Day 62: Deal to Maidstone

Standard

“Kent, Sir, everyone knows Kent, apples, hops, cherries, and women!”

Canterbury Cathedral

So said Mr Jingle in Charles Dickens’ “The Pickwick Papers” (1837), and to this day, the image rings true. Of all the English counties, Kent has one of the most distinctive identities. Because of its unique location – between London and English channel, into which the county juts out as a slight peninsular toward the continent – Kent has become known for its agriculture, and maybe more significantly, as a gateway to and from the continent, as well as a bastion of defence in times of war. So today, as the Olympic Torch travels from the seaside at Deal, one of the ancient Cinque ports, via the beautiful Cathedral city of Canterbury, to Kent’s County Town of Maidstone, let’s go on a brief tour of all things distinctively Kentish!

The Garden of England

In reality, 21st-Century Kent is a hugely diverse and populated landscape. The hop fields, oasthouses, and market gardens, from which it won its title as Garden of England over the past few centuries in response to the ever-growing demands of London, never covered more than 10% of the land.  But the image stuck. Kentish landscape, with its small cultivated fields and rolling hills became viewed as the epitome of Englishness, and Dickens was one among many writers who cultivated this picture with relish. William Cobbett, a champion of social justice who went on solo tour of England that took in nearly as much territory as our Olympic Torch, waxed lyrical of the countryside near Maidstone:

Kent hop gardens and oast houses

“This is what the people of Kent call the Garden of Eden…a district of meadows, corn-fields, hop-gardens, and orchards of apples, pears, cherries etc and filberts, with very little if any land which cannot, with propriety, be called good.  There are plantations of Chesnut and of Ash frequently occurring; and as these are but long enough to make poles for hops, they are at all times objects of great beauty…these are the finest seven miles that I have ever seen in England or anywhere else.” (Rural Rides, Vol. 1, 1830.)

Of course, as with most idealized images, darkness lurked beneath. Cobbett became appalled by how poor the people working this rich, prosperous landscape were, the profits being peeled off by “rich bullfrog farmers” and bankers, a hated system that made a “hell of a paradise” (Cobbett’s Political Register, 1830). But most of Cobbett’s contemporaries merely saw the beauty and were happily swamped by the romanticism.  To Douglas Allport, the author of a Guide to Maidstone (1842) a perusal of the landscape transported him to a world that echoed contemporary fashions for chivalry, gothic revival, and the then popular novels of Sir Walter Scott.  He wrote that one would envisage the “sturdy Saxons and Britons struggling for mastery”, and the “Oaks of Kent” would again be “resonant with the horn of the swineherd, the rush of the fear-winged hog, and the gentle droppings of acorns on the mossy turf that carpeted the wild glades of your ancestral forest.”

Vanguard of Liberty

Deal Castle (Image from English Heritage)

Maybe the most world famous evocation of Kent comes from the depths of World War Two, when Vera Lynn sang about those bluebirds (!) over the white cliffs of Dover.  But Kent’s strategic significance in times of war has shaped its identity and landscape for centuries, and to this day there are no shortage of castles, forts, dockyards, and military museums to explore.   Kent’s motto is “Invicta!”  (unconquered) emblematic of her fortress-like role. Indeed, it has often been asserted that Kent remained unconquered even in 1066, and not only because William landed in Sussex.  So the legend goes, at the Battle of Hastings, the Men of Kent had been at the vanguard of Harold’s unfortunately defeated army. When the Conqueror then marched through Kent, he was greeted by the “natives”, disguised with the boughs of their sturdy, home-grown oaks. Suddenly emerging, they ambushed the usurper. In recognition of their valour, William granted that the Men of Kent, or depending on the version of the legend, the Kentish Men,* could keep their ancient rights, including the inheritance practice of gavelkind and their position at the vanguard of the army.

Kent has survived many invasion scares over the centuries. At the height of the threat from Napoleon’s armies in 1803, the Cumbrian born poet William Wordsworth drew upon Kent’s fortress-like landscape, and the Men of Kent to pen a rousing piece of propaganda.

The rearing white horse of the Kent Invicta

Vanguard of Liberty, ye Men of Kent,
Ye children of a soil that doth advance
Her haughty brow against the coast of France,
Now is the time to prove your hardiment!
To France the words of invitation sent!
They from their fields can see the countenance
Of your fierce war, may see the glittering lance,
And hear you shouting forth your brave intent.
Left single, in bold parley, ye of yore,
Did from the Normans win a gallant wreath;
Confirmed the charters that were yours before, –
No parleying Now! In Britain is one breath;
We all are with you now from shore to shore:-
Ye Men of Kent, ’tis Victory or death.

