A corner of Derbyshire – Chatsworth: nooks and crannies

If asked to name a stately home in Derbyshire, and although there are many houses worth a visit (Haddon Hall, Hardwick Hall, Kedleston Hall and more), I would guess that most of us would know Chatsworth, near Bakewell (famous for pudding – not ‘tart’, thank you!) the home of the Duke of Devonshire and home to the Cavendish family since 1549, passed down through 16 generations.

Until recently we lived in Derbyshire and enjoyed nearby areas that many folks would choose to visit for holidays or days out. Chatsworth was always somewhere to take walks through the beautiful grounds or nose around the grand rooms. But I was also interested in its fascinating history.

Chatsworth sits on an estate the size of Washington DC and has played host to many famous people from Mary Queen of Scots, Elizabeth I, Charles Dickens to John F Kennedy.

It’s also been host to many scandals. The decadent and glamorous 18th century Duchess Lady Georgiana  Spencer, wife of the 5th Duke and ancestor of Diana, Princess of Wales, who, like her descendent, talked of the third party in her marriage, one Lady Elizabeth Foster who moved in with them as a menage de trois. Georgiana herself was locked in scandal, her tumultuous financial affairs bringing her notoriety.

There was also the matter of a scandalous affair between JFK’s favourite sister, Kathleen, and the Devonshire heir William (Billy) Cavendish, who was subsequently killed in action in WWI.

In the summer of 2018, a ‘secret’ in the garden was revealed. The long extraordinarily hot summer scorched the lawns and revealed the outlines of the geometrically designed flower beds and paths from 1699 – before Capability Brown’s design at the house? Its existence was known, although never seen for generations, as it’s illustrated in a painting in the Chatsworth Collection in the House.

2018 also brought another dramatic event. The lavish house had been carefully renovated over 10 years and was finally revealed in all its glory. Each window on the west and south terraces was revamped in 1500 sheets of gold leaf at a cost of about £33 million and 4000ft of fabric was used to repair the curtains.

One of the secrets I would have liked to seen revealed would be the designs of the fashion icon Georgiana, but apparently the clothes were made from such fine and expensive fabric that they were either reused or handed down to her Lady’s maid. Lucky maid!

PS. A number of my novels are set in Derbyshire: A Shape on the Air, for example, Dr Viv works at the university and Rev Rory is vicar of a small parish in the county, and the two sequels coming soon (The Dragon Tree and The Rune Stone) continue the setting. Available at http://myBook.to/ASOTA

An author’s life (part 3) : country baking through the seasons – oh, and writing of course!

My favourite Spring bake

So, if you’ve been following my seasonal series on using my lunch break from my laptop to bake something delicious and comforting, you’ll know that my Spring bake is often my almond macaroons, so easy to make (one bowl) and so moreish, just like the chewy ginger flapjacks I like to make in the winter (Scroll down for that one!) …

Almond macaroons the easy way

Makes about 12

You’ll need:

75gm ground almonds

2 level tsp rice flour (or ground rice)

100gm caster sugar

1 egg, lightly beaten

A few drops of almond extract

Split almonds for decoration

Heat the oven to 160 degrees C

Line a tray with greased baking paper. Mix the sugar, almonds, flour, almond extract and lightly beaten egg. It should feel slightly sticky. Shape the mix into walnut sized balls with damp hands (about 1-2 tsp each) and place on the lined tray. Press lightly and decorate with split almonds (one on each is probably enough). Bake for 10-15 minutes until pale gold with slightly crisp edges but soft in the centre. Cool on a wire cooling rack.

These freeze really well, but you’ll probably need to bake two (or more) batches as they’re too scrumptious not to eat straight away!

More recipes in …

The Old Rectory: Escape to a Country Kitchen at http://myBook.to/TheOldRectory

Ghana – revolution: the events of 1966

A bustling market in Cape Coast 1966

Ghana, West Africa, is a fascinating country with an intriguing history that stretches way back to ancient times. When I worked there, I learned a lot about the ancient Ashanti heritage and culture. However, the momentous events of the mid-1960s were the basis I chose for my novel ‘Drumbeats’, the first in the trilogy because they were arguably one of the major turning points for the country’s history and relatively recent, that is, within living memory.

