Nil desperandum with the wartime Walkers…

I come from a family which has a dodgy Latin motto, silver cutlery with a crest and album upon album of faded photographs of stern people standing in front of an assortment of ugly houses. All these are accompanied by an inexhaustible supply of stories of the dark deeds and derring-do of my forebears. A rather similar background, by the sound of it, to that of author Annabel Venning.

To War with the Walkers is a well-named and well-constructed family history memoire, all about the real and metaphorical journey taken by six siblings through the Second World War.

After Major Tom’s War, my novel about my own family’s Great War, was published almost exactly a year ago, I remember a kind bookshop manager scratching his head and saying ‘Cracking read, but not sure where to put it.’ He could not decide whether it belonged within the memoire, historical fiction or military history sections. Publishers Hodder & Stoughton may experience similar frustrations with the sales positioning of To War with the Walkers.

Genealogy is now hugely popular, with millions of profiles and interlinked family trees posted on portals such as Hundreds and thousands of viewers tune in for every new episode of Who do You Think You Are? This new literary genre of high-quality genealogy fiction and novelistic memoire surely now merits its very own shelf.

To War with the Walkers (no relation, by the way) is non-fiction, if only just. At times its author cannot resist giving her characters rather more of a voice and personality than one might expect from a memoire: or perhaps that is because a run-of-the-mill family history memoire can often prove just a tad dull.

Not this one.

As her great-aunt Ruth lies within the crumbling rubble of the Blitz, stoically awaiting death, for example, the reader will also taste the dust and danger of her ruined hospital at the back of his throat.

The grand-daughter of one of her book’s key protagonists, Venning is completely within her rights to make it come alive for the reader however she chooses, and her work is all the better for it.

She has brought together a journalistic thoroughness combined with a deep personal sensitivity to her family’s many personalities, all set against different backdrops within the global theatre of war, 1939 – 1945.

As a genealogist I found myself flicking through the end matter on the hunt for a family tree (to check who was who) but by the last few pages could see why inserting one might have proved a spoiler for the poignant ending.

The parents of the six Walker siblings, Arthur and Dorothea, were both products of the Great War. When she attended Cheltenham Ladies College, Dorothea might well have been told not to hope for marriage, as there were insufficient supplies of surviving men to go round. The woman delivering that sobering lecture would have been one of the formidable spinster sisters Maud and Ethel (Etty) Winnington-Ingram, my own great-aunts, both of whom taught at Cheltenham during and after WWI (and who feature prominently in Major Tom’s War).

It was perfectly natural to desire as many children as possible post-war, ideally sons, to replace those who had been slaughtered. Dorothea and Arthur more than did their duty with four boys, Edward, Harold, Walter and Peter, and two girls, Ruth and Bea.

As Arthur and Dorothea had lived through the Great War, how hard it must have been to see cherished offspring being sucked into the toils of another conflict so soon, either directly, as soldiers (Edward, Walter and Peter) or indirectly (doctor Harold and nurse Ruth), while beautiful, languorous Bea finds herself a handsome American serviceman.

I know more about the First World War than I do about the Second for obvious reasons. I not only enjoyed To War with the Walkers but also learned a good deal, particularly from reading the chapters covering the three soldiers’ wars, which both horrified and fascinated me. I was shocked for example to discover that certain Sikh troops were lured into working with the Japanese with a false promise of Indian independence.

Venning’s grandfather, the ruthless and dapper Walter, who seems to have inspired admiration and hatred in equal measure, was exceptionally well drawn. His brother Peter’s descent into hell as he is transferred from camp to camp at the hands of the Japanese reminded me of the compelling David Bowie film, Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence. The family motto, Nil Desperandum, never despair, was never so apt as there.

Venning does not shrink from examining the mental health consequences of conflict, both in those who fight and those on the Home Front, male and female alike.

This is genealogy-based writing at its best and as an author of fiction – one step further on from family history memoire – I can hear a film script begging for release from this excellent book too.

Highly recommended.

Hodder & Stoughton, £20


The gentle joys of making breakfast…

I have been earning my living for almost 20 years as a heritage consultant. I have enjoyed the vast majority of my contracts, which have taken me all over the UK and Europe, and led to quirky activity such as writing a play about the success of Captain Scott’s Antarctic exhibition for the RGS or looking at the impact of slavery on museum collections. My need to write – and eventually Major Tom’s War – grew out of some of this story and collection-based work. Much of the more run-of-the-mill contract content was report-based, however, and that has become more and more demanding and formulaic as the years have gone by. I am half sick of planning, said the Lady of Shalott.

Although I will keep doing more of the fun stuff, I sincerely hope I have written my last big interpretive report.

To fill the gap, I am making lovely people some rather splendid breakfasts in our new AirBnB set-up called The Chanonry Bolthole. It is incredible to be able to base life around such a simple transaction. I use fruit and vegetables from my garden and eggs from local hens as much as I can. Il faut cultiver son jardin…

I provide a clean comfortable bed and a nice breakfast made with local ingredients and my guests depart with a smile on their face. It is as simple as that. Doing this (and doing it well) makes me absurdly happy. This feminist has even taken to enjoying the ironing, shock horror!

It is not dull or repetitive (I cannot say that about some of my interpretive plans). I enjoy my guests’ stories, of course, whether they are from Skegness or Ealing, the Basque region or Australia, the USA or France. Every single person who comes sees the Highlands with fresh eyes. I am able to find out what they like and nudge them in the direction of unusual things to see and do which I know they in particular will enjoy. The satisfaction is immense. I really do wish I had done this years ago!

Once my guests have gone, I am free to write knowing that my two spare rooms have bought me that precious writing time.

