22 December 2018

All Things Father Christmas, including Santa and NORAD

Here I am, back again, with the third year of running this article. It has definitely become a tradition, because, as with all good Traditions, it has the right amount of fact while not taking itself too seriously.

Let it raise a smile as snippets are retold over a glass of something warming and yet another mince pie.

Wishing all my readers, of this blog and of my books, a wonderful festive season, whatever your beliefs.

Who will be dropping gifts at your hearth? Or will it be you leaving them? 

Here in the UK it is definitely Father Christmas who will be visiting, and despite his title he has nothing to do with Christianity, or parenthood, or even humans. It is the spirit of Mid-Winter, a personification clothed in evergreen, wrapped in holly and ivy, and garlanded in red berries and mistletoe. It is a jovial spirit, come at the solstice to partake in the mid-winter’s frivolities. The people welcomed it with entertainment, plied it with food and alcoholic beverages, and gave offerings so that it might not linger too long but instead beat smooth a path for an early spring.

Not a terrible lot changed when the Roman Legions made a home in these lands. They brought with them Saturnalia, a festival of light accompanied by a good deal of partying under the watchful eye of the god Saturn, often depicted with a scythe. So far so good.

Enter Christianity and a need by the early church to leverage ‘Jesus the Christ’ against entrenched Paganism. No one knew Jesus’ birth date, so the Pope of the time decided Jesus should be given one. The Pagan equinox celebrations of spring and autumn had already been coveted, so why not align the day to the biggest celebration of them all? A bishop from the Middle East, recently raised to sainthood for his good works, was also pressed into action: Nicholas (more or less). In the face of such worthiness the Brits remained steadfastedly wedded to their eat, drink and make merry.

The Romans assimiliated or left, and the Saxons and Jutes invaded, bringing along their Woden and winter’s Father Time. They also believed in eat, drink and make merry. A later invasion by the Norse and Danes (Vikings) – who also believed in eat, drink and make merry (can you see a pattern developing?) – brought along their Odin, who during mid-winter took on the manifestation of Jul – Yule – in that he was portly, white-bearded (signifying age), had the ability to see into people’s minds and know if they’d been good or not-so-good, and rode a horse, Sleipnir, which travelled at terrifying speed due to it having eight legs. Father Christmas as we know it was beginning to coalesce.

Saint Nicholas didn’t truly put in an appearance on British shores until the islands were invaded yet again, this time in 1066 by ex-Vikings, the Normans. However, no matter how the populace was “encouraged” to be pious, once out of the church doors after celebrating Jesus’ birthday, eat, drink and make merry remained the national stance. Not even the Puritans, who in the mid-17th century took the field and the country during the English Civil War, could fully ban Christmastide – ie the eat, drink and make merry – and Father Christmas, as he was by then known, made appearances in Mummer’s Plays, basically to raise a glass [ie two fingers] to the Puritan Parliament. And what happened to the Puritans? We happily waved them off to America (more or less).

It was there, after the War of Independence in the 18th century, that the populace began to embrace a Sinter Klaas from the Dutch tradition, doubtless because it wasn’t English (ungrateful individuals). In 1810 the New York Historical Society held a dinner in honour of Saint Nicholas, and twelve years later Clement Moore, drawing on Norse and Germanic folklore, wrote a poem A Visit from St Nicholas which was subsequently published as The Night Before Christmas. Thus Santa Claus came into his own, wearing the vestiges of Father Christmas/Jul. Even the reindeer and sled mentioned in the poem come from the Sammi people of Lapland, who the Viking peoples to the south of them firmly believed were ‘magicians’.

The Coca-Cola Company? Bah humbug! Late to the party. Santa Claus and even Father Christmas were wearing red before it showed up with its non-alcoholic beverage. But it had, and still has if its vivid red pantechnicon is anything to go by, damned good copywriters.

Which finally brings me to NORAD. Yes, I do mean the North American Aerospace Defence Command based in Colorado Springs. In 1955 Sears Roebuck & Company, also based in Colorado Springs, placed an advertisement in the press inviting children to phone Santa. Except the phone number was misprinted. Guess who was inundated with phone calls? CONAD – the Continental Air Defence Command and forerunner of NORAD. Despite being in the grips of the Cold War and it supposedly watching for in-coming missiles from you-know-where, the Defence Command put diplomacy to the fore and gave radar updates to children on the progress of Santa from the North Pole.

And thanks to the late Colonel Harry Shoup, Director of Operations at the time, it still does. Come the Big Day, check on Santa’s progress at http://www.noradsanta.org/
So wherever you are, and whatever spirit of Nature you believe in, be sure to eat, drink and make merry this festive season.

