemed set fair so we returned to the hotel to collect the car and headed for Stourhead.

Being members of the National Trust, we had to take advantage of free entry.

Clouds had gathered so we decided to go round the house first, luckily we missed a short downpour and by the time we emerged the sun had returned and we walked round the grounds – perhaps not a good idea after all the walking that morning. An ice cream was very welcome.

Stourhead House, after the rain

Stourhead House, after the rain

Stourhead, fifty shades of green

Stourhead, fifty shades of green

Stourhead bridge and monument

Stourhead bridge and monument

King Alfred’s Tower

King Alfred’s Tower is on the Stourhead estate and I think you can walk there, but we had had enough walking that day. It seemed a long way even in the car! We reached the car park about 4.15 and we were told that the tower had closed at 4.00.

Oh dear, we wouldn’t be able to climb up the 205 steps to see the view from the top.

The tower is surrounded by trees, so there is no view of anything at ground level but it is situated in a meadow studded with wildflowers, including orchids – common spotted, I think.

Of course the Tower was not built by King Alfred. Like the rest of the estate, built by the Hoare family, over 250 years ago, it is a folly, completed in 1772 at an estimated cost between £5,000 and £6,000. However, it is supposed to be the site of “Egbert’s Stone” where King Alfred rallied the Saxons in AD878 before the Battle against the Danish army of Guthrum at the Battle of Ethandun.


Which we were to witness the next day!

To be continued



The First Step – or is it the Second?

After a break of a couple of weeks – holidays, sickness, I was back at the writing class. Only three more weeks and then we finish until September. How will I manage?

This weeks lesson was based on the book “The Bridge of San Luis Rey” by Thornton Wilder, one of those famous books that nobody reads. If you haven’t, it is about a group of five people who die when an Inca rope bridge collapses.

This was the start of our exercise. We talked about different catastrophes and then wrote a description of one of our own. We had to make a list of at least five characters and describe them. I hate this process – staring at a blank piece of paper with an equally blank mind. Usually something comes and sometimes it leads to wonderful things. Some amazing scenarios certainly emerged during yesterday’s class. I must make a confession – I cheated!

Since I finished my WIP first draft and edit, I have allowed myself to dream. What happens next? After all it is planned as a trilogy. A few ideas have been fermenting in my brain: places, people, events, a battle – of course, deaths – inevitable after a battle, who will die? One thing I did know is how it starts – with a catastrophe! I hadn’t gone any further. When do I start? Do I wait until I have done more editing? Should I catch up with my life for a bit?

Was I a little bit scared?

Faced with the dreaded blank page, I jumped.

I didn’t need to describe my catastrophe, I had already gone through it, many times, in my head

I didn’t need to describe my characters, I already know them. I have even interviewed some of them – see some of the posts I wrote in the April Archives on the right.

Finally, towards the end of the class, I was allowed to start writing. Here is the very first page:

start of the book

At the top you can see my five characters. I have cut out my brief notes about the catastrophe – you didn’t think I was going to give anything away, did you? You can also see why I do most of my writing on the computer. I have written beautiful exercises and then been unable to read them out in class because I can’t read my own writing! There are a few more lines and that is it, so far.

My second WIP AKA (for the moment) Byrhtnoth2 has officially started. There is a (very) long way to go but, as someone once said “a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step”.

I feel like God saying “Let there be light” (Pretentious, Moi?).

I am every writer who has ever looked at a rock/parchment/piece of paper/computer screen and thought “I’ve got a story to tell, I think I’ll write it down.”

I haven’t experienced this before. My first book just evolved. This time I know what I am doing – in the sense that I know I am writing a book, not that I think I know how to do it.

Coming back to earth, I have homework to do, permission to carry on. Where will it take me? Can I actually do it?

Hopefully some of these questions will be answered in future posts.