St Michael’s Isle to Derbyhaven #OscarWalks

St Michael’s Isle to Derbyhaven #OscarWalks

Good weather gave us the chance for a beautiful walk in the south of the island. Oscar was on the lead for most of the way, but was able to have a couple of off-lead runs which he loves. I have to tell you in advance that he was a VERY GOOD BOY today.

 

 

 

The old chapel on St Michael’s Isle

St Michael’s Isle, also known in the past as Fort Island, is about 400 metres long and is just off the Langness Peninsula, joined by a narrow causeway and it features in An Unwilling Alliance, when Hugh Kelly takes Roseen to visit. It’s a beautiful place, covered in springy grass and vegetation, surrounded on all sides by a rocky coastline. I’ve been there in a high wind and it’s a wild place, but today was sunny and calm, although freezing, and there were few people about.

“I’ve been here before, haven’t I, Mum?”

“A few times, Oscar. The last time we came, Anya was with us. And Joey.”

“Don’t cry, Mum. He’s all right, really he is.”

“I know that, Oscar. I just miss him.”

“So do I. Do you remember that day, when he ran off?”

Joey and Oscar at Derby Fort last year

“I really do. We were so concerned about you, we kept you on the long lead, but we let him off. He gave us one look and then started waddling at high speed right towards the rocks and Anya had to run after him.”

“He was after a swim, he loved swimming. Can I swim today?”

“Not here, it’s too rocky. Later you can go in at the beach.”

“What’s that, Mum?”

“That’s St Michael’s Chapel, Oscar. It was built in the twelfth century on the site of an older Celtic keeill.”

“A what?”

“A keeill. It’s a Manx Gaelic word for a chapel. Very old.”

“It looks it. What’s that other building over there. It’s broken too.”

“Ruined, Oscar.”

“Ruined. Broken. Whatever. What is it?”

“It’s called Derby Fort, it was built in the 17th century by James Stanley, the 7th Earl of Derby who was Lord of Mann during the English Civil War, to protect what was then the very busy port of Derbyhaven.”

“Doesn’t look that busy now.”

“Nowadays we have an airport, Oscar. Times change.”

“I suppose so. Can I look inside?”

“Through the gate, it’s not open. Over here.”

Interior of Derby Fort

“What’s that?”

“A cannon.”

“A what?”

“A big gun.”

“Oh right. Like the ones at the bottom of Summerhill Glen?”

“That’s right.”

 

“I like it here. Lots of grass and rocks and sea and smells and…what are those flying things that I like to chase?”

“Birds.”

“That’s right.”

“It’s a bird sanctuary.”

“It must be. I never catch them. But look, Mum – DOOOOOGS!!! Can I go and play?”

“Off you go then.”

“Whew, that was fun. They’re not youngsters, those two, but they could run. Although that one waddled a bit like old Joey. Where now?”

“Let’s get your lead back on. We’re going along the coast towards Derbyhaven.”

The walk along the Derbyhaven coast was just over three miles and we were able to do a lot of it on the beach although retreated up to the path or the road where it was too wet or too rocky. Oscar loves the beach, but needs watching as bizarrely, he likes to eat seaweed. This was new to me; neither Toby or Joey would have dreamed of eating anything so nasty and smelly. Recently, Oscar has been learning the valuable command “Leave” and we had the chance to practice this a lot today. It went very well.

“You’re being very good, Oscar.”

“Thanks. What’s that?”

“It’s the back of the airport. When we go away, we sometimes go on airplanes.”

“That’s why I hate airplanes. You should stay here. What’s that big building over there. It’s not broken.”

“Ruined. No, that’s King William’s College. It’s the only public school on the island. Which really means it’s a private school, because you have to pay to go there. I’ve never really understood that.”

“I don’t care. Did Jon go there?”

“No.”

“Did Anya?”

“No.”

“Not an interesting place then. What’s that?”

“It used to be a cafe and bar. I’ve never been in, but I think it’s closed down now.”

“Pity. We could have gone for tea. I like this walk.”

“So do I, it’s very pretty. Right, we’re going to turn back and go up to Hango Hill on the way back.”

“Can I go on the beach?”

“Yes, but don’t eat the seaweed.”

“Okay.”

“Oscar, leave!”

“Sorry.”

“Oscar, leave!”

“Sorry.”

“Oscar, leave it!”

“Sorry, Mum.”

“What is it with you and seaweed? Neither of your brothers ate seaweed.”

“I just like the smell. And the taste.”

“Try not to, Oscar, it’s really bad for your tummy.”

“I’ll do my best. I’ll go and paddle instead.”

“Good idea. A bit cold to swim.”

“Ooh. What’s that?”

“Hango Hill.”

“Eh?”

“It’s called Hango Hill.”

“It’s a very small hill.”

“More of a mound, really, but it’s very old.”

“It’s got another one of those broken buildings on top.”

“You mean ruins?”

“That’s them. You really like ruins, don’t you, Mum? Ruins and books. And dogs, of course.”

“Yes, that pretty much sums me up. Come and see, Oscar.”

Hango Hill is a small mound by the side of the coast road between Castletown and Derbyhaven, overlooking the beach. It was possibly an ancient burial site and a Bronze Age flat axe was apparently discovered there. The name derives from the Norse words for Gallows Hill and was used as a place of execution until the seventeenth or possibly early eighteenth century.

The most famous execution to take place on Hango Hill was that of William Christian, also known as Illiam Dhone, (Brown William) for his participation in the 1651 Manx rebellion against the Derby family who were Lords of Mann at the time.

Illiam Dhone, from the National Art Gallery at the Manx Museum

Christian was a Manx politician of his day and is seen variously as a patriot, a rebel or a traitor. He was appointed as Receiver-General by Derby and when the Earl left for England to fight for Charles II he left Christian in charge of the island militia. Derby was taken prisoner at the Battle of Worcester and his wife,  a redoubtable lady called Charlotte de la Tremouille, who held Castle Rushen for the King, tried to save her husband’s life by negotiating the surrender of the island to Parliament.

The ensuing rebellion, led by Christian in 1651, was partly due to national politics and partly due to local discontent at some of Derby’s new agrarian policies. The rebels took several local forts and Christian then began negotiations with the Parliamentarians. The Countess was forced to surrender Castle Rushen and Peel Castle, and failed to prevent the execution of her husband. Christian remained Receiver-General and became Governor of the Isle of Man in 1656.