Of course it is a short season – and Brexit is bound to have an adverse impact on bookings next year – but I am very glad to have made this life change.

Next year I plan to host some writer stays here for folk who need a bit of one-to-one support or just peace to write/edit. Not a formal retreat, more of a creative sanctuary. Keep an eye on for offers and updates!

The not-so-gentle art of telling people what to think

In Britain we are familiar with the concept of propoganda. In Major Tom’s War I write of how Tom is appalled when he hears of the rape of German nuns, which has him describing the enemy as ‘brute beasts’. 100 years on, we know this to have been a calculated piece of motivational propoganda, which clearly did its job, and yet was still a lie. It was communicated through visual representations (drawings of nuns cowering before bayonet-wielding Germans) and newspaper reports by journalists who were either ‘in on it’ or content to pass on a story they were given rather to report something they had witnessed.

We study propoganda in school and think of it in terms of posters with strong visual messages communicated through words or images or a combination of the two. Traditional marketing grew out of propoganda. Today, however, we have ‘nudge’ to contend with too.

Nudge shapes the way we think through a number of small suggestions embedded within other media – rather than clearly and openly, as something with which we can make a choice to agree or disagree.

It can be as subtle as the taming of errant locks. What might the flattening of a Prime Ministerial candidate’s hairstyle say to us all subliminally? Ah, look. He’s settling down. Taking the job seriously. That’s good. No – that’s nudge.

In nudge, tiny nuances of language count too. If a pro-Brexit focus group says that it wishes Westminster would ‘just get on with it’ then you can bet your bottom dollar this wording will be reflected in speeches from those at the top.

This is nothing new. The whole political fiasco since the Brexit referendum is not, I believe, the comedy of errors it appears to have been, but a change of leadership which has been clinically planned. It began when a gullible David Cameron was duped by his old school chums into calling the catastrophic and manipulated vote on European membership. Dice have been thrown since, yes, but those dice have always been loaded.

If you have two political candidates standing against each other in a leadership context, one, say, called Robert Smith and the other Peter Jones, they should have equal media coverage, yes? Peter Jones is consistently referred to as Jones, or by both his names. Robert Smith, however, has friends in the media: he used to be a journalist. His pictures are everywhere. He isn’t ever referred to as Smith but as ‘Bob Smith’, more likely ‘Bob the Job’, after a hilarious Jobcentre incident, or just plain Bob, like he is the bloke from next door. This is in spite of the fact that his real name is Rupert St John Roberto de Smythe.

We all know Bob’s bluff and cheery ways, or think we do. The papers love him. He can do woefully crass and stupid things, but we have been conditioned by nudge to think that he’s a bit of a laugh, that he’s one of us.

He’s not, of course. He’s a power-hungry millionaire who surrounds himself with people who can manipulate the way we think. Peter Jones, a worthy but boring ex-dentist, doesn’t stand a chance.

Supposing a national newspaper wrote a piece about how youngsters from deprived areas of London are being given access to a top public school? Fantastic for these hard-working pupils and their visionary parents, and an enlightened school, one might think. But embedded within that article are dozens of references to none other than good old Bob the Job, who happened to be educated at the same fine establishment. Very subtly the language equates ‘Bob’ with the young, bright, ambitious lad from the sink estate. But they are not the same and the timing of the appearance of the piece can be no coincidence. Nudge.

Bob takes power by assembling a ‘war cabinet’. Bob is ‘getting on with it’. Bob admires Churchill and if he manages to nudge us all over a cliff on October 31st this will be heralded as a D-Day-esque victory and a ‘proud day’. What would my grandfather Tom, a real soldier, think of such twisting of reality? That’s easy. In 1918 he was already talking about ‘disgusting politicians’.

I identify as European first, a Scot second and a Briton third. Brexit will render me partially stateless. I object to an imperfect yet peaceful Europe being cast in the role of the Third Reich. I can imagine those Bob has employed writing the ‘war cabinet’ concept on a brainstorming wall in Sharpie and standing back to nod and smirk agreement.

So why talk about ‘Bob’? Because the people hunched in the shadows who are collecting social media data on behalf of those now in power will not have their algorithms set to ‘Bob’. Our reactions are being monitored as well as manipulated. And I am afraid of what is happening to my poor country, our fragile democracy, right now.

Three ways to resist nudge:

1. Ask ‘why now’ when any opponent of the new regime is suddenly alleged to be perverted, or corrupt, or incompetent.

2. Consider ‘who benefits’ from the same allegations or indeed any piece of unlikely positive pro-Brexit news.

3. Believe what you believe, for as long as you possibly can. And care about being able to do so.

Thoughts on the Piccadilly Line

So – London again! It is very hot and humid and I have stupidly boarded the Piccadilly (which the WordPress gremlins endearingly keep changing to Piccalilli) Line with neither a bottle of water nor a book. I was rather hoping for some lovely #PoemsontheUnderground but alas I can only see betting ads from my narrow seat. Which leaves me with only the perusal of the Piccadilly Line linear map for entertainment over the next hour.

Heathrow. I remember the sheer devil-may-care thrill (and expense) of flying to London from Inverness with my mother for the first time circa 1974 en route for South Africa where my sister then lived, my only ever exotic childhood holiday. Before that, our travel between the Capital of the Highlands and the Capital of the Other Bits was via a rattly and unreliable overnight sleeper service with an all night bar – cheap (then) and enormous fun. You could perch on the cover of the wash-hand basin in your tiny bunk berth, fling open the window and stick your head out to smell either the mountains or the motorways, depending on direction of travel.

When I worked (or rather slaved) for the National Trust in the 1990s, Osterley Park was a regular haunt. I was responsible for events in the region which included thumping great music and firework events for thousands to the backdrop of music by the Glenn Miller Band or the Bootleg Beatles at Osterley. The property manager there at the time was a witty chap named Barry who had a nice line in withering put-downs.

