Previous editions of the Journal pages

A new year and a new beginning.

I’ve made the decision to develop a different format for my monthly Journal, changing to Taw River Dispatches instead. You will find what I have done writing-wise, or intend to do (events, next book etc,) on the home page under ‘Recent Posts', while here on these pages will be my thoughts on everyday life, relating to Devon and my village; maybe interspersed with some reminiscences of the past, or a few dreams for the future, but mainly just snippets of interesting things in general as observed by me from my cosy eighteenth-century farmhouse.

Covid 19, with all its variants from Alpha to Omicron, has brought many changes to many of us; from elbow bumps instead of handshakes to thinking about safe places to go or unsafe places to avoid. Omicron is the Greek for the letter ‘O’ – the ones in-between were insignificant variants of the virus, apart from two letters which were not used: Nu and Xi. Nu is too much like ‘new’ so was thought to be confusing, and Xi is some Chinese chap of importance, and thus undiplomatic. It seems that these viruses mutate, with the strongest being the most effective at surviving by spreading from new host to new host.

Which got me thinking… Viruses such as Influenza, SARS, HIV and now Covid 19, are living organisms. They are alien parasites, maybe not aliens from outer space (although for all we know they could be) but an invasive species bent on world domination – so I can’t help thinking: where is Dr Who when you need him/her?

The January short, dark days and cold winds are with us here in England. The prospect of snow and more heavy storms building over the Atlantic loom on the horizon. A time of year where it is easy to understand how the people of the far distant past must have lived, felt and believed as they huddled, wrapped in Sabretooth Tiger furs or deer hides, round a crackling hearth fire. Would the sun ever shine again? Would the trees come back to life? Here at my lovely old house, built circa 1769, what did the people who lived here think about during those long winter evenings spent in what is now our sitting room? Back then it was the kitchen/living room where the entire family spent most of their waking hours; cooking over the open fire, eating, talking, laughing, arguing.

There would have been a large table – probably oak – where food was prepared and eaten. Meal finished, the table would have been cleared for the Master of the House to sit in his special chair and update the farm accounts, for the Mistress to perhaps set out her sewing things. Maybe the children, ranged along the bench built into the wall beneath the window, were playing with wooden farm animals. The floor would have been stone-flagged with rag-rugs scattered around. (They would have moved on from floor rushes by the eighteenth century.) This was a fairly well-to-do household, not wealthy but not poor. The house was (is!) well built. Two- to three-foot thick stone walls. Huge A-frame beams holding up the roof – was it thatched back then, or did it have slate tiles like it does today? A narrow, steep, staircase up to the landing, and floors somewhat upsy-downsy, none of the floor is level upstairs; all the floorboards creak. There is no sneaking in at night; no burglar could get in without waking everyone. Even knowing where the creakiest floorboards are I can’t get to the bathroom and back at night in creakless silence.

I often wonder how many times the Mistress told her husband to ‘Take those muddy boots off’ as he came in from the farmyard. They would have had chickens, probably geese, cattle, perhaps pigs and goats. Horses certainly. I expect the menfolk would have walked up to the local pub most nights: The village’s Exeter Inn dates back to late Tudor times and was, then, on the main road from Barnstable to Exeter – hence the name. I assume this was the first ‘comfort break’ and change-of-horses stop. With the Master out of an evening, was the Mistress pleased that he was not under her feet?

The kitchen, the heart of the home, would have been warm and cosy in January. The blazing fire, the next day’s bread ready to go in the bread oven first thing in the morning. (The bread oven is still there, built into the wall adjoining the fireplace.) The copper kettle would be singing from its hook above the fire, candles burned atop the deep-set windowsill, lanterns hung from the beams casting shadows over walls, ceiling and floor.

This was a happy household. I felt it hug me that first time I walked into the old part. An aura of contented energy filled the place, welcoming, inviting, loving. That joyful sense of ‘coming home’. I knew in that instant that this was the house I wanted to buy and live in.

We moved in on January 18th, 2013 (in a snowstorm!) It took me a few years, however, to grow used to the fact that this was now my home – to shake off a feeling that the dream would end soon and I would soon have to leave. Then it struck me as why I felt this. I realised that I am only the caretaker. I don’t own the house, the House owns me. It belongs to all who used to live here and to all who will live here in the future. My family, living here now, are just passing tenants.

The laughter and the voices from the past linger as echoes in the beams and the stone walls. And yes, the house does have its ghosts; benign spirits who are our friends and who remain here because they love this place as much as we do.

I hope to stay too, when it’s my turn to Pass On. I have warned my daughter that if she doesn't look after my garden properly, I will be here to haunt her. I believe alien life is quite common in the universe, although intelligent life is less so.
- - Stephen Hawking
Trees. I love trees, especially MY trees. And yes, the my is deliberately an uppercase shout because the trees in my orchard, in my garden and in my fields are my trees. Here at Windfall Farm we have oaks, ashes, hornbeams, dogwoods, hazels, willows, two huge holly trees (one of which, I assume the female, is smothered in berries in early autumn), field maples, birch, elders, silver birch, rowans, an enormous bay tree (and I do mean enormous – 30 feet high or so.) Then there are the apple trees, the pears, the damsons and the cherry tree. Is our camelia a tree or a shrub? It is definitely tree sized. And there're a couple more trees that I don’t know the names of. Then there are the woods next door and the trees in the hedgerows along the lane. The trees along the part of the Taw Valley that I can see from the house: the trees of various farms, the trees growing beside the Taw River and the Tarka Line railway. Trees, trees, everywhere. And they are a real joy.

Last autumn was glorious for colour, especially of an evening when the sinking western sun lit up the valley like a theatre spotlight, turning the trees to a gold that shimmered into silver as the wind rustled through the leaves.

When storm Arwen swept through Devon during that November 2021 night we lost half of the yew tree in the front garden, which as it fell, brought down three of the dogwoods and a trellis of roses. An ancient hazel in the orchard and two buddleia bushes were also uprooted. Several more were down in the woods, although we haven’t been able to get there to properly investigate yet – too boggy underfoot. Not that there’s any urgency, for our strip of woodland is ‘wild’ land, overgrown and left to Nature to govern as best she sees fit. Our Exmoor ponies love it down there, their own special ‘hidey-hole’ where they shelter from the wind and rain – or the hot sun in summer. When we get hot sun. Or a summer come to that. We’ve a waterfall with about an eight-foot drop in our woods. I am proud to say that I climbed up it during the first summer that we were here. Alas my old arthritic knees couldn’t do it again now.