Derby’s family did not forgive or forget. Fraud charges were brought against Christian, who fled to England and was imprisoned for a year in London. On his release he chose to return to Mann, believing that his rebellion against the Earl would be covered by the Act of Indemnity, but the new Earl immediately ordered his arrest. Christian refused to plead at his trial, was found guilty and executed by shooting on Hango Hill on 2 January 1663.

Oscar enjoying my lecture about Illiam Dhone

“So what was this place before it was ruined, Mum?”

“I’m not sure, Oscar, but I think it’s the remains of a kind of summerhouse used by the Earl of Derby. It was built after Illiam Dhone’s execution. They used it as a banqueting hall as well, and used to organise horse racing along these dunes towards Langness. I read somewhere that these were the very first “Derby” races. I suppose that’s when they stopped using it for executions.”

“Good thing too. Bet it’s spooky at night.”

“Shall we come down here one evening and see?”

“Not funny, Mum, you know what I’m like in the dark. What does that writing say?”

“It’s just a little bit about the history of the place and Illiam Dhone. Each year, on the anniversary of his death, they have a gathering here and make a speech in the Manx language.”

“I’m surprised you don’t come, it’s the sort of thing you’d do.”

“I might one year. It’s always so cold in January, though.”

“It’s blowing up a bit now.”

“It is. The light’s starting to fade as well, I forget how early it gets dark. Right, back to the car then, we’ll be warmer if we’re walking.”

“Mum. This was a long walk. How far?”

“Probably almost six miles with all the detours and the running around on the beach and the island, Oscar.”

“That’s a long way. I’m going to need a long sleep when I get back. And dinner. I’m starving.”

“Have a biscuit, then. You’ve been such a good boy today, Oscar, I’m proud of you.”

“Thanks, Mum. Won’t be going out next week much, I suppose?”

“No, you’ve got your operation on Friday. But it won’t take long to recover and the weather will be getting better soon. There’s the car. Hop in, baby boy.”

Oscar about to settle for his post-walk nap

Look out for more #OscarWalks posts to come and if you enjoyed this and want to hear more from Writing with Labradors, or find out about my books, why not follow me on Facebook,Twitter,  Instagram or  Medium?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

St Adamnan’s Church and Groudle Glen #OscarWalks

St Adamnan’s Church and Groudle Glen #OscarWalks

St Adamnan’s Church

There was a slight delay in the opening post of Oscar’s weekly adventures, because of the sad loss of Joey. We’ve all been struggling a bit with this, but Oscar and I agree that it’s time to get back into action again. Joey was very enthusiastic about the new series, and gave us some excellent suggestions in the weeks before he died. According to Oscar, he is still getting excellent suggestions from both Joey and Toby, many of which seem to involve stealing food from kitchen surfaces and trying to get books down off my shelves. I’m not sure about this. Either Oscar is a Medium and is receiving messages from the doggie spirit world or he thinks he can blame his crimes onto his departed brothers. Could be either, really.

View from St Adamnan’s Church, Lonan

Anyway, we did these two walks a few weeks back. Oscar loves Groudle Glen and beach and I wanted to walk up to St Adamnan’s Church and take a few photos since both these locations featured in my Christmas story, Colby Fair. We’d had five days of rain and then unexpectedly, after lunch, the sun came out and it was a beautiful, cold afternoon when we parked and set off up a narrow road towards the church.

”Where are we going, Mum?”

“We’re visiting a church, Oscar.”

“What’s a church?”

“It’s a building where people go to pray.”

“Do dogs pray?”

“I don’t know, Oscar. You’d have to ask some other dogs.”

“I’ll ask Joey. And Toby. Toby must know this stuff. He knows a lot more than he did when he was alive.”

“It would be hard for him to know less. Stop pulling, Oscar.”

“Sorry. What’s that smell? And that one? And that one and…what’s that?”

“It’s a sheep. Don’t worry it.”

“It’s enormous. It’s worrying me.”

“You’re not like Joey, I must say, he’d have been trying to get over that gate to visit the sheep.”

“I always knew Joey was brave. I’m not going near that thing. What’s that?”

“It’s the church.”

“It’s broken.”

“It’s partly ruined, Oscar. Come and have a look round.”

There has been a church on this site since the middle of the fifth century, and it was probably a centre of pagan worship before that. The first church or keeill was built by travelling monks on a main pack horse road between Douglas and the north. There was a well with running water and it was close to two good landing beaches. The church was rebuilt a number of times and remained the parish church until 1733 when parishioners complained that the location was inconvenient, and it was decided to build a new parish church in a more central position. 

After the new church was built, which took almost 100 years, St Adamnan’s fell into disrepair, but fortunately was not demolished. It was rediscovered when John Quine became Vicar of Lonan in 1895 and he set out to restore the ancient building.

“Why doesn’t this half have a roof?”

“It’s a ruin. This is the old part of the church. The other part was restored later on, it’s still a church.”

“With a roof.”

“That’s right.”

“Can we go in?”

“If you promise to be very good. I’d like to take some photos.”

“Of me?”

“Not this time, Oscar.”

“Good. I HATE posing for photos when I’m out, I don’t like standing still.”

“I can see that.”

“Mum. Bored now.”

“All right. Let’s have a quick look round the churchyard and then we’ll drive down to Groudle. There are some Celtic Crosses here.”

“Boring. Can we walk to Groudle?”

“We could, but we’re going in the car.”

“Boring.”

“Because it will be dark soon, and you don’t like walking when it’s very dark.”

“Who does? It’s full of shadows and weird shapes and those big woolly things.”

“Sheep, Oscar.”

“That’s ‘em. Don’t trust ‘em.”

Groudle Glen is close to Onchan and is formed in a valley leading down to a small beach. It was developed as a tourist attraction in the nineteenth century when it was planted with a variety of trees. In its Victorian heyday there were bowling and croquet greens, a holiday camp on the headland and a water wheel. The wheel was still visible until very recently, when it was removed for restoration. There was a refreshment kiosk, a bandstand and at the edge of the glen, a small zoo featuring sea lions and polar bears, created by damming a small cove. This was reached by a narrow gauge steam railway, which still exists today and is run by a dedicated team of volunteers.