Lovely parkland – but the house itself always left me cold, possibly just as its original owner and architect intended. It shouts ‘I have piles of money and influence and a classical education to boot and you can just tug your forelock and scurry back to your dingy hamlet, serf.’ Good thing NT owns it inalienably, otherwise it might have been acquired by one of the new cabinet as a summerhouse.

I grew to know Gloucester Road and South Kensington well in the mid-1980s when I worked as an educational walking tour guide with a company who had better remain nameless. I would don a bright beret and stride forth with my brolly aloft, leading my hapless charges from their arrival station to their very inexpensive hotel in the vicinity of these two underground stations.

One day two lads came back up out of the basement with an aggrieved expression and after repeatedly telling them not to make such a fuss, I investigated to find their room was ankle deep in water and plaster from the ceiling above.

Although the role had its frustrations I became very fit, walking all over London, learned its history and in particular navigated its museums, which was to lead to my first ‘proper job’ with the Imperial War Museum.

Then, approaching the other end of the Piccadilly Line, Wood Green. Neither wooded nor green but a better bet than East Finchley, its Northern line counterpart. Why these two stations? Well, we had bought a flat in Muswell Hill, which is a nice part of the burbs but has no underground station of its own (the clue is in the name). I therefore used to board a W7 (or was it the W3?) bus for Alexandra Palace and then duck back into Dukes Avenue under the old railway bridge.

And finally, Cockfosters. I have never actually been there but my mother once shared a joke of her father’s with me (which is how I knew he had a sense of the ridiculous when I came to write #MajorTomsWar). It may possibly have come from a Punch cartoon.

First man standing to a second man in a very crowded Piccadilly Line train:

‘Excuse me, Sir, is this Cockfosters?’

‘Good Lord, Sir, no – it’s mine.’

Evie’s genes four generations on…

Graduations, eh?

Many parents of bright offspring will sit through one at some stage, moist of eye and empty of wallet. After three hours of applauding until our palms spasm we watch our beloved child-no-longer emerge from all the jovial pontificating to set off down the river of life in a leaky one-person kayak. As we are used to their presence on board our comfortable cabin cruiser where everyone has a personal life jacket, it is all rather unsettling.

My elder daughter justgraduated from the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama on Friday 5th July 2019. She did so in style, with a First Class Honours Degree in Classical Singing.

This is not (or not wholly at any rate) a proud mother blogpost. It is also a reflection on history, and genetics, and those inescapable moments in life when both nothing and everything changes forever.

Evie in Major Tom’s War and many of the women in our family are strong, bright and irritatingly selfless, all too willing to give up our own ambition and identity for some greater good.

Both my grandmother’s and my mother’s futures were derailed by global conflict.

And before the twentieth century, the family tree is scattered with bored, clever women, who married because it was expected of them, and who read poetry, and wrote letters, and embroidered, and painted exquisite watercolours of flowers, all to fill the yawning hours.

If you have read Major Tom’s War then you will know that Evie longed to be a concert pianist but became instead a nurse, wife and mother.

Evie’s daughter Numpy, my mother, was all set to travel to France to study when Tom shook his head at the storm clouds of war and forbade it. She became a superb teacher, but it was not where her heart lay.

Most heart-rending of all, as a prize-winning boy treble, my late brother was offered the role of Amahl in the Christmas Opera Amahl and the Night Visitors by its composer Gian Carlo Menotti. My father, a fine musician himself, turned it down. He said my brother did not have the right temperament. Perhaps he did not, but he still had an exceptional voice. Through his doubtless-well-meaning action my father denied my brother the right to try. His life could have been so utterly different.

Even in my own past I am aware that some of the life choices I have made were shaped within choices made by others. Friday’s graduation therefore had hidden emotional depths for me, as I saw it as a moment celebrating complete freedom and infinite possibility.

It is of course quite possible, even probable, that my lovely daughter will choose not to become a professional musician for her entire career. What she does next is up to her.

Even if she decides to settle in Outer Mongolia to herd yaks, I am still elated that she has had the support and opportunity to study within the creative arts for her music degree. I am so grateful that she lives in a time of relative peace in a culture where women can be utterly independent in life.

Amid all the junketing and the tossing of mortar boards of the graduation we adults often feel just that little bit older as we watch our young ones bob off down the river. Oh, we know it must be so, but we still mourn the moment, even if only just a little, and quietly. The Penny Falls has just shoved us that little bit closer to its merciless edge.

The rest, however, is all pride, and joy, and laughter.

The Living Dead at Forsinard Flows…

Anyone who has read Major Tom’s War will ‘get’ how important my forebears are to me.

Like Tom, my grandfather, I had an unsatisfactory father. When I was six or so Mum gave up on her philandering husband and packed me into her Austin A40 (together with a witless Dalmation named Bobby, the family portraits and almost all the photograph albums – the one of Tom and Evie’s wedding she left propping open the door of the marriage she fled).

We turned our noses Highlands-ward. She had family on the Black Isle. I had never been there.

The journey took three days, via various compassionate friends. I got lost on a housing estate in Manchester and was miraculously found by Bobby (so not an entirely dim dog then). We took on more oil than petrol, since the Austin dribbled a leak.

It got colder. Then it snowed. It was the winter of 1968. We drove through Drumochter behind the snowplough, arriving at Drynie in a blizzard as Jack Russells bounced and barked at my aunt’s windows.

Although I have lived both in England and Europe, the Highlands have been home home ever since. I tend to regard my English place of birth as an unlucky quirk of fate.

And the Black Isle is where Mum died, on the 5th October 2005. No-one forgets the day their mother dies.