The trees we lost will be chopped up and recycled for next winter’s logs. On the plus side, the remaining half of the yew tree is healthy, the dogwoods needed pruning anyway and there are several baby buddleia trees growing.

In the autumn of 2020 we lost one of the damsons in the orchard, an old wizard of a tree, grey-bearded with lichen that covered boughs and branches which were gnarled like an old-man’s arthritic fingers. For several years I’d made rather splendid Damson Gin from the fruits of this old tree – the fruit that year was its undoing, for there was so much of it one bough split. We managed to harvest the damsons, but the tree itself was beyond saving. It is growing again though. Branches shooting out let right and centre from the still-living stump.

The living and dying of trees is all part of the natural cycle; some, like the oaks and yews, can live for years – centuries even. Others are comparative to Mayflies, seeding, growing, flourishing, dying in only a handful of years – a timespan that is but a day to the ancient old trees.

The Sequoia trees in California were fascinating. My good friend, Connie, took me to the Reserve to see them – even back then in the mid 2000s, California was suffering from drought. Everywhere in the Sequoia woods was tinder dry and crunched beneath your feet. The air smelled as if I was walking through a timber yard – that aroma of dry, dry wood. No moisture anywhere. One tree, rotted away inside, was so large Connie and I could easily stand inside it. The woods had an air of timeless ancientness. It was an eerie place, and I couldn’t initially figure out why.

Then it dawned on me. There was no feeling of the past, no spiritual feeling one gets when entering a church or castle or any old building. There were no ghosts anywhere. Probably because no one had ever died there because no one had ever lived there. The Native Americans from the past had dwelt a little further along the coast. I suppose, where the Sequoia trees grew there was little vegetation so no grazing animals, ergo nothing to hunt. But more than this there was no sense of time. Time stands still among the Sequoias. Time to these hundreds and hundreds of years-old trees is on a different scale to our sense of being. A second, a minute, an hour for us is, to these old, old trees, a decade. I got the impression that to them, the human visitors were rushing about as if in a vastly speeded-up film. While to us, the trees dwell in a slowest of slow-motion time span.

What disgruntles me about trees is their thoughtless destruction. Agreed, trees are a crop to be planted, grown and harvested for practical use. A crop like wheat or barley or turnips, the only difference being that trees take years – and years – to grow into maturity. But to cut glorious mature trees down by the dozen for the sake of it? In one specific instance the reason was to destroy a young oak ‘in case it fell down’. Apart from the fact that it’s unlikely a young oak will fall down anyway, (by young, I mean about 40 years old – a mere sprog) the only damage it would have caused was to block the lane. And if that happened it would not have taken long to clear it away. Fortunately, the homicide never happened and the tree is still there. Where it will remain for many more years, Nature willing.

Trees ‘talk’ to each other (apparently they can communicate via the underground network of fungi that spreads for miles and miles among the tree roots). The sap running up and down the inside of a trunk can, with the right equipment, be heard bubbling and cracking. Branches tap or bang against each other in the breeze – and the sound of a strong wind rushing through the canopy sounds like a train approaching, while a gentle sighing wind as it ripples through the leaves reminds me of the voice of the sea.

Trees give us timber, shade, shelter. They soak up water – much of the present flooding problems are because the trees have been uprooted and concrete laid where once there was soil. Trees absorb pollutants, act as windbreaks and noise barriers. They reflect heat upwards and cool the air. More than twenty species have medicinal uses – birch bark has antiseptic properties, the willow is a form of aspirin. The presence of trees can calm stress and reduce blood pressure. As they grow, trees absorb carbon dioxide, aiding the reduction of global warming.

Trees provide a habitat and food for insects, birds and animals. Old trunks with cracks and hollows give shelter to bats, beetles, woodpeckers, tawny owls. Berries and nuts provide food. A mature oak could sustain about five hundred different species – a micro-city of life.

But maybe, more important than any of that: trees are beautiful. You know me, I think there ought to be a big old tree right there. And let's give him a friend. Everybody needs a friend.
- - Bob Ross (TV The Joy Of Painting)
I’m not sure where that old saying about ‘March blows in like a lion and goes out like a lamb’ comes from, but obviously the God of Weather has either not heard it or is ignoring it because so far we’ve had several stormy gales, and all well before March. (And for the record, there are lots of lambs bouncing about in the fields as well.)

The first storm I experienced here in Devon was not that long after we’d moved in. Early hours of the morning. Still dark. The wind was sounding like an express train coming up from the fields, arching over the stables at the top of our lane then rushing down the garden and hitting the house. It woke me up. I lay here listening to the trees groaning, something flapping and banging – then the next wave hit the house with a resounding ‘thump’. I lay there wondering if we were safe. Would the chimneys fall down, the windows break...? Then I thought to myself, ‘Hang on, this house has been here since 1769, it ain’t goin’ nowhere!” Turned over and went back to sleep.

And that memory has got me thinking: how did the people who lived here back then, in the 18th century, feel about storms when they blew in from the south-west? And even more intriguing, who were they – and are any of them still here?

I don’t know who they were (alas no title deeds, and I haven’t managed to track down a census or church records... yet). But whoever built this house knew what he was doing and the right place to put it, because the walls are 2-3 feet thick, solid stone and tucked away in a dip of the hill so the wind goes over the top, and thunderstorms go round the edge of the valley – we’ve never had one go right over us. There’s a bore hole/well right next to the back door and what we think was a privy a little way up the garden.

As for who ‘they’ were, I’m fortunate to know a lovely lady who is a respected medium or spiritualist, and then, as it turns out, my daughter also has the gift of seeing the people of the past (and not just people!)

