A Writer’s Retreat

A Writer’s Retreat

Trying to write in the middle of a busy household with a couple of Labradors and an over-developed sense of responsibility, I’ve often dreamed of going on a Writer’s Retreat. I’m sure many of my fellow writers feel the same way. After yet another week where writing plans have sunk without trace in a round of supermarket shopping, dealing with elderly relatives, proofreading essays and cleaning the dogs’ ears, I love the idea of a few days of peace and quiet in lovely surroundings with nothing to do but write. I’ve never done it though.

I’ve come close a few times. I used to volunteer to cat-sit for my sister, who lives in a very beautiful place, and I certainly took the opportunity to catch up on work while I was there. Somehow though, it was still never the haven I dreamed about. I’ve taken off on research trips on my own many times, but those tend to be a frantic round of getting to the places I wanted, taking photographs and making notes. It would almost have felt too self-indulgent to spend the day sitting doing nothing but writing.

Organised writers’ retreats look very appealing, but many of them seem very expensive. Besides which, they generally include other writers. I know myself too well, and the opportunity to sit and talk writing, history and general nonsense with a group of like-minded people would be irresistible. They’d be a lot of fun, but I’d get nothing done.

The second half of 2021 was hard for me. It is well recorded elsewhere on this blog that I didn’t do well with lockdown and restrictions, and although I would have loved to book a research trip somewhere in Europe, I didn’t trust that these wouldn’t be reinstated at a moment’s notice. Richard managed a couple of cycling trips to the UK, and we had some friends to stay the moment restrictions lifted enough, but I was miserable. The only trips I made to the UK were necessary family visits and none of them were particularly restful. We had been having a lot of problems with my elderly in-laws who had recently moved to the island and I felt as though my life had become one long round of hospital visits and troubleshooting phone calls.

2021 was also the first year since I began publishing that I didn’t manage to get a book out. Back in October, it seemed as though I wasn’t even going to get close to it. I knew what I needed to do, and the book was going well, but I couldn’t get enough time to work on it. I was frazzled and seriously burned out and I needed a break, but I had no idea where I wanted to go or what was practical in the post-Covid world.

Burnout is one thing, but the annual Halloween short story was due, and I had an idea for a story set during Captain Hugh Kelly’s younger days, when he was newly promoted to captain of a frigate. My research so far has all been based around the 74-gun Iris, but I wanted information about one of the smaller, faster ships which made stars of the navy captains. A quick spell of internet research introduced me to HMS Trincomalee, the oldest warship still afloat in Europe.

The Trincomalee looked gorgeous and was located in the Museum of the Royal Navy in Hartlepool, something I didn’t even know existed. I did a bit of research and decided that I absolutely wanted to go there, and sooner rather than later. I was actually very excited. It’s been two years since there was a very real prospect of me travelling anywhere to do something just for myself, and the sheer joy I felt, made me realise how badly I needed a break. I checked dates with Richard then went searching for accommodation.

I was determined not to stay with family or friends. This time I wanted to be completely on my own agenda. I didn’t want to stay in Hartlepool, but somewhere pretty, within easy driving distance. North Yorkshire looked good, and I love that area. No self-catering. I do enough cooking at home. I typed in my requirements, to be listed by cost for a week, lowest first.

The first thing that popped up was a room at the Duke of Wellington Inn, in Danby. I swear to God, people, I’d booked it within ten minutes. Sometimes it’s obviously a sign.

The Duke of Wellington Inn is an ivy-clad traditional eighteenth century inn located in the tiny village of Danby in the North York Moors, about fifteen miles inland from Whitby. Until I found the place, I hadn’t decided that my trip was going to be my very own personalised writer’s retreat, but a bit of research made me realise it was perfect. Danby really is small, although very pretty. The Moors National Park Centre is just at the edge of the village, and there’s a tiny bakery with a café just behind the Duke of Wellington. Other than that, there’s not even a shop in the village. For somebody wanting uninterrupted writing time, it couldn’t have been better.

I checked with the owner whether there was a suitable table in my room for working. The single rooms were fairly small, but he assured me there was a guests’ sitting room with a desk in it and I’d be very welcome to work there as it was seldom used. When I arrived and saw it, I couldn’t quite believe my luck. For a week, I effectively had my own personal study. It was completely lovely.