With grateful thanks to Wikipaedia, History Today, Time-Travel Britain, Museum of UnNatural Mystery, and NORAD for their assistance in producing this tongue-firmly-in-cheek blogpost.

9 December 2018

Torc of Moonlight Trilogy - Christmas Special Price

Seasonal promotions are hitting all the digital stores, including my Torc of Moonlight Trilogy boxed set. For a very limited period this 900+ page fantasy romance is a mere £2.99 / €2.99 / $2.99 or equivalent. Go grab it now and feast on more than just turkey this festive season.

The over-arcing story follows Nick and Alice through three books, three cities skirting the wild lands of the North York Moors, three time periods, and nine years - those numbers are significant to the storyline - as the pair grapple with the realisation that Celtic folklore is based very much on living fact.

I tripped over the premise, or should I say I kept tripping over it, as I undertook various walks along ancient byways in my home county of Yorkshire. History might be buried, but it's not always dead, and TV programmes like Time Team and Digging For Britain now emphasise how people lived as well as marvelling at the physical traces they left for archaeologists to excavate. 

Unpolluted drinking water is a commodity humans have always taken care to secure. Today it's chemically scrubbed and piped into our homes; in Victorian times the village pump helped to keep clean the water from the local spring; before the mechanical pump, the spring itself would be surrounded by a stone well-head to help retain the purity of its water with its run-off allowed to pool in the ubiquitous village pond. It is here The White Lady, protector of the water, is found under the sub-heading "folklore" in county histories written by altruistic country gentlemen. 

The White Lady was no mere ghostly form in previous centuries, but she was always female. The traditional Well-Dressing festivals of Derbyshire, rich in Christian symbolism, are an attempt to conflate and thus suppress the belief. The same was attempted in the medieval period where stone churches dedicated to All Saints or All Souls were built close to springs venerated at the end of the farming calendar - the Celtic year-end festival of Samhain demonised by Christian teaching into All Hallows. Despite now being a largely secular country, we still refuse to let go. Halloween is the most commercialised "festival" next to Christmas.

If you like the works of Barbara Erskine, Robert Holdstock, or Phil Rickman, the Torc of Moonlight Trilogy may well be your cup of Yuletide pleasure. It is on offer for a limited time only:

Amazon   ¦  Kobo   ¦   iBooks   ¦   Nook   ¦   All formats

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22 September 2018

How A Book Cover Does Its Job

I’ve just re-covered Scent of the Böggel-Mann – yes, me – and I’m told it’s not half bad. But why did I take time out from writing to produce my own cover? Cost.

Scent of the Böggel-Mann is a story of 10,000 words – about a tenth the length of each of my Torc of Moonlight novels. It retails at 99p / 99c and I gain in royalty 29p / 33c per sale. Bespoke ebook covers can cost $300 upwards. You don’t need to be a mathematician to work out how many sales are needed to recoup the outlay and, unless you are a bestselling ‘name’, the time it will take to gain those sales. Two or three days spent watching YouTube how-to videos and experimenting with image manipulation software begins to look cost effective – IF thought is given to the design.

The primary goal of a book cover is to entice its target readership to click for more information. The target readership in this case are those people who read Horror, so my first stop was the Amazon bestseller list for that genre to understand the ‘look’ of the genre. At first glance, which is how long a trawling buyer may focus on a cover, there’s a lot of monochrome and most of it is dark in tone using plenty of contrast. Armed with that information I started to seek similar images.

I have an account with Depositphotos, picked up during a sale, but I also keep my eye on Pixabay, a site of free-to-use images, and Creative Commons images. Be certain about the licensing conditions offered; not all will include commercial use.

The story centres on a locked shipping trunk gained at an auction by a young-woman-next-door female. I discounted having an image of a woman on the cover. If she was neither a terrified victim nor somehow possessed of evil her ordinariness alone would run counter to the look of the genre. Give readers no reasons to reject investigating further. I found an image of the sort of trunk described in the story, but I couldn’t find a suitable background. Besides, let’s face facts here, the skills needed to competently mesh the two are beyond me at the moment. Then I read an article about the folly of ‘telling the story’ on a cover. What I needed was to indicate the tone of the story, not the story itself. Back to hunting images.

First I came up with the smokey skull, but felt it was a bit bare. I searched for more smoke effects and found a couple using the same colours.

I particularly liked the red eyes of the smoke-skull. It’s not a frightening image, as in portraying oodles of gore, but a quietly sinister image which fits with the tone of the story – my writing is more Stephen King than Richard Laymon. And there’s a skull in the story, and smoke, so despite not wanting the cover to ‘tell the story’, it does tick a couple of story boxes. As I couldn’t find anything better, I made my choice. Note: the images have a watermark enabling test downloads so mock-ups can be produced before purchasing, which is most useful when you are paying by the image. I decided to stick with the black background – it’s both easier and gives the required contrast – but moved both images about the cover-space in search of a placing to catch the eye.