And yet, somehow, even in those first hours after it had happened, I knew she was not altogether lost. Something of her remained, and that something was, and is, indestructible.

From time to time I become aware of her presence, usually when I am alone and out of doors, or driving. I would hesitate to call it Soul, although it is both bright and beautiful. Energy perhaps comes closer. The author Sally Vickers describes it as a sheerness of presence.

Mum comes to visit me less frequently now, as perhaps she feels I need her less as time passes. But travelling back from Orkney this morning, I realised with a strange flutter of the heart that she was there once more. A whisper remembered or half-heard. Why not go a different way… where does this road go? Shall we? Oh yes, why not, let’s!

So I eschew the direct route home, the NC500 camping cars and roadworks of the A9, for the empty and undulating 40 miles of passing places on the Melvich to Helmsdale road through Forsinard Flows.

A sigh of contentment as she settles in for the journey.

I should have driven straight past the RSPB visitor centre – and do so at first – but then I hear the faintest sound of disappointment from the passenger seat. I find myself undertaking a many-pointed turn in the road.

The interpretation has changed since I produced the last iteration for RSPB back in the early 2000s (fun facts about carbon sinks, zzzz). I like what is there now rather better.

I should have left it at that, of course. A quick look round. Instead my legs, atrophied from too much recent computer work, found themselves striding out through the peatlands. The coiled outlook tower on the horizon resembles a broken stump of fossilised bogwood.

Oh Mum, I say. For goodness’ sake. It’s raining.

You are not made of sugar, comes the familiar response.

I give in.

The peatbog has a delicate, speckled skin of life topping chocolatey depths as the heather and moss decay into aeons of fragrant peat, gobbling up carbon and keeping it safe.

A duckboard path winds to the new tower. The path floats over the sopping peat on unobtrusive black recycled plastic sleepers, keeping the wood above water even in the wettest winter. Clever stuff.

I find myself slowing down, breathing more deeply, forgetting about the sixty-odd miles still ahead.

I stop and stare at the sphagnum moss, in all its shades of emerald and gold and crimson. Something about sphagnum reminds me of vividly undiluted jelly cubes, or perhaps it is just the ancient quiver of the peat beneath that I recall: the old flagstone paths once quaked here where one trod.

Bog cotton flickers. A cold wind is rising from the grey hills beyond.

Forsinard was nicknamed Frozen’Ard by troops on the Jellicoe Express heading north. Not much better today, and it is June. Midsummer. Climate change?

Sssh, says Mum. Don’t spoil it. Look!

Too sluggish to escape my lens, sand lizards are doing their reptilian best to bask on the exposed ends of the plastic sleepers. One big chap has lost his tail and I wonder how.

A heron, says Mum.

Another lizard, darker, with an elegant striped tail, is perhaps an expectant mother full of little leathery eggs. Protecting herself if not the future of her species, she is flattened against the plastic, desperately trying to blend in as she warms herself.

We watch her bright eyes, her tiny flickering breaths. She watches us right back, praying that her camouflage works and that we will not dart at her with a dagger bill to swallow her whole.

How do you think she sees us?

Two unfathomable gentle giants, we smile and leave the little dinosaur to rest, in peace.

When Mum walks with me, my vision becomes doubly acute. I can see every fragment of lichen-crusted peat, every wisp of heather and sweet bog myrtle.

I say their names out loud, threading my mother a string of millefiori beads as we walk: milkwort, tormentil, sundew, chickweed wintergreen (oh, look, look, a carpet of little stars…).

I return to the car refreshed.

On the drive south somewhere between the reserve and Helmsdale, as the light changes from inland grey to brighter coast, she takes her leave. I feel her go: the faintest pressure of her hand on mine as I change gear.

I would never say don’t go, and I try not to think it, for if she did not, I might never again feel her return: and that is unthinkable, for her occasional presence is a joy and a wonder to me.

Where does she go? To be with my brother, somehow, I think. But that is a story for another time.

And for now I am safely home.

My take on the Saint Magnus International Festival… for those who have never been to Orkney!

I honeymooned in Orkney back in the 1980s. For the geographically-inept, this is the lower of the two island archipelagoes which appear to exist in the boxes in the mouth of the Moray Firth on the map.

After a disastrous first night in the Ayre Hotel, which had builders deconstructing the room next door, we decamped to a friendly B&B in St Ola on the hill above Kirkwall. There, I fell in love with Orkney – and sadly my new husband fell in love with the idea of reliably sunny, warm, dry holidays almost anywhere else.It does not always rain in Orkney – but sometimes it does. We tried another holiday there en famille 20 or so years ago when it rained for an entire fortnight, but still Orkney somehow draws me back. When the vast skies do clear there is nowhere more beautiful and uplifting to be on Earth. It makes my heart dance just to board the Pentalina at Gills Bay and cross the Pentland Firth.I am ashamed to admit that I only attended my first St Magnus Festival two years ago and I was doubly smitten. It provided the hefty hit of immersive international culture I sometimes pine for in the mainland Highlands: I love Scottish music and culture too but once in a while I need more.

And of course attending the festival means an excuse for a few days of complete escapism in a natural and historical environment I love.This year, glory be, the loose theme was 1919 and the aftermath of the Great War – so I was invited to speak.The Festival, founded by composer the late Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, is now in its 43rd year. It is also truly international: not just performers but also many of the audience come from all over the world.