The glen was a major tourist attraction in Victorian times, with a dance floor, a bandstand, a playground, stalls, kiosks and even a fortune teller. Most of these have now disappeared apart from the railway, and the glen today consists of peaceful footpaths which are much frequented by dog walkers.

“DOOOOOOOGS! I love coming down here. There are smells and water and a beach and trees and paths and mud and other DOOOOOGS!”

“Calm down, Oscar. You’re supposed to be giving our readers a description of the glen and the beach from a Labrador’s point of view.”

“I am. DOOOOOOGS! TREEEEES! All the SMEEELLLLLS! And no sheep. I hate sheep.”

“I know, Oscar. Some dogs chase sheep, you know.”

“Not me.  I hide when I see sheep.”

“I know. Behind me. Last week you nearly tripped me up by wrapping the lead round my legs when you saw a sheep. It was half a mile away on the other side of a fence.”

“It looked at me funny. OMG it’s the SEEEEAAA!!! Swimming! Throw the ball, Mum! Further than that! Aren’t you coming in, it’s great!!!”

“Maybe in the summer, Oscar.”

“Do sheep swim?”

“Not willingly.”

“Good. That’s why I love the sea.”

“Come on, Oscar, I want to walk up the path to the railway track before it’s dark to take a photo. You could do with a run to dry off a bit.”

“I don’t need to dry. I’m a Labrador, we like water. I can run round like this all day.”

“Good boy.”

“Mum…I’m cold.”

“Back to the car then, Oscar. I’ve got your towel there. Was that a good walk?”

“Great. Where next?”

“We’ll have to wait and see.”

“Tired now…”

Look out for more #OscarWalks posts to come and if you enjoyed this and want to hear more from Writing with Labradors, why not follow me on Facebook, Twitter,  Instagram or  Medium?

 

 

Blogging with Oscar

Oscar is ready to Blog

“Blogging with Oscar! OMG, OMG I’m so excited! Finally, after all this time, she’s letting me have my very own guest post on Writing with Labradors! What do I do, what do I say? I’ve got so much to talk about, I have so many thoughts, and it’s making me run round and round and round and round….. JOEEEEEY!!!!”

 

“Calm down, Oscar. It’s just a blog post, no need to explode. Come and sit down and I’ll talk you through it. What have you got there?”

The wreck of my Wellington biography…

“It’s a book-thing. I found it on the sofa, it was just lying there, and I thought that’s going to taste great, so I…”

“Oh no, you need to put that down, lad, she’ll go mental. You know what she’s like about her books, and that one looks like it’s got a picture of Wellington on the front.”

“Wellington? You mean like a boot? I love Wellington boots, I’ve chewed three of them now.”

“I know you have, Oscar. Still finding bits of them in my bed. No, Wellington is a name.”

“A name? Like my name? A dog name? Is Wellington a dog?”

“Not yet, Oscar, but don’t be surprised if it is one day. She wanted to call you Wellington, but the rest of the family put a stop to it. But she’s probably going to get her way eventually. Now put the book down, come and sit down. You need to introduce yourself.”

“Right. Right, yes, I do. Okay. What now?”

“Tell the readers of Blogging with Labradors about yourself.”

“Right. Well, my name is Oscar, I’m a black Labrador, I’m nineteen months old and I live on the Isle of Man. Which is a GREAT place to be a Labrador. We’ve got beaches and glens and rivers and parks and hills and SO many places to go for a walk.”

“Where were you born, Oscar?”

“I came from Nottingham which is a long way away. I lived with my Mum and Dad and all my brothers and sisters. We used to talk a lot about our new homes and where we would go and then one day my new Mum turned up and off I popped. It was a very long car journey, but I sat in a little cage next to her and we stopped for toilet breaks and cuddles and she talked to me all the time. And THEN we went on a big boat called a ferry, and she took me into this little room called a Dog Cabin and we went to sleep.”

“Did you realise straight away that she was crazy?”

Baby Oscar with my old fella, Toby, much missed

“No, that took a bit longer. Anyway, we arrived and met all the family. And of course you and Toby. And here I am. I still miss old Toby.”

“So do I, lad. He was a great dog. Not that bright, mind. Nothing between the ears. I was glad when you came and it turned out you’d got a brain. Thought all black Labs were as daft as him until I met you.”

“Anyway, here I am. Having a marvellous time on the Isle of Man. She’s been telling me that we’re going to start doing some blog posts about all the places we visit on the island, to tell people how great it is here. Blogging with Oscar. I thought you could help with that, Joey?”

Joey considering his next post

“Me? I’m a bit old to be traipsing all over the island these days, lad, that’s your job, but I don’t mind helping with the posts a bit. I don’t go far these days, but I’ve got a good memory. What’s the first post going to be about, do you know?”

“No. The beach? Or the glen? Or the Prom? Or Nobles Park? Or Castletown? Or…”

“You’re running in circles again, Oscar. Might need to go out into the garden and play for a bit, to get you calmed down.”

Snake is one of their favourite toys

“Great idea, Joey. Let’s take Snake! Or Gorilla! Or Theon Greybear! Or Brown Bear! Or….”

“Come on then, lad, before you fall over your own feet again.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

Many thanks to Oscar and Joey for their help with today’s post. You’ll be hearing more from Oscar on Writing with Labradors as we’re starting a regular Tuesday post entitled Visits with Labradors describing Oscar’s adventures. Probably with a lot of help from Joey…

You can follow their adventures, as well as my writing, on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram  and Medium

 

 

 

Our Walcheren Expedition Day 3

Our Walcheren Expedition Day 3 was dedicated to museums. This turned out to be a good thing because it rained all morning.

I was woken at around 2am by a spectacular thunderstorm. I’m not scared of storms, but I do find it difficult to sleep through them, so while the man I married snoozed on happily, I sat by the long windows in the living room and watched the sky light up, thinking about the reported thunderstorms in the days leading up to the bombardment of Vlissingen in 1809.

The storm rumbled on until about nine, but the rain continued. We hovered, unable to decide, and then got bored with waiting and set off for Middelburg Abbey. It’s about ten minutes walk and the rain had stopped by the time we got there. Nothing was going to stop our Walcheren Expedition day 3.