Broadstairs Beach

But there’s so much more to Kent than the famous images.  Today, the torch wends its way though reams of historic landscape, seaside towns steeped in memories, and a living, working county in the here and now.  Sadly, for many people in recent years, Kent has become no more than a transport route, a place you pass through quickly on your way to and from the continent, and all one sees of it is motorways and rail links.  So I hope today is a chance for the world to look and see: Kent’s also a place well worth stopping in.

* Usually, though not always, it is considered that those who hail from east of the Medway are Men of Kent/Maids of Kent and those who hail from the west are Kentish Men/Kentish Maids.

Kay Berrisford is the author of the two ‘Greenwood’ novels, Bound for the Forest, and Bound to the Beast, a tale of Herne the Hunter.  Her first contemporary novella, Catching Kit, set in the Olympic city herself, London, is published on July 24th.

Advertisements

Day 61 Hastings to Dover

Standard

Today the torch passes through Hythe, in Kent. I love that place to little pieces, having gone there with Mr Cochrane and the whompers several times for family breaks. The Imperial Hotel did us proud on many an occasion and we hammered round the golf course (before the girls discovered boys and went off the game) and thrashed each other on the croquet greens. Doesn’t it look like something out of an Agatha Christie story? Now wonder it provided me with one of my key inspirations (of which more anon).

Just across the road (the other side from this view) is the sea. There’s something about pebbly beaches which reminds me of childhood and makes me all gooey inside. (Kent has that general effect, anyway.) But Hythe has more than that to offer. It has a special railway for a start.

A miniature one, which runs all the way out to Dungeness power station (star of a Dr Who episode and itself well worth a visit if they still have the visitor centre).

Then there’s the military canal, one of those lovely spots for just walking along doing nothing much. Hotel to town along the canal, back along the front – better than Monte Carlo any day.

The Imperial Hotel inspired me to write Lessons in Seduction. It appears as a thinly disguised version of itself – golf course, croquet and all – but relocated up the coast to Pegwell Bay, where I spent many a happy summer’s day on childhood holidays.

But memory is a funny thing. I was in the process of edits for the story when I thought I’d better check a bit of geography on google maps. Lo and behold hadn’t somebody come and put a whole load of cliffs in, just where I remember there not being any when I was a child? (Why must your brain play tricks on you, like it does by pretending summers were always sunny in the past?) Some swift re-writing was needed, although luckily there weren’t many instances of people leaping out of the hotel, over the road and straight onto the beach. They’d have broken their necks!

Serves me right for combining two locations…

Day Brighton and Hove to Hastings

Standard

The wonderful Frank Muir once mentioned on the radio a great misprint he’d seen – that great song from “Oklahoma”, “People will say we’re in Hove”. If you know anything of Brighton’s reputation as a place for liaisons (combine the easy train ride from London with the bracing sea air) or purported liaisons (the fodder of divorces) you’ll see why that misprint is inspired.

Brighton’s has a long history of being “the place to be”. Didn’t Pitt used to take his (possibly) boyfriend there for the weekend? It’s certainly had association with the gay community for a large part of the twentieth century. Like Provincetown on Cape Cod, Brighton manages to be both a family friendly and GLBT friendly resort. The days of the Mods vs Rockers punch ups on the sea front are, thankfully, gone.

The Auden poem “Oh Tell me the Truth about love”  contains several clues to the sexual nature of the love which he’s looking for, a love which at the time couldn’t speak its name so has to hide behind coded words.

I tried the Thames at Maidenhead, And Brighton’s bracing air.

If you were in the know, you’d understand – for most people, theBrighton bit would be obvious, but I never understood the significance of the Thames at Maidenhead until a friend who lives there showed me where the Guards’ boathouse used to be. Some of the Guards have long been known to supplement their income by obliging gentlemen of a certain persuasion. Now all becomes clear! No wonder there’s an old local expression “Is he married or does he live in Maidenhead?”

The other great significance of Brightion is that it’s where the 2012 UK meet for writers/readers/reviewers/publishers/etc of GLBTQ fiction will be happening, on the weekend of the 15th/16th September. Some grand folk from all over Europe – nay, all over the world! – will be attending and sharing their wisdom.

