The Lines of Torres Vedras – Day One

Wellington’s HQ in Pere Negro, the Lines of Torres Vedras

Paul and Anne van Daan arrive at the Lines of Torres Vedras at the beginning of An Irregular Regiment, Book 2 in the Peninsular War Saga.

“Johnny reminded me how young you were,” Paul said quietly, reaching for her hand. “And as I heard myself say it, I realised that he might have a point. That at twenty you should be thinking about parties and fashion and jewellery and all the things that I should be able to give you.  I’m taking you on a tour of redoubts and blockhouses instead of riding in the row and introducing you to George Brummell and the Prince of Wales.”
Anne began to laugh. “Should I like either of them?”

An Irregular Regiment

The redoubts and blockhouses referred to in the above quote were features of the lines of Torres Vedras, the extraordinary system of fortifications built by Lord Wellington to stop the French invading Lisbon in 1810.

It rained for two days in Torres Vedras when we were there.

It felt appropriate somehow.  In  An Irregular Regiment, the 110th Infantry arrives at Pero Negro on the lines of Torres Vedras in torrential rain. They weren’t as fortunate as we are, with a car and a comfortable hotel to come to, but then the  Anglo-Portuguese army wasn’t used to luxury.

The weather on our first day was gorgeous, particularly later in the day. We drove out of Lisbon and found our hotel in Torres Vedras fairly easily although finding the car park proved more of a challenge. Torres Vedras is a lovely little town with cobbled streets. The Stay Hotel is in the centre, opposite the monument to the Peninsular War and I felt ridiculously happy to see it. Somehow it made it real.

Cobbled Street in Torres Vedras

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We had lunch at a restaurant close by. Tapas at ‘Taberna 22′ was a delight with friendly staff and great food at reasonable prices.

The Lines of Torres Vedras were lines of fortifications built in secrecy on the orders of Lord Wellington to defend Lisbon during the Peninsular War. They were named after the local town and constructed by Colonel Richard Fletcher using Portuguese workers between November 1809 and September 1810. The lines stopped Massena’s invasion force dead when he arrived there and were so effective that the full system of fortifications was not completed as they were never needed.  The French never got beyond the first line.

After lunch we drove out to the little town of Sobral which was the scene of a battle in October 1810 when the French army led by Marshal André Masséna arrived at the Lines of Torres Vedras.

Marshal Junot’s VIII Corps was engaged in the fighting over two days. On 13 October, the French drove back the skirmish line of Lowry Cole’s 4th Infantry Division. The following day, Junot’s troops seized an outpost belonging to Brent Spencer’s 1st Infantry Division, but were quickly ejected from the position by a British counterattack. Masséna soon decided that Wellington’s defensive lines were too strong to crack and elected to wait for reinforcements.

I had seen paintings of the combat in the town of Sobral but it was a strange experience to get out of the car in the square opposite the heritage centre and be able to recognise the buildings depicted in the battle scene which are still there. The heritage centre is small but the displays are very good and tablets are available with an English translation. We also bought an excellent little book about the lines which includes maps, suggested tours and a huge amount of detailed information about the forts and defences and how they worked.

Sobral, scene of the battle in 1810

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Armed with this, we drove in the early evening up to Fort Alqueidao, one of the most important forts on the lines and the location of Wellington’s advance command post. Wellington would frequently visit the fort on horseback, riding up from his headquarters in Pere Negro or from the main signal station at Senhora do Socorro.

It was a beautiful evening and the perfect time to be up at the fort. The views were stunning and the light perfect for photography, I am assured by my resident expert. I was particularly taken with the section of Wellington’s military road which has been preserved. For some reason, reading and writing about his road building in Portugal, I had not really taken on board just how solid some of these roads must have been. Or how uncomfortable, for a wounded man being thrown around in an ox wagon.

Fort Alqueidão.

Dinner in the evening was at another excellent restaurant in Torres Vedras, Restaurante Patanisca. Once again the food was superb, the service very friendly and there was a real local atmosphere to the place. We also discovered that we like the local wine…something else I apparently have in common with Lord Wellington.

Despite the rain we were out on a tour of the lines again the following day although I suspect we were rather more dry and comfortable than Paul and his regiment arriving at the lines after the battle of Bussaco in 1810 in driving rain and heavy mud.