Typefaces and fonts are a world unto themselves and the choice is ridiculously wide. For instance, a thin curly font is beloved by Chicklit, part of its genre look along with pastel colours and hand-drawn imagery, but what did I need for Horror? Again I went back to studying the Amazon bestseller lists and trawling YouTube.

On YouTube I came across Derek Murphy’s collection of how-to videos. The one I’ve linked to I found particularly useful because he explains what he’s doing and why he’s doing it, and the video and narration show there’s a great amount of trial and error involved – a learning curve that resonates with me. He may be using an updated version of Photoshop, but the concepts can be transferred to whichever software is available.

Checking back with the Amazon Horror list, I began to understand the virtuous circle of Title, Authorname and Logline or Review Quote, as well as serif/sans serif choices, and selecting colours from the image’s palate.

The red of the smoke-skull’s eye which had drawn me originally would be my colour of choice for the Title; the blue of the smoke my choice for my Authorname and a Logline. I wouldn’t have thought of using a Logline at all, despite these being carried by many book covers in the Bestseller list, yet it is an instant way of giving an indication of the story. I also chose a calm sans serif font for Authorname and Logline, and a busier font for the title.

Whether my choice of font for the Title is the best, or even reasonable, remains to be seen. It is readable, even as red-on-black at the thumbnail size used by Amazon. The fact that the Authorname and Logline can’t be read at thumbnail is neither here nor there; at thumbnail it is the look that counts the most. Get a reader to click on the image link and they can be read on its page. After that it’s up to the blurb – the product description – to make the sale. Sometimes, it’s the cover alone that does that.

With the cover complete, I created a complementary visual for use on social media sites using the images already purchased in a slightly different way.

  • Expensive image manipulation software is not necessary to produce reasonable book covers. For free try Canva, which has an ebook template. Or try out Derek Murphy’s own semi-completed online cover creator on his DIYBookCovers website. If you do wish to purchase software, take a look at Serif’s Affinity retailing at less than £50. There are lots of tutorials on its site, and user videos on YouTube.
  • Keep a note of all settings used in creating a cover, from the source and identity code of the images, to the font and HEX number of colours used in the text. It’s surprising how often I need to refer to the information.

If you found this post useful, please take time to say so in the Comments, below. Or do me a favour and RT my currently Pinned Tweet. Or heck, buy the title. It's only 99p. 😄

15 September 2018

Scent of the Böggel-Mann - New Cover

Here it is at last: the new cover for my stand-alone short, Scent of the Böggel-Mann.

I’ve also re-worked the ‘product description’ - the blurb:
Some lots are best left in the auction room.
Elaine haunts auctions held in crumbling country mansions, dreaming of a find to make her and Gary rich. A plain wooden shipping trunk has no key to its iron-banded locks but is far heavier than it should be. What might it contain?

Some lots are best left in the auction room.

Mainstream publishers regularly change the covers of their titles: to re-brand the author, or a series, or to edge the title further into its genre ‘look’. Scent of the Böggel-Mann is aligned with the Horror genre, but you’d picked up that already, right? With a cover like this it couldn’t be Chicklit, could it?

And that’s how covers work. They act as fast tags to the type of story to be found within. 'A picture paints a thousand words', and all that. 
The title is on wide distribution at an entry level price of 99p/99c, available from Kindle, Kobo, iBooks, Nook, and Smashwords for all formats.

Join me next time, when I’ll be talking about the whys and the hows of creating a cover.

9 September 2018

Reading and Writing Historicals - Faction

I’ve recently read two ‘faction’ works, and I enjoyed both.  The first was a novella, All The Freshness Of The Morning by David Black, the second full-length, The Secret Life Of The Elephant Man, by Milford Grove.

All The Freshness Of The Morning is a dramatisation of the time spent in the Pacific during WW2 of a young Lieutenant Jack Kennedy – later known to history as the United States President John F Kennedy. It is written in an accessible, chatty style, conveyed by a fictitious narrator years later remembering his time aboard the same PT boat.

In contrast, The Secret Life Of The Elephant Man takes the progressively deforming Joseph Merrick from his birth in Leicester to his death in the London Hospital in 1890. Although Merrick is the focus, and the story is conveyed from his viewpoint and that of his contemporaries, the book explores Victorian attitudes to the vulnerable, therefore deftly mirroring attitudes prevalent today.

