Tuesday, 6 May 2014

Horse chestnuts and watercress

Not much time for a blog post today, so I thought I'd post some lovely piccies from one of my walks ....

This is my favourite horse chestnut tree, currently in full blossom and showing off in the sunshine!

It's in Capability Brown-designed landscaped grounds and is over 100 years old, so who knows perhaps even planted on the orders of the great designer himself :0)

And any idea what this below is ... somewhere to cool your pinkies when it's hot?  Something to do with fish farming?  Nope ... these are old watercress beds, built in the 1800s as part of the landscaped gardens to give a regular supply of watercress to the estate kitchens.  Watercress was highly prized for upper class dinner tables, especially in the early part of the 19th century before commercial production.  The beds are designed to allow a steady flow of fresh, clear, shallow water over a wide area, providing the ideal conditions for growing watercress.  The water supply comes from an underground spring.  This meant the water temperature remained stable throughout most of the year, allowing watercress to be grown earlier and later in the year than normal.

Watercress sandwich, anyone? :D

Friday, 18 April 2014

Free for one weekend only....

...two of my books :D

Midsummer Eve at Rookery End and The Cinderella Debutante are both free this weekend on Amazon.

So why not put your feet up and escape into a world of Regency rakes, rogues and romance - no Almack's vouchers, Vauxhall tokens, guineas, or payment of any kind required!!

Click on the book covers to follow the links and happy reading :)




Tuesday, 4 March 2014

Shrove Tuesday - pancakes and other crazy sports

Have you got your pancakes sorted?! :D

Today is Shrove Tuesday in the UK.  The last day before the start of Lent, Shrove Tuesday was named after the 'shriving' - confession and absolution - which was carried out on the day, and it was also an excuse for general feasting and merrymaking before the restricted diet, penance and self-denial of Lent.

The most famous custom for Shrove Tuesday is pancakes and the fun of flipping or tossing pancakes is mentioned as far back as in Panquils Palinodia of 1619:

It was the day whereon both rich and poor
Are chiefly feasted with the self same dish,
Where every paunch, till it can hold no more,
Is fritter filled, as well as heart can wish;
and every man and maid do take their turn,
and toss their pancakes up for fear they burn;
And all the kitchen doth with laughter sound,
To see the pancakes fall upon the ground.

Here's the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge trying out their pancake-flipping skills :D

It was considered bad luck not to serve up pancakes on Shrove Tuesday.  Before the Reformation, a midday bell called the faithful to be 'shriven' on Shrove Tuesday and the practice continued in many places with the bell often being referred to as the 'Pancake' bell and a signal for the pan to be put on the fire and schoolchildren and apprentices to stop work for the day.

There doesn't seem to be any symbolic reason connecting pancakes with the day before Lent so the practical reason that pancakes used up remaining milk, eggs and fat before the Lent fast makes sense!

There are still many Pancake races held in the UK today, notably at Olney in Buckinghamshire where for the last 568 years the women of the village have continued an annual tradition which, local folklore has it, started in 1445 when a woman panicked when she heard church bells ringing from her kitchen and, fearing she would be late for a Shriving service, she ran through the town arriving at the Church door in her apron and carrying her frying pan!

The 'pancake greaze' at Westminster School in London combines pancakes with some of the rougher sports that are customary on Shrove Tuesday.  The greaze, meaning scrum or crowd, has been held in the school hall on Shrove Tuesdays since 1753.  The head cook ceremoniously tosses a horsehair-reinforced pancake over a high bar, which was used in the 16th century to curtain off the Lower School. Members of the school fight for the pancake for one minute, watched over by the Dean of Westminster Abbey (as Chairman of the Governors), the Head Master, the rest of the school and distinguished or even occasionally Royal visitors. The pupil who gets the biggest piece is awarded a gold sovereign.

Several other events take place by tradition on Shrove Tuesday.  In the Alnwick Football Game, known as Scoring the Hales, the ball is brought from Alwick Castle in a procession headed by the Duke of Northumberland's piper and thrown up at 2pm.  The teams are now much smaller than the 150 a side that used to be common and to win, a team has to score three goals, or hales, through wooden goals that are 4'6" wide and decorated with greenery.

In Ashbourne, Derbyshire, the game takes place mainly in the town.  The teams can be of any size and are traditionally comprised of those born north of the River Henmore (Up-ards) and those born to the south (Down'ards).  It starts at 2pm and ends at 5pm and if a goal is scored, whoever scores it gets to keep the ball and a new ball is turned up.  The two goals are three miles apart (!) at Shurston Mill and Clifton Mill.

The 'football' game at Atherstone in Warwickshire also preserves many of the features of medieval Shrovetide games.  Reputedly played in an unbroken tradition dating back 800 years, it takes places in the town streets and there are no teams and no goals and virtually no rules!!  The purpose of the game is to get hold of the ball and to still be holding it when the game finishes.  The ball is much bigger than an ordinary football at 27" diameter and weighing four pounds.  It's made of leather and filled with water to stop it being kicked too far.  All the shopkeepers wisely board up their windows and doors before the game starts in Long Street, commencing at 2pm, finishing around 5pm.