Middelburg Abbey originated in the twelfth century. Monks from Antwerp established a large religious foundation with two churches and extensive lands on Walcheren and in other parts of Zeeland. Many of the surviving buildings from the monastic period  are Medieval Gothic, and date from the late sixteenth century.

Monastic life came to an end in 1574 when the Spanish surrendered to the Protestant Dutch separatists at the end of the two year Siege of Middelburg. William of Orange had given guarantees that the clergy would be left alone, but both the abbey and Roman Catholicism in Middelburg were nevertheless forcibly terminated.

The abbey was taken over for use in the secular administration of the province. Initially it was used as the seat of the district assembly and for other administrative functions including the admiralty, a mint, and a court chamber. Following reforms during the Napoleonic occupation, in 1812 the former abbey complex became known as the Province Building.

The abbey church was badly damaged in May 1940 by German aerial bombers targeting Middelburg in order to persuade the Dutch army not to hold out against German invasion and rebuilding was not completed till 1965. Other abbey buildings continued to accommodate government activities till the end of the twentieth century, such as the land registry and state archive.  Part of the complex now houses the Zeeuws Museum and the Roosevelt Study Centre.

The two Protestant churches are still referred to as Abbey Churches, reflecting their monastic origins. The Choir church or Koorkerk was built around 1300 and comprises a tall chancel of seven arches in length, with a five sided apse to the east of the choir stalls  with elaborate roof vaulting. On the south side is the church tower known as Lange Jan.

The New church  features a double nave and dates from the rebuilding that followed the fire of 1558. It replaced an earlier church built around 1300 which also featured a twin nave. The eastern wall of the New church is also the western wall of the Choir church, and the two interiors were originally connected through an arch, but this was subsequently blocked up. After 1833 the New church became the only parish church for the central walled area of Middelburg.

Both churches are beautiful, although in the middle of the tourist season it was hard to get the sense of peace that I love about old churches. I found this in the old Abbey cloisters, cool and dim, with sunlight peeping through and a gloriously tangled herb garden in the centre; my favourite part of the Abbey.

There is a big, open square in the middle of the Abbey buildings, with trees and seats and a couple of cannon which look rather as though they had been carelessly abandoned by some negligent commissary officer. There is also the entrance to the museum and cafe.

This part of the building has been thoroughly modernised inside, giving little sense of the original abbey. The museum has exhibitions over a number of floors. It is very well designed and put together with very modern themes, but I will be honest and admit that I was a little disappointed. While I wasn’t expecting to find anything about the campaign of 1809 which was not especially significant in Dutch history, apart from the people who died in Vlissingen and Veere, I was very much hoping for some information about the history of Middelburg and Walcheren and that was very much lacking. The one exhibition which dealt with history, was an amazing selection of tapestries telling the story of the rebellion against Spain. I loved that section. Much of the rest of the museum was beautifully put together but gave very little actual information about the town or its history. Given that there is no other museum in Middelburg to do that job, I thought it a shame, although I did pick up some useful information about historic costume.

We climbed Lange Jan to see the fabulous views over the town, following in the footsteps of my fictional Lieutenant Durrell who found it a quiet haven away from the chaos of the campaign in 1809. After coffee and cake outside a local cafe, dodging another rain shower, we went back to Veere to the two museums there. The Veere Museums consist of the City Hall and the Scottish Houses on the quay, both fabulous historic buildings.

There is a unique collection of 16th century statues which once adorned the façade of the City Hall and are on display in the ‘Statue hall’. The ‘Scottish attic’ tells the story of the long lasting trade relationship between Scotland and the city of Veere. Veere was once the centre of the profitable wool trade between Scotland and the Low Countries; the town won staple-rights on Scottish wool in 1541, meaning that the goods had to be made available for purchase there for a set time before being allowed to go on sale elsewhere. This important and profitable trade right encouraged Scottish merchants to establish themselves in Veere permanently and for a period of time, the small Scottish community was ruled by Scottish law and their own leader within the Dutch town.

The museums in Veere were far more interesting in terms of history, although I have to say that there was still more art than history in both of them. I really enjoy art, and I loved the story of the English family who set up an artists’ community in Veere before the second world war. I still felt a slight sense of frustration, however. These towns have so much history and I came away knowing very little about the people, the development of the town, their economy and agriculture and what shaped them. Perhaps there’s a museum somewhere else in this area that I’ve not found which offers that.

Having said that, I had a fabulous day. The museums were great at what they did, even if it wasn’t what I wanted, and I thoroughly enjoyed myself. I also found, in a rather more modern painting of a woman in traditional Dutch costume, my perfect Katja de Groot. Honestly, I couldn’t stop staring at her. Isn’t she beautiful?

Tomorrow is Vlissingen, and the nautical museum. I really like this part of the world; it’s very relaxed and we’re having a great week. Even if my husband dreams of hills he could cycle up…

Our Walcheren Expedition day 2

Our Walcheren Expedition, day 2, could be sub-titled “What I learned about cycling.”

One of the things well known to our friends and family is that Richard cycles, and I don’t. That sounds like a simple fact of life, but it’s a lot more extreme than it sounds. Richard’s cycling involves owning about six bikes and more gadgets than you would believe. His gadgets measure everything. An entire community of online cyclists share information from these gadgets and congratulate each other on their prowess. Also there is lycra. A lot of lycra.

I did not own a bike as a child and was at university when I first learned to ride one. My mother had lost a cousin of some kind who was run over while cycling in London and refused to budge on the bike issue. Both my sister and I learned as young adults, but while she took to it, I didn’t. Travelling on two wheels seemed to make no sense to me. I did it, from time to time, but remained wobbly and uncomfortable.

Over the past 25 years, I have made fairly regular attempts to improve. There were rides round the Hertfordshire countryside and cycling weekends where I wondered if divorce was a rational option. Eventually, we moved to the Isle of Man which is basically a large hill and I pretty much gave up. I cycled around Lake Kielder on the Scottish borders with the kids about seven years ago, falling off all the way. Two years ago I chickened out of a cycle tour of Berlin. My cycling career was officially over.

I don’t know what made me decide that on Walcheren, I wanted to try again. Perhaps it was just because I knew it was incredibly flat. I’ve also been looking for exercises to help with my hip arthritis and have been told that cycling could be good. Whatever the reason, a couple of months ago I hauled my daughter’s old mountain bike out of retirement and took it down to the prom, probably the only flat area nearby, and wobbled up and down. By the time we arrived in Middelburg, I felt confident enough to give it a try. So on our Walcheren Expedition day 2, we rented bikes and set off into the unknown.