Drumbeats trilogy

I’ve tried to represent the momentous political events which happened in Ghana in 1966 as accurately as feasible, bearing in mind that these are written here as they are perceived by the character of Jess and in the light of a writer’s license to create drama and consistency of plot. But I wanted to show the effect of a sudden coup d’état on my main character who was already experiencing turbulence in her life.

So here is the run-down of those events, albeit a brief outline. President Nkrumah was deposed as president of Ghana on 24th February 1966 and at 7 o’ clock the announcement was made that “the armed forces, in cooperation with the police, have felt it necessary to take over the reins of power and dismiss the former President, Kwame Nkrumah, the Presidential Commission and all Ministers and to suspend the Constitution and to dissolve Parliament. This act has been necessitated by the political and economic situation in the country.” The report continued to declare that “the country is on the brink of national bankruptcy.” Only three days before, Nkrumah had passed through parliament his “socialist budget” which the announcement claimed “increases the economic burdens and hardships of the population.”

K.A.Bediako (in The Downfall of Kwame Nkrumah) says: “it is hard to believe that such a take-over could happen in Ghana at a time when any whisper of complaint on the policies of the government was risky and could mean imprisonment without trial in a country in which security men and women maintained a band of secrecy around their identity …” (1966).

Nkrumah had led Ghana to independence from British colonial rule nearly ten years before, in 1957, and became the country’s first prime minister and president. He established many huge and acclaimed projects in Ghana, including Akasombo Dam on the Volta River which was opened in January 1966.

But he was on a state visit to China in February 1966 when his government was overthrown in a military coup d’état led by General Kotoka and the National Liberation Council. He later hinted at a possible American complicity in ‘Dark Days in Ghana’ (1969). Some argue that this suspicion was based on false evidence originating from the Russian KGB; others claimed that CIA documents provided evidence of the involvement of the US in the overthrow. Myths and accusations were rife. Conspiracy theories were in abundance, as they are today with regard to many world events. Whatever the truth, what really happened is still unclear.

I’ve tried to reflect many of these events in my novel, Drumbeats. But whatever is the truth, Nkrumah never returned to Ghana and was exiled in Conakry, Guinea, where he died of prostate cancer in 1972. He was buried at the village of Nkroful, where he had been born, but his remains were subsequently re-interred in a national memorial tomb in the capital, Accra. And to complete the turn-around, in 2000, he was named “Africa’s man of the millennium” by listeners of the BBC World Service and the “hero of independence”. And then in 2009, President John Atta Mills of Ghana declared 21st September to be Founder’s Day, an annual holiday celebrating the legacy of Kwame Nkrumah and glorifying his presidency.

Who knows the truth and why we change our views on famous figures? History and who writes it, is an interesting thing to reflect upon, isn’t it?

http://myBook.to/Drumbeats

Who were the early Anglo- Saxons?

early Celtic/Anglo-Saxon cross in a Midlands country churchyard, England

The Roman occupation of Britain during the early fifth century AD began to disperse when Honorius requested the return to Rome of the legions and administrators. The remaining Romans who had intermarried with Britons and Celts, along with the ‘native’ ethnic groups with existing settlements across the countryside of England, strengthened their fortifications against marauders from north of the border. It seems that they had already established organised groups or small ‘kingdoms’ (I won’t call them ‘tribes’ which seems to me to connote primitivism) which were then strengthened and extended, possibly with settlements joining into larger groupings.

These ‘pre-Anglo Saxon’ kingdoms developed gradually as Angle, Saxon and Jutish migrants from northern parts of Europe headed increasingly for Britain, perhaps for land, crops, climate. From around 450 AD, the Anglo-Saxon-Jute communities began to grow, bringing with them their heritage and culture.  

We have long perceived this time as mysterious, dangerous, even barbaric, as ‘invaders’ fought brutally to gain land from the indigenous peoples. The idea, long held, was that as the glory of Rome had gone from our island with the withdrawal of the legions, the British had no defence against the invaders, and that eventually the indigenous ‘tribes’ were overcome and suppressed by the brutal Anglo Saxons. One version has it that the threats to Celtic-British communities or small ‘kingdoms’ led Vortigern, High King of the southern Britons, to call upon Angles, Saxons and Jutes from overseas to help quash the Picts and Scots who threatened his land.