I shared a friendly fish and chips with Linda from Toronto on Saturday night, queuing for them at the ‘good’ chippy along with the rest of Kirkwall (evening meals out can be a challenge) before she headed onwards for Shetland.On Sunday I spoke in the plush cinema at the ‘Picky’ centre – rather a good turn-out – perhaps they thought I was one of the other guest speakers?This time my volunteer ‘victim’ was the lovely Martin, a devoted St Magnus Festival fan of ten years’ standing who comes up from Lancaster every summer. Yes, Reader, I executed him, but he was very nice about it and we shared a fudge brownie afterwards.And oh yes, I did indeed check whether Terry Waite was in the audience before this photo was taken.

Arriving early and signing books at the Orcadian bookshop later in the week meant an opportunity to savour some of the other Festival delights too.Here is a glimpse of the Peace Gardens Trail which enabled us to explore Papdale Walled Garden, Happy Valley (an inspired place to use!) and Woodwick House with a variety of musical and artistic interludes. At the end, a violinist and percussionist on vibraphone played Spiegel im Spiegel with sunlight and birdsong streaming through the upper windows and I sat there listening with tears rolling down my cheeks – I know it doesn’t take much! – but a blissful release from a stressful few months of work.Poet Robin Robertson, author of The Long Take read from his poetic work.Its gnarly roots probe dark and uncomfortable places in Highland culture. Inspired by his lecture, I explored my own metaphor for the St Magnus Festival.

To me it is like a fine tablecloth, spread over the ancient driftwood table that is Orkney, once a year. The table can serve perfectly well as a table without it, and one leg occasionally mutters that it has no need of a fancy tablecloth which is only thrown over it for the benefit of outsiders: but the other table-legs quietly enjoy their bonny annual covering.

Orkney is enhanced and transformed by its time of adornment as the St Magnus Festival.

This is no frilly, frothy, lacy tablecloth either – no lightweight festival this – more a fine white linen, the very devil to iron, embroidered with ever more fantastic and complex designs each year.At the end of the festival the tablecloth is removed, shaken, folded and carefully put away until next year. The memory of it resonates, just as the single notes of the haunting James MacMillan piece I heard performed today at the eery old Town Hall Kirk in Stromness still pulsed, long after the key was struck.

Mary Bevan, Joseph Middleton and William Thomas gave us a superbly chilling selection of Anthems for Doomed Youth.The annual miracle of St Magnus is brought about by an army of volunteers, a quirky selection of venues, some very good performers and the Festival team, led by Alasdair Nicolson, who was always destined for greatness (our paths crossed during our schooldays).My own personal highlights?

A robin turning a Telemann duet into a trio in Papdale Walled Garden.A visceral response to Robin Robertson’s unsettling first poem. Watching the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra percussionists perform Fanfare to the Common Man and other mighty percussive pieces with barely a flicker of emotion: the definition of cool. Spiegel im Spiegel as already mentioned. The sheer ubiquity of trumpeter par excellence Tom Poulson (or should I say the Poulson Twins?).Tomorrow night’s performance of Alasdair Nicolson’s Govan Stones (almost but not quite its premiere).

And then of course watching the ‘Cattieface’ owl and hen harriers hunting across my friend Caroline’s wild field, as starlings mass into hit mobs to startle them, the port of Kirkwall spread out beyond. I have to return to normality tomorrow. If you can come to the last few days of this festival, you won’t regret it.

And if you have never been to Orkney, make your plans for 2020 now…

In the footsteps of Evie in Ross-on-Wye and Bridstow

This is the third and final instalment of my April 2019 Major Tom’s War book tour blog. We have already visited London and Worcestershire – now for a quick jaunt to Herefordshire. Please scroll back for the other stories!

View from near Westfield VAD Red Cross Hospital across the river

We have moved forward in time again, this time to the First World War and the actual period of the main action in Major Tom’s War. After the tragedy of Bessie’s early death in Bewdley, Edward and his five children (ranging from Maud at 12 down to Arthur at 4 in age) were moved, probably on compassionate grounds, away from the family turf in Bewdley to a completely new parish at Ross-on-Wye. Evie would still only have been seven or eight when she arrived in the town. Here the children were looked after by an elderly spinster cousin named Annie (Marianne) until Edward unexpectedly remarried parishioner Harriett Bernard. The town rectory where they all lived initially appears to have been demolished now – but otherwise the town is very much as it was.

Ross-on-Wye has a more open, airy, spacious and perhaps, then, healthy feel than Bewdley, with its cramped, dark streets. The silver Wye flows slowly beneath the long spans of the bridges: it is so easy to imagine Maud and Evie leaning over to drop pine cones into the water from above after market day.

The old covered market, still the heart of the town

St Mary’s Church, with its massive spire, is where, in Major Tom’s War, I set the wedding of Tom and Evie (I have been unable to find any marriage certificate for them anywhere thus far). Even if I find they married elsewhere (many wartime weddings were rather rushed jobs in London) Chapter 36, Double Vision, is staying as it is! There is little trace now of Edward’s tenure at St Mary’s as priest, not even a list of priests, and in fact as his Hereford Cathedral duties increased (as Arch-Deacon) he soon moved on to Bridstow Vicarage, and even more airy and open home.

Bridstow Vicarage

The Georgian vicarage at Bridstow perches on a hill-top looking back over the river to the town, a lovely site.

View from one of the main Vicarage reception rooms, possibly once the library

It has been beautifully restored and John and Sally Ward, the current owners, kindly invited us in for a look round when we timidly knocked on the door. There were little corners – outbuildings, a staircase in particular – and one area of the garden, now laid to lawn, where the vegetable patch once was, which felt very familiar.

Outbuildings, Bridstow Vicarage
Restored staircase, Bridstow Vicarage

Best of all was when our host and hostess opened a door to reveal this stunning Broadway piano. How Evie would have appreciated that!