‘Faction’ is the art of fictionalising recorded facts about real people, usually now dead, to give an insight into their life and times, written in such a way as to challenge the reader to discern the fact from the fiction. This is why it’s a genre I’ve shied away from. No matter the amount of research undertaken, no writer is ever going to get the detail correct. As if to underline this, both works mentioned above state that they are a work of fiction based on historical fact. They have, however, made me muse on the way I do write history.

For Hostage of the Heart the big picture, the events of the latter part of 1066, were researched, as was the life of ordinary people – the primary pull of history for me – yet no character existed in history. Does this make it less of a story, less of a truth?

For Beneath The Shining Mountains I also concentrated on the life of the Apsaroke people of the American northern plains. Its pre-European expansion backdrop I knew a great deal about as for many years I’d been a re-enactor giving talks to schools and community groups. Did these people live and breathe? Yes, but not under the names or settings depicted.

Each novel in the supernatural Torc of Moonlight trilogy has a different historical thread which resonates with the main contemporary timeline. Binding the two are the real-life settings which were researched down to the colour of the paint on a door.

In all, anachronisms were scrubbed spotless, yet in each the depth of history portrayed varied. Do I still believe I made a decent fist of writing the history? Yes. So why am I now musing on the different forms of conveying it?

This year I discovered information about my grandmother’s life at the close of WW1, a piece of jigsaw that has unexpectedly connected family hearsay. I want to portray her story in fiction, yet I have little more than a few black and white photographs of her in later years and a couple of bald census pages. I could certainly conjure a historical novel, though it would deviate from her day-to-day trials. Could I write faction? I’m not sure I have enough to make a choice. Maybe when I start researching the period and the places, she’ll tell me.

20 August 2018

#Research: Medieval Marmion Tower

The Marmion Tower
Following on from the last post on medieval Markenfield Hall with its Tudor gatehouse, this time I’m a few miles north to focus on an earlier gatehouse, the enigma that is the Marmion Tower in West Tanfield, Ripon.

Built and remodelled between 1350 and 1400, it stands tight between the drop to the River Ure and the wall of the village's church of St Nicholas, which may, or may not, explain why the barrel-vaulted entrance passage is off-set.

Not substantial in footprint, it was substantial in comfort, having three floors, at least two garderobes built into its riverside walls, three fireplaces, and an oriel window. Although there were certainly gates, and it is crenellated – permission had to be sought from the Crown – there is no provision for either a portcullis or arrow slits.

I’m not alone in finding this curious, considering the violence of the time. Like Markenfield Hall, it lies on the north-south road from Scotland, at a point where the Ure was crossed by ferry, now a bridge carrying the A6108.

Fireplace and cupboard, ground floor porter/guard's chamber
Was it built as a free-standing tower ‘house’, perhaps a dowager house with an enclosed courtyard beyond, specifically to be close to the church? Or was it built to be “of worth” – ie, not timbered – for a hall beyond, which was not, or became not, the owner’s main residence?

Or, over the intervening years since the 1066 Norman invasion, were there two residences? Certainly something was built with commanding views on a rocky spur  further along the bending River Ure, but that’s over a mile away. A motte and bailey ‘castle’ erected, as so many were, immediately after the Harrying of the North? Mmm.
Left: rise to the 1st floor oriel window, line of 2nd storey flooring plus window
Right: view from oriel window showing chantry house of priest plus modern bridge

Personally, I go for the two residences theory. When John Leyland, the noted 16th century antiquarian, passed through on business for King Henry VIII, he was not impressed to find “a meane manor place” with a towered gateway and a house of squared stone. However the cossetted Leyland felt about the state of the manor dwellings, a look inside the church at the effigies of its former owners left me in no doubt as to the worth of the families who once resided there.

Sir John Marmion and his wife Lady Elizabeth
While other chest tombs of the families are carved in eroding stone, this tomb, carved in alabaster, carries the effigy of John Marmion who, in 1387, died in Spain fighting for his overlord, John of Gaunt third son of King Edward III. It is, therefore, highly unlikely that his body resides within.

Beside him is his wife, Lady Elizabeth, who died in 1400. In the foreground and behind their heads can be glimpsed parts of the decorated wrought iron "hearse" of unknown date, which carries thick candles at its four corners.

As is usual in churches, there was neither the room nor the natural light to take full photographs, but it is from the spectacularly detailed carving that writers, and historians, gain much information of the period.

While Elizabeth's head rests on a cushion supported by angelic cherubs, John Marmion's rests on his ornately feathered tilting (jousting) helm, carved out inside to look exactly as it had when he wore it in life. Note the interlocking shoulder sections of his plate armour and the tactile nature of his mail coif. Note, too, that both hands have been hacked off, while his wife's remain in prayer. Probably he was holding his - his - sword down the length of his body and it was subsequently robbed. Around his neck is carved the collar of the Lancastrian house, a decoration instituted by King Henry IV.