The Duke of Wellington Inn was built in 1732 and was originally known as the Red Briar. It was used as a recruiting post during the Napoleonic Wars and was apparently known as either the Wellington Arms or the Lord Wellington during this period. I haven’t yet been able to find out when the name was changed to the Duke of Wellington – my first thought was that it must have been after 1815 to commemorate the victory at Waterloo, but I discovered that when Canon Atkinson arrived in 1847 to take up his post as Vicar of Danby, the inn was still called the Wellington Arms so the transition must have come later. At that point, the inn was kept by two sisters known as Martha and Mary.

A cast iron plaque of the Duke was unearthed during restoration work and can be seen on the wall as you go up the stairs. The inn is not large and is very obviously old – floors are uneven and the furniture is very traditional. Impressively, though, all the essential things for a comfortable stay work really well – the bed was comfortable, the bathroom modern and heating and hot water were spot on. I’d booked bed and breakfast, but after a look at the dinner menu, decided I’d eat there in the evening as well. It was standard pub food, but well-cooked and sensibly priced, and I never object to sitting by an open fire in a traditional country pub to eat. In addition, the staff were absolutely amazing. Nothing was too much trouble and they treated my invasion of the guest sitting room as though it was the most normal thing in the world. Thank you so much guys.

I’m pleased to say I stood by my resolution to treat this week as a writer’s retreat. Apart from my one excursion to Hartlepool, I remained in and around the village. The weather was beautiful, crisp and cold but with only one rainy day. I ordered breakfast early then went for a walk every morning before sitting down to work. Lunch was soup and sandwiches from the Stonehouse Bakery, with some excellent cake for afternoon tea, and then I’d go for another walk before dinner. It was often almost dark by the time I got back, and the sunsets were gorgeous.

During the day I took over the desk and worked solidly on book seven, An Indomitable Brigade. I found, to my joy, that I’d been right about the book. There was nothing wrong with either plotting or the research I’d done. I just needed time, and peace and quiet to get on with it. I kept in touch with my family during the evening, but firmly refused to take calls during the day. I was helped by the fact that the wi-fi was variable. It worked very well in my room, and down in the bar areas but in the study it was patchy, which removed the temptation to chat on Twitter or Facebook. After the first day, I was completely absorbed in the world of the 110th and the battle of Vitoria.

I enjoyed my day out at the National Museum of the Royal Navy in Hartlepool, and the Trincomalee was everything I hoped for and more. The museum is set up around a historic quayside restored to look like an eighteenth century seaport and its beautiful waterside setting. The various buildings are set up to show tradesmen like tailors, printers and instrument makers with stories about the Royal Navy and the men and women associated with it. It’s a great place for kids, with an adventure play ship and loads of activities, and because I was there during half term, there were demonstrations of gunnery and swordsmanship and various talks scheduled through the day. I went to everything, even though most of this wasn’t new to me. It was a great atmosphere, and I thoroughly enjoyed the interactive Fighting Sail exhibition, though the kids commentary around me probably entertained me as much as the displays.

The Trincomalee was perfect, one of two surviving British frigates of her era. The other, HMS Unicorn is a museum ship in Dundee and I’m going to get there when I can. The Trincomalee was commissioned in 1812 to be built in India using teak, due to the shortage of oak in Britain after the intensive shipbuilding of the Napoleonic wars. Work did not begin until 1816 so by the time the ship was finished the following year, the wars were over and Trincomalee was put to other uses.

On the advice of one of the guides, I waited until the kids were completely absorbed in learning how to form a boarding party on the quayside using foam swords and cutlasses before boarding the ship. It was completely empty and I was able to take photographs, absorb the atmosphere and write stories in my head to my hearts content. The Trincomalee quickly morphed into the fictional Herne in my imagination, Hugh Kelly’s first post-command, and the story was finished. I’ll definitely come back to it though, I’d like to write a lot more of Hugh’s earlier adventures in the navy.

Rush hour in Danby

Back at my borrowed desk, I had a blissful few days of writing, walking on the moors and falling in love both with Yorkshire and with my fictional world all over again. By the time I set off for the ferry at the end of the week, the book was back on track, and I was fairly sure I’d have it written, even if not edited and published, before the end of the year. I had also forgiven myself for my inability to work as well as usual during the past two years. There are probably writers out there who made the most of the restrictions of lockdown and emerged ahead of the game. I suffered, and emotionally it was hard to put myself into the heads of my characters when my own head was so full of confusion. I think on those long, winter walks over the moors I’ve worked out how to be kinder to myself and how to keep a distance when the world feels an alien and unfamiliar place.