It was always a bit difficult taking my daughter to the re-enactment of the Battle of Hastings, because even the first time (when she was about 9 years old) she was pointing out dead horses and men. (Incidentally, every time we went she always saw the same dead horse in the same spot). Because of her, I also know the exact place where King Harold II was killed. And no, it isn’t where the English Heritage marker puts it. Poor daughter can’t go past the spot without turning chalk white and feeling sick. She has also seen what she thinks is a Sabre-Toothed Tiger down in our woods. She says she’d like to see a Woolly Mammoth – but she’d freak out if a dinosaur of any sort lumbered into her vision.

So who are our resident guests?

We have a maid, not sure if she is Milly or Molly, so I call her Milly-Molly. She’s dressed in late Georgian style (so late 1700s early 1800s) and wears a lace mobcap. Daughter has seen her in various places inside and outside the house – I’ve heard tutting when I take the laundry out to hang on the washing line. Apparently, I should not use the front door for this – laundry goes out via the back door. Daughter has also seen her dancing outside the front of the house. This was on the evening when the violinist who played at daughter and son-in-law’s wedding came to rehearse what tunes to use. I’m so thrilled that Milly-Molly and another young lady were enjoying and joining in with that happy occasion!

There’s the Master. A BIG man (think The Beast from the TV quiz show, The Chase). I do wonder how many times he banged his head on our low beams. My daughter has seen a young boy in our dining room, aged about 8 or 9. No sign of the Mistress though.

We have a dairyman, Jack, in the old dairy – he’s from the Edwardian period we think. Then there’s William who is the Georgian equivalent of the Amazon Delivery Man. He made his rounds by horse and cart starting from Bideford (or Barnstaple – we’re not sure which) both were very busy trade ports. Bideford, in fact, was the third-largest port in England for receiving tobacco from the Colonies. (The other two being Bristol and London). William (we think that is his name) wears a frilly cravat and a feathered three-corner hat. He enjoys watching our horses, especially liking the ‘big chestnut’ (our Lexie) and the Exmoors.

The other young lady (the one dancing with Milly-Molly) I think of as Jane. Now, this is probably fanciful on my part because apparently, she was an orphan who came to live with ‘our’ family – her only remaining kindred. (So I’m being influenced by Jane Eyre). However, our Jane was well cared for. But she was often sad, quiet and lonely because, despite being loved and welcomed she had lost her own mother and father (possibly in traumatic circumstances?) She spent a lot of time alone in her room, thinking, reading and we got the impression that all she wanted was to be loved – and noticed. (I also have the impression of her wearing grey and being like a little shy mouse.)

Her room felt lonely, too. So I made a point of going in there every morning and evening to say good morning and good night, and I put fresh flowers on the windowsill for her.

Within a few months, she’d gone, moved on, passed over. So yes, for all these years, all she wanted was to be loved and noticed...

I never pick the snowdrops or primroses but there are always a few that grow too near the edge of the lane and are in danger of being squished by traffic, so I do pick those. And for that first spring when we were here, back in 2013, I put them in a nice little vase in Jane’s room.

I think she liked that. The snowdrop and primrose our woodlands adorn, and violets bathe in the wet o’ the morn.
- - Robert Burns
Sunshine at last. Warmish so far, with a bit of a chill to the wind, but I’m not going to grumble about that.

Our new wooden gazebo is almost finished, so we’ll be able to enjoy morning coffee, mid-day lunch or an evening glass of something nice and cheery out in the garden soon. It has taken a while to build (delivered as a flat-pack kit) because the weather has been so inclement. I really couldn’t expect my husband (aged 88) to climb up ladders to finish fixing the shingles in a gale force wind, could I?

I suppose I shouldn’t expect him to climb up ladders anyway, but he’s fit and active, and enjoys ‘doing things’. (When he’s not watching ghastly westerns on TV that is.) Me, I’m 69 this month and feeling every year of it. Honestly? I don’t think much of this getting old lark. The stairs, I am sure were not so hard to climb when we first moved here, nor was the lane so steep.

I share my birthday with Franc (Taw River Dracarys), one of our foals ... well, he is four now and as enormous as a giraffe. It is unbelievable that when he was less than an hour old my son-in-law managed to pick him up! The pair of them are great mates – Franc loves playing Rugby Tackle style Scrum with Adam. And stealing hats. I just know that one day Kathy will be in a grand arena about to receive a prestigious trophy from a posh woman wearing a posh hat – and Franc will take a shine to the hat, especially if has artificial flowers and/or fruit decorating it! Could make an amusing front cover for Horse And Hound...

Franc’s Mum, Saffie, is now twenty-two and behaves like a two-year-old. My daughter Kathy has been doing some low-level eventing with her over the winter, both of them thoroughly enjoying themselves hurtling round a field jumping natural-style fences. Saffie has also been enjoying the pond in one of our fields. I say pond, it is actually a large hollow that fills with shallow water. Which, of course, is more akin to mud… We are thinking of renaming Saffie as The Mud Monster.

My very first horse was a grey, Rajah. I remember going to catch him one summer’s day, intending to enjoy a pleasant ride in Epping Forest. I walked all round the several-acre field looking for him. Walked round again, starting to get a little worried – where was he? I then realised that the very brown horse standing at the edge of the pond was he. Covered, from ear-tip to tail-end, in thick, oozing, dripping, smelly, mud.

I left him to it and went for a walk instead.

I had ridden Rajah from when I was about fourteen, bought him when I had just started work at South Chingford Public Library after leaving school at sixteen. (For horsey people he was a silver dun Connemara Cob cross, about 15.2 hands high.) I paid £1 for him. A token gesture in order to take over ownership from his previous owner who could no longer afford to keep him. He was a cantankerous old so-and-so, and my regret is that I did not know as much about horses then as I do now. Typical of many a rider I always thought he was the problem when it came to not wanting to do anything (go faster than a walk – or go down the drive, or jump a six-inch high log.) I now know that the fault was all mine. I should have ridden better, with more empathy and listened to what he was trying to tell me.

*Laugh* All the horses we have now seem to tell me is: 'I want more polo mints/carrots/liquorice!'