Day 59 Portsmouth to Chichester

Standard

When the Olympic Torch passes through Portsmouth, the torchbearer is going to see what I think is one of the weirdest public structures since Chicago’s Picasso sculpture:

That’s the Spinnaker Tower.

In 1805, when he set out for his rendezvous with Destiny at Trafalgar, this tower is one thing Admiral Lord Nelson would not have seen.

I’m not sure he’d have approved, either.  Classic architecture was much more the thing in Nelson’s era. What I think he would have approved, wholeheartedly, was this – probably the most famous ship in the Royal Navy – his own first-rate man o’war, the Victory:

It’s probably fitting – even if I’m not crazy about the modern architecture – that Portsmouth continues to have new landmarks popping up, because the city has been one of England’s major ports about as long as people have been sailing there, and its buildings reflect the changing eras.

Portsmouth itself is on an island – Portsea Island, where the Solent meets the English Channel.   The city’s nickname is “Pompey.”  Sources differ as to why – one is that the nickname is taken from Le Pompee, a captured French gunship that was the resident guardship, but I think the other explanation is more likely – that the navigational abbreviation for Portsmouth Point – Pom P – was adapted into slang.  In any case, you can’t read an Age of Sail novel without finding this reference – Portsmouth is mentioned in every one of Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin novels.

I had the chance to visit Portsmouth in 2002 – before the Spinnaker dominated the landscape – and my own favorite landmark (apart from Victory herself) was the Round Tower – a much more human-scale building, built in the early 1400’s.

This was originally going to be the site of the slam-bang shootout that winds up my novel Walking Wounded,  until I sent a copy of the final draft to Charlie Cochrane for a Brit-pick.  It had been a few years, after all.  I wasn’t exactly thrilled to learn that the long stretch of beach where I’d intended to have a rainy-night chase was now “a block of posh flats.

However, as a local expert, she did offer a nearby stretch of road that worked perfectly, and I think in some ways the open space made for more suspense – and a couple of surprises.  Thanks again, Charlie!

Here’s an excerpt from Walking Wounded, with a little local colour.  John and Kevin, both military veterans recovering from less than successful careers, have rediscovered each other after their budding romance was cut short by assignments that took them away from each other.  But the joy of reunion is marred by a dangerous enemy from Kevin’s past…

They both felt the winter’s bite when they left the house the following evening. A sleeting rain was blowing fine as needles in the icy wind.

“It was a dark and stormy night,” Johnny said under his breath.

“I haven’t written a word yet,” Kevin countered. “And if you think I’m going to start with Snoopy—”

“Actually, it was Bulwer-Lytton, but you can go for dull if you like. ‘The sun went down hours ago, and the weather was inclement.’ That should cure anyone’s insomnia.”

It was a stupid thing to quibble over, but it was a distraction—probably why Johnny had started the foolishness. Kevin didn’t want to talk about what they were doing, making targets of themselves. He felt alarmingly exposed on the quiet street, and knew his lover must be in much the same state.

The walk to the pub should take no more than ten minutes. It wasn’t John’s local, just the closest to where they now lived. And it wasn’t as though they were unprotected, either. They were being watched every step of the way, by soldiers stationed in buildings and parked cars. The body armor hidden under their bulky sweaters and jackets gave an extra measure of protection. But none of it was enough to provide peace of mind.

“Think we’ll see him tonight?” John asked quietly.

“It’s possible. Not likely.”

“I almost wish he’d try. Be nice to have it over.”

“I wouldn’t object.” But Kevin didn’t want Blackwell to make an attempt tonight, not really. Body armor would be no use at all against the crushing force of a vehicle, and the narrow streets and alleys meant it might not be possible for them to avoid such an attack—or for Jones and his men to stop it.

They stopped at the corner. “Cross or turn?” John asked.

“Turn,” Kevin said. The cars parked on the near side formed a convenient barricade, and he knew that one of the team had strolled down the block just minutes ahead of them to make certain those cars were empty. Two more blocks straight ahead, then across the street to the pub on the corner.

A car’s engine growled as they cleared the last building before the cross-street at the end of the first block. Kevin caught John’s sleeve to keep him in the shelter of the building and scanned the storefronts, spotted a doorway a few yards back that they could duck into—

But the dark sedan that pulled up to the corner and paused before making its turn was just a car, the driver an older gent who never even glanced at the two tense young men standing a few feet back from the curb. The tail lights receded slowly until they disappeared around a bend in the road.

“That was fun,” Johnny said, his voice tight.