I’ve concluded that a writer’s retreat means different things to different people. For some, it’s about learning, and they’re looking for lectures and workshops and the ability to try something new. For others, it’s about connecting with other writers to share ideas and stories and to feel part of a community for a while, in this very solitary job that we do. For me, it’s definitely a retreat, a place of quiet and solitude and some beauty, where I can throw myself back into what I do best without any nagging sense of all the other things on my to do list.

Of course, it also helps to have an eighteenth century Napoleonic recruiting inn and an early nineteenth century frigate thrown in for good measure.

 

Lockdown with Oscar: Day Five

Lockdown with Oscar: Day Five

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After a very successful walk yesterday, it’s both raining and blowing a gale outside. Oscar has made a few forays into the garden to do the needful, and a quick trip up the road, but apart from that, he has decided against the outside world today.

When he doesn’t want to go for a walk, Oscar actually drags his paws. You wouldn’t think a Labrador could do that, but in fact this is the second one I’ve had. Joey, our old yella fella, would stride out in any weather regardless but Toby, our first black Labrador would get to the end of the driveway and freeze in position if he didn’t like the look of the weather. Nothing shifted him. I tried bribery, training, yelling and tugging on the lead. Toby would do his business against the gate post then turn back towards the house in a purposeful manner.

I don’t bother to argue with Oscar. He’s so active that the odd day without a long walk doesn’t hurt him. I’m not so keen myself today either. I had a poor night last night and after a reasonably productive day work wise I hit a serious afternoon slump at about ten to four. I’ve officially given up now and I’ve lit the fire and am dozing on the sofa with Oscar as I’m not cooking tonight.

One of the good points of my son working from home and being unable to go out with his friends is that he’s almost always willing to cook. He’s an excellent cook who can produce restaurant quality food and it’s quite a nice break for me. Steak is happening in the kitchen and it smells good.

I’ve almost finished chapter two today. I don’t yet have a sense of how long this book is likely to be. My last couple were fairly long, but the Tarragona campaign itself was very short. Still, there are several plotlines running through it. More to the point, I will actually get to spend a bit more time at sea during this book. Both my previous naval books have been joint campaigns featuring both the army and the navy, but this one is purely from the naval point of view, so I’m doing a lot of background reading. Oscar is doing less background reading and more snoring, but he seems happy.

“I’d be a lot happier if you’d move that laptop, Mum. That clicking is disturbing me.”

“You mean my typing?”

“Yes. So noisy.”

“I do apologise, your Lordship. I was trying to do some work.”

Lockdown is odd, because my own routine doesn’t really change that much, but because my family is all at home all the time, my schedule is very disrupted. I quite like them all being around though, it’s very social. Oscar adores it and spends the day going from one workplace to another so that none of us feels left out.

The Man I Married is a bit obsessed with the news at the moment. Mostly, I try to avoid it, but when we meet up for lunch, I get my daily rundown of the latest from the USA. It’s like watching a really weird version of the West Wing but without a lot of the witty remarks. Still, it does take your mind off the UK.

My daughter has finished her essay. The pain is over. The trauma is gone.

“Mum. I’m bored.”

“When does your new reading list come out?”

“This week, I think.”

“Why don’t you e-mail them?”

“Are you trying to get rid of me?”

“Not permanently, love. Just until you’ve got something else to do…”

In the middle of all this, I find myself thinking about people with kids who are both working and trying to home school during this chaos. I remember how I was when the kids were young, and I was utterly devoted to them both and couldn’t wait to get them out the door to school or nursery. They needed the stimulation of mixing with other kids and adults and I needed some time away from them. It’s much the same now.

“Mum. I’m so ready to go back to York.”

“I know, love.”

“Bet you’re ready for that too…”

“Mmmm.”

Evenings are nice, though. Generally, we have a tendency to drift off to do our own thing, but without the social aspect of work or seeing friends, our youngsters are more inclined to hang around the kitchen or living room watching TV, playing games or just listening to music. I’ve heard a few parents with teenage or adult kids saying the same. Ours are quite lovely generally, but very busy, so this is a bit of an oasis.

I’m also very happy that my son’s girlfriend has chosen to isolate with us again, and grateful that her poor mother doesn’t mind. She’s a joy to have and I don’t know how either of them would have coped apart. It does make me think about all the couples who weren’t at the point of living together who must have struggled with very tough choices through this.

We’re lucky. We’re lucky to be able to be together, even though we can’t all be where we really want to be. We’re lucky that so far we’ve had no job losses or financial disasters because of this mess. I’m so conscious of those who have, that I almost feel guilty. It’s a fragile security, but sometimes that has to be enough.