There's more on 2014 Pancake Day events here :)

Happy Flipping!

image from wikimedia commons

Thursday, 27 February 2014

The first ever concert

Some weeks ago, I did a blog post as part of the My Writing Process blog tour and listed some of the sound track I'd been listening to while writing Christmas at Rakehell Manor.

As you can see it's an eclectic mix :D   Many writers need silence to work and I do too, sometimes, but I find music a good way of getting my creative muse going.

These days we're fortunate enough to have music of every sort available at the push of a button, the click of a mouse or better still, live at a concert or gig.  Public concerts have been around for a while of course but it might surprise you to know that the first ever  public concert took place in 1672.  I'd love to know if there was dancing in the aisles!

John Banister * see below for image credit
It happened one late December evening at a house in Whitefriars, London.  For the first time in London, and it is believed in the world, a public concert was given at which people paid at the door.  The Restoration of Charles II to the throne had seen a rise in enthusiasm for opera and a composer and violinist John Banister, a
protege of the King, began a series of organised concerts.

Banister charged the princely sum of one shilling for entry to a large room where the audience sat at tables, arranged as they would have been in an alehouse.   The musicians on the small stage, led by Banister, accepted requests for particular music and 'very good musick' was said to have been played during the next few years.  Public concerts and recitals rapidly gained further popularity with the opening of the new pleasure gardens in London.

When the pioneering Banister died in 1679, an unlikely figure emerged to carry on his work.  Thomas Britton
was a coalman in Clerkenwell - by day he walked the streets selling coal, by night he indulged his passion for music over a rented stable off St. John's Square.  For the next 36 years the concerts he staged there every Thursday night had a great influence on the spread of popular music.

Thomas Britton (Wikimedia Commons)
Britton was self taught and also built most of the musical instruments he and his fellow musicians used.  Initially he didn't charge for his concerts, asking only one penny for a cup of coffee.  Later he asked for a subscription of just ten shillings a year and by then some of London most famous musicians, including Handel, were climbing the stairs to perform at Britton's loft.

And, since I couldn't possibly end this blog post without some music *g*, here's my latest listen, a fabulous ear worm that makes me smile from the new album 'Man on the Rocks' by Mike Oldfield.  This track is called 'Sailing' and features great vocals by Luke Spiller from The Struts :)

* Image of John Banister copyright National Portrait Gallery, used under Creative Commons Licence.

Saturday, 8 February 2014

The Celestial Bed

In the late 19th century, a lavish beauty parlour was opened at Schomberg House, Pall Mall, London by former medical student Dr. James Graham.  A notorious quack and conman, Graham never completed his studies but he referred to himself as 'Doctor' anyway.  He became a popular figure and began practicing 'electric medicine' and, emboldened by an increasing flow of rich and successful clients, he opened the 'Temple of Health' in 1781. 

For those willing to pay the two guinea entrance fee, the Temple offered a variety of delights catering for the health of the body and the soul.  The opulent rooms housed the 'Elysium' (for soul-transporting experiences),  mud-baths ('All-cleaning, all-healing and all-invigorating), and a place to purchase 'Imperial Pills' (for decayed constitutions).  The most famous and most popular attraction was the 'The Grand Celestial Bed'.

The bed, described as a 'medico-electrical Apparatus' could be occupied for a night by childless couples for a large fee (£50 or about £3,500 in today's money).  Under a dome swirling with fragrant vapours and live doves, customers were surrounded by crystal pillars, with mirrors offering a view from every possible angle. The 12ft x 9ft bed delivered mild doses of “electrical fire” designed to promote “superior ecstasy” in the woman and thus guarantee conception.  The movements of the occupants of the bed set off music through organ pipes which sounded with increasing tempo as their encounter went on.   The words "Be fruitful,  Multiply and Replenish the Earth" were inscribed on the headboard.

The celestial bed was visited by a number of influential men and women of the day, including Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, actress Mary Robinson, the Prince of Wales and politician John Wilkes.  Many arrived at the Temple disguised with masks and veils.

Graham himself lectured from a celestial throne on transcendental experience but after several years although the Temple of Health was a success Graham still ended up deep in debt and was increasingly gripped by religious fervour, which led to mania.  Before he died, he had begun experimenting with fasting as a way of prolonging his life.  He was eventually committed to an asylum and died in Edinburgh in 1794.

Dr James Graham going along the North Bridge in a High Wind, caricature portrait from 1785 by John Kay (image from Wikimedia commons)

Monday, 23 December 2013

Christmas at Attingham Park

Christmas Tree in Entrance Hall
Attingham Park is worth visiting at any time, but at Christmas, visitors can step back in time and enjoy festivities from the mansion's 200 year history with the house decorated for Christmas through the ages, as the generations of Lord Berwicks living there might have known it.

I visited recently and took some photos.  The light levels inside the house are low and flash is not allowed in order to protect the delicate fabrics, furniture and paintings, but I managed to get a few shots which gives an idea of the wonderful atmosphere and displays :)

I also love that the old servants' hall is decorated for Christmas - and the way in which details were given for each servant was very ingenious!