“Fresh air and exercise.” Kevin took a deep breath and stepped out again. The streets were very quiet—no one with any sense would be out in this weather—and they made it the rest of the way to the pub without encountering another soul.

It was quiet inside, too. Kevin felt himself relax a bit as they stepped inside. The aroma of something delicious wafted around them on the indoor warmth. After the days of isolation, it was almost strange to be out among people, but you couldn’t honestly call this a crowd. Half a dozen patrons occupied tables near the front windows and a twenty-something couple sat at the bar, the girl looking at her watch as her boyfriend talked to someone else on a mobile phone. Kevin saw one of their minders down at the far end of the bar, sitting at an angle that let him watch the entire place. Their eyes met, then moved on; neither acknowledged the other.

Kevin took a table near the back, beside the fireplace. He could see the entrance from there, as well as the fire exit beside the loo. There should be a covert team stationed out in the alley, just in case. A pity they weren’t just out for an evening; the pub was a relaxed, comfortable place, with its old oak wainscoting and dark green walls. A gas log flickering against the opposite wall completed the picture of a cozy retreat.

“It’ll be nice to have a meal we didn’t fix ourselves, and no washing-up after,” Johnny said, looking over the menu. “Hmm. This may take a little thought.”

“You’ve never been here?”

“No, never came down this way. Looks like I should have, it’s going to be a tough choice. They’ve got a lot of veggie meals, Kev.”

“So I see.” There really was quite a selection, Italian and Indian as well as the more usual fare. “Hm. Mushroom-walnut stroganoff. That sounds good.”

“I think I’ll have the turkey curry. Cross-cultural.” In response to Kevin’s puzzled frown, John explained, “American Indian bird, East Indian sauce. Oh, and they’ve got winter ale. Would you like a pint?”

“Sure.” While John went to get their drinks, Kevin checked his mobile phone for text messages. If there were an immediate danger, Jones would call; otherwise, whoever was in charge of communications would send them an update or all-clear every ten minutes. There were two all-clears queued up, and no voicemail.

Kevin had a hunch the Colonel had been waiting for them to volunteer for this sort of thing. He had accepted their offer of help without hesitation, immediately doubled the number of men assigned to the mission, and provided a few suggestions as to how and where they might begin appearing in public. He also recommended that when they were away from home a team of soldiers would be posted in the house, in hopes of catching Blackwell if he should attempt to set up an ambush.

They’d agreed to all of it. Anything that shortened this center-stage, looking-over-the-shoulder kind of life was worth putting up with, at least for a little while.

“Any messages from your secret admirer?” John asked, returning with two pints.

“All quiet on thePortsmouthfront,” Kevin said. “It’s what we could expect, at this stage.”

“I gave them our order, without starters,” John said. “Hope you haven’t changed your mind.”

“No, that’s fine. We’ll be served quicker this way, and I’d rather not stay out too long.”

“Same here. It’s funny, I thought I’d enjoy an evening out, but—” John shrugged. “I suppose it’s the teflon underwear—crimps one’s style.”

“No doubt someone, somewhere has a fetish for the stuff,” Kevin said. “Doesn’t do much for me.”

“Oh, so you want to take it off before we go to bed?” Johnny feigned a look of mild disappointment. “I thought all you special forces boys had surprising kinks.”

“That’s probably why I washed out,” Kevin said. “Too damned normal.” What was surprising, though not at all kinky, was that he felt not the slightest twinge when he said it.

Their food arrived. “That was quick,” John said as the waiter began transferring the dishes from tray to table.

“You picked two of our top favorites. There’s always curry on, and the cook just finished a batch of the stroganoff. Enjoy!”

As Kevin had guessed, the stroganoff was what had smelled so enticing when they first walked in, and the taste was even better.

“Looks like hobbit food,” John said. “Lots of mushrooms.”

“It’s excellent. How’s yours?”

“Tastes like chicken.” He grinned at the cliché. “Actually, it tastes like curry, but it’s good, too. Want a bite?”

They traded tastes, and decided Kevin’s entrée was more interesting. “But you know,” John said, “In our grandparents’ day, it would’ve been the other way around. We have so much Eastern food now that we take it for granted.”

“I wonder if QueenVictoriaever imagined the way the wholeBritish Empirewould wind up in our restaurants,” Kevin mused.

“I expect the old girl’s spinning in her grave,” John said. “She’d have taken a dim view of us, for certain.”

Kevin raised his glass. “Here’s to a long and happy rotation for Her Majesty.”