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A Marcher Lord – a story of the Anglo-Scottish borders

A Marcher Lord - a story of the Anglo-Scottish borders

Today saw the publication of A Marcher Lord, the first book in a series set on the turbulent Anglo-Scottish borders during Tudor times.  I’m looking forward to writing the sequel to this as I grew very attached to the two main characters and I love both the Tudor period and the border country where the novel is set.

Gilnockie Tower

Sixteenth century border country was a wild and lawless place.  Over the years, wars between England and Scotland changed the lives of those living on both sides of the borders.  They were subject to regular invasions by both armies who would take provisions, often without payment, and would often kill and steal and burn out farms and villages.  Crops were destroyed, homes burned out and people killed or forced to flee.

The worst affected areas were Liddesdale, Redesdale and Tynedale as these were the main routes across the border.  With their crops and livestock constantly stolen or destroyed the families gave up trying to live a normal life and took to reiving.

The dictionary defines reiving as ‘to go on a plundering raid’ and it’s accurate.  Local families took to raiding for cattle, sheep and anything else they could transport and it became an established way of life on the Borderers, practiced by both sides and all classes.  A nobleman was just as likely to be a reiver as a commoner and the border officials, including the Wardens of the various Marches were often corrupt or indifferent.  To be a reiver on the borders was not seen as a crime, merely a way of life. 

Reiving was not a matter of Scots against English.  The borderers first loyalty was to their family or ‘surname’ and not only did the Scots raid the English and the English raid the Scots but the families would raid each other, often leading to blood feuds which could last for generations.

Basically, this was the wild west of the time where almost anything could happen and law and order was fighting a losing battle.  Despite Sir Walter Scott’s attempts to romanticise the period in his ballads, the reality was brutal and bloody and must have caused sheer misery on the borders for many years.

My fascination with this period came from reading the novels of Dorothy Dunnett and then PF Chisholm, aka Patricia Finney who has written a marvellous series of novels based around the historical figure of Sir Robert Carey.  I managed to find a copy of Carey’s original memoirs and I was fascinated by them and also encouraged by them.  As a writer of historical fiction you often wonder if what you are writing is too unbelievable, but honestly, you couldn’t make Carey up.

If you want a non-fiction account of the reivers and their activities, George MacDonald Fraser who wrote the hilarious Flashman novels, wrote a brilliantly entertaining account called ‘The Steel Bonnets’ which is highly recommended and very easy to read.

While I was writing a Marcher Lord I spent several very happy trips driving and walking around Border country.  It’s one of the most beautiful places I’ve been to; wild, often wet and unpredictable.  Even today it is very easy to imagine the scenes of reiver times and finding locations for the book was very simple.

In A Marcher Lord, Crawleigh Castle is based on an amalgamation of border fortresses.  I love Hermitage Castle, guardian of Liddesdale and although Crawleigh has four towers which is more reminiscent of a traditional castle, the sense of brooding menace which Jenny attributes to the castle at first sight is based on the Hermitage.  The countryside surrounding the castle is based on that around Smailholm Tower and visitors to the tower there will be able to climb up and look down towards where the mill once stood and visualise Jenny’s view from the castle.

Hermitage Castle

Smailholm Tower

I hope my readers enjoy reading this book as much as I enjoyed writing it.  I am currently knee deep in Napoleonic Portugal but when I have time I intend to come back to Will and Jenny and find out what role they had to play in the dramatic years to come.

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A Respectable Woman – the history behind the book

A Respectable Woman - set in a 19thc school based on Raines in Arbour Square, Stepney

A Respectable Woman - the historyRespectable Woman was the first book I published and I wanted to share some of the history behind the book.  I have been writing for as long as I can remember, almost always historical fiction.  There are even, I believe, one or two short stories in my old school magazines which were set in the past and with a degree in history I thoroughly enjoy the research aspect of writing.

If possible I love to visit the locations where my books are set, but with A Respectable Woman, it wasn’t hard to visualise the settings since I grew up in East London in the 1960s and 1970s and the school where Philippa Maclay goes to work as a teacher is based entirely on the old grammar school I attended as a child.  The streets she walked are the ones I grew up with and although I have lived away from London for many years, it felt like going home.

