I grew up in the little town of Beaconsfield, South Buckinghamshire, so this is a part of the country I know intimately. Here’s my thoroughly personal, subjective and probably rather tongue-in-cheek guide to a few of the places the torch is passing through today:
The best thing about Oxford isn’t those dreaming spires. No, it’s the Pitt Rivers Museum. This collection of artefacts from tribes around the world, collected by eminent Victorian traveller General Augustus Pitt Rivers, is an absolute delight. Anyone fascinated by the Victorians, the lost tribes of our world, or with an interest in steampunk should visit this place for inspiration. Just the building alone is well worth visiting for, and it’s completely free admission! Did I mention there are shrunken heads too?
Although this market town is best known for its annual regatta and is home to more than its fair share of toffs, there’s more going on than just people in big hats drinking champagne and eating strawberries and cream. Theres… er… posh shops and restaurants too. Seriously, even if there’s not much going on Henley is a beautiful little town and the Thames is incredibly picturesque right there. To me it sums up traditional middle England and that’s why I used it as a setting for my story “The Frog Prince” (in The Handsome Prince anthology) – Henley is exactly the sort of place where a diffident, Hugh Grant-esque bookseller might well find the disgraced aristocrat of his dreams!
My nan used to live in Maidenhead, so I’ve visited there many times over the years. Aside from being the only place I know of to be named after an intact hymen, there’s not much of note here. Instead of visiting Maidenhead, I’d go to nearby Cookham where you can find the wonderful little Stanley Spencer Gallery. He painted many scenes on the nearby river, including the magnificent Swan Upping at Cookham. Well worth a visit if you like your portraiture on the surreal side.
Hmmm… what can I possibly say about the wonder that is Slough?! In my mind it’s always now inextricably linked with the seminal British mockumentary, The Office which was set there – I have even been round the roundabout featured in the opening credits. Slough is not somewhere with anything to offer tourists, but it is home to the Mars factory. I visited there a couple of times as a child and was mesmerised by all those chocolate bars passing by on conveyor belts. It’s absolutely nothing like Willie Wonka’s Chocolate Factory, but I was kind of glad about that because the Oompa Loompas always freaked me out a little. You got to eat loads of chocolates as you went round, and were given a huge bag of them to take home with you. I love all Mars chocolates except Bountys, so that was all right with me.
Oh, and just so you know: Bounty bars taste every bit as revolting when so fresh, they’re warm in the middle. Yuk!
Unlike Slough, nearby Windsor is packed with tourist attractions and overpriced gift shops. Go see the Castle! Go buy very, VERY expensive fudge! It’s a lovely town, but you really need to enjoy rubbing shoulders with tourists if you’re going to visit.
Although the main reason I’ve stopped off in Reading in recent years is simply to change trains, it is a beautiful city in its own right. There are huge numbers of beautiful redbrick Victorian terraces, with incredible brickwork patterns. It’s probably best known to most Brits, however, as the location for the Reading Festival, and the former home of the WOMAD Festival too (which was a much more civilised affair). When I was a teenager I used to get free guest passes for the Reading Festival from a friend with connections, and even more fortunately, we could get the train back home again. Well, okay, we could get the train back to Slough, and then get someone’s parents to pick us up from there.
What this meant was that I got to attend a festival as a VIP, and was able to head home for fresh clothes and a proper bed every night. Woohoo! Now that’s the way to do a festival, especially in one of our delightful British summers. You can look on the mud with a smile when you know you have a bath waiting for you at home.
I used Reading as the setting for my novel, Handle with Care. I wanted somewhere big and close to London, and near but not too close to the nearest kidney transplant unit (that’s in Oxford) so it seemed to fit the bill perfectly. I took some horrible liberties with Reading geography and put a skate park in the rather more stately Caversham Park. Sorry, people of Reading, but you seriously need more skate parks!
Handle with Care
Ben Lethbridge doesn’t have many vices left. After raising his little sister to adulthood, he wasted no time making up for the youth he lost to responsible parenting. Two years of partying it up—and ignoring his diabetes—has left him tethered to a home dialysis regimen.
He can do his job from his flat, fortunately, but most of his favourite things are forbidden. Except for DVD porn…and fantasizing over Ollie, the gorgeous, purple-haired skateboarder who delivers it.
Their banter is the highlight of Ben’s lonely day, but his illness-ravaged body is the cruel reality that prevents him from believing they’ll do anything more than flirt. Not to mention the age gap. Still, Ben figures there’s no harm in sprucing himself up a bit.
Then one day, a package accidentally splits open, revealing Ben’s dirty little secret…and an unexpected connection that leaves him wondering if he’s been reading Ollie wrong all this time. There’s only one way to find out: risk showing Ollie every last scar. And hope “far from perfect” is good enough for a chance at love.
Warning: Contains superhero porn comics and a cute, accident-prone delivery guy with colour-changing hair. Readers may experience coffee cravings, an unexpected liking for bad mullets, and the urge to wrap Ollie up and take him home.