This sort of attention to fine detail, and there is far more than I can show here, does not come cheap. So what happened to his, their, equally opulent dwelling?

It seems that no documented explanation exists, at least that I've come across. If Leland's assertion in the 16th century was that the property/ies was "a meane manor place", then in all probability it was being allowed, for whatever reason, to fall into wrack and ruin. According to local tradition its usable stone was carried off to build other great houses in the area. It wasn't unknown. Thankfully the gatehouse was left where it stood, or people like me would never have heard of the Marmions, or be intrigued by the enigma of the Marmion Tower.

Note:  Click on the images to bring up a larger view. All photos (c) Linda Acaster.

13 August 2018

#Research: Medieval Markenfield Hall

The medieval moated manor house of Markenfield Hall, three miles south of Ripon in North Yorkshire, is the last surviving of six said to have encircled the cathedral city. It is open to the public a mix of only 30 afternoons a year, so ours was a date not to be missed. 

Markenfield Hall: south-west corner view to the gatehouse

The property – about 600 acres, then, as it remains today – pre-dates the Norman Conquest of 1066. William the Conqueror’s 1086 Great Survey (the Domesday Book) states that pre-conquest it belonged to Grimr and was worth 20 shillings; post-conquest to Bjornullfr (note the Scandinavian names) from William de Percy, and was worth 10 shillings. Its change in worth goes some way to indicate the upheaval, not only of the invasion but of the devastating scorched-earth ‘Harrying of the North’ of 1069-70 in retribution for the northern shires continued rebellions against the new order.

The present manor house, of three known, dates from 1310. Its present gatehouse is Tudor and stands on the foundations of an earlier structure. Until the 18th century it still had a workable drawbridge. There was also an outer moat, now long filled in, no doubt enclosing the farm buildings which would have stood in exactly the same spot as the newer stone and the modern animal housings, just outside the drawbridge. A double moat was not excessive. The ink on Magna Carta wasn't a hundred years dry; John de Markenfield was a “king’s man” and the country was close to civil war as the northern barons flexed their considerable muscles. Also, the Scots were raiding annually to great effect.

The courtyard - by a photographer who can't get her angles right.

The peak of the blocked original entrance beside the arched windows
Markenfield Hall remains a family home, the family’s home after a re-purchasing following a spot of treason during the reign of Elizabeth I, which is why it is open to the public only a few designated days a year. The courtyard, though much changed, retains its original usage: stores, workshops and stables (now garage) to the left of the gatehouse, visitors’ accommodation (now the farm manager’s dwelling) to the right, the family’s great hall, kitchens and ancillary buildings ahead. As with all buildings of the period, for defensive reasons the original entry was made direct into the first floor via a covered outer stairway, the peak of its porch still visible in the wall of the great hall.

Visitors poring over files of the renovations in the great hall
Today’s entry is made via the ground floor undercroft, which lost much of its vaulting after being seized by the Crown and when internal walls were inserted to create usable rooms. A 20th century oak staircase now leads up to the great hall, renovated over a number of years into an enormous lounge.

Visitors are encouraged to sit on the sofas and read the various histories of the people who lived here as well as of the Hall itself, before passing through the household chapel, still used, and into the first of the bedrooms, part of the original medieval solar, the private receiving chamber.

Most stately homes and enormous castles feel like museums, but Markenfield Hall is on a scale to be enjoyed. As the quirky use of its nooks and crannies brings a smile – the vaulted utility room with its modern appliances; the cramped lock-up built into a buttress now a downstairs toilet – the lives of the men and women who lived here down the centuries brings widening eyes. Markenfield Hall has stood through a lot of history, and much of it remains ghosted into its fabric ready to catch the eye – and the imagination.

Note:  Click on the images to bring up a larger view. All photos (c) Linda Acaster.

4 August 2018

#Research: The Hollow Hills of Sutton Hoo

I’ve lately been posting about the Neolithic passage tomb of La Hougue Bie to be found on the Channel Island of Jersey, HERE and HERE. But not all “hollow hills” are of such antiquity, and many are true tombs. The most celebrated to be found in the British Isles is at Woodbridge in Suffolk… Sutton Hoo.

Left: mound rebuilt to original height. Right: height after 1400 years natural erosion

Sutton Hoo is the site of a multi-mounded cemetery of the 6th-7th centuries. A couple of weeks ago was the anniversary of the finding of its treasures, but it wasn’t the first time “excavations” had been made at the site. When the land belonged to the Tudor Crown, Queen Elizabeth I licenced men to dig there in the hope of re-filling State coffers. Thankfully, they didn’t try very hard or the archaeology would have been lost to future generations.

