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

The gentle art of French translation…

…as shared with members of the Franco-Scottish Society of Scotland on the very first Major Tom’s War book tour last week!

Major Tom’s War takes place in seven different countries: India, England, Scotland, Wales, Belgium, Germany and (most of all) in France.

It is therefore natural to me to want to see a French edition published as soon as I can. This book is in many ways also a commemoration of the courage of those who came to be cruelly dubbed ‘les Boches du Nord’. The whole of the town of Bavay wants to read it – as do the many members of the venerable Franco-Scottish Society who came to our talks last week. France needs a symbolic hero for occupied France in the First World War. Gaston Derome provides just such a hero.

On this my first book tour I was accompanied by my friend and translator RK, an academic from Paris I have known for over 30 years. Together we travelled from Inverness to Aberdeen, Edinburgh and Glasgow before returning to Inverness. Four lectures in four nights, with much discovery of these four fine cities in between plus warm welcomes and generous hospitality from the 100+ FSS members we encountered. For more information about FSS activities see

We learned to switch seamlessly between French and English and back again and found that the presentation evolved entertainingly as the tour progressed. Every audience was different and each drew something new out of us. It was both exhausting and exhilarating!

Many members, like Tom Wight from the Edinburgh branch, tried on ‘my’ Tom’s spectacles.

One issue agreed during our discussion is that Gaston Derome is in many ways the greater hero of Major Tom’s War. While Tom himself volunteers for active service, Gaston has no choice in his role as saviour of Allied soldiers and also of his own small community.’ Or rather he does have a choice and chooses not to betray them, at great personal risk.

In France most memories of the German occupation during the first war were swept away by the second. The few who did remember said the first greatly exceeded the second in terms of brutality. The term ‘Resistence’, we heard from RK barely existed in the first war and yet Gaston and his little town do resist the invaders for virtually the entire war.

Kashi House, publishers of the English language edition, have no network in France so I opted to retain the French language rights. I have been discussing publication with two French publishers so far and am optimistic of a French edition appearing sometime later this year.

It is likely to appear under the title Grande Guerre, Petits Destins, which reflects Gaston’s significance within the novel too.

There is still a little work to do revising the translated text – but a wee rest is in order first!

What would Gaston Derome have made of Brexit and the ‘gilets jaunes’?

Those who have read Major Tom’s War or my other posts will know that Gaston, mayor of the town my grandfather liberated at the end of the First World War, was a thoroughly good egg, as Tom himself might have put it.

When in Bavay last year for the Armistice commemorations, I was struck by how aghast people were at the prospect of Brexit. They could not equate the country which had supported them through two world wars with the same country abandoning a peaceful and unified Europe now, following a clearly tainted referendum. I tried to reassure them that surely it would not happen, that common sense would prevail, and yet we nation of lemmings are still hurtling towards the cliff-edge as I write this.

At the time, I was given a copy of the speech Gaston made for the formal ceremony to mark the town’s liberation.

I have only just got round to translating this. It has such contemporary resonance for our times. Given the sudden resurgence of Fascism all around us (whether wearing yellow gilets or speaking with a chummy Old Etonian accent) I thought I would post it here:

“I am delighted to greet the town council, at this moment which marks the triumph of Justice over brute force, which was wrongly considered as morally justified by Germany.

The World has lived through some extraordinary times which will be described with pride, I am sure, when future historians come to write about them.

An extraordinary lesson must be learned out of the agonies of division which Humanity has suffered.

Fundamentally, as says Monsieur Clemenceau, the Council’s president, what has appeared before us now is a great vision of Unity. This desire for Unity is what will bring together all men of justice and lawfulness on earth, an earth that is beautiful, and good, and where all things are well.

We must all now unite in glorifying what is Good, just as we are united in condemning what is Evil. What we must now do is do everything in our power to make sure that Good triumphs.

I propose to send a message to Monsieur Georges Clemenceau, on the part of the town council, to express our admiration for how he has brought France, and our admirable Allies, to Victory.

A shining Victory which requires Humanity to take a new direction and to allow itself to hope once more.”