Sitting there chatting with John, he actually managed, for a little while, to forget about the threat that hung over them. But in too short a time, they were pulling on their jackets, paying their check, and preparing to go back out into the cold to make targets of themselves.

The entryway had a tiny vestibule space, an airlock between the cold outside and warmth within. Kevin closed his eyes as he stepped into it, counting off thirty seconds.

“What’s wrong?” John asked.

“In half a minute, I’ll have some of my night vision back. Three minutes would give more, but we don’t want to be too conspicuous.”

“Good grief.”

“I know—sorry, I don’t mean to be a nuisance.” He shouldered the door open into sleet, and pulled his watch cap from his pocket.

“You aren’t,” John said, winding his muffler up to his ears. “I didn’t realize how much was going on in your head—all the cloak-and-dagger details.”

“I just want to be certain I see Blackwell before he sees us.” The street had been checked minutes before they left the pub, but Kevin crossed so they’d be walking back on the opposite side. He found himself compulsively peeking into parked cars, just in case.

John snorted. “To hell with that—I want Sergeant Jones to see him before he sees us.”

“I like the way you think.” One block covered, no cars. “Johnny, I probably don’t need to say this, and I don’t want you to take it the wrong way—”

“Bloody hell. How bad is it? Did I do something stupid?”

“No! No, I was just thinking ahead. If anything should happen, the worst thing you could do is to try to throw yourself on top of me, or fling yourself into harm’s way.” He winced at John’s dead silence. “I’m sorry, I put that badly. It’s no reflection on your ability, Johnny—I was just thinking about what I would do to protect you, and realized you’d probably have the same impulse—and I don’t want us to trip each other up trying to save each other. We’ll both be safer if each of us just gets himself out of the way.”

“I understand,” John said at last.

“Sorry—”

“No, you’re right. We have to treat this as a potential combat situation, each of us has to trust the other to do his job.” The corner was approaching. “Cross or turn?”

“Turn. Of course, if you see something and it’s obvious I don’t—” Kevin glanced toward John for a moment, and the corner of his eye caught a door fly open just behind his lover, a man’s figure come charging out.

Completely forgetting what he’d just said, he reacted instinctively. He elbowed John out of the way and caught the stranger’s outstretched arm, dropping his own weight to throw the intruder off-balance, spinning him around and then pinning him against the brick shop-front with an arm around his throat.

www.lee-rowan.net

http://www.cheyennepublishing.com/books/wounded.html

Portsmouth – A tour around HMS Victory

Standard

I would hesitate to say that I’m known for anything, but if I was, I think it would be for Age of Sail historical romance, with stalwart Naval heroes fighting pirates and scurvy and their desire for each other on the high seas. So I can’t let Portsmouth go by without taking a visit to HMS Victory, the navy’s (I believe the world’s) oldest commissioned battleship.

It occurred to me that for today’s step in the torch relay, I would take you on a tour of this historic ship. Just bear in mind that this is the top of the range for everything in the 18th Century ship line. The frigates my officers serve on would be smaller, more cramped, and probably infested with ship-worm, with gaps between the planking and half of the iron nails pulled out to use for barter.

So, here we have the pictures my husband took while we were going round HMS Victory in the summer. Naturally, as a romance writer, I thought I would start in the bedroom. Here is the top-class, absolute creme-de-la-creme of luxury for a naval officer – Admiral Lord Nelson’s sleeping cabin. :

His bed is a canvas hammock with a board at the bottom, covered by a thin mattress. The curtains were embroidered by Emma Hamilton 🙂 And he has a reasonably large space in which to move because he’s sharing it with two cannons.

We took too many pictures to make a picspam at all reasonable, so DH has put them on his Flickr account, and you can see them all here:

All aboard for a tour of the Victory

But as it’s unseasonably cold here again, and the Victory is entirely without central heating, I suggest you warm yourself on the galley before you go 😉

--

Alex Beecroft was born in Northern Ireland during the Troubles and grew up in the wild countryside of the English Peak District. She studied English and Philosophy before accepting employment with the Crown Court where she worked for a number of years.Now a stay-at-home mum and full time author, Alex lives with her husband and two daughters in a little village near Cambridge and tries to avoid being mistaken for a tourist.

Alex is only intermittently present in the real world.She has lead a Saxon shield wall into battle, toiled as a Georgian kitchen maid, and recently taken up an 800 year old form of English folk dance, but she still hasn’t learned to operate a mobile phone.