Lockdown minus point 6: When it’s raining there’s nowhere indoors to go.

Lockdown plus point 6: Apart from home, which is a pretty nice place to be.

Lockdown with Oscar: Day Four

Lockdown with Oscar: Day Four

It’s Sunday, and after a wild night of compulsory Beer Pong with some of the younger members of the household, neither Oscar and I are up for an early start.

The Essay from Hell is almost done. We’re at that stage where Girl Child is studying it, and saying in dispassionate tones:

“This is actually not bad.”

Given that at various stages, this was the worst essay ever written and she was going to fail her entire degree because of it, that probably means she’ll get a first. All I have to do now is proofread, admire and leave her to it. Phew.

It’s quite a nice afternoon, so Oscar and I take the car and head up to Groudle Glen. I was hoping it would be quiet, but it turns out that on a dry afternoon in lockdown, the glen is the place to be. Some of the paths are very narrow, so there’s a lot of stopping and stepping to one side to let people pass. It’s all very amiable though. We meet a few dogs including an alarmingly cute pair of dachshunds.

“Mum, this is fun. Why are some people wearing their muzzles?”

“People are worried about catching Covid, Oscar.”

“You’re not wearing one.”

“You don’t have to, out here, only in shops or indoor places. We’re not getting close to people, I’m not worried about catching it here.”

“Why is that dog wearing a muzzle?”

“That’s got nothing to do with Covid, Oscar. Probably she bites.”

“Ugh. Can I paddle in the river?”

“A bit further down. Once we get past the water wheel.”

It’s the first time I’ve been down the glen since the old Victorian water wheel was back in place. It was removed for restoration, and it’s lovely to see it back, looking splendid. Oscar was very interested, but the water is very fast here, with a series of rapids, so we moved on to shallower parts before I let him off the lead to play in the water. He loves it, and will just run up and down in the river for the sheer joy of it.

“Mum, can we go to the beach?”

“If it’s not too busy, Oscar. There are a lot of children about today.”

“I won’t chase the children, I promise. I just want to SWIM!!!

The beach was fairly deserted apart from one family group and a woman with a teenaged daughter and their dog.

“Mum! A DOOOOOG! Can I go and play?”

“I think so, Oscar. Off you go.”

Meet Moz. I didn’t get too many details about him, as we had to socially distance, but he was lovely. His owners and I took turns to throw sticks in the water and Oscar and Moz chased them. It was a lot of fun. At one point they were actually swimming while holding the stick between them, which reminded me of Toby and Joey. I wish I’d got better photos, but they didn’t keep still for long enough.

“Mum, that was GREAT! Where shall we go tomorrow?”

“I don’t know, Oscar, let’s see what the weather is doing then decide.”

“Can I run and play over there?”

“NO! Absolutely not.”

“Why?”

“Because that area is pure bog, and if you run into it, you might get stuck. When Toby was young, before we even had Joey, he took a flying leap into there thinking it was solid ground, and couldn’t get out.”

“Ugh. What did you do?”

“I waded in to rescue him. Above my knees in black, smelly mud. It wasn’t good.”

“I’m glad you told me. I’ll give that a miss.”

Back at home, the essay is over and Girl Child is finishing the referencing. I head out to start cooking dinner and there’s no sign of Oscar. After a while, I go to check.

“Are you tired, Oscar?”

“Very tired, Mum. Is it dinner time yet?”

“Almost, baby boy.”

“Think I’ll stay here with Anya until it’s ready. She says I’m a big help…”

“It looks as though you are, Oscar. Sweet dreams.”

Lockdown minus point number 5: Playing hide and seek on narrow paths through the glen.

Lockdown plus point number 5: We have the glens

Happy New Year from Writing with Labradors for 2021

Castletown Fireworks from Energy FM site

Happy New Year from Writing with Labradors for 2021

I generally do a short post at the beginning of each year, but for some reason this year I feel moved to do it at the end. This is probably to do with the extraordinary nature of 2020, where the world turned upside down for so many people. The internet is full of memes and jokes about how happy we’ll all be to see the end of 2020, and it’s certainly a year that very few of us will forget in a hurry.

Those of you who follow me on Facebook and Twitter or read my blog posts, will know that with very few exceptions, I stay firmly out of contemporary politics. This doesn’t mean that I’m not aware of what is going on around me, it just means that I find the climate of political debate both toxic and pointless at times. There are people out there who can have a rational discussion on a public forum, but they’re few and far between. Overall, I prefer to keep conversations about the rights and wrongs of Brexit, Lockdown and the teaching of Black History in schools to my close family and friends.