The threat from the north appears to be real but the actions of Vortigern, and indeed his very existence, is disputed. Brutish Anglo Saxon invaders, or migrants who, by and large, integrated relatively peacefully into Celtic-British society? What’s your view?

By the way, the photograph at the top of this post is the original inspiration for the third in the Dr DuLac series, The Rune Stone. It’s called locally, the Saxon cross, but it bears evidence of earlier Celtic influences and suggestions of a very early Celtic/Anglo-Saxon settlement can be detected in the village.

http://myBook.to/ASOTA

An author’s life: country walks

Forest Bathing

It’s not about getting naked and dousing yourself in freezing water in a cold and frosty wood! But it is about something that refreshes the soul and relaxes the body.

I’ve recently written blogs on ‘an author’s life’ that have been about seasonal recipes: autumn, winter – comfort cooking and baking in these difficult times we’re living in at the moment. I will return to recipes for spring and summer, but just now I want to extol the virtues of forest bathing. Well, it’s not as chilly or even horrifying as it sounds. It’s about mindful walking (or standing still) in the countryside, woodland preferably, but it could be any stretch of open natural landscape, a garden, a park. It’s about emptying your mind of stresses and immersing yourself in nature and marvelling at its treasures.

It’s about really looking as you walk, at the wild flowers, the trees, the flora and fauna. It’s about listening to the birdsong or the wind rustling the leaves. It’s about breathing in the smell of the earth, the scent of the blossoms. Being aware of things we often take for granted. And it doesn’t have to be about trekking off into the countryside. At the weekend I just stood for a few minutes in my garden and listened and watched nature unfolding around me. It was amazing how much I saw and heard, and even smelled that I might have missed had I not been really focused on that experience rather than on the tangle of my latest plot line. I saw blue tits vying for the bird feeder, blackbirds pecking on the grass, robins eyeing the scene from the rhododendrons. I heard wood pigeons calling from the treetops, the twitter of sparrows flocking, crows in the fields beyond, the croak of the pheasant in the woodlands around me. I heard a distant train and idly wondered if it was on its way to London, glad I wasn’t on it! I smelled the damp earth and wet fallen leaves, and the fresh scent of new leaves opening and buds awaiting their time. I heard the peace.Then I could return to my work with a renewed energy.

So how does this fit into my working day? How can I make time for it? As an author I’ve done many interviews in my time and the most popular question is: how I organise my day when I’m writing? Before lockdown and tiers and all that, I used to go swimming every morning, do about 30-40 lengths, then a spell in the gym, and home by about 9.30 to start work on my writing for the day. Now I can’t do that: gyms and pools are closed for the duration. So instead I try to do some physical work first thing. It might be in my ‘home gym’ (well, that’s flattering it a little; it’s an exercise bike, a power plate machine and dumb-bells in the spare bedroom). Or it might be a yoga session. Hopefully it’s both! Then I can get down to the business of writing. for a morning’s session.

So, where does the forest bathing come in? At lunchtime, if the weather permits (intermittent in England) I like to go for a walk to clear my head or to rehearse my next scenes. The country walks around our home, through fields and woods, are so beautiful. Even on the dullest day, there’s plenty to see and listen to. I like to stop and look, try to empty my mind of its cares, or a difficult plot hole, and concentrate on what’s around me. I try to take in the wild flowers by the wayside and listen to the bird song.

W H Davies wrote “What is this life, if, full of care, we have no time to stand and stare.” In these times, I think that’s even more relevant than before. So, if the weather is inclement for walking I might only be able to pop out into the garden to “stand and stare” for a few minutes. But even that is refreshing and relaxing for the rest of the day. And it’s amazing how much more energised and renewed you feel.

Then I’m ready to get back to the computer for the afternoon and remind myself of what my character was supposed to be doing …

Is it time to ditch the ‘Dark Ages’?