For more on her m/m Age of Sail romances, and others, visit her site here 🙂


Day 57: Bournemouth to Southampton

Standard

Today, the torch takes in a whole swathe of southern England, and the sites of many a childhood summer holiday (though not for me! I was an Eastbourne and Bognor gal.) From the sandy beaches of Bournemouth and Boscombe, through the yachty waters of Christchurch, the torch then passes across both those mud-sodden holiday havens, The New Forest and the Isle of Wight, plus the ferries across the Solent (left).  It’s a little much for one day, let alone one blog!

The New Forest

I wasn’t born in this part of the world.  I’m actually a Maid of Kent (more of that in a few days time) and I’d never been to the New Forest till I moved to Hampshire a few years back.  I always intended to set my first novel in nineteenth-century Kent. Nevertheless, my first published work, Bound for the Forest, was set in a fantasy version of the New Forest, which I casually entitled the Greenwood, and the name stuck.

Photobucket

There are a thousand reasons why the New Forest wormed its way deeply under my skin.  Yes, in the Summer the roads are clogged to their limits with tourists and caravans, but it’s amazing how quickly you can get away from the scrum and into the deep woods, or (more prevalently) the vast open expanses populated chiefly by insects, rare songbirds, the odd snake and lizard, and four legged beasties.  Charmingly, the moment one escapes the crowds, you will usually arrive face-to-face with a family of donkeys, or a wary wild pony and her foal, or my own personal favorite – that great big sow who loves roaming near the Lyndhurst car park. Maybe these piglets I snapped were some of hers?

Photobucket

That the New Forest is now the place where animals, and indeed holidaymakers and the population of the surrounding cities, roam free, takes on a certain irony in the light of how the forest came about.   Created in 1079 by William the Conqueror as a royal hunting ground, thirty-six villages and churches were apparently swept away, and brutal laws were imposed for the next few centuries to prevent commoners’ hunting or even foraging. The most famous of these laws decreed that commoners could only hunt in the forest if their dog was small enough to fit through the verdurer’s stirrup (and if too large, parts of the poor dog could be lopped off!)  The law is commemorated at the Crown Stirrup pub, and a 17th stirrup still hangs in the Verdurer’s Hall in Lyndhurst.

Of course, the story of the ravaging of Anglo-Saxon Greenwood liberties at the hands of the Normans is steeped in canonical nationalistic myth (something us Brits have been cultivating like hothouse tomatoes this summer).  As in all the best narratives, the New Forest gained some small revenge in 1100, when William II (Rufus) the Conqueror’s heir and then king, was killed by an arrow during a hunting trip.  The Greenwood’s blood harvest did not stop there.  Rufus’s brother and three other relatives were also killed in the New Forest, allegedly in suitably ritualistic fashions:  Duke Robert was killed by an arrow through his throat, and his son was hanged from an oak by his hair.  All grimly inspiring, as are the many dark tales of the supernatural associated with the forest…how could a writer not be drawn in?

Excerpt from Bound for the Forest. Warning: Mild fantasy gore!

Mud splashed in Scarlet’s face as the terrified men and beasts galloped on. He was left alone, the stillness broken only by the rhythmic creaking of the branches overhead. He still hadn’t looked up. He hardly needed to.

Scarlet knew what he would see. The traitors of the forest: the corpses of those who had wronged the Greenwood from their very hearts, dangling from the trees in eternal indignity and torment. And Hastings and his sons had seen visions of their own corpses dangling beside them? Scarlet’s body rattled with a dry, mirthless laugh. Arya and Brien might have succeeded to a point in getting rid of the intruders, but they should have known to trust in the wily tricks of the spirits to finish the job…

…or were the spirits speaking to him?

Scarlet’s nerves clenched tight as his mind raked back over everything that had just happened to him. He had nearly drowned and been taken by the Wild Men, and now the hangings—and he hadn’t needed Herne’s reminder about his own fate of sacrifice. Shakily Scarlet raised his acorn charm to his lips and kissed it. It was Melmoth Brien’s fault! Until he came, Scarlet had hardly put a foot wrong.

And was Melmoth Brien’s corpse hanging above him, beside the other traitors in the trees?

He had to know. His blood thundering in his ears, Scarlet rolled onto his back. A bulky body swung from a tree not a yard off. A rope pulled tight around its broken neck; its limbs jerked and twitched in a dance macabre. The swollen tongue lolled from its mouth, the bulging eyes smudged yellow and red, pupils still darting with the tremors of fading life. An arrow pierced its side. This was not Brien. It was William the Conqueror’s son, Rufus, the most famous of the victims of the spirits, dead for over seven hundred years.