For those of you who are reading (and I hope enjoying) my new Cosy Mystery Jan Christopher series, you will come across Rajah in the first tale (A Mirror Murder) and I expect that mud anecdote will turn up in a future Murder Mystery of the series. A politician must have some scruples, a certain decency; he cannot smear himself in the mud for the sake of a high ideal.
- - Boris Yeltsin
Having reached the ripe old age of sixty-nine (seventy next year! Gulp!) I was pondering, the other day, about the past. My past, that is. Rather disgruntlingly I am now classed as ‘historical’ because many of the sites that review historical fiction have a ‘the setting must be more than fifty years ago.’ Hrrrmph – and other such testy noises.

So, do memories count as historical research? For my recently new venture into writing cosy mysteries set in the 1970s the answer is ‘definitely yes’, although as I have discovered during writing the first two books (the third is on its way) many memories play you false.

This has always been a problem for witnesses to historical events, or crime, because no one has an accurate memory. Ask a group of people to describe a scene they witnessed or a briefly glimpsed ne’er-do-well, each person will say something different. Which, of course, us mystery/crime writers use to our full advantage!

It is, however, somewhat disconcerting when things you want to remember stay obstinately unremembered. I’m of an age now when half-way up the stairs I’ve forgotten what I was going up for. Peoples’ names – no idea who they are. Embarrassing when you’ve been talking to someone for over half-an-hour, no idea of their name yet you’ve known the person for yonks! Mind you, I have an excuse now because my wonky sight means I can’t always see faces clearly.

I have memories of things I’d rather forget, and memories that are cherished: most notably among the latter, the birth of my beautiful daughter. That was forty years ago this May. With, I’m glad to say, many, many, many happy and proud memories of her in between then and now! I can honestly say, I don’t know what I would do without her.

My earliest memory is waking up one Christmas morning. I must have been three, because the memory is of a bedroom in Byron Road (number 47?), Walthamstow, where we lived before moving to Chingford when I was four. I clearly recall a murky dawn creeping through the window, and wriggling down the bed to feel a heavy pillow case down by my feet. Several Christmas memories are of relatives coming to stay – us kids slept on camp beds on the floor. I had a set of plastic farm animals one year, I liked the collie dog best. I called him Tempo because that was the brand name on the box.

Memories of taking a pull-along rubber horse everywhere I went. She was called Ginger (after Black Beauty) although I seem to think she was a bay colour. Broke my heart when her wheels finally came off. Then there was Star, a china Alsatian dog. I had him for years. Oh and all the Beatles’ posters on my bedroom wall! How on earth did I sleep at night beneath their gaze? For the record, most of them were of George.

A holiday memory has stayed with me for many years – another of those that are tantalising because I don’t know the details behind them, but events have turned full circle. No idea how old I was – Six? We were on holiday in Devon. Yes, Devon – but I have no idea where in Devon. A town, for we were staying in a B & B above (or next door to?) a corner sweetshop. Every day my sister and I would go into the shop to buy sweets, and I remember collecting little plastic coaches that were filled with sweeties. I assume the coaches must have had horses, hence the fascination. I can recall stairs and lovely breakfasts... Then we changed location. Down into Cornwall, by the coast. Again, no idea where. It was a holiday camp next to sand dunes. We had a chalet. My sister took me down to the beach (I only remember the dunes) and it suddenly poured. We got soaked. Back at the chalet we were put to bed – and then... TRAGEDY! Where was Primrose Bunny? My cuddly rabbit. Dad had brought her back from Germany after one of his training weeks in the Royal Marine Reserve. (My sister had a Beswick china horse, but she is six years older than me, so a furry toy bunny would be much better for a five-year old!)

So, Cornwall 1959. Cold, wet, miserable and No Bunny! Dad had to drive all the way back to Devon to retrieve her. Add to that, the holiday camp was awful. Everything was cheap plastic, not very clean and tidy and every meal was fish and chips. I remember Dad getting cross and asking for something different to eat. I guess he was terribly disappointed, not helped by that first week in Devon being glorious – and having to drive miles to fetch Bunny.

I wonder where the town and the B & B in Devon was? It would be lovely to discover that it was South Molton, just seven or so miles from where I live now.

Bunny? Oh no, she is not a memory, I still have her. Like me, somewhat threadbare but she’s up in my bedroom, sitting alongside a few other treasured treasures.

Stay Safe. We all have our time machines. Some take us back, they're called memories. Some take us forward, they're called dreams.
- - Jeremy Irons, actor
These last three months I have attended three conferences. All of them crime-writing related. I am going to be honest. I didn’t enjoy two of them very much. MysteryFest in Portsmouth was good fun, my thanks to Carol Westron for organising the event, and to Portsmouth Library for hosting it.

I do rather miss the gatherings of my established genre of Historical Fiction writers, probably because I know most of them and they know me. The Crime Writers are (mostly) new to me, but having ventured into the world of Cosy Crime (that’s cozy if you are US) I thought I ought to be brave and venture out into this different world.

The first thing that struck me was that there is a higher proportion of male writers in the crime genre. More women in the Historical and Romance. The second thing: Historical and Romance writers seem more willing to chat about everything to ‘unknowns’. Apart from the few people I did know, I had very few conversations – or even brief ‘hellos’ from the crime writers. Which is such a shame as I can chat for England if given the opportunity. A couple of them, sad to say, totally blanked me (on more than one occasion). Even in the confine of the hotel lift. Which is outright rudeness, and no, I won’t be reading their books.

So, I do confess to being a tad disgruntled. I am new to crime and my two offerings so far – A Mirror Murder and A Mystery of Murder – are only short 50k word novellas, designed for quick-read entertainment. They are not in-depth psychological thrillers or massive police procedure tomes. Think ‘Murder She Wrote’ or ‘Death In Paradise’ as opposed to ‘Morse, ’Line Of Duty’ or ‘Lewis’, but, I am not new to writing. I’ve been around for a lot longer than some of these people. I was first accepted by William Heineman (Now part of Random House UK) in April 1993, and I’d had a children’s book – Come And Tell Me – published long before that. (That book was taken as the official safety book by the UK Home Office for ten years, but is now out of print and only available second-hand.) So yes, a dent to my ego of course, but I’m really not bothered by that. What is irritating is the lack of respect for other authors, be we long-established or new debuts. Be we traditional mainstream published or go-it-alone self-published. Rudeness to others who are in the same line of work because of your own perception of self-importance is not acceptable under any circumstances. These ‘me, me, me’ people are a pain in the derrière.