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

The ‘Dark Ages’: barbaric, primitive, brutal, murderous? People illiterate, uncivilised. Tribes of Angles and Saxons marauding, hacking their way across Britain and cruelly wiping out the native Britons and Celts, slaying all in their path? Dark dangerous days after the Romans left; everything crumbled, decayed, ruined?

In the first of my Dr DuLac series, A Shape on the Air, one thread in Viv’s narrative is the notion that the ‘dark ages’ tend to be misconstrued as primitive, that the ‘dark ages’ are only dark because we know little about them from the relative paucity of surviving evidence and artefacts. As a specialist in early medieval language, literature and history, I am excited by the idea that this historical period wasn’t primitive and barbaric, but in fact refined with a rich culture from its Roman, Briton and Celtic heritage – and indeed from rich foreign trade. Gold, jewelry, embroideries, tapestry wall hangings, crafted utensils, glass: the feasting halls of the chieftains would have glowed with wealth.

Let’s look at the more recent discoveries about the world of late fifth century Britain, for example the site near Lyminge in Kent, where an early feasting hall has been unearthed and evidence revealed of a good and settled domestic life. The Romans left us with not only an engineering and building heritage but also a cultural one. I am also intrigued by the exploration of the bronze age settlement at Must Farm in the fens, dating from long before the setting of my story, yet revealing a sophistication of crafts, utensils, clothing, domesticity and foreign trade all of which I am convinced would have become a surviving part of the British psyche. Both Lyminge and Must Farm discoveries are mentioned in my story.

Photo by Bruno Scramgnon on Pexels.com

So, archaeological evidence is at last beginning to emerge and we have new and exciting tools to discover more. Domestic archaeology is also beginning to indicate that sites were occupied and developed long after Romans began to leave, and that there was continuity of occupation/population (eg Lyminge, Mucking, Barton Court, Orton Hall, Rinehall, West Heslerton, to name a few). Artefacts and building use suggest that there was a much more gradual change post-Roman occupation and during the migration of new waves of Angles, Saxons and Jutes, rather than a period of decline and sudden brutal invasions. Hence there was a slower cultural shift towards a settled British society. Of course, this is not to say that there weren’t any bitter inter-tribal battles going on for land acquisition, and between local chieftains for power supremacy, nor that there wasn’t deep suspicion of the Angles and Saxons by the native Britons and Celts.

Photo by Kelly Lacy on Pexels.com

But the ‘modernist’ view is that there was much more mingling of Romano-British society than previously thought, through inter-marriage with Romans who remained after the Roman troop withdrawals, and a similar intermingling between Britons and the immigrant Angles and Saxons.

This view of gradual change and evolution from immigration and settlement, rather than sudden brutal change from invasion and suppression by Anglo-Saxon marauders, is one advocated by (among others) Professor Susan Oosthuizen (The Emergence of the English 2019). She offers some fascinating insights into evidence from documentary, archaeological, and landscape studies and her emerging view is that the ‘dark ages’ were not so dark, barbaric and brutal as we had previously imagined.

West Stowe Anglo Saxon village

So perhaps it’s time to ditch the ‘Dark Ages’ title. So what can we call this post-Roman pre-Anglo-Saxon period instead? Some academics use ‘early medieval’. Oosthuizen uses the term ‘late antique’ for the period 400-600AD (with ‘early medieval’ for 600-850AD). What do you think?

http://myBook.to/ASOTA

The writing process: a ‘dark ages’ time-slip novel

Where did you get the inspiration for the book/series?

To be honest, my ideas come into my mind pretty much unbidden. I’m constantly curious about people, relationships, history, things around me, and I read and research a great deal, but of course it takes a lot of imagination to develop the ideas into a viable story. In the first of the Dr DuLac series, A Shape on the Air, I wanted Dr Viv to have a troubled relationship, to have a traumatic experience that would lead to a time-slip and a deep connection to another woman in the distant past. The idea for A Shape on the Air came from my interest in early medieval history which was my first research field, the post-Roman, early Anglo Saxon era, commonly called the Dark Ages. I’d been reading recent research, mainly archaeological stuff, that supported my view that it wasn’t so ‘dark’ in the sense of barbaric fighting, invasions, and brutality, but that it was actually marked by richness and diversity. I am also very interested in the concept of time and I’d wanted to write a time-slip for ages – but then you have to think, how could it actually happen to normal people in their everyday lives?