This year it’s been harder than ever to do that, watching the flood of information and misinformation rushing through both traditional and social media. It has felt at times as though the whole world has gone mad, and the values of tolerance, acceptance and understanding that I was raised with have got lost in the compulsive collective need to prove a point, put down other people and above all, to be right. But it isn’t all doom and gloom.

What 2020 has confirmed for me is that there are people out there whom I’ve met both online and in person, who are simply great. They come together both online and in person, drawn by a love of reading, writing, history and good fun. They’re excited by new books, new ideas and photographs of cuddly Labradors. They speak to each other with respect and affection and acknowledge their differences with humour and tolerance. They are not all the same. Some are highly educated and well-respected in their field. Others are self-educated and come to the discussion full of questions, often bringing new ideas. The thing that they all have in common is an enthusiasm for learning about people both fictional and in real life. They are entertaining, they are generous with their time and knowledge and they are kind.

A lot of you will recognize yourselves in this, and you are all my people. While there are people like you in the world, the madness will never win. Thank you, from the bottom of my heart for everything you’ve done in 2020. Every review, every humorous comment, every mad exchange on Twitter and every time you’ve answered a call for information with more than I could ever have hoped for, you prove the pessimists and the doomsayers wrong. Let’s all keep doing it.

Groudle Beach

For me, 2020 has been a very mixed year. The pandemic has closed down the world and left me marooned on this little island in the middle of the Irish Sea, with none of the freedom to travel that I used to enjoy. At the same time, it’s made me appreciate where I live more than ever before. Watching how the people of the Isle of Man have dealt with this chaos makes me proud of my adopted homeland.

In family matters, it’s been a happy year. My son is very settled with his lovely girlfriend, who has become a member of our family. If all goes well, I doubt he’ll still be living here this time next year, a thought which makes me happy and a little sad. My daughter has embarked on her second year in York with great panache, coming out with firsts so far and treating quarantine and lockdowns as a minor inconvenience. The man I married has utterly failed to miss travelling to London for work and is becoming more Manx by the day.

“You’re going all the way to Peel for the evening? Are you staying over, then?”

It’s seven miles.

It took a long time to adjust to the loss of Joey, and it still catches me every now and again. Oscar has proved a worthy successor to my two old fellas, and when we can find a suitable puppy, we’ll be bringing in reinforcements for him on the staff of Writing with Labradors. I can’t wait.

Professionally, it’s been my most successful year to date, although the stress of the first lockdown and the pandemic generally definitely slowed my writing down a lot. Sales have been good, and reviews have been excellent. For the second year in a row, I had a book shortlisted for the Society for Army Historical Research fiction prize, this year with This Blighted Expedition. I was invited to take part in the amazing Waterloo Remembered online celebrations earlier this year, and I’ve been interviewed on various podcasts and blogs through the year.

 

 

I completed and published book six of the Peninsular War Saga, An Unmerciful Incursion. I’ve begun research and planning for two new books. I also found a new editor, who is oddly enough an old friend of mine, and who is working out brilliantly so far.

Things I didn’t manage to achieve. Well obviously, my annual research trip was cancelled this year, as were all the conferences and historical events I hoped to attend. I didn’t manage to finish getting the books out in paperback, for which I apologise. The work is still ongoing, and it will happen, I promise you.

I have big plans for 2021. Next year I aim to publish two books at least. One will be This Bloody Shore which is book three in the Manxman series, and the other is An Indomitable Brigade, which is book seven of the Peninsular War Saga. I’m currently working on both and still haven’t completely decided which is going to come out first. I’ll let you know when I’m certain.

I also aim to get all the books edited and available in paperback, and I’ll be writing my usual three free short stories for Valentine’s Day, Halloween and Christmas, with a possible extra one in the summer. And if the current two books go well, I would love to get off book three of the Manxman as well, although that might be asking a bit too much. We’ll see.

When I’ve finished this, I am off to organise the house for the New Year’s Party we’re hosting this evening for our young people. I’m so conscious of how privileged I am to be doing this, at this moment in time, when other people are buckling down for another lockdown and more restrictions. Even tomorrow’s clear up won’t seem so bad this year, as I’ll feel lucky to be doing it.

Well, maybe not that lucky.

Happy New Year from Writing with Labradors for 2021. I hope you’ll all manage to celebrate in whatever way you can, and I look forward to hearing a lot more from you all in the coming year.

With love from the Isle of Man.