Things I learned about cycling…

  1. You never forget how to swim or how to ride a bike. Only one of those is true for me.
  2. In the Netherlands, the bike is king and road users take care not to endanger them. Tell that to the b*****d in the black van who forced me onto the pavement.
  3. Cycling is easier than walking. No. It’s really not.
  4. Every other cyclist on the road / cycle path is better than I am. Including the four year olds. Especially the four year olds.
  5. “Don’t worry, I’ll keep an eye on you” means “I will cycle off into the distance painfully slowly to make a point and not even glance behind me at your yell of pain.”
  6. Cycling on cobble stones is an experience.
  7. Nobody wears a cycle helmet in the Netherlands. This is WAY much more fun.
  8. Hardly anybody wears lycra to cycle. Also, much better. I feel normal.
  9. You can get to most places on cycle paths. This is AMAZING.
  10. I can cycle 28.3 kilometres in a day and still walk / go out to dinner / drink wine. I’m fitter than I thought.
  11. Cycling doesn’t hurt my arthritic hips at all.
  12. My shoulders would hurt less if I didn’t grip the bike in sheer terror.
  13. Renting a city bike from Cycle Hub in Middelburg is a great leveller and my super-cyclist husband was in more pain than I was at the end of the day because the bike was the wrong shape / height / age / type / colour.
  14. Nobody cares that I’m a clumsy oik on a bike here. Because cycling is just normal.
  15. I want to do more of this.

Perhaps it’s time to venture off the prom and try a few gentle hills at home…

Our Walcheren Expedition, day 1

Our Walcheren Expedition, day 1 was spent exploring the area by car. It’s always good to do that if possible, to get a sense of the place before planning the week. Given that the real purpose of this trip is to give me a sense of how Walcheren might have been in 1809 when This Blighted Expedition is set, there’s something very exciting for me in walking down streets and looking at views which my characters would have known.

Given that, we were very fortunate to find an apartment, through Airbnb, on Korendijk, which is directly on the canal and is where my Dutch heroine, Katja de Groot, was living with her three children when the British invaded in 1809. Much to my joy, the house turned out to have been built in 1722. Most of the buildings along the street are from the seventeenth and eighteenth century and all fit well with the tall houses that the merchants of Walcheren built to house their businesses and their families.

Our landlady, apparently recognising a history nut at forty paces, explained that this house was built by a wheat merchant, who also owned a mill and a bakery nearby. The beams have a very battered look, understandable because much to my joy, they were recycled from old ships from the local ports. In one part of the building, it’s possible to recognise part of the ship’s mast.

Chatham’s army landed at Bree Sands, to the north, and that is where we started our drive around Walcheren. The challenge of getting the location right in this particular book is that the landscape has changed dramatically. In 1809 Walcheren was an island, as were North and South Beveland. Land reclamation means that it is not possible, as it often is in Portugal and Spain, to look over the landscape and know that you are seeing pretty much the same land as your characters.

All the same, the wide beaches and strong winds definitely give a good sense of what Chatham’s men faced when they landed on Walcheren. We even managed to find the location of Fort Den Haak, where Lord Chatham set up headquarters on that first night, although whatever remains of the fort itself is currently inaccessible to the public. Interestingly, it is further inland than it would have been in 1809.

Following General Fraser’s trail, we drove to Veere, which is a beautiful little town which refused to surrender immediately to Lord Chatham’s army and was battered from both land and sea to persuade it to do so. There is a walk around the fortifications of Veere which we did, and it gives a good sense of the town defences, although most of what exists today was built from 1810 onwards when the French returned, including a fine selection of artillery from 1810 and 1811. We’ll be back to do the museums another day.

Later in the day we took a stroll around Middelburg to get our bearings and were impressed with Middelburg Abbey, where Lord Chatham set up his headquarters. Having seen Wellington’s various headquarters in the Peninsula over the past two years, it was clear that Lord Chatham was somewhat more set on luxury than Wellington, although now that I think about it, the Royal Palace in Madrid probably trumps Middelburg. Once again, we’ll be back to do the museums.

Already I’ve picked up an enormous amount of information for the book, but more importantly, I have a sense of the area and the countryside. One of the things that contemporary accounts frequently mention is that it is flat. They were not wrong about that, so I have decided that tomorrow I shall venture around the coastline on a slightly different mode of transport, and one that I seldom use…

 

Our Walcheren Expedition: Preview

Our Walcheren Expedition: Preview took us to Naarden. We travelled to Walcheren via Amsterdam, which gave us the opportunity to spend a couple of days visiting some friends who live in Naarden. I’d not been there before, and given that most of this trip is about Me Me Me, I had already decided to let everybody else plan these few days. It says a lot about my friends that day one was spent exploring the seventeenth century star fortress and day two was spent at the National Military Museum…

The town of Naarden dates back to the tenth century when it was actually situated about 2.5 km to the north-east. The town was destroyed during the wars of the fourteenth century and rebuilt in 1350  on a high sand ridge on the eastern route to Amsterdam. Because of it strategic position, Naarden became one of the most important fortified towns in The Netherlands.

The current star shape of Naarden dates back to the 17th Century, when the fortifications were improved after the siege of 1673. Naarden was part of the New Dutch Waterline, a defensive line through the Netherlands which I’d never heard of before. I would love to do a tour of these forts, they look stunning, but that will have to be another visit.

Naarden is beautiful, with not only the military buildings and fortifications and the Dutch Fortress Museum, but also a fantastic variety of shops and restaurants within the fort. It deserved far longer than the short visit we were able to manage

The National Military Museum is definitely a full day out. It is situated on the former air base at Soesterberg and apparently combines the collections of the former Military Aviation Museum in Soesterberg and Army Museum in Delft.

The museum depicts the history of the Netherlands armed forces in a collection of huge and very interactive displays. Vast halls display tanks, planes, armoured vehicles and helicopters. There are sections on the various wars the Dutch have been involved with over the centuries and how their armed forces developed and changed. While not directly relevant to my favourite period (although there were some interesting bits about Waterloo) I did learn a lot about the history of the Netherlands which provides context to the story I’m currently telling in “This Blighted Expedition”.