Do you write using pen and paper or on a computer?

I write on my computer so that I can easily edit as I go, but my research notes and planning notes and graphs are usually the old pen and paper, and post-its everywhere. I have a pinboard beside my desk and I fill it for the novel I’m currently writing, with pictures from the history I’m writing about and inspiration for characters. For example my inspiration for Dr Viv is a pic of Rachel Weiss (looking elegant and thoughtful) and Rev Rory is James Norton in the role of Rev Sidney Chambers (gorgeous!). And there are lots of pics of early medieval banqueting halls (mead halls), Anglo Saxon warriors and ladies, a dark ancient mere, and the prototype of Viv’s apartment which is actually somewhere I once lived just outside  Oxford.

Who is your favourite character out of your stories and why?

My favourite character is always the one I’m writing at the moment! In A Shape on the Air, I loved Dr Viv/Lady Vivianne (traumatised by Pete’s betrayal/Sir Pelleas’s brutality) and Rev Rory/Sir Roland (a hunk but also sensitive and caring), but I was especially fond of Tilly/Tilda who is very sweet and such fun I really enjoyed writing her.

If you were a character in your story, which would you like to be?

I think it would have to be Lady Vivianne because I guess 499 AD would have been an exciting time to live in, caught between the Roman world and before the Anglo Saxon era was properly established. It was a time of change and uncertainty but also an opportunity for making your mark. Women were respected as part of the leadership of communities and Lady Vivianne holds her own in difficult circumstances. And I think she’s a good person with the interests of her community at heart. Although she was brought up as the daughter of the king/chieftain, she is not arrogant or entitled; she wants a more equal world.

How and why did you choose the names for your main characters?

I started with Lady Vivianne. The names Vivianne, Nimue, Nivian etc are the names associated with the Lady of the Lake in Arthurian legend (which is important in the story) and I had to choose a name that could translate to a modern equivalent, hence Dr Viv. Likewise Sir Roland which was a common name in English and French medieval legend, and then Rory came from that. It was the same for all the other characters in the two time periods. I deliberately didn’t choose totally authentic pre-Anglo Saxon/Britonic names because that wouldn’t have worked with the dual times and additionally, they would have been more difficult to read! It was a conscious decision to approximate a modernisation of historic names. After all, I’m writing characters who are from different ‘tribes’: Briton, Celtic, Roman, Angles, Saxons!

What are your future plans as an author?

I’ve written the sequel to A Shape on the Air and it’s set in Madeira. It’s provisionally called The Dragon Tree. Again Viv has a traumatic experience, so you can guess what that leads to! It is a time-slip/dual time story and goes back to the 14th and 16th centuries on the island which were fascinating times. I’ve also written the third in the Dr DuLac series, The Rune Stone, which returns to my favourite early medieval mystery. It involved a lot of research into ancient runes which was fascinating. Moving house in between lockdowns created a hiatus for me (so much to do and hard to concentrate) but I’m now starting a new novel, Daughter of Mercia which has cross-overs to the Dr DuLac series. For the moment, I want to stick with early medieval/Anglo-Saxon time-slip mysteries, as this has become my identified author brand. But who knows …?

http://myBook.to/ASOTA

A Chatsworth Christmas

In a corner of Derbyshire

In a beautiful corner of Derbyshire, beyond Matlock, stands the magnificent Chatsworth House and every Christmas it holds a series of special events on an appropriate wintry theme. The grand house is decorated in fantasy and visitors can walk through the different rooms each with a sub-theme. The magic happens every year, but the year that sticks particularly in my mind was the one focused on the Victorian author Charles Dickens, and of course A Christmas Carol loomed large. The scenes in each room were breath-taking and you stand in wonder looking at the amazing detail the designers created.

Of course there was a room dedicated to Scrooge’s bedroom, the haunted skeletal figure of the old man sitting up in his four-poster bed staring in wide-eyed horror at the apparition before him. And of course the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future appeared in all their glory.