You have two ears and one mouth, so should listen twice as much as you talk’ is a very good and very wise saying. It is polite to listen. Real friends listen. For authors, you are more likely to sell your books if you listen to others about their books. (But those others mustn’t over-egg their puddings!)

To be fair, however, the main reason I didn’t enjoy myself was because of my own lack of self-confidence. Getting around when you can’t see clearly is not easy. Talking to people you can’t see isn’t easy. Finding things you’ve put down in your hotel room and now can’t see the darn things isn’t easy!

Two of the hotels, despite supposedly being somewhat posh, didn’t come up to standard foodwise in my opinion. (Our local pub, The Exeter Inn is far better!) So I guess the reality for all this is… I was disappointed because I was hoping to make some new friends and it didn’t happen. Which is probably all the more disappointing because of the last two years of being in and out of lockdown and being wary of going out and meeting people. To meet up with real people, not Zoom faces, was supposed to be a treat. Perhaps though, the delegates were too occupied with meeting up with their old friends? Which I suppose is fair enough.

I suppose.

On the plus side (and to balance the whinging!) my thanks to these lovely peeps from CrimeFest, Bristol: Alison Morton for being my ‘carer’, and a warm plug for writers Jeff Dowson, Mark Ellis, Caroline Goldsworthy, Vaseem Khan, David Penny, Leigh Russell and A A Abbott.

You see, if you’re nice to others, others respond by being nice back, or in the case of authors, by promoting your books and your websites!

Stay Safe. You have two ears and one mouth, so should listen twice as much as you talk.
Summer finally seems to have come, although it has also brought us an unwelcome dose of Covid 19. Fortunately, only mildly, just the ‘feel a bit tired’ and ‘keep our distance from others’ variety. We’ve all had our jabs, so that has helped, and because the weather has been lovely we’ve been outdoors a lot. Breakfast and lunch in ‘The Go Outside’, which is what I’ve named our permanent fixture wooden gazebo.

We have had rain, one moment pouring with the accoutrement of the occasional rumble of thunder, then bright sun and a clear sky, with some highly spectacular golden sunsets to follow in the evenings. Not the heatwave experienced by some parts of England though. (And I believe France?) We’ve had a rather persistent, somewhat chill, easterly wind.

I’ve managed to get out into the garden on several occasions. I do wish that the weeds would wilt from gasping for water when it’s hot as much as the other flowers do! Our poppies haven’t done too well this year; too much wind and rain for their delicate petals. Teazels growing all over the place, that will please the birds come the autumn for the finches love the seeds. And the ferns have grown enormous. Did you know that ferns date direct back to the period when dinosaurs walked the Earth? And for lovers of Custard Cream biscuits, the pattern on them is a stylised depiction of ferns ‘unrolling’. This pattern dates from Victorian times when ‘fern collection’ was a bit of a mania, especially among women. A ‘robust’ hobby that they could pursue without losing any femininity.

And what ate my sunflowers? Slugs I expect. Every one of my seedlings chomped to bare stalks. Grrr.

The roses out in the orchard are doing well, a huge hedge of pinky/purple flowers – sorry, no idea what ‘breed’ they are. Then a lovely bush of roses by the veranda fence, and the dogroses we planted last year to thicken out the hedge lower down the orchard boundary seem to have taken.

The grass is growing well up in top field too – it’ll soon by time for haymaking, we just need a guarantee of at least four- or five-days sunshine to cut, turn, bale and bring it in.

Our two cats like the sunshine. Mab stretches out on my bed in full sun while Sybil curls in her basket on the windowsill in my study. She likes the fact that the doors are open so that she can come and go at her leisure. Mind, there is a perfectly adequate cat flap, which she conveniently forgets about.

Mab has her own two entrances: the bathroom window, which therefore has to stay open all year round, and my bedroom window. Which I don’t mind being open when it isn’t cold, but there are limits.

I explained why Mab users the upstairs windows in my recent newsletter. What? You’re not subscribed to receive it? (Tut, tut!) Never mind, I keep a copy. You can sign up for next month’s missive here, if you want to.

Have you noticed that a new image has been added to the Gallery on my website? Click here to have a look. It’s a rather stunning photograph of Franc (registered name, Taw River Dracarys). He is now four years old and seventeen hands. He is, at the moment though, still a ‘horse of little brain’. Dipstick would be a better nickname. Although to be fair, it has only taken him a week to work out that he can walk in a circle on the lunge line, and that if he picks his feet up, he can walk over those bloomin’ poles that someone has carelessly left in the middle of the sand school.

I’m hoping that next month I'll be able to share the good news that Voyage Six of the Sea Witch series, Gallows Wake, is finally written and has gone off to my editor.

I would have finished by now, but I’ve had to stop to do some additional research: where was the Cornwall gaol in the early 1700s? (Answer: Launceston [say it Lahnst’n]) What were the dangers of sailing too close to the Isles of Scilly? Quite a few by the sound of it, but you’ll have to read the book to find out what they were - or I might use the information in a future newsletter.

Stay Safe. Raindrops on roses, and whiskers on kittens…
I do sometimes wonder if our Met Office uses a crystal ball to predict the weather, rather than scientific technology. They were right about the recent heatwave here in the UK, but only partially. We didn’t get it here in North Devon. It was hot, but not unbearably, but then because we live on the side of a hill we do get the wind wafting in off the river, so instead of oven-baked heat we had an almost constant gentle breeze. Add to that we can have all our windows and doors open back and front, in addition to a solid stone-built house… the result, lovely and cool.

We did get the hay in: ‘make hay while the sun shines.’ 390 bales cut, turned, baled and brought in to be stacked in the dairy and the hayloft.

The bees, owned by South Molton’s Quince Honey Farm and lodged in our top field have been busy making honey – we get so many free jars per hive in exchange for letting them ‘graze’. And Franc, now four years old but as gangly-legged as ever has been in the wars – again.