For anybody interested in military history, or even who just likes tanks, planes and helicopters, this was a fabulous day out, especially with children, there is so much for them to do there.

It wouldn’t feel right to end this first section of our trip without mentioning our evening out at the Red Sun at Blaricum, Japanese fine dining with great company. We had the tasting menu, seven courses, which is an event as much as a meal out and thoroughly enjoyed it.

Thanks so much to our friends, Patrick and Serena, for being excellent hosts and guides. We had a great time. Next step, Walcheren…

Salamanca

The Battle of Salamanca was fought on this day in 1812 across the rolling plains around the small Spanish village of Los Arapiles. In this excerpt from An Untrustworthy Army, Wellington’s men are marching close to the French army while both generals try to decide whether or not to risk a battle. Wellington had almost decided to retreat on this occasion, when on the afternoon of 22 July, he spotted a gap in the French line and ordered the attack.

After a little more than a fortnight at Rueda, it was a relief to Paul to get his brigade moving. Night marches could be difficult, depending on the terrain, but most of his men were very experienced and followed each other through the darkness, relying on the voices of NCOs and officers to guide them. The clink of horses and the thudding of hooves followed the progress of the cavalry who were advancing with the light division. Paul rode up the long column to find General Charles Alten in conversation with his big German orderly. Peering through the darkness he recognised Paul and waved him forward.

“Colonel van Daan, I am sorry to have interrupted your festivities this evening.”

“It’s a relief, sir, I’ve had enough of waiting. French on the move?”

“It seems so, although I know very little, just that we are to advance with the cavalry and await orders.”

Paul pulled a face which Alten could probably not see in the dark. “When we get there, why don’t we play a hand or two of ‘lets all sit around and guess what the hell Lord Wellington is doing now’, sir?” he said. “I should have gone up to see him instead of prancing about with the Rifles for the evening.”

“Where is your wife, Colonel?”

“I left her in camp for the night with half a company of the KGL to guard the baggage and supplies. They’ll pack up early and follow us up. Where are we going?”

“We will halt behind Castrejon and await Lord Wellington.”

“That’s always a treat,” Paul said gloomily. “I hate marching around for no apparent reason and I’ve got a feeling that’s what we’re doing.”

Alten gave a soft laugh. “There is usually a reason, Colonel. It is simply that you hate not knowing what the reason is.”

Paul acknowledged the truth of this over the next few days of monotonous, repetitive marching interspersed with several fierce skirmishes as Lord Wellington and Marshal Marmont began a cautious facing dance which each day failed to result in a battle. There was nothing urgent or frenetic about their movements. Facing each other across the river and the rolling plains around Salamanca, the two armies manoeuvred in perfect timing, attempting to outflank each other without forcing a pitched battle on any ground of which the two commanders were unsure.

“It’s like a pavane,” Anne said, on the third day. She had ridden up to join Paul and was looking over the lines of Wellington’s army and then beyond to the distant columns of Frenchmen on the opposite bank. “I’ve never seen anything like this before.”

“Nor have I,” Paul said. “What the devil is a pavane?”

“It’s a dance. A bit like the Allemande but slower and more stately; it’s very old.”

“What is an Allemande? No, don’t tell me. How do you know all this?”

“There was an Italian dancing master,” Anne said, and laughed aloud at his expression.

“Your stepmother should have locked you up,” Paul said grimly.

“If she had, Colonel, we probably wouldn’t be where we are now.”

“True. But it’s a lesson to me about keeping an eye on my daughters as they’re growing up. I’m shocked at how young girls behave.”

“You did not say that to me in a shepherd’s hut in Thorndale,” Anne said serenely. “How long is he going to keep this up?”

“I don’t know,” Paul admitted, looking out over the lines. “He’s not saying much even to me. I don’t think he’s sure.”

Anne followed his gaze. The countryside was a vast plain with low rolling hills and the river snaking between the two armies. An occasional shot was fired when the two came too close but for the most part, the forces moved watchfully along, ready to fall into position at a moment’s notice. They passed villages and small towns and the people came out to watch them sombrely. There was none of the excitement and joy of their entry into Salamanca. It was as if the locals knew that the generals were contemplating battle and dreaded the consequences for their crops, their homes and their families.

We visited the battlefield during our tour of Portugal and Spain in 2017. The Salamanca battlefield site is immense; not in actual size since it probably isn’t the widest battlefield Wellington fought over, but in the sheer amount of information available. I was halfway through writing book five which is based around the battle of Salamanca and the Burgos campaign, so this visit was particularly useful as it was made ahead of the writing.  I had read about the small interpretation centre in the village of Los Arapiles to the south of the city of Salamanca, but had not really looked it up until we were about to go there.  I was hugely impressed to find that it was open two days a week, Thursday and Saturday, and we had set aside a Thursday for this trip.

 

I was so glad we did.  This is definitely the best small museum we visited.  For one thing, everything is in both Spanish and English which wasmuch more useful than our desperate attempts to translate interpretation boards in other places.  For another, it is amazingly detailed and accurate.  From the advantages and disadvantages of the different infantry formations of line, square and column, to the best way to load a musket, somebody here had done their research and very well.  

The other joy was the map we were given of a series of interpretation boards around the battlefield site.  There are ten in all, each with information about the battle as it unfolded, and each board has a QR code which can be scanned by a smart phone.  A short dramatised account of that section of the battle, in English, can be listened to at each point.

The routes on the map are marked for walking or cycling.  The good news is that in good weather all tracks are passable in a car.  A 4 x 4 would be best, some of them are very rough, but we managed it on dry roads without.  It took about three hours to do the whole thing.  Honestly it would have been less if it were not for my pedantic insistence that we do the boards in number order so that we got the chronology right for the battle as opposed to working out the shortest circular route which might have taken half the time.  That day, the man I married gave the word patience a whole new definition.

With the help of the museum, the interpretation boards, which are excellent, my trusty battlefield guide and a map, the Battle of Salamanca became suddenly very clear to me.  Driving from board to board and then climbing hills and rocky outcrops to view the various vantage points of the battle it was very easy to visualise how Wellington was able to split the French line and send their army fleeing within a few hours.
After exhausting ourselves scrambling over battlefield sites, we drove to Alba de Tormes, across the river.  This is the route that a lot of the fleeing French army took, and no action took place there in real life.  In my book a significant skirmish takes place there so I wanted to check if my story worked with the location.  I was delighted to realise that with a small adjustment it will work very well.