He scanned the rest of the bloated, discolored faces. No. Brien was not there. His energy rekindled by confusion, horror, and a sense of utter relief, Scarlet hauled himself up and stumbled from the roadside.

Having traveled only a very small distance, he dropped amid the spreading roots of a chestnut tree and curled into a tiny ball. Sleep claimed him instantly. And from there, Scarlet wandered through a land that he knew all too well, that place with no sun, lit only by a hollow, green glow. The trees here were few, and when it started to rain, the water burned him. It melted little grooves along his skin, streaming down his face and clouding his vision. He decided to run for shelter, for the denser woodland at the heart of the forest. But the rain, he realized, was poisonous. It had seeped deep inside him, and he could no longer move. So the trees came to him.

He was not shocked by any of this—not here, in the realm of Niogaerst. He’d seen it all before in dreams like this, although it still made him nervous. The shower of white arrows was all that was new.

They poured down from invisible archers beyond the branches, snow-white quivers driving razor-sharp points into his chest, his arms, and his thighs. Scarlet cried out, watched his body tumble backward, and then he saw himself bleed. Thick crimson liquid trickled down his arms, legs, and chest, pooling on the thick, bubbling soil, although he felt no pain.

“Don’t let it start yet,” whispered Scarlet. “Please let me go back, if just one more time. I want to know the truth.”

*****

Southampton

My home city had its moment in the world spotlight this year with the centenary of the sinking of the Titanic, during which over 540 residents perished. On the 10th of April, the new Sea City Museum opened to tell the well-known story of the disaster and offer a taster of Sotonian life in 1912, as well as a racing overview of the city’s past.  For a lesser known slice of Southampton history, however, our newly-presented Tudor House museum is unmissable, not least because it draws you into the very heart of a medieval city that is too easily forgotten.

Southampton was badly bombed in World War Two, but much of the old city wall survives, as do foundations and crypts dating back to the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, and some real timber-framed gems, including the Tudor House.  Built in the late fifteenth century, and adjacent to the remains of a Norman palace, the Tudor House celebrates one hundred years as a museum this July, and still sports some of the cabinets of curiosities that characterized museums of its period.  A macabre-cute stuffed puppy has disturbed visiting children for generations and resides there still, now alongside an introductory ‘experience’ that makes you wonder if you’ve wandered into an audition for extras in Harry Potter or Rentaghost.  Seriously, it does.  You better go there and find out…

Photobucket

Kay Berrisford is the author of the two ‘Greenwood’ novels, Bound for the Forest, and Bound to the Beast, a tale of Herne the Hunter.  Her first contemporary novella, Catching Kit, set in the Olympic city herself, London, is published on July 24th.

Day 56 Portland Bill to Bournemouth

Standard

Dorset is the home of my childhood holidays. My dad and his lady used to take me to a farm in Winterborne Kingston, and we’d spend a week touring around Dorset and Devon in an old minivan that had seen better days. They were both chain smokers, so in hindsight, it was amazing we saw anything at all through the haze of smoke from Old Virginia tobacco.

Dad and my (now) stepmother had joined The National Trust, so we could visit places for free. As a child I wasn’t wildly keen about being dragged around all these old relics, but I could be pacified with a drink and a cake in the tea rooms. Nothing much has changed. I’m still easily pleased with coffee and cake.

Two of my favourite places to visit were Durdle Door and Corfe Castle, both places visited by the Olympic Torch today. As I write this the Torch has already set off on its journey. Torch bearers, I wish you a safe passage and no rain.

Corfe Castle was the stuff that my fertile imagination squirreled into stories. A thousand-year-old royal castle shaped by warfare, it stood strong and proud as the English Civil War raged around it. In my mind I was Lady Bankes defending the castle against Oliver Cromwell’s Roundheads, only to be betrayed by one of my soldiers. I could see the pain as the castle was demolished, not by time and wear, but by gunpowder, as Captain Hughes of Lulworth packed deep holes with gunpowder to bring the towers and ramparts crashing down.

Durdle Door is stunning. Hard on the knees to get down to the beach, but absolutely stunning. Durdle Door is a naturally formed rock arch on an easterly section of the Jurassic Coast between Weymouth and Lulworth Cove. When I say Jurassic Coast I’m not anticipating Richard Attenborough to pop up, you understand. No velociraptors here(thank goodness), but the coastline is a wonderful place to find fossils.