The Sceptre whetstone, made from Greywacke

In the 1930s the mounded cemetery was part of the estate belonging to a Mrs Edith Pretty who instigated formal excavations. At least, sort of formal. In 1938 test trenches were dug into various mounds by a self-taught local archaeologist, Mr Basil Brown, who specialised in Roman excavations, ably supported by various members of Mrs Pretty’s estate workers. Some of the mounds were found to have been robbed; ship’s rivets were found in others. Not Roman; Viking perhaps?

In May 1939, with war imminent, Mrs Pretty gave the go ahead for one last try on a partly broken mound believed robbed. Within days it was realised not only that robbers had failed to find the inner chamber but that it contained an untouched ship burial. And the rest, as the saying goes, is world-breaking news. Except, of course, Europe was fast going to hell in a hand-basket, and Britain was soon to be involved. It became a race to fully excavate, document, and save both extracted artefacts, and the site.

What Basil Brown found was an Anglo-Saxon ship burial, except there was no ship. The wood of the 90 ft (27.5m) vessel had dissolved in the acidic soil, leaving its outline perfectly preserved via its rows of iron rivets. The grave has since been attributed to King Rædwald, a Bretwalda who took homage from other kings. Like the wood of the ship, he, too, was a mere ghost surrounded by his grave goods, which reads like a list taken direct from the Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf, surprisingly cited during the Coroner’s Inquest.

Replica full-faced helmet
Arrogant though it seems to us today, the academic belief prevalent at the time was that when the Roman legions withdrew in or about 410AD, these islands were plunged into a centuries’ long period without art, writing, or culture, and had only the most basic subsistence economy.

Yet here was superb gold filigree work depicting mythical birds and animals, jewellery and clothes fittings carrying garnets from India, Irish gold-work, a silver and bronze bowl from the eastern Mediterranean, traces of fine fabrics, and the accoutrements of a high-born warrior: shield, sword, spears, mailcoat and a fantastically-decorated, full-faced helmet.

Under the laws of Treasure Trove, Mrs Pretty was allowed to keep all artefacts. She, in turn, gave them to the Nation via the British Museum where they were conserved and can still be viewed, recently via a Google Walk-through.

In the 1990s her house and estate, including the mound cemetery, were given into the keeping of the National Trust. When work started on an Exhibition Hall and visitor centre it was realised, as had been suspected, there was much more to the site than the mound cemetery.

Replica shield (3ft dia) to show its gold fixings
Although the mound cemetery is… grassy mounds… the exhibition centre brings alive the period through its excavated artefacts, replica artefacts of items in the British Museum,  video explanations, and a walk-through reproduction of the burial chamber inside the ship as it would have looked prior to being covered in earth – a quiet and quite moving experience in itself.

Sutton Hoo – the hoo being a spur of a hill – is a place I’d always wanted to visit, despite it being, basically, a field of tightly grouped grassy mounds overlooking the River Deben. Perhaps I should say, placed strategically on a spur of a hill to be viewed, in awe, from the economic highway that was at the time the River Deben.

If you want to see more about Sutton Hoo, go on to YouTube.

Is this a ‘once in a lifetime' find? An Anglo-Saxon ship burial? Possibly; only one other has been uncovered in the British Isles, a 48ft ship burial in Snape quite close by, though much smaller boat burials are well-known, including one in the Sutton Hoo cemetery. However, well preserved burials with grave goods are found, seemingly, all the time. One, a man laid to rest with his spear and pattern-welded sword in its scabbard, came to light while I was pulling together this post. The grave was found by Afghan conflict veterans on military training land on Salisbury Plain [HERE]: “The men were very moved by the discovery of a man they felt would have shared some of their experiences”. Mmm. I bet they were. I can’t see how they couldn’t be. 

NB: Click on the images to bring up a larger view. All photos (c) Linda Acaster.

28 July 2018

#Research: Medieval Religious Wall Paintings - Jersey

Our Lady of the Light, east end view
Last time I posted about the Neolithic passage tomb at La Hougue Bie in Jersey, one of the Channel Islands lying to the south of UK mainland. Here I’m concentrating on the medieval chapel which sits atop of it, Notre Dame de la Clarté – Our Lady of the Light – and religious wall paintings.

The date of the first Christian building to be raised on top of this known pagan “building” is lost, but the current one dates from the 12th century.

It was altered over the centuries, fairly substantially in the early 16th. After a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, the then Dean of Jersey had a shrine constructed within the fabric of the building to replicate the Holy Sepulchre he’d visited in Jerusalem – a sort of early virtual reality. So far so good.