Lynn and Oscar

Salts Mill and Saltaire

Salt Mill

I’d never been to Salts Mill and Saltaire, the Victorian model village in Shipley, Bradford, until a recent visit with friends, and it turns out that I’ve been missing out. There is enough history there to satisfy a geek like me, with the added bonus of specialist shops, a gallery and two cafes to keep the rest of the party entertained.

 

Saltaire was built in 1851 by Sir Titus Salt, a leading industrialist in the Yorkshire woollen industry. Salt was a cloth manufacturer who took over his father’s textile business in 1833 and expanded it over a period of twenty years to be the largest employer in Bradford. He was an alderman and then mayor of Bradford, and was elected to Parliament in 1848. Salt’s business was spread between five different mills, and with business booming, he decided to build a new mill, consolidating his operations into one place.

 

 

Salt, a deeply religious man, and a known philanthropist, was concerned about the over-crowded conditions in Bradford so bought land in Shipley, just outside Bradford, beside the River Aire, the Midland Railway and the Leeds and Liverpool Canal.  Building began in 1851 and Saltaire Mills opened in 1853. To accommodate his workers, Salt then commissioned housing close to the mill. A model village grew up, which included well-built houses, a hospital, bathhouses, almshouses and churches.  The Congregational church, now known as Saltaire United Reformed Church, was built at Salt’s own expense and he donated the land upon which the Wesleyan Chapel was built. With the moral improvement  and probably the work performance of his workforce in mind, he forbade public houses or beer shops from the village. The village had a public institute which included a library, a reading room, a concert hall, billiard room, science laboratory and a gym. There was also a village school, a park, allotments and a boathouse.

Salt wrote little about his motive for building Saltaire, but it was probably a combination of Christian charity and economic good sense. The village provided a well-housed, local workforce which was very good for business. At the same time, it is clear that Salt sincerely believed that he was doing God’s work in creating a clean, healthy environment for his people, which contrasted with the appalling conditions in the slums of Bradford.

Sir Titus Salt died in 1876, leaving the business to his son. Saltaire was then taken over by a partnership led by Sir James Roberts. Salts Mill finally closed as a textile mill in 1986. Today it has been renovated and houses an eclectic mix of commercial, leisure and residential spaces. The mill is enormous, a monument to Victorian industrialism, with the village neatly laid out beside the canal.

Inside the main mill building is the 1853 art gallery which is devoted to the works of Bradford born artist David Hockney. There are two good cafes, a book shop and a gallery shop which sells prints, cards and art supplies. I love gallery shops and have a tendency to spend more money than I should on beautiful notebooks and pretty cards. I keep a notebook for each new book I write, and they are never ever a plain A4 pad.

I was not tempted by The Home which sells designer furniture and other homeware at eye-watering prices. I’m genuinely fascinated trying to guess who would spend £2500 on what looks like a very ordinary plastic chair to me, but I’m happy to acknowledge my ignorance of modern interior design and save my pennies for books and gorgeous stationery.

My favourite part of Saltaire, though, was not the shops, the gallery or the cafes, although all are lovely. It wasn’t even the museum area, which shows a film telling the history of the village and some memorabilia associated with Sir Titus Salt and Saltaire, although I do recommend that, to get an overview of how this project came about. The real joy of Saltaire is in the narrow streets of the village itself, which give a real sense of a bygone era. I had a weird sense of familiarity walking through those streets, some of which probably came from my memories of similar workers cottages which still existed in London’s East End during my childhood, although I did discover afterwards that Saltaire is used as a location for filming Peaky Blinders, and I’m a big fan.

A surprising number of the original buildings survive, including the Institute which is now known as Victoria Hall, and the beautiful United Reformed Church. The houses are lived in and clearly much loved. Modern shops have moved in, and I was particularly entertained by a rather nice looking bar and restaurant, imaginatively called “Don’t Tell Titus” in reference to the founder’s refusal to allow alcohol to be sold anywhere in the village.

United Reformed Church

From the village streets, I walked down to the church and then across the bridge to the canal towpath. On a sunny February afternoon, the canal was beautiful, with the towpath clearly very popular with local families. There is an attractive park alongside, and beyond that, the River Aire. The park was originally known as Saltaire Park, and is now known as Roberts Park, and it was laid out for the recreational use of the inhabitants of Salt’s model village.