He managed to get himself stuck in the fence. Fortunately not a barbed wire fence, but a wire one. All the same, thank goodness no tendons or anything severed, but yet again several weeks of box-rest in the stable. He is on the mend now, having been allowed out to wander round the stable yard. He managed to open Lexie’s stable door, went in, pulled down all the rugs hanging along the wall, piled them up in the middle of the stable and settled down on top of them for a good kip. Which meant all the rugs have had to be cleaned.

The yard was also not a good thing as far as my garden on the other side of the fence was concerned. Because he is so big he could reach over the fence. To eat ALL my raspberries. Bushes and all. So that’s no soft fruit for me to enter into the annual Village Flower and Produce Show.

Sadly, I haven’t many flowers either, as although we haven’t had the heatwave, we’ve not had much rain either, so very little – apart from weeds – has grown. The geraniums are doing well, so I’ll be entering them into various classes.

Geraniums get a mention in my next book: YES I have actually finished Voyage Six of the Sea Witch Series. Gallows Wake is finally written! All I need do now is smarten it up and send it off to my editor and my army of Beta Readers. Then wait for the feedback with tightly crossed fingers.

Of course, I think it is super … but will my readers agree?

Might I ask a favour? Please, if you have a spare moment, and you haven’t already done so, could you leave a comment or two (or more) for my books on Amazon? Amazon is a mystery unto itself and as I write this only two of my more obscure books are ‘headlining’ as the main banner on my Amazon Author Page. I cannot figure out why this is the case, as I know these are not selling as well as my newer books – one (Come And Tell Me) is many years out of print and only available second-hand, so how it can be doing better than my cosy mysteries or the others I cannot fathom. I’m hoping that maybe activity from other readers might sort out this annoying anomaly. So please leave some comments – or better still, purchase any of the books you do not already have. I would be so grateful.

I also have a new hobby. When I was nine years old (sixty years ago) I desperately wanted to learn to play the piano. My mum wouldn’t let me have one, so I soon gave up the few lessons I had at school. (It isn’t easy learning to do something if you have no opportunity for regular practice.) A few weeks ago someone local was looking for a home for their upright piano. Dare I? Well, I did dare – I said I’d have it. It just about fits in our front room and it is beautiful.

I can remember how to play the scales, can, sort of, remember musical notes, but my wonky sight makes it impossible to read sheet music. Never fear! There are lots of videos on You Tube about playing the piano by using c, d, e, f, g, a, b instead.... so I write them out in large black pen and try my best to conjure a recognisable tune.

I’ve sort of mastered Leonard Cohen’s "Hallelujah" and Simon and Garfunkel’s "The Sound of Silence" – although I would recommend the version by Disturbed as it is extremely powerful. I have also learnt a little of the Tottenham Hotspur theme "When the Saints", especially for my son-in-law.

Maybe by next month I might even figure out how to use the left hand as well!

Stay Safe. First you're an unknown, you then write your first book and move up to instant obscurity.
‘Water, water nowhere with not a drop to drink.’ Well, not quite that bad, but not far from it! We have our own water supply here at home – and it’s low. Very low. The well (it’s a spring really, but ‘well’ sounds more romantic) did drop below the pump that pumps it through the filter and into the house. Which meant no water until the level rose again. If I do a laundry wash then we don’t have a shower that day. Frugal is the key word. The reason being, when it's hot horses and animals drink a lot and as the water comes off the same supply, the animals get priority, not us humans.

To this end we have had a new bore hole drilled up in the fields, so a separate supply for The Beasts. We found a suitable company to do the work. First stage: Find where the water is.

Out came the Dowsing rods. Now, you might laugh, but they really do work! The man walked about the field for a bit, found the place he wanted and said ‘that’ll do’. A couple of days later, he arrived back with his equipment and started drilling. 130 feet down he discovered a huge underground lake, which now has a small blue pipe going down to it. As soon as we can get everything fitted up, the addition of a pump and a generator to run it, we shouldn’t have a further water problem.

I suppose you could say that Dowsing is just a lucky guess, or maybe skill at reading the landscape – this ‘lake’ is beneath our hedgerow where a particularly magnificent holly hedge grows, along with several trees. But, do these trees have roots that go down 130 feet to the water source? I doubt it. Either way, whether it was skill or ‘magic’ the man was spot on regarding where the water is!

Meanwhile, it's washing up the dishes in an inch or so of water, run around the shower within the couple of permitted drips and drink gin instead of water.

Talking of gin… Annie Whitehead, an author friend, came to stay for a couple of days. We had a fabulous time! We sat under my new wooden gazebo chatting about this that and everything, but mostly about books and writing. Having polished off the white wine on the first evening, we sampled the bubbly my dear Village friends, Heather and Tim, brought down to share with us on the Tuesday afternoon, then Annie and I turned to the gin in the evening. Wednesday meant more chat, where, together, we sorted out the middle bit of Annie’s next novel and then went on to sort the world out.

Evening saw us up at the local pub, The Exeter Inn, partaking of a rather delicious meal and enjoying excellent company. (Apart from the new ghost my daughter found. A teenage lad of, we reckon, Edwardian farming stock. He was parading around, being a general pain in the backside to everyone. Everyone in HIS time, that is. Kathy was the only one who could see him.)

It was so lovely to have Annie here.

Writing, for authors who devote all their time to it, is a compulsive occupation. Most of us do not do it for the money, (what money?) we write because we have a story in our heads that has to be told and shared. Or perhaps I should say, the characters are in our heads demanding to have their story told and shared. They step into our lives and refuse to budge until we write down their story. (I’ve just heard a scathing voice in my mind: ‘I’d be quite happy to do it myself, if I could.’) The voice was very clearly Captain Acorne’s. My other present main character, Jan Christopher, is far too polite to rudely interrupt me.

No good saying that our characters are figments of our imagination – characters become real. Very real. And they have a wonderful capability to nag and nag until you write what they want you to write. They also have a propensity to disappear at inappropriate moments. Like when you haven’t a clue what to write for the next chapter, or when they’ve got themselves into a pickle and leave you to get them out of it.

Such was the case with Annie’s next novel. She had her plot and her characters, knew where they were at the start of the book, and where they had to be at the end of it – but how to get them through the middle bit? When writing is solitary it is hard to get to where you know you want to be. When sitting relaxing with a glass or two of something nice and discussing the idea with another skilled and successful author (I mean Annie, not myself!) the ideas flow. Between us we came up with some good ideas. Now all Annie has to do is write like mad and get the book finished.