Raine’s Foundation Grammar School was founded by Henry Raine and the original Lower School opened in 1719.  Like Wentworths, boys and girls were taught separately and reading, writing and arithmetic were taught as well as useful skills which might help the girls get work in service and the boys to learn a trade.  In 1736 Henry opened a boarding school which took girls from the Lower School and this would have been the equivalent of the school where Philippa taught.  In reality the original schools were in Wapping and did not move to the Arbour Square site in Stepney until 1913 but I have chosen to base my story in the school that I knew. By coincidence, when I went to Wikimedia looking for a photograph of the school that I could use, I found one attributed to a John Darch, whom I rather suspect is one of my old history teachers. If that’s so, thanks very much, Mr Darch…

There are surviving records from the old Raine’s schools and I used these extensively when writing about the day to day running of Wentworths.  I was particularly fascinated by the records of punishments and the day to day activities of the pupils.  Times were hard in the Victorian East End, and it must have seemed like an amazing opportunity for some of these children to get an education at all as well as being housed and clothed and well fed.

The church where the girls go for their Christmas service and then for Founders Day is based on St George’s in the East on the Highway.  As a child I attended services there, sang in the choir for many years and during my final year, as head girl, I laid the wreath on the tomb of Henry Raine.  At the time it was simply a tradition, part of the school year, although I always loved it.  Despite the fact that as teenagers we all mocked the old traditions I’m really aware now of how good it felt to be part of something.  The school year was punctuated by these events and I have tried to give a sense of that in the book and of the sense of belonging it gave to Philippa, orphaned and cut adrift from the world in which she grew up.

Charity schools haven’t always had a good deal in fiction, from Dotheboys Hall in Charles Dickens to the harsh environment of Lowood in Jane Eyre.  Conditions were certainly spartan, but in many cases they were no harder than home life for the children who attended them and I wanted to try to give the feel of the genuine enthusiasm of some of the people who served as teachers and board members and doctors for the work that they did.  For all the poverty and misery of the East End in Victorian times, there were many philanthropists who gave up their time and energy to try to improve the lot of the working classes.

Lady Alverstone is a good example of a wealthy woman who has chosen to spend her time doing something more useful than simply being a society hostess.  In addition to her interest in Philippa’s school she sets up soup kitchens for the survivors of the Cholera epidemic and chairs various committees including one which campaigns for the cause of Anti-Slavery.

The slave trade was abolished in British territories in 1807 and slavery itself was abolished in 1838, but illegal trading continued throughout the nineteenth century and abolitionists worked hard to bring pressure on the government to take action to stamp out the abuses of the system.  There were two different anti-slavery societies during the nineteenth century which did valuable work.

There were various missionary societies during the nineteenth century, including the London Missionary Society and the Church Missionary Society.  They sent missionaries to various stations around the world and the work of Philippa and her father is based loosely on the experiences of men like Moffat and Livingstone who worked in Africa during the nineteenth century.  Missionaries and their families were more likely to succumb to fever and illness than to be the victims of violence, but it did happen at times.

Kit Clevedon’s military service all took place in genuine theatres of war at the time.  Many soldiers moved from Africa to the Crimea and then to India and the siege of Lucknow is well documented.  During this era Post Traumatic Stress Disorder was unheard of although there are many hints in letters and accounts of the time that some serving officers and men were badly affected by their experiences of war.  Kit’s decision to go into the army as the second son of an Earl would have been seen as entirely normal at the time.  The first son inherited title and lands, the second went into the army and if there was a third, the church was often the recognised profession.  Many young men served for a few years and then moved into other spheres, in politics or making a good marriage, but some found a genuine home in the army and chose to remain regardless of rank or wealth.

The Lyons Home for Fallen Women is based on a number of institutions set up to help unfortunate females who had strayed from the path of virtue, for example the London Female Dormitory.  Many of these institutions had harsh rules about who they would and would not help and how that help should be given.  Women were given only so many chances to reform and if they went back on the streets or to their pimps they would eventually be given up as a lost cause.  The Lyons home was very liberal for it’s day but undoubtedly some homes were run on such compassionate lines and must have been a welcome shelter for women who had nowhere else to go.

‘A Respectable Woman’ is in many ways a very traditional love story, with hints of Cinderella.  But Philippa is not sitting around waiting for a prince to rescue her.  She is in fact, very likely to be the one doing the rescuing, and does so on more than one occasion.  A woman left alone in Victorian times had a very limited number of options available to her and maintaining her respectability was all important.  I enjoyed writing about a girl who developed a successful career and maintained her independence against all odds and I hope you will enjoy reading about her.

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