I’m not a huge fan of Victorian paternalism, and it’s easy to see the economic advantages to a man like Titus Salt in creating a model village for his workforce. Nevertheless, there is still something admirable about Salt’s genuine interest in the welfare of the people who lived in Saltaire and worked at the mill. Salt Mill and the village of Saltaire are a fascinating piece of nineteenth century Victorian history and a very pleasant way to spend an afternoon. Also, the cake in the tea shop was really, really good…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Peel #OscarWalks

Peel #OscarWalks is the first of Oscar’s posts for 2020 and he’s very excited about it. Since the appearance of the dog trainer at the end of last year, we’ve been working very hard to get Oscar to behave better on the lead so that we can take him to more interesting places. Peel was a bit of an experiment, but on the whole it worked very well, apart from one minor incident involving Vikings which I’ll leave him to explain for himself.

Peel is a seaside town and small fishing port on the west of the Isle of Man and the third largest town on the island after Douglas and Ramsey. It is a charming little town, with the older part of Peel mostly built of reddish sandstone, the narrow streets of the old fishing and merchant community winding down to the quayside. In the early eighteenth century, Peel had a thriving trade with European ports such as Amsterdam, and by the end of the nineteenth century it was a busy fishing port.

We parked the car at Fenella Beach, at the foot of Peel Hill and the castle and ten minutes was spent walking Oscar up and down the car park to get him to calm down. It didn’t help that it was fairly breezy and the tide was in, with huge waves crashing onto the little beach.

 

“OMG, it’s so exciting. Mum, can I go on the beach and swim?”

“Not today, Oscar, it’s a bit wild. Look at those waves.”

“Those waves are bigger than me.”

“Exactly.” 

“Where are we going, then?”

“We’re going to explore Peel, Oscar. Stop jumping about and we can get going.”

Peel was the capital of the island before 1344 and is still the island’s main fishing port, while St German’s Cathedral is the seat of the Bishop of Sodor and Man. It it still a pretty seaside resort and has a Victorian promenade and sandy beach. From Fenella Beach, we walked towards Peel Castle which overlooks the town from St Patrick’s Isle. The castle was first built in the eleventh century and is now largely ruined, but definitely worth visiting. There are walkways up around the outside of the castle with a lot of steps, a challenge with an excitable young Labrador but well worth it for the views.

“Mum, stop pulling on the lead!”

“Oscar, it’s you that’s pulling on the lead, I cannot run this. Settle down.”

“Sorry. It’s great up here, I can see for miles. Are those white dots over there sheep?”

“Yes.”

“I don’t like sheep.”

“They’re miles away, Oscar. Come on, let’s go down and walk into town. And calm down a bit, they’ll be thinking the Moddy Dhoo is on the loose up here.”

“I’ve heard of him. Wasn’t he a demon dog?”

“Yes, he’s supposed to haunt Peel Castle. People used to call Toby the Moddy Dhoo”

“Someone called me that down Summerhill Glen one night.”

“I’m not surprised, you frightened the life out of them in the dark. This way.”

“What’s that water?”

“It’s the River Neb.”

“What are those things with big poles?”

“They’re boats, Oscar, there’s a marina here. And some fishing boats. When we first moved to the island, this area was tidal, but in 2005 they built a new floodgate to keep the river water in, so that the moored boats can float at low tide. This way.”

There’s a footbridge over the river, but Oscar and I walked the long way round by the road, skirting the bottom of Peel Hill. The hill was one of my favourite walks with Joey and Toby, but it’s very steep in places and when he was only a little older than Oscar is now, Toby injured himself by taking off after a rabbit and rolling a very long way down the hill, rather like the heroine of An Unwilling Alliance, only with more legs and a tail. I’m going to give it another few months before I take Oscar up there, but we did climb a little way up and sit on one of the benches to admire the view over the town. There’s a lovely woodcarving at the foot of the path, which Toby used to take exception to. Oscar was doubtful, but seemed to accept my word for it that Fenella, the seven foot tall carving, was harmless. After that, following the road round, we arrived on the far side of the river.

“What’s that smell?”

“Smell?”

“Smell? That amazing smell. It’s fantastic. It smells of food. Yummy, yummy food cooking. Where is it? Can I have some? I’m hungry. Muuuummmmm!!!”

Photo by Chris Gunns (Wikimedia)

“Calm down, Oscar, it’s just the kipper smokeries. There are a couple of them here, they smoke kippers the traditional way. You can do a tour of Moore’s to see how the smoking is done, but I doubt I could take a Labrador. I have been though, and it’s really interesting. I agree, the smell is amazing, but I can’t take you to buy kippers today. We’ll get some another day though, I think you’d love them.”

“I already love them and I’ve not eaten them yet. What’s that building?”