Then he led pilgrimages to the chapel after saying he’d had visions of the Virgin Mary while praying there. Then a statue was erected whose hand was said to “move” in an appeal for offerings. Then “miracles” followed in the form of floating candles. Er… right. 

Archangels on the plastered ceiling. Centre plinth for a figure of the Virgin.
Whether all this did occur, or whether it was “documented” as occurring by a vested interest, is open to congecture. As was the rest of Europe, the island was on the cusp of the Protestant Reformation, and far more desperate measures were being taken on all sides elsewhere.

Despite this notoriety, the building falling into disrepair in post-Reformation centuries, and in 1792 it becoming part of a pleasure garden tower, some of its late medieval wall paintings remain in situ. As with most wall paintings of the period, the organic colours of these two archangels have faded to pastel shades, but remain impressive, nonetheless. 

Detailed view of the archangels, Notre Dame de la Clarté.

Even more impressive are the wall paintings in the Chapelle-ès-Pêcheurs – The Fisherman’s Chapel –  a few miles distant in St Brelade’s Bay. To confuse matters, this small-windowed building sited overlooking the sea has no connection to fisherman. So close to the parish Church of Saint Brelade as to forestall photography, it is believed to be the site of the original wooden parish church, rebuilt in stone after the much larger Saint Brelade’s was completed within touching distance.

The Resurrection

If the wall paintings are to be believed, in the 14th century the smaller building was taken over by a prominent family as its personal chantry chapel for masses to be held for the souls of the dead. Or their dead.

The Annunciation

At the foot of the painting of the Annunciation are fourteen figures, thought to be members of the family. Not so much fisherman, ‘pêcheurs’, as sinners, ‘pécheurs’. It’s amazing the difference a diacritical can make.

Or, in the cases of both chapels, the prominence of money. 

NB: Click on the images to bring up a larger view. All photos (c) Linda Acaster.

21 July 2018

#Research: Neolithic Passage Tomb in Jersey

The entrance to the "hollow hill" of La Hougue Bie
What did you do on your holiday? Last time I was donning hard-hat and clambering down a ladder into Grime’s Graves in Norfolk. This time I’ve been bent double, crabbing my way into a Neolithic Passage Tomb on Jersey. This woman knows how to party, eh?

We’ve had a few days in the Channel Islands, just off the French coast, and while in Jersey took the opportunity to visit La Hougue Bie, a 6,000 year old passage tomb in the style of Ireland’s Newgrange and Orkney’s Maeshowe.

Just as the Channel Islands are not French but British Crown dependencies, Jersey’s place and street names aren’t French either but Jèrriais, what’s left of Viking Norman. In keeping with these contradictions, Neolithic passage tombs aren’t tombs in the sense of a grave; they have more in common with our accepted role of a religious building such as a church or temple, and nearly all of them are aligned to a celestial event.

Clouds permitting, at La Hougue Bie the rising sun at the Spring Equinox casts light along its 9 metre (30ft) entrance passage and illuminates the main chamber. When this happened all those millennia ago, what occurred in its confines and its alcoves has been lost down the years. We can only peer at the huge stones making up the walls and the even more massive capstones carrying the weight of the mound above – and stone church – and marvel at how people living on a small island 6,000 years ago could not only transport them from all over the southern region but lift them in place. And know they were aligning each stone perfectly to allow the inner chamber to be illuminated for a short period on a single day in the year. Shame on anyone using Stone-Age as a term of derision.

Left: wall stones, over 2m visible above the flooring, massive bulk of the capstones, plus an alcove at the rear of the chamber.
Right: view along the 9m entrance passage showing a figure stooping to gain admittance. There is no headroom to stand until the inner chamber is reached. At the right can be seen a "modern" concrete column to help reinforce the line of capstones making up the roof.

The eastern (obviously) apse of the church
I mention the medieval stone chapel built on the mound’s summit, Notre Dame de la Clarté – Our Lady of the Light – an interesting appellation considering what occurs below. The original was probably erected in this position as a means of ‘cleansing’ a pagan religious site. The current building dates from the 12th century and I concentrate on this interesting place in another blogpost, HERE.

During World War 2, when the Channel Islands were occupied by German forces, a watch tower was erected on top of the mound at the western end of the church, and a battalion command bunker tunnelled into the mound, thankfully doing little lasting damage to the structure, though the archaeological damage caused by 70 trenches nearby was irreparable. The bunker is now dedicated to the memory of thousands of “Forced Workers” brought to the Channel Islands, many of whom never saw their homelands again. Its minimalist setting proves a grim walk-through.

The most recent stone building is the combined visitor centre, museum and conservation lab, the latter separated by a large glass window from many fine exhibits gathered from across the island, and proving as much a focus for visitors as the gold torcs, bronze axe heads, and a replica of the biggest Celtic coin hoard I’ve ever seen. The most recent non-stone building was being thatched when we visited: a replica of a Neolithic longhouse being built by experimental archaeology volunteers.