I’ll let you know when it is published.

My own Gallows Wake, the Sixth Sea Witch Voyage, will, I hope, be released some time this month – might I suggest you sign up for my Newsletter (click the envelope icon, bottom left) as I will be announcing the publication date to my subscribers first.

Super proud of my daughter Kathy who won Gold for best rider in the 90cm classes at Cricklands Showjumping Arena, Wales, riding Lexie (Shingle Hall Casino). Especially proud as these last couple of years Kathy has battled against losing her confidence with Lexie after a couple of nasty falls. Lockdown and not being able to get out to compete didn't help, but Kathy was determined to get over the irrational fear (she was fine jumping our other horse, Saffie!)

The weekend of 19th-21st August 2022 saw Kathy back on top being placed in her first few classes, then 2nd and 1st - with the result of highest gained points and GOLD accolade. There are video clips on my Facebook page.

Showjumping can be a dangerous sport, and coming off a 17 hand horse is no joke. Proud of you Kathy. Well done!

Stay Safe. Of all possessions a true friend is the most precious.
September was a sad month, with news that still seems unreal, although it was to be expected. We lost our beloved Queen Elizabeth II. She was 96 years old, but I cannot believe that she has gone.

As a personal sadness I never actually met her, although I did see her when she was in her car, passing under Admiralty Arch in London. My mother and father did have the honour of attending one of the Queen’s Garden Parties, and they did see her (at a distance), but were not introduced.

I have to be content with preening that my neighbour did meet her, even had luncheon with her, although as this is not my story to tell, I’m not sure that I am at liberty to tell it – you'll just have to wonder! I feel a bit like I'm in the old song that I think comes from around the 1920s: "I danced with a boy, who’d danced with a girl, who’d danced with the Prince of Wales."

So, my version would be: "I know a chap, who has dined with the Queen, and I’ve sat and dined with him!"

I’ve had a few tears at various points during the mourning period for our Queen, perhaps silly things that triggered a tightening of the throat and tears to fall: the first announcement on BBC TV News, the grave dignity of King Charles III at various times when you could see the tears in his eyes. Watching live TV and seeing some of the expressions on peoples’ faces as they filed solemnly past the coffin as it lay in state in Westminster Hall. The image of two corgis lying waiting, in vain, for their mistress to come home. The black Fell pony, Emma, waiting on the grass beside the Long Walk at Windsor Castle, waiting for that final cortege to pass by... The lone piper playing a lament. In particular, as one of the funeral processions the massed band of pipers playing the Skye Boat Song, one of my favourite tunes. (I’m proud to say I can make a passable rendition of it on my piano.)

There have been a few anti-monarchy comments posted on Social Media. Yes, everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but whilst the majority of the UK (and beyond!) was so obviously mourning, out of decency and respect, to speak of such during a period of grief is not the right time or place. Not just out of respect for us, the ordinary people, but as respect for a family who has lost a mother, grandmother and great-grandmother. I deleted a couple of ‘friends’ on Facebook and Twitter. Sorry, but I do not tolerate discourtesy, no matter how much ‘right’ you have to say it.

I do not, usually, make any religious or political comments in public, but I was, in particular, furious with one chap interviewed on TV who was complaining about the Royal Family and bemoaning that they should go. For one – what do we have instead? An elected President? Someone like Trump? No thanks. For two: this chap was an immigrant. He chose to come to England to live here, escaping the terror and violence of his own country of birth. Sorry mate, if you don’t like our way then don’t come here.

Her Majesty seemed so bright and chipper just two days previously, which makes her sudden passing all the harder. It seems likely, now in hindsight, that she was a lot more poorly than anyone outside of her family or household realised.

I personally think that Charles will make a very good King (even if saying ‘King’ not ‘Queen’ is going to take a bit of getting used to.) He is a good man, who passionately and genuinely cares about people and the planet. I wish him, and the Queen Consort, Camilla, well.

May God bless you ma’am. May you rest alongside your beloved husband, Philip, in peace.

God Save The King.

I did not do much marketing online during the ten days of mourning, my heart was not really in it, but I did have the exciting news that When The Mermaid Sings was a finalist in the Coffee Pot Book Club Annual Awards. I had to wait a few days to find out whether I got further than ‘finalist’ and was delighted to discover that the book was awarded BRONZE in the ‘supernatural’ category.

"That’ll Do", as they say in Yorkshire. For more details of Mermaid click here.

Also, Gallows Wake, the Sixth Sea Witch Voyage, is now available in paperback and e-book. Click here to obtain either version (or both!) on Amazon.

Finally, might I suggest that you sign up for my newsletter to keep updated with any new news? I'm not sure that I deserve this award, but I have arthritis and I KNOW I don't deserve that!
We have just had the season of Three Prime Ministers here in the UK. I just hope that by the time this goes live on my website, we’re not expecting to have a fourth person at Number 10.

I came up with three alternatives of candidates who had already proved themselves as a suitable P.M., suggestions which, sadly, were not taken up by Parliament:

1) David – Prime Minister. This is actor Hugh Grant in ‘Love Actually’, but he was pretty good as P.M … even singing Christmas carols to a few potential election voters.

2) Harriett Jones, Prime Minister. Played by that wonderful actress Penelope Wilton. I do concede that it was mainly Dr Who who got the UK out of difficulty each time, but until the 2005 episode, ‘The Christmas Invasion’, when Harriett made a big blunder (don’t they all in the end?) she was pretty steadfast. Maybe a few Downing Street aides ought to take note of what the Doctor said, though. It only takes SIX words to unseat a Prime Minister: "Don’t you think she/he looks tired?"

3) A third candidate would be the Doctor him/herself. But I guess he/she’s too busy. Maybe instead, someone would just Regenerate each P.M each time? This would save an awful lot of mucking about with these repetitive-no-one-is-really-interested elections…

I’ve more or less always been a ‘Doctor Who’ fan, right from the start when avid viewers hid behind the sofa to watch William Hartnell & co. I wasn’t so keen on Jon Pertwee or Sylvester McCoy. I loved Tom Baker (I even had a long Dr Who scarf that I knitted.) The middle years were a bit iffy, then David Tennant took over – and wow, wow, wow. Brilliant acting, super storylines … and now, for 2023 He’s Back! (Insert here: squeals of delight, happy dancing etc.)