How must Gaston have reacted to the second war, only a few decades later? And 100 years on, where is that ‘shining victory’ and new direction now? Instead we have madness afoot, with fascism at its rotting heart, which I fear Gaston would recognise all too clearly.

Through the Forêt de Mormal into 2019


Happy New Year to all my readers and future readers! I am so grateful to everyone who has already read Major Tom’s War, wherever in the world you may be (India, Canada, America, France, Germany, the Netherlands and elsewhere…). Your feedback has been so kind, constructive and positive. As a début novelist, I am so grateful to each and every one of you.

2019 promises to be an exciting year, with second edition tweaks to get down to and a French edition in my sights. Not to mention the itch of a new novel in a similar genre(which may overlap a little with Major Tom’s War) which simply won’t go away!


After the joys and trials of Christmas and New Year I thought you might like to join me for a bracing winter’s walk through the ancient Mormal forest, not far from Bavay in Northern France. This dense area of woods, slightly smaller today than in 1914 – 1918, but still teeming with deer and wild boar, will require no introduction to those who have completed Major Tom’s War.  For those of you who have yet to begin, here is a brief account of its significance – I hope without too much of a spoiler alert!

Soon after the Great War began in 1914, the small British Expeditionary Force was beaten back fast and hard towards the coast by an immensely powerful and much greater German army.  The retreat became a rout and the Forêt de Mormal split the retreating army into two. Its woodland fringes became a bloody battlefield. Some regiments were ordered to protect the retreat in any way they could. Many men paid the price for this, while a very few, probably those familiar with forests from home, managed to hide in thickets or clamber up trees. They must have watched, unseen, with a combination of relief and terror, as the German army advanced past them.


These Allied soldiers became the concern of certain communities in the area of Northern France occupied for the duration. They managed to remain hidden for some time, fed and protected by local people (perhaps for example the grandparents of the two cheery hunters we encountered on our walk) until the weather turned colder and the leaves began to fall from the trees… but to know what happened next, you will need to read the book.


I was able to explore the Forêt de Mormal with my cousins Pippa and Roger Clegg, who chose the walk from a selection of leaflets offered by our helpful hosts the Mirapel family at the Auberge du Bellevue in Bavay. Locquignol was only a 20-minute drive away.



We placed a small poppy cross at the foot of one great beech tree adjacent to a very deep ditch which we had scrambled across. I wonder if any readers will ever spot it there, in the heart of the forest? I had not walked through this area before writing Major Tom’s War, but even so we all agreed it was like walking through the pages of the novel. This was particularly the case when we crossed the long, straight, Roman roads which criss-crossed the forest, but I cannot explain why without ruining the read.


We skirted the pretty village of Locquignol and enjoyed its quiet pasture edges.



This would have been a more ancient forest with older trees then. Most of the tree cover now dates back no more than a century, but it is still a timeless place, somewhere to walk slowly and wonder at small things.

I hope you have enjoyed this virtual walk – thanks for your company!


Engaging schools in Major Tom’s War

Great school, great pupils!

My ‘day job’ for many years has been in engagement of people and especially young people in all aspects of heritage: natural, historical and cultural. What a delight to be invited to Avoch Primary School on the Black Isle to talk about Major Tom’s War to the P5, P6 and P7 classes.

Tom’s real-life diary on which the novel is based – more of a scrapbook really!

Out of curiosity I asked around about what others spoke to school classes about. Rats, lice and latrines in the trenches was the general advice (thanks Jeremy Banning and others) and certainly all three went down well, but I was also able to talk about punishment and execution with some classes, explaining how hard it was to command a firing squad for example, and we discussed the concept of a self-inflicted wound – a ‘blighty’ – which Tom talks about too – and how losing a hand might be preferable to remaining there and fighting.

It was clear that the staff of Avoch Primary have worked hard with the pupils during the Armistice commemorations to get across the magnitude and awfulness of war.

It was good to de-bunk a few commonly-held myths.