All the photos are available to view on my Facebook author page here.

And this great video from Attingham TV shows some of the restoration work going on :)

A Merry Christmas and  Happy New Year !

Monday, 16 December 2013

My Writing Process

Today's post is part of a blog tour where writers answer four questions about their writing process. My fellow Regency author Beth Elliot posted her entry last week and sent me an invite (thank you Beth!).   So now it's my turn...

1)     What am I working on?

I'm currently finishing off a story called Christmas at Rakehell Manor

'Rakehell' started out as a novella but on the way it turned into a short novel so now I'm not sure what to label it!   I was hoping to publish before Christmas (that would make sense, right?!) but 2013 has been a difficult and stressful year and I haven't been able to write often.  Consequently, I'm waaaaay behind.  I'm keeping everything crossed for better times in 2014. 

The good news for those interested is that you won't have to wait until next Christmas to read Rakehell;  I'm sending it out into the world early next year.  I think the hero, Hugo, is worth waiting for and I’ve had heaps of fun throwing together this oh-so-masculine but conflicted man with my practical heroine, who disrupts his carefully planned Christmas  ;0)

The idea for Rakehell was sparked when a dear friend sent me details of a real house called Rake Manor which is tucked away in the English countryside. 

We laughed about it at the time and said it needed a story so it's going to get one.  Gilly, Christmas at Rakehell Manor is for you :)

2)     How does my work differ from others of its genre?

I try to write stories that are captivating, passionate, have a dash of humour and are worth re-reading.   I liken it to baking a cake - strive for an ideal blend of ingredients, cook carefully with attention to detail until romance peaks and a memorable result is achieved :D

When they buy a book, readers are investing not only their money but their precious time so I want them to feel satisfied, to experience that warm, fuzzy, emotional, happy-ever-after glow. The quality of what I produce matters a lot to me.

It's also important to get historical details right, as far as possible.  As a British author I'm writing about my history and heritage.  I feel obliged do it justice.  Of course the language and some other aspects need to be accessible to modern readers - they want romance not a dry history lesson - and all historical writing is interpretation anyway, but deviate too far and it turns into a contemporary romance with fancy dress.  And glaring anachronisms pull readers out of historical romance faster than you can say Jack Robinson ;0) *

(* According to Grose's Dictionary, published in 1785, Jack Robinson was an individual whose social visits were so short that he would be departing almost before his arrival was announced! )

 3)     Why do I write what I do? 

I write for people like me, who just need a little escape from the stresses of daily life.  

I'm a romantic at heart and love the magic of romance novels.  Historical romance, particularly that set in Georgian and Regency periods, is the genre I've always enjoyed most. It seems natural to write what I like reading. 

4)     How does your writing process work?

Ideas are never a problem - the difficult decision is usually which ones to develop further! I do a rough plan and character outlines before starting a new project.  I might research some details if I know they are going to be needed, but otherwise I look things up as I go along.  Over time I've built up a collection of reference material and background knowledge.  I find it impossible to plot a novel in fine detail before starting to write.  I need to jump into the room where the action is rather than standing outside and pressing my nose against the window pane.

Writing has to fit around everything else but that usually works out OK because I write best in late afternoon and evenings.  If I get chance to sit at my PC before then, I'll avoid the creative stuff and answer emails, update my blog and web site or waste time on Facebook instead ;0)

Then I read through what I have written previously and resist the urge to edit too much.  This is tough because I prefer to edit and add detail as I go, but it's not the best way of getting a book written.  When I start writing I hope to make it to the end of a scene or a suitable break point before finishing. I can touch-type so it's quicker for me to type than write longhand. I've learned not to beat myself up if I don't achieve my daily word count, given everything that's happened this year. 

Sometimes I listen to music while I'm writing.  Here's the very varied playlist for Rakehell in no particular orderSome of these have a connection to the plot and characters but some were simply right for the mood I was in, or trying to convey in a particular scene  :)

Truly, Madly, Deeply - Savage Garden
Fields of Gold - Sting
How Long Will I Love You - Ellie Goulding
Back In the Night - Dr. Feelgood
Bad Case of Loving You - Robert Palmer 
Sentinel - Mike Oldfield, Tubular Bells II
You're Right, I'm Left, She's Gone - Tom Jones and James Dean Bradfield
Breathless - Camel
Fluff - Black Sabbath
Better Days - Bruce Springsteen
Concerto Grosso in G minor Christmas Concerto Pastorale by Corelli

In Dulcio Jubilo - Mike Oldfield
Gaudete - Steeleye Span
Somewhere Only We Know - Keane, cover version by Lily Allen for John Lewis Christmas Advert 2013
Holding Out for Hero - Bonnie Tyler (watch from around 2 mins 40 secs  ;0) )

Thanks for stopping by and reading, and please feel free to comment!

Next week (on 23rd December) it's the turn of Georgia Hill 

Georgia writes contemporary rom-coms for Harper Impulse. She loves dogs, Belgian chocolate and Strictly Come Dancing. She lives in rural Herefordshire, in the UK, with her beloved spaniels and  husband (also beloved).