Another room, one of the great banqueting halls was home to Great Expectations, a huge table running the length of the hall, laden with cobweb smothered tableware, candelabras and food. As we drank in the spectacle we startled at the sight of Miss Haversham, in her ancient tattered wedding dress, moving ghost-like across towards us, muttering and moaning.

The gardens were frosty that December day and the silvery trees in the park and lining the drive added to the ghostly atmosphere.

Needless to say the gift shop provided many a gift and stocking filler, nicely in time for Christmas.

And of course, the cleverly animated snowy scene of Dickensian London prompted me to hurry home to bake my historical recipe of Victorian Boozy Plum Pudding and heat mulled wine from my Christmas Kitchen chapter of The Old Rectory: Escape to a Country Kitchen at http://myBook.to/TheOldRectory

An author’s life (part 2) : country baking through the seasons – oh, and writing of course!

It’s Winter!

OK, so it’s not actually deep in snow here, but you get the drift – um, pun unintended! Coming up to Christmas, and chilly days of British rain and wind, we really need some comfort treats. There’s something about ginger in the autumn and winter that is lovely and cosy, for example personally I love rhubarb and ginger gin – but that’s another story!

If you’ve been following my seasonal series on using my lunch break from my laptop to bake something delicious and comforting, you’ll know that my winter bake is often my Chewy Ginger Flapjacks, so easy to make (one bowl) and so moreish …

Chewy Ginger Flapjacks

makes about 12-16 depending on the size you want

Chewy, gooey, filling, scrumptious. What more can I say? One of my easiest and favourite teatime/coffee break treats.

You’ll need:

100 g. (4 oz.) butter

100 g. (4 oz.) caster sugar

100 g. (4 oz.) self raising flour

112 g. (4.5 oz.) oats

0.5 tsp. bicarbonate of soda

1 tsp. ground ginger

Pinch salt

2 tbsp. golden syrup, gently warmed

Preheat the oven to 180ºC, 350ºF/gas mark 4. Grease a deepish oblong baking tray – a brownie tin is ideal. Mix the butter, sugar, and all the other dry ingredients in a bowl. Mix in the gently warmed syrup. Then spread in the baking tin and bake for about 20–30 minutes, until golden brown. Be careful the edges don’t burn. Cool a little and cut into squares or slices. Cool on a cooling rack and enjoy!

If you leave these unattended on the cooling rack in the kitchen, there may not be any left for you … so hide them. They’re also good for you, with lovely healthy oats.

What’s your favourite winter baking treat?

For more of my family recipes (and some from historical archives too), go to: The Old Rectory: Escape to a Country Kitchen at http://myBook.to/TheOldRectory

Did the Romans really abandon Britain in 410 AD?

Photo by Skitterphoto on Pexels.com

I guess that most of us learned in school that the Romans ditched Britain in 410 AD and abruptly left us to our own devices to run off to protect Rome from the marauding Visigoths. There are many myths about the Roman withdrawal: from the date and ramifications of the withdrawal of troops (was it a sudden departure or a gradual leaving?), to the state of Britain in its wake (did it totally collapse without the Romans to keep us in order or was there an amount of continuity?).

So, firstly, did the Romans really abandon Britain in 410? That has long been the date we assume the Romans left Britain, summoned back by Honorius  to defend Rome. Traditionalists have believed that the Romans abandoned their villas, their culture, and left en masse, for the ignorant Britons and Celts to allow civilisation to go to rack and ruin.

Now a different view is emerging. It appears (eg from studies of Notitia Dignitatum 4th/5th c AD) that Roman military units were still here much later, suggesting a gradual withdrawal over possibly half a century, and even the ‘Honorius edict’ is in dispute. We only have ‘evidence’ written in the 6th ,7th and 8th centuries either by Byzantine officials or writers such as Gildas, Bede and Nennius, who are now regarded by many academics as distant from events, subjective and unreliable.

Did many of the Romans from the occupation remain in Britain, in their military units, intermarrying with Britons and Celts, becoming integrated and merging cultures? I’d like to think so, although that raises a few more questions …

http://myBook.to/ASOTA