One of the co-stars in Tennant’s series was dear old Bernard Cribbins. What a lovely man he was, his recent death was so sad. I remember him, of course, as the voice of ‘The Wombles’, and reading numerous stories on BBC TV’s 'Jackanory', but he’ll always be in my heart as Mr Perks from the 1970 version of ‘The Railway Children’ and his hilarious versions of 'Digging A Hole' and 'Right Said Fred' ... both of which I often ‘sing’ when occasion arises. (One was when daughter and son-in-law were delivering my piano!) That tear-jerker of a scene in 'The Railway Children' when Roberta is at Oakworth Station... I still get choked up at this scene (yes even after all these years! "Daddy! It’s my Daddy!") And the other highlight of the film? Well, given that I absolutely love this locomotive, the scene where the Scots Flyer rushes through the station. I grin at that every time!

Another favourite nostalgia movie? 'Swallows and Amazons' – memories of our real Swallows and Amazons holidays on the shore of Lake Coniston. In the adult category of my favourites, though: 'Last of the Mohicans' and 'Master and Commander'. I can happily watch either over and over. (And yes I still cry at various points in both of them.)

I suppose that is the real trick of any novel. For an author to be able to create enough emotion for a reader to reach for the box of tissues… I achieved it for a few readers in my latest, Gallows Wake. One scene involving Jesamiah and his famous blue ribbons … but no spoilers, you’ll have to read the book.

I’ve enjoyed having a couple of dear friends to stay recently, author Annie Whitehead for one. We sat outside under the gazebo for most of the time discussing ideas for Annie’s next book. Then my mate Mal spent a few days with us – highlights of the week were TWO visits to our local pub, the Exeter Inn. Welcoming landlord, excellent cuisine, and rather stuffed bellies!

Our natural visitors have now left their maternity wing for winter quarters – the Pipistrelle bats which give birth to and raise their young beneath the eaves of the flat part of our house roof. The difficulty with the bats is when they are very tiny they tend to fall down the chimney recess and end up in our sitting room floor. We spread a sheet over the ingle nook so that they fall on that where we can see them. The rescue routine then consists of daughter Kathy climbing through the small upstairs landing window, up over the flat roof and leaning down to pop the babies – often the size of a thumbnail – back into their roost.

We’re done for the bat season this year, though. Hopefully the babies all 'made it' and enjoyed being spooky over Halloween! And hopefully the same bats will be back next year. I wonder if the same Prime Minister will be in Downing Street come next summer?

Finally, might I suggest that you sign up for my newsletter to keep updated with any new news and to enjoy my various ‘Life In Devon’ tales. In essence, bats are just Gothic sparrows.
I worry. I suppose it’s a mum’s lot to worry about ‘the kids’ (or in my case just the one daughter and one son-in-law) but I find myself worrying about silly things, usually during the very early hours of the morning when some unusual noise has woken me up and I can’t get back to sleep.

I worry about the geraniums which we still haven’t managed to put up in the frost-free greenhouse because husband hasn’t been too well (another worry) and my arthritic knees don’t work well enough to carry heavy pots. (No, I don’t worry about my knees – no point, can’t do anything about them. Gin helps! *laugh*)

I worry about our house water source, The Well… a few months back it was close to running dry, now it's running everywhere as it overflows. (Okay, it actually runs into the overflow drain, but I still worry about the drain…)

I worry about the ponies being out in the cold and wet. Oh come on Helen – they are Exmoor ponies with a double layer thick, thick coat. The ponies up on the Moor don’t have stables or extra hay and yummy feed to enjoy… so I stop worrying about our ponies and worry about the wild ones instead.

I’m worried about the Avian Bird Flu which is plaguing Britain as disastrously as Covid did – and yes, the hens and ducks and geese are in 'Lockdown' in the orchard. Will they be all right, I worry.

Then I lay there worrying about what noise was it that woke me up? Ah, a couple of owls outside, having a disagreement. New worry. Will the disagreement get out of hand? Will there be a pile of feathers in the garden come morning? (There never is.)

There are looming deadlines to worry about, scenes that won’t work to worry about, characters that wander off and don’t return to worry about. Editing to worry about. Marketing to worry about.

Christmas shopping to worry about – no idea what to get for loved ones. (Worry. Do they know what to get me? No one has asked…)

Do we have turkey this year for Christmas dinner, or a nice joint of locally raised Ruby Red beef instead? (I’m not worrying about Brussel Sprouts for Christmas dinner – can’t stand them!)

I worry about dear friends who are going through a rough patch or one way or another, under the weather. I worry about the weather. All silly things to worry about I guess, but then if I wasn’t worrying about the silly things I’d be worrying about the important things -and they’re even more worrying!

So I think I will concentrate on the really BIG issue that I worry about and have to ponder on. Our village pub does absolutely fantastic Sunday lunches. We treat ourselves once a month. So my regular contemplative worry: do I have the roast pork with the out-of-this-world crackling, or shall I be different for a change and have the roast beef? And pudding: the cheesecake, the sticky toffee pudding or the lemon tart?

Oh worry, worry, worry – decisions, decisions, decisions!

And now a new worry. I’m trying to learn a few Christmas carols on my piano. Does anyone know a carol that can be played with two fingers and doesn’t matter if the notes end up in the wrong order?

I will hasten to add that I can now play the Skye Boat Song, Moon River, Jerusalem and the Tottenham Hotspur theme sort of okay with one hand. I’ve ceased worrying about my utterly useless uncoordinated left hand – I’ve too many other things to worry about!

Might I suggest that you help ease my worrying by signing up for my newsletter? That would be nice, and unworrying, wouldn’t it!

Finally, and far more seriously, I hope you all have a worry-free December, whether you celebrate Christmas or not.

Stay Safe. A cat’s carol: 'Deck the halls with boughs of holly – let’s wreck the tree and blame the doggie…'