St Bridget’s Bridstow, a lovely wee sleepy English church

Bridstow Church (St Bridget’s) over the other side of the river is where Edward must have preached on the day war broke out, where I have Evie (in the novel) sit and contemplate the futility of her life as the sunlight pierces the stained glass and catches motes of dust. I walked up the aisle and since no-one was about, sang a hymn or two. The old stones hummed back.

The nave, St Bridget’s

Once back in Ross-on-Wye itself we tried to find Westfield House, site of one of the two VAD hospitals in Ross-on-Wye during WWI in which Evie worked and eventually glimpsed it behind a door and wall right in the centre of the town. It looks like it has been extended and other, later buildings may have filled some of its grounds, but it is still a most healthy site overlooking the river, good for convalescent, weary men.

Westfield House, Ross-on-Wye

The location of the second VAD hospital, Caradoc Villa, has been identified by a local historian, but we only found this out that night at my book talk at Rossiter Books in Ross-on-Wye so did not have the opportunity to visit. Rossiter Books is rather a special place, far more than the sum of its parts. And how wonderful to hear of a bookshop which is actually expanding its number of branches rather than closing them!

Clearly seeking divine inspiration at the end of a long tour!

Andy Rossiter and his team made me most welcome and I so enjoyed the talk, as I did every leg of the tour.

Rossiter Books in Ross-on-Wye. Tom’s specs always enjoy finding a new face to try on!

I was fascinated to see that the same historian (who unfortunately was unable to attend that night) had found a fuzzy picture of a group of VAD nurses which actually included Evie. Even more than that one, however, I was thrilled by a picture she provided showing a nurse tending a patient’s arm in an orchard. Neither of these is Tom or Evie, but this is exactly the scene I imagined in Chapter 31, A Question and an Answer, where Tom and Evie share the joy of hearing a wren singing from a rosebush in the orchard.

If I knew the identity of the town’s historian who assembled these pictures, I would be able to say a proper thank you!
This picture of my own shows ‘Puff’ Maud Currey, Evie and Consie Allen sitting on the hospital steps at what I know now to be Caradoc Villa – see picture below for comparison

Well, what a lot I packed into ten long days away. Book tours are hard work but always so rewarding – this is my second. My greatest fear was to find that I had somehow made some kind of locational errors in the book once I visited the real places concerned, but that is not, thank goodness, the case. I am so grateful to all who bought books, to the Kashi House team for their support and encouragement, to Mark Walker and Eleanor Bird for providing me with accommodation and transport, and particularly to Charlie Welch, Kate Groenhelm, Mary Arden-Davis, Paul West, Sally and John Ward, Andy Rossiter and all the strangers who have become friends along the way.

If you have enjoyed this #longread, please follow this blog, comment and share it with others. You’ll find my website at if you would like to get in touch. Thank you so much for joining me.

‘Welcome’ said my 3 x great grandfather…

Interrupting Bishop Henry Pepys’ sermon-writing

Part Two of the Major Tom’s War April 2019 book tour blog, in which we visit Hartlebury Castle, Bewdley, Ribbesford House and Hagley Hall. Can you smell something burning..?

Arriving at Hartlebury Castle, former seat of the Bishops of Worcester, including Bishop Henry Pepys

After all the excitement of the London leg of the book tour it was good to arrive in the Welsh Borders and then, with my friend and fellow author Eleanor Bird, meander up through the familiarly-named and yet unknown villages and towns in England where my family once lived.

We began with what my mother would have called a ‘spiffing’ afternoon tea at Hartlebury Castle, once the seat of the Bishops of Worcester. Hartlebury is connected to the ancestors of those you will encounter in Major Tom’s War. It is an ancient building, more of a sprawling, comfortable manor house than a fairy-tale castle. Its pretty arched windows give it a slightly curious expression, as though it is peering at its visitors as if to say ‘Now. Who do we have here?’

The reedy moat at Hartlebury Castle

It feels much more castle-like around the back where there is quite a drop to a proper moat, although I am not sure whether or not it ever surrounded the building completely.

Enjoying the terrific tea and scones!

It was lovely to be drinking tea from delicate tea-cups in a room where 250 years ago or so my family would have done so. Our hosts, Trustees Mary Arden-Davis and Paul West, encouraged us to explore the house which we did, albeit very quickly. As my ‘day job’ is in heritage interpretation I keep an eager eye out for innovations in the field. Imagine my disbelief and delight to be greeted by various members of my family as I made my way around the house. The Pepys family has been chosen as the interpretive medium, and they make a fine job of it. First, Maria Sullivan (3 x great grandmother) greeted me from a portrait in the entrance hall. She was a good fit for the family, dark hair, beautiful diction and a slightly disapproving expression. Then her husband, the affable Bishop Henry Pepys welcomed me from one in the drawing room next door. These talking portraits and the clever diorama further on were quite an experience for a genealogist!

I was especially touched to learn that these parents did not send their children away to school, not even Herbert their son, but had them educated with tutors at home instead. Perhaps as a Bishop Henry had concerns about the morality and harsh discipline of schools at the time.

The family is indirectly related to the London diarist Samuel Pepys (who had no children) but pronounces its name Pepiz not Peeps, allegedly because maiden ladies of the family did not like to be called Miss Peeps. Both parents are sorely tried (and frequently interrupted) by their younger daughter Emily, who left a delightful if brief diary of her life in the house in 1844 which has recently been republished. The original is on display upstairs in Emily’s bed-chamber.

Emily Pepys’s diary, a wonderful archive find (well done, Dee Cooper)
Emily Pepys up to mischief in her bed-chamber

I loved this juxtaposition of digital and historical storytelling. There is a wonderful upstairs room with a magic wardrobe which leads into Emily’s bedroom. I could have spent hours longer exploring.