“That’s the Manx Transportation Museum, it’s in the old brickworks. I’ve never been inside, but I must do so this summer.”

“Can I come?”

“I’ll find out. This way. Heel, remember.”

“Sorry. It’s that smell. What’s that?”

“That’s the back of the House of Mannanan. It’s one of the best museums on the island, it’s partly a new building and partly built in the old Peel railway station. It covers the history of the island right up to the present and contains Odin’s Raven, which is a two-thirds scale replica of a Viking longship which was built in Norway, and sailed to the island to arrive on 4 July 1979 to celebrate the millennium of Tynwald, the legislature of the Isle of Man. Fascinating.”

“Not sure I’d like museums, but I do like this place, it’s by the sea and it’s got great smells, and it’s…Oh My God, what’s that??????”

“Oscar, calm down, it’s all right, it’s not real.”

“Whaddd’you mean it’s not real? Of course it’s real, I’m looking right at it, it’s right here on the pavement. They’re terrifying! They’re huge! They’re worse than sheep! How did they get here? Why are they walking through walls? Why is nobody doing anything about them? Well I’m not having this, it’s not safe! I’m going to tell them what for! Woof! Woof woof woof! Woof, woof, woof woof, woof!”

“Oscar, calm down, they’re just statues. It’s a sculpture. They’re Vikings.”

“Woof woof woof! Woof, woof, woof woof, woof!”

“Oscar, sit!”

“Woof, woof, woof woof, woof! Woof, woof….OMG what this now? What’s happening to my paws? I’m being attacked from all sides, it’s sharp! Woof, woof, woof woof, woof!”

“Oscar, heel! Over here, now. Come and sit on this bench, have a drink of water and calm down.”

“Woof!”

“That’s enough. Look at you, you’re shaking. Here, have a drink, there’s a water bowl here. That’s better. Are you all right?”

“Yes.”

“Okay. Those aren’t real Vikings, they’re statues. The boat itself is inside the museum, and they’ve carried on the Viking theme out here, which is why it looks like they’re coming through the walls. I know they made you jump but they’re no more real than the two statues of the dogs outside that house at the top of our road.”

“I barked at them too.”

“I know, but you don’t any more, because you know they’re not real.”

“My paws hurt.”

“It’s just a gravel pathway around the display, I think the stones were a bit sharp and you were jumping on them. There, are you calm now?”

“Yes. Sorry.”

“It’s all right. Had enough Vikings?”

“More than enough.”

“Lets walk along the prom. If the sea is calm enough, you can have a paddle.”

Peel Beach was one of my favourites when the children were young. It’s very sandy, with a good kiosk serving food, drinks and ice creams, and it’s just over the road to Davison’s Ice Cream Parlour. Oddly enough, though, it’s not brilliant for building sandcastles, the consistency of the sand isn’t quite right. Still, Oscar doesn’t mind that, and a good splash in the sea soothed his paws and restored his equilibrium.

By Petepetepete (Wikimedia Commons)

From there, we walked up through the narrow streets of the town towards St German’s Cathedral. This is no bigger than a large church, but it’s very pretty and has a very welcoming feel to it. Churches vary when it comes to allowing dogs, but I wasn’t going to chance it anyway with Oscar, in case he saw a religious statue that he took a dislike to, it seemed to be a bit of a theme today. Instead, we walked all around the outside, admiring the work that’s been done on the new gardens. A series of seventeen small gardens are being developed within the grounds; twelve will tell the story of the island and how Christianity has affected it and five will have special themes. I’ve been enjoying watching this develop and Oscar seemed to enjoy the peace and quiet after his encounter with Vikings.

“Are you getting tired, Oscar?”

“A bit. It’s been a great day, though.”

“Come on, let’s walk back to the car along the prom.”

“What’s that building, Mum?”

“That’s the Leece Museum. It used to be the old courthouse and gaol and it has exhibitions about the history of Peel, it’s very interesting. One day, I’m going to do a post or two about the island museums, but I’ll have to do that without you, I don’t think they’d cope with you in a museum, and frankly the idea terrifies me.”

“I don’t mind. They’re probably all full of Vikings. And Fenellas. And possibly sheep.”

“Here we are, back at the car. Hop in.”

“Might have a sleep on the way back, Mum.”

“Go ahead, Oscar. You’ve been a very good boy. I’ve got work to do when I get back, so you can have a snooze on the sofa.”

“Where are we going next week?”

“I don’t know. Castletown, perhaps. We could get pizza for lunch.”

“Castletown it is then!”

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: 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…