Naturally, Durdle Door has played the backdrop to many films and music videos. I think it is rather indicative of my age and kids that the first film I spotted was Nanny McPhee and music video was Tears for Fears’ Shout.

It is also the image used by Weymouth & Portland National Sailing Academy to promote the 500 days to go to the Olympics opening landmark.

What do I remember about Durdle Door as a kid? Complaining a lot about how my legs ached climbing the steep cliff to the car park. But the view is so worth it. Even a seven year old, standing in the rain, could appreciate what an amazing sight was in front of her. As long as she got an ice cream at the end of the climb.

My story is set on The Isle of Wight, which is tomorrow’s Torch visit, but the idea of the summer holiday is just the same.

The Isle of… Where?

Buylink:

Blurb: When Liam Marshall’s best friend, Alex, loses his fight with colon cancer, he leaves Liam one final request: buy a ticket to Ryde, on the Isle of Wight, and scatter Alex’s ashes off the pier. Liam is tired, worn out, and in desperate need of a vacation, but instead of sun, sea, sand, and hot cabana boys, he gets a rickety old train, revolting kids, and no Ewan MacGregor.

Liam would have done anything for his friend, but fulfilling Alex’s final wish means letting go of the only family Liam had left. Lost, he freezes on the pier… until Sam Owens comes to his rescue.

Sam’s family has vacationed on the Isle of Wight every year for as long as he can remember, but he’s never met anyone like Liam. Determined to make Liam’s vacation one to remember, Sam looks after him—in and out of the bedroom. He even introduces Liam to his entire family. But as Sam helps Liam let go, he’s forced to admit that he wants Liam to hang on—not to his old life, but to Sam and what they have together.

Excerpt: THE conversation had gone something like this:

Alex: “You need a vacation after being stuck inside with me for so long.”

Liam: “Somewhere hot. Sandy beaches, blue sea, hot men.”

Alex: “I can promise you the beaches are sandy.”

Liam: “What do you mean? Alex, what are you planning? I know that look in your eyes. I thought we were talking about a vacation.”

Alex: “I’m offering you a vacation, moron.”

Liam: “Where?”

Alex: “The Isle of Wight.”

Liam: “Where the fuck is that?”

Alex: “The UK.”

Liam: “It rains there and the men aren’t hot.”

Alex: “Ewan McGregor, man, Ewan McGregor.”

Liam: “That’s a low blow, even for you.”

Liam’s vision of a tropical vacation with cocktails and cabana boys faded away with the tide and instead there was this, a special hell, surrounded by screaming kids and overweight moms. Alex really knew how to give his best friend a good time.

Liam leaned against the glass and sighed. Somewhere up there, Alex was laughing at him. The bastard could have given him a train ticket to anywhere; the Orient Express, for instance. The lyrics said a “Ticket to Ride,” not fucking Ryde. But no, Alex loved the Isle of Wight after a summer vacation during college and he would not be moved. So a ticket to the ass end of nowhere it was. Maybe Alex had secretly hated him all these years.

The Isle of Wight was obviously a popular destination for families, because from the second Liam had gotten on the ferry to the island he hadn’t been able to get away from whining brats. Liam wasn’t one of those men whose life was going to be completed by progeny. He liked Kathy well enough, even though he’d deny it if pushed, but she was Alex’s kid, so of course Liam liked her. Children en masse were hell on earth. Particularly the little fucker behind him.

The train eventually reached Ryde. Could any train ride be so slow? The island was the size of a handkerchief. The majority of the crowd got off, to Liam’s relief. He was particularly pleased to be rid of the evil kid who had spent most of the journey kicking the back of his seat. After days of riding this train from hell, he had no patience for some bored brat. He’d glared at the monster when the kicking had started, and then tried glaring at the mother. The woman had stared back with sublime indifference. Liam thought about moving to the seat behind the kid and kicking his seat to see how he liked it. He could just imagine how that would go down. Pervert On Train Attacks Small Child! Liam’s imagination ran wild as he visualized the headlines. It might even get on YouTube. Somebody would record it on their cell phone and upload it. Liam shuddered as he imagined the small clip going viral. His mother would never speak to him again. The nightmare had kept him occupied until the train disgorged the horrid child and his equally horrid mother at Ryde Esplanade.

For the couple of minutes it took to get to Ryde Pier Head station, Liam leaned against the back of the seat and closed his eyes. Forget the last few days riding this God-awful train. Today was the day to fulfill Alex’s request. Then he could go home and get on with his life.

Sue Brown