The Great Hall at Hartlebury Castle

One room had more impact than any other. The Great Hall with its vaulted roof smelled strongly of smoke, so much so that I wondered if I would be able to speak in there if that were the location (it wasn’t – I was in cosier premises next door). My eyes and throat prickled with it. I also had a strong feeling that it should be much darker in colour with some kind of wooden panelling on the walls. It was all very odd but it was only later that I realised that this was the scene of the fire witnessed by Maria, Henry, Emily and my own 2 x great grandmother Maria Louisa Pepys. It could have killed them all and although Emily’s account is that of a gleeful ten year old, for older Louisa and her parents it must have been terrifying. Genetic memory or an over-fertile imagination? I certainly felt a lot easier when I was out of the Great Hall!

Bewdley Rectory

From lovely Hartlebury we travelled on to Bewdley, where the main street also provided an element of deja vu. In Major Tom’s War there is a sad chapter called ‘Losing Bessie’, where I visualise a seven-year-old Evie (my grandmother) peeping through the door of the rectory and looking out – at a slight angle – down a short driveway to the cobbled street, which had straw spread over it to cushion the wheels of the carriages and reduce noise. There was the rectory and there was the driveway and the gate, with a yew tree beside it to boot, all exactly as imagined.

Bewdley main street with church – it should be cobbled! In my head it was…

The church nearby had beautiful pastel stained glass and again it all felt strangely familiar, although I suspected it might have felt a good deal warmer than it had been in the days of my grandma.

Onwards to Ribbesford House this time, where we peeped through the barriers at what had once been the family stately home.

Ribbesford House (the back bit we couldn’t see from the gate)

A kind groundsman took some quick photographs around the exterior for us. Ribbesford was never much enjoyed by the Winnington-Ingrams: it was let in the late 1800s which is how Bessie came to meet her end at Bewdley Rectory, and not at Ribbesford itself. They were still the ‘squiresons’ – a strange combination of parson and squire.

Ribbesford was sold with little regret in 1900.

Hats off to the young entrepreneurs with deep pockets who have taken it on the house, who are converting it into luxury apartments while keeping the grounds intact. I wish them luck with their courageous investment!

The collapsed greenhouses of Ribbesford Walled Garden

Almost more interesting than the house, for all its turrets and 20 bedrooms, was the walled garden, now privately owned and in the process of being lovingly restored. There were espaliered fruit trees and Simon Gooding the owner is busily tracing the trees (old varieties like Fragonelle pear) and putting them back. I suspect it will be a labour of more than one lifetime but a restored walled garden like that could become a wonderful place to visit. I have sent Simon one of the remaining few copies of the 1810 Cookbook which I printed a reproduction of few years back. Jane Onslow, daughter of the Dean of Worcester, loved her food and collected recipes and remedies in a leather-bound notebook. This proves that the gardens grew apricots and peaches, melons and cucumbers: costly to grow, delicious to consume, all of which may be useful information for Simon.

Jane would soon become the redoubtable mother-in-law of Maria Louisa Pepys, who married one of the succession of Edward W-Is and who in turn gave birth to Edward Winnington-Ingram (the Arch-Deacon) who appears in Major Tom’s War.

I wonder what the relationship between Jane and Maria Louisa was like!

Ribbesford Church

Ribbesford Church, tucked around the corner from the big house, revealed some poignant corners, including stained glass windows commemorating both Bessie (knowing her story, her weeping angel was desperately moving) and Edward Winnington-Ingram, Evie’s parents. The windows were installed by all five children, a loving and respectful gesture.

Edward Winnington-Ingram’s memorial window, also erected by his children
Edward Winnington-Ingram with his children (clockwise from bottom left) Maud, Etty, Arthur, Evie, Tom Westmacott (my grandfather) and Teddy
Weeping angel detail, Elizabeth Winnington-Ingram (Bessie’s) window
Cross with calvary base and fleur-de-lys terminals

Against the back wall there was also an unexpected mediaeval fleur-de-lys stepped cross dating from about 1430, exactly the kind which are displayed in the restored mausoleum I worked on at Kirkmichael hundreds of miles to the north. No wonder they have always felt rather familiar!

Norman doorway, Ribbesford Church

Eleanor identified the carving over the Norman entrance doorway as Herefordshire School Romanesque. How did these designs in carving spread? We think of people staying put in the past but many clearly did not.

Hagley Hall

We ended this exploration with a flying visit to Hagley Hall, as Lady Lyttleton contributed one the the 1810 Cookbook recipes. We realised later that Emily marries her son and is buried in the church there, so that is why there is a connection. It was common for second or later sons to enter the church, and all these ecclesiastical families intermarried, understandably so, when the church for them was a seven day a week, 24 hour commitment. They can seldom have met anyone else.

At least it was a slight improvement on the intermarriage of cousins, also something of a habit in the family tree.

Imagine walking through this room and feeling that it was home. I touched the nose of the friendly plaster lion over the fireplace and wondered if one of my forebears had done the same…

Next – Part Three, With Evie in WWI – in Ross on Wye and Bridstow

Locked into Bishop Bonner’s Bathroom…

Libba my aunt, Ann my godmother and Numpy my mum, frequent visitors to Fulham Palace


Genealogists like myself are often the youngest of their generation. We have grown up looking backwards up the skirts of our elders, so to speak! It was therefore eerie for me this April to visit so many places my family has lived in before (many of which feature in my fact-dusted-with-fiction novel, Major Tom’s War). I found so many of them strangely familiar. In this three-part blog we will be visiting (1) Fulham Palace and the Cavalry and Guards Club in London, (2) Hartlebury Castle, Bewdley, Hagley Hall and Ribbesford House in Worcestershire and then (3) the little town of Ross-on-Wye in Herefordshire and the village of Bridstow nearby.