A. Not everyone died (one in 10/11 or thereabouts were killed, which is bad enough, though many injuries were mental and invisible)

B. In the trenches there was no constant firing (there wasn’t enough ammunition to allow this and there were long, depressing spells of inactivity)

C. It was not constantly muddy (on the contrary, in summer it became hot, dry and dusty and water supplies were an issue)

D. Not all the people who fought against Germany in the war were from Britain. Tom for example fought alongside many Indian troops of many different faiths: Sikhs, Hindus and Muslims for example

The pupils asked great questions (including ‘did Tom your grandfather meet Adolf Hitler?’ – not quite the error it seems at first, as Corporal Adolf Schiklgruber, who would go on to become Adolf Hitler in the Second war, was an undistinguished corporal during the First World War – but as far as I know Tom never encountered him).

Probably the highlight activity was trying on my pair of Tom-era glasses. Looking through those was quite sobering for the pupils who tried them on.

Peeping through these thick lenses helped the children realise that Tom was just an ordinary man caught up in extraordinary circumstances

Major Tom’s War is NOT a children’s book, but various bits of it could be read aloud. Parents who are interested in acquiring a copy should have a handout about this (with a discount offered if I don’t have to post it to you!).

Well done to all the classes and staff concerned, thank you to Mrs Goldie for arranging it and let’s just hope that these fabulous children live their lives without ever knowing the kind of warfare Tom experienced in France.

Merry Christmas and a happy and above all peace-full 2019 to all.

WARNING – if you have read Major Tom’s War these images may make you cry. Gaston Derome’s family photographs circa 1902 – 1914

‘Look closely and as the children build their sandcastles, the battleships are massing on the horizon line…’

Madame Catherine Telle, Gaston’s grand-daughter (Catherine’s father was Alphonse Derome, Gaston’s second child and elder son) kindly allowed me to copy photographs from her family photograph albums on a recent visit to Bavay.

Gaston loved technology and clearly adored to take photographs. They show a privileged, wealthy and happy family at leisure – so poignant when, as readers of Major Tom’s War will know, fate has other plans in store for Gaston, Louise and their four children.


At heart the Derome family were farmers. Their agri-business, the Engrais Derome, was already seeing some success in the earliest years of the 20th century, but it was still rooted in the fertile family land in and around Bavay. This old lady (possibly Gaston’s mother) is feeding poultry.


Beautiful Louise Derome has had her first child, a little girl, Thérèse. Note the wallpaper, the bassinet with lace hangings, the quilt, the beautiful bed and the vase of flowers.


Gaston looks as thrilled as any father with his little firstborn. This would have been taken in the garden of their Rue des Juifs town house.


Gaston breaking up ground, perhaps in his vegetable patch, much to the delight of a group of chicks.


Louise and Thérèse enjoying a quiet moment on the daisy-studded lawn – possibly even a picnic in the woods.


Gaston on horseback. And the horse’s name was…


…unbelievably, Daisy. Why his horse A. has an English name and B. the same name as one of Tom’s horses history does not relate, but this is long before Tom and Gaston met.


Louise (or is it their young English friend Watsie, the future ceramicist Dorothy Watson?) with Thérèse and baby Alphonse. Could it have been Watsie who named the horse Daisy?


Rather a stilted family shot taken in Rue des Juifs – the wicker parasol over Madame Derome senior is rather splendid. Louise looks as though she is expecting again, probably her third child, Léon.


Business is booming and a huge new factory is being built. This is likely to be the building used as a billet by troops of both sides during the war, and where Tom spends the nights of 7/8/9 November 1918.


This photograph was taken near Volvic – was Louise perhaps taking the waters there after the birth of her third or fourth child?


Another good portrait of Léonie, right, but the identity of the other two family ladies is not known. No Louise, unless she was taking the photograph.



These photographs taken in the garden at Rue des Juifs show the younger children entertaining themselves but Thérèse is now clearly wearing black and the adults look sombre. Was this taken just after the funeral of Louise, who sadly died in childbirth?


The clouds of war are gathering on the horizon. There is a sense of the family pulling together to take their children for a healthy seaside break on a windy day just before the calamity unfolds. Alphonse has scrambled up the wall, Léon following suit.


The four children – Thérèse, another cousin, possibly little Marie-Félicie, Léon (on the sandcastle) and Alphonse face a rough incoming tide.

Beyond Gaston’s children and their cousins, battleships mass on the horizon.


The following week, the First World War will begin and their little lives will be changed forever.