We went back into Salamanca for dinner.  As we are English this involved almost two hours of wandering around this beautiful university city, musing about how it is possible to be in a major city at 7pm and find nobody open for dinner.  It always takes some time to Spanish dining hours.  But time wandering in Salamanca is never wasted, it’s so lovely, especially the university  buildings, which feature in An Untrustworthy Army, since both French and then English used them as barracks and storage buildings.

Given that my fictional regiment fights as part of the Light Division, Salamanca had the potential to be a bit of a disappointment for me, since Charles Alten’s men did not play a significant part in the battle. Since I know that Colonel van Daan is easily bored, I chose to give the third brigade a skirmish of their very own out at Alba de Tormes. The battle is included in the book, seen through the eyes of Lieutenant Simon Carlyon who is on temporary transfer to Pakenham’s staff.

A great deal has been written on the battle of Salamanca. For me, the best book on the subject by far is Rory Muir’s book which explores the battle in depth. I highly recommend a tour of the battlefield and interpretation centre; as long as you have transport it is one of the ones it’s perfectly possible to do without a guide.

An Untrustworthy Army is book five in the Peninsular War Saga which follows the fortunes of the fictional 110th infantry and Paul van Daan, the man who rises to lead it, through the long years of Wellington’s wars in Portugal and Spain.

An Unconventional Officer - love and war in Wellington’s armyAn Irregular Regiment

An Uncommon Campaign, 110th at the Battle of Fuentes d'Onoro

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Malvern Festival of Military History: my review

I have just got back from a great weekend at the Malvern Festival of Military History. It was a fantastic event, featuring a wide selection of historians, novelists and enthusiasts and I highly recommend it to anybody interested in the field who didn’t make it this year. I met some amazing people and have come away with some good memories and a whole host of new ideas which I am never going to have time to write. I also spent a small fortune on books…

The festival was a full-on weekend, with so many talks and discussion panels that it was genuinely difficult to get time to eat. It took place in several marquees in the grounds of Severn End in Hanley Castle and the excellent coffee van and crepe van kept a few of us going through the weekend. Having to travel from the Isle of Man meant that I missed most of the first day although having attended this year, I am going to make sure that next year I’m able to be there for the full event.

I arrived in time to hear Sir Max Hastings’ talk on Vietnam which was excellent. Vietnam is one of those conflicts, like the Northern Ireland troubles, which was part of the backdrop to my childhood. My parents were daily news watchers and allowed us to watch with them from a very early age so I always knew about the war although I never learned about the causes until I reached university in the early eighties. I genuinely want to read this book.

Wellington enthusiasts let loose without supervision…

On the following day I attended panels on the English Civil Wars and 1815-1914 – A Century of Peace? Contrasting talks were given by Nicholas Shakespeare on how Churchill unexpectedly became Prime Minister and Andrew Roberts on Churchill: walking with destiny. I was sorry that the evening concert had to be cancelled but I thoroughly enjoyed the speakers’ reception which gave an opportunity to meet people informally. I’m indebted to my husband for managing to find a very suitable pub for dinner afterwards; the Wellington Inn. Jacqueline Reiter and I were so excited that I’m surprised they let us in, they probably thought we were lunatics, but I’m glad they did, the food was excellent.

 

A Close Run Thing? Waterloo with Charles Esdaile, Alan Forrest, John Hussey, Robert Pocock and Jacqueline Reiter

Sunday was they day very much dedicated to the period I write about and I enjoyed every single one of the talks on that day. Adam Zamoyski on Napoleon was interesting and I enjoyed his exchange of views with Charles Esdaile. Probably my favourite panel was the one on Waterloo ably chaired by Robert Pocock. Charles Esdaile, Jacqueline Reiter, John Hussey and Alan Forrest discussed a number of questions covering both the military and political aspects of the battle and an alarming number of books have been added to my ‘to read’ list.

A Fine Line – Turning historical fact into fiction with David Donachie, Iain Gale, Adrian Goldsworthy, Tom Williams and Lynn Bryant

My own panel was the last of the day, consisting of myself along with Adrian Goldsworthy, Tom Williams, David Donachie and Iain Gale, all fantastic authors. David was a great chair, and we talked about some of the challenges of creating believable historical fiction at the same time as spinning a story that readers will enjoy. I loved it and would have been happy to sit down afterwards to carry on the discussion.

Nein! Standing up to Hitler, 1935-44 by Lord Ashdown

The last talk was given by Lord Ashdown about his book “Nein! Standing up to Hitler 1935-44” which blows away the commonly held belief that there was little resistance to Hitler among his own people. It was a story of lost opportunities which led to tragedy and I bought that one on the day.

In the outer marquee were book stalls, an exhibition of war art and a variety of information stands and endless opportunities to talk. I spent most of the weekend talking and listening; it isn’t often I get the chance to spend time with a group of people who are just as passionate about history as I am and I loved every minute of it.

There are probably one or two things to be learned for next year. Food was genuinely a bit of a problem; the programme was very intensive and it was difficult to leave to get food. This was fine on the first day where there seemed to be a variety of food stands but on the Saturday and Sunday there was only the crepe van, who heroically fed the entire event. I suspect the weather, which was cold, and on Saturday very wet, kept them away but I wonder if it caused some people to leave to get lunch and perhaps not to come back or to miss some of the talks because of it.

It was a pity that the two evening concerts were not a success. I wasn’t able to get to the first one as it coincided with Richard’s train arriving and I had to pick him up, but I gather it was so poorly attended that the second one, on the Saturday, was cancelled. This was a real shame but I suspect it was a combination of the cold, wet weather and the problem of food once again; once people leave a venue to find dinner it is hard to get them back again. I’m hoping that it doesn’t put the organisers off the idea of the evening concerts, I think it’s a great one, it’s just the timing that needs looking at.  

None of these minor blips detracted from my enjoyment of the event. The speakers were excellent, the discussions lively and everybody I met was friendly. I had been a bit concerned that my mathematician husband would be bored but he had a great time and is definitely keen to come back next year.