This is part one.

Dear old Fulham Palace…

A photograph of Fulham Palace as it was in Uncle Arthur Bishop’s day

Was this simply a case of an empathetic nature and an over-active imagination? Or something stranger, some kind of genetic memory? I am still uncertain myself how it was that unfamiliar places could possibly feel so much like home on my book tour this April. See what you think!

My publisher Kashi House is based in London and I needed to have a meeting with them and with the book’s distributor, Allison and Busby. I thought ‘why not make the most of being south’ (I live in the Scottish Highlands) and the book tour expanded from there.

Stop One was at Fulham Palace of ‘dear old Fulham’ as referred to by my mother’s generation (in fact the phrase ‘dear old’ had to be excised from all over the text of Major Tom’s War by my editor), home during his Bishopric of my 2 x great uncle Arthur Foley Winnington-Ingram, younger brother of Edward, Evie’s father, who features in the book. Edward was the Arch-Deacon of Worcester but Arthur trumped this by becoming Bishop of London for almost 40 years. It is a comfortable sprawling Tudor building with Georgian and other additions, currently undergoing a Heritage Lottery funded restoration.

In the Tudor gateway of the walled garden at Fulham Palace. Heightwise I was made for Tudor times!

I was invited there by Kate Groenhelm (thanks again Kate!) to do a talk as a fundraising event for the Friends of Fulham Palace who have tremendous drive and vision. I had been there before fairly recently but even on that visit it still felt like coming home, ducking under the warm arched brick in the sunlight and into the courtyard where once a fountain would have played (in fact I missed the sound of the water – something was missing). It was peculiarly lovely to walk though into the walled garden, too, and to see beehives with new swarms, and blossom slathering the fruit trees.

I always carefully tailor my talks to their venue and audience, so integrating ‘dear old (sic) Uncle Arthur Bishop’ into the narrative was fascinating. I learned a lot myself. He had done great work as Bishop of Stepney but was a controversial Bishop of London – terrific at sports, achingly good-looking with a real chiselled jaw, and he knew it, consciously posing for the camera – but considered a gullible and lightweight establishment sycophant by some of his crueller contemporaries. He gave a particularly hideous sermon in 1915 which exhorted young men to join up and kill as many Germans as they could in order to save civilisation as they knew it. He must have been responsible for hundreds if not thousands of young Londoners becoming cannon-fodder. Hard to imagine him being nicknamed
‘Chuckles’ in his boyhood.

And yet, and yet. Hindsight is such an easy position to hold now. We know it as the 1914 – 1918 war. All they knew then was that it had begun in 1914 and had not ended at Christmas as they had believed it would. How must that have felt? Appalling postcards were arriving at home from the front showing cathedrals in ruins. Arthur must have thought that St Pauls could be next if the spread of Germany was not stopped. We can judge, but we were not there then.

The blood-curdling warmonger, Bishop Arthur, was also a deeply kind man and priest. He was unmarried (the story goes that he was once engaged, but she decided he was already wedded to the church!) but devoted to his young nieces and nephews and great-nieces and great-nephews and in the habit of taking in various odd and unsuitable waifs and strays to live in the vast palace, which also triggered criticism. My aunt and mother when tiny endured rather than enjoyed visits and got locked into Bishop Bonner’s bathroom. No-one heard their cries (the stuff of gothic horror) so my aunt courageously flung herself out of the window and into the rhododendrons beneath. My snivelling mother heard her wail off into the distance to get help. They were of course roundly scolded for Making a Fuss.

Many of those present mentioned the tremendous children’s parties he held at Fulham Palace – how we would love to find a photograph of one!

It was a thought-provoking discussion with the audience and such a memorable evening. I was particularly touched that some of my Winnington-Ingram cousins turned out to meet me at Fulham Palace: here is another Tom wearing his great-great-uncle’s specs.

My young cousin Tom Bartlett sports another Tom’s specs (Tom’s specs need their own blog!)
Gleaming brass plaque in front of the Cavalry and Guards Club

The following lunchtime I gave a short talk after a wonderful meal with the Central India Horse Association, held annually in the Cavalry and Guards Club.

Charlie Welch (in the apricot dress) and her family – three happy generations of close association with the Central India Horse

If only I had known of the existence of this fabulous group of cavalry descendants I would have found them so supportive while I was writing Major Tom’s War (a website has now just been launched and can be found at ).

Charlie Welch (Honorary Secretary of the CIHA) addressing those present at the regimental luncheon – what a lovely meal and such nice people

Again, sitting at a long table decorated with flowers and polished regimental silver surrounded by charming people was like stepping back in time. A message of loyal support had been sent to Her Majesty the Queen who had reciprocated with a letter wishing us an enjoyable lunch.

Wherever I talk, I spend a lot of time explaining Tom’s presence in the Indian Cavalry at the beginning of a Great War. It was rather lovely to be among people who simply understood. The Indian Cavalry were a remarkable body of men of many faiths who fought for a colonial power, often to the death. Unlike the infantry which left the western front in 1915, the cavalry stayed almost until the bitter end, leaving for Mesopotamia only in March 1918.

The CIHA still has very strong links with India and many members visit annually. Thank you Charlie Welch and everyone else for making me so very welcome. I am looking forward to becoming an active CIHA member.

Whenever my back is turned, Tom’s specs find their way to another face!
Wonderful Bengal Lancer lead soldiers used to decorate our table

I had another odd moment of deja vu as I left the Club, walking into the entrance hall and thinking, ah, yes, there’s that statuette of Douglas Haig. I have never been there before, but when I looked more closely, it was indeed Earl Haig.

COMING NEXT: #2, Hartlebury Castle, Hagley Hall, Bewdley and Ribbesford House