I met so many great people it’s impossible to list them all although a few stood out. Carl and Gail Christie (who travelled all the way from Canada for the event), Charles Esdaile, Sinead Allen, Robert Pocock, Andrew Lacey (a fellow undergraduate with me back in the early eighties), Ian Blance (whose organisational skills are astonishing) all the great writers on my panel but especially Tom Williams (read his books, they’re awesome) and of course Jacqueline Reiter. Thanks to everybody we met for being friendly, welcoming and really interesting. In the end, it’s the people who make events like this such a success.

I sincerely hope that the Malvern Festival of Military History goes from strength to strength. I intend to be a regular visitor and want to extend my thanks and congratulations to Ian Blance and Enlightenment Events for a marvellous weekend. Well done.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Battle of Pinkie Cleugh

Fa’side Castle, Pinkie Cleugh by Kim Traynor (Wikimedia)

On September 10th 1547 the Battle of Pinkie Cleugh was fought on the banks of the River Esk near Musselburgh in Scotland. It was the last pitched battle between Scottish and English armies and took place during the wars of the Rough Wooing. The Scottish defeat was so severe that it became known as Black Saturday in Scotland.

At the end of his reign, Henry VIII was keen to marry his young son, Edward to the baby Mary, Queen of Scots. Diplomatic efforts failed as the Scots preferred a French alliance, so Henry invaded Scotland to secure the young queen, sparking the conflict which became known as the Rough Wooing. When Henry died soon afterwards the war was continued by the Lord Protector, Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset.

Somerset was keen to pursue the policy of pushing Scotland into an alliance by marrying Mary to Edward and hoped to force an Anglican Reformation onto the Scottish church. In September 1547 Somerset led his army into Scotland, supported by a large fleet. He marched along the east coast of Scotland to keep contact with the fleet in order to secure his supplies. His troops were constantly harassed by local horsemen but their advance could not be stopped.

Meanwhile, to the west, Thomas Wharton and the Scottish Earl of Lennox, who chose to support the English invasion, invaded with 5000 men in an intended diversion, burning Annan and taking Castlemilk. The Earl of Arran had raised an army which consisted mostly of local pikemen and some Highland archers. He had some guns although these were not mobile enough to be particularly useful, and 2000 cavalry under the Earl of Home, consisting mainly of Borderers, whose loyalty tended to be somewhat fluid.

Arran decided to make his stand on the west bank of the River Esk to stop Somerset’s march. His left flank protected his left flank and a boggy area was on his right. The Scots constructed basic fortifications to mount cannon and arquebuses, some of which were pointed into the Forth to keep English ships at bay.

Part of Somerset’s army took possession of Fawside Hill to the east of Arran’s position on September 9th and later in the day, occupied the Inveresk Slopes with guns, overlooking the Scottish position. Lord Home, in a dramatic and pointless gesture, led 1500 cavalry towards the English and challenged them. Lord Grey accepted the challenge and led a force of men-at-arms and demi-lancers against the Scots. The Scots were routed and pursued for three miles westwards, depriving Arran of the bulk of his cavalry. During the night further challenges were issued, one from Arran asking that the dispute be settled by single combat between Arran and Somerset and a second for a battle between 20 champions from each side. Somerset rejected both of these anachronistic proposals; he was probably astonished that they had been made at all.

On the morning of Saturday, 10 September, Somerset moved his army to join up with his guns at Inveresk. He realised that Arran had moved his army across the Esk by the Roman bridge and was marching rapidly to meet him. Arran knew that he was badly outgunned in terms of artillery and hoped to force close combat before the English guns had time to deploy. Unfortunately, this advance moved him out of the protection of his guns on the Forth and the Scottish left flank was badly mauled by fire from the English warships.

The Roman Bridge over the Esk where some of the fleeing Scots came under heavy fire (Kim Traynor, Wikimedia)

Thrown into confusion, Arran’s left wing crashed into his centre while on the other flank, Somerset send in his cavalry. The Scottish pikemen drove them back, inflicting heavy casualties onto the cavalry and Lord Grey was wounded by a pike through his throat. Despite this success, the Scottish advance had faltered and their army was now under heavy fire from the warships as well as English artillery and archers. Unable to stand any longer they broke and ran, just as the English cavalry, which had regrouped, joined the battle, preceded by the English vanguard of 300 men under Sir John Luttrell. The fleeing Scots were chased towards the Esk and into the bogs. Many were drowned or slaughtered while trying to escape and the retreat turned into a bloody rout.

The Scottish army was shattered but their government stubbornly refused to come to terms with the English. The young Queen was sent into hiding as Somerset occupied Scottish castles and towns along the border and held large swathes of territory in the Borders and Lowlands. Still the war dragged on, costing men and money, and Somerset was distracted by political problems at home. On 7th August, Mary sailed to France from Dumbarton and French troops were beginning to arrive in Scotland to support their allies. The war formally ended with the Treaty of Norham on 10 June 1551 and the last English troops were withdrawn from Scotland.

Despite the disaster at Pinkie Cleugh, the English failed to achieve their aims and probably felt that the war had resulted in a waste of men and money. The Franco-Scottish alliance went ahead, and Mary was married to the young Dauphin of France. She remained in France until her young husband unexpectedly died in 1560 and suddenly, the marriage of the Scottish queen became, once again, a matter of interest to England, now under the very different rule of her cousin Elizabeth. While the battle’s political consequences were slight, military historians have given it a greater significance as what may be seen as the first ‘modern’ battle on British soil, an idea explored in more detail in this article by Gervase Phillips originally published in Military History magazine in 1997.

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

My own introduction to Pinkie Cleugh, which I had never heard of before, was in the first of Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond chronicles A Game of Kings, where the battle is a key point of the story. The battle is significant in A Marcher Lord, set on the Borders during the War of the Rough Wooing where defeat at Pinkie Cleugh sends Will Scott back to his border fortress along with many other loyal Scots to try to hold it against the invading English. I love the Scottish borders and have spent many hours walking the hills and driving through the valleys, my feet in the present and my head very much in the past. There is an excellent battlefield walk which I would recommend to anybody visiting the area, and especially on a misty day as it was when I visited, it is very easy to imagine the sound of guns, the clashing of pikes and swords and the screams of dying men and horses on that Saturday in 1547…