Left: the partly constructed Neolithic longhouse viewed from the church; in front the exit from the WW2 command bunker walk-through.
Right: a selection of original Celtic coins from one of the hoards.

La Hougue Bie is, indeed, a place of contradictions, and well worth a visit.

NB: Click on the images to bring up a larger view. All photos (c) Linda Acaster.

30 June 2018

#Research: Thetford Warren Lodge

Ruins of Thetford Warren Lodge
Four miles south of the Neolithic flint mines of Grime’s Graves, lies another open area in Thetford Forest, this time of sandy heathland. It is the last remaining shred of a once vast medieval Warren. At one end stands the ruins of Thetford Warren Lodge, built around 1400 on the orders of Thetford Priory which owned the Warren.

Rabbits, or coneys as they were known, are not native to the British Isles. The first influx came with the Romans but didn’t seem to make much impression on the landscape. The second influx followed the Norman conquest in 1066.

Coney meat was regarded as a delicacy by the Normans, while its fur trimmed the finest clothing. The coneys were farmed in warrens on what would now be termed an industrial scale, and only lords of manors, and religious houses, could own one.

The surrounding forest is early 20th century; at the time all the land would have been open heath. It has been estimated that this one warren was bigger than modern Thetford (11 sq miles). In the vicinity were over 25 warrens. Each would have had a fortified lodge. There were no villages or hamlets in this area, then or now.

Thetford Warren Lodge, built of flint as all stone buildings in the region were, even castle ramparts, stood like a mini castle itself, with walls up to three feet thick, small windows on all sides, and a fortified ground floor doorway leading to its undercroft store where pelts and doubtless meat, would be worked and stored. 

L: ground floor inner view; doorway to spiral staircase bottom left beyond the modern grille.
R: substantial brick-faced fire-back in what would have been the living quarters.

Connected by an inner spiral staircase the Warrener and his family (and men?) lived on the upper floor in what would have been considered good quarters for the time: note the large brick-faced fireplace. However, like a castle keep, it was meant to act as a refuge – against gangs of armed poachers. Cut off from normal village life, it must have been a harsh and lonely existence, especially for the women of the household.

Over the centuries coneys adapted to the wild, becoming the ubiquitous “bunny”, and in 1880 the animal lost its protected status under the Ground Game Act. Yet the industry of farming them continued into the 1920s when gradually the land was purchased for much-needed timber production following World War 1. Thetford Forest is now the largest lowland forest of mixed pines in Britain.

NB: Click on the images to bring up a larger view. All photos (c) Linda Acaster.

23 June 2018

#Research: Neolithic Grime's Graves Flint Mines

Hubby on his way down
We have been away on holiday, though holiday seems a misnomer where we’re concerned. Hard hat and down into a Neolithic flint mine, anyone? 

Grime's Graves, in the county of Norfolk, was given its name during the Anglo-Saxon period of the so-called Dark Ages. In this case it was the Angle period, when the peoples from what is now southern Denmark and northern Germany migrated to the area and created the Kingdom of East Anglia. 1500 years on, the region containing the counties of Norfolk and Suffolk is still loosely known as East Anglia, and Grim’s Graben – “the diggings of Grim” (a euphemism for their main god, Woden; Norse Odin) became Grime’s Graves.

Lumps and bumps at ground level don't do justice to the vast area
The place is currently overseen by English Heritage, and it is on its website the best image of the area can be viewed – HERE – unless you happen to have a camera-drone handy. 

Even seeing such a photograph didn’t prepare me for driving out of the Thetford woodland and along the designated chalk track to park amid what can only be described as a green moonscape of gently waving grasses. It’s just… odd.

The delves, some over 10 metres (30 feet) across, are the visible remains of 433 vertical shafts hemmed almost shoulder to shoulder, though it is believed others are buried beneath obscuring sandy soil nearby.

All have been in-filled: by the original diggers, by later Neolithic, Bronze, and Iron Age peoples, or by Nature. To give an idea of the time-line, the first diggings - using red deer antler picks, they've been found in the middens - were probably started as the groundwork was being laid for Stonehenge in Wiltshire.

It is all a bit basic on-site. Chemical toilets only are available near the gate because there is a ban on any sort of non-archaeological excavation, no matter how shallow. The visitor centre is a self-contained wooden structure "sitting" on the land so as to do minimum damage. But its exhibition is interesting, the staff friendly and informative, and we eventually made our way across the beaten-grass path to what amounts to a small metal portacabin suspended in the mouth of “Pit 1”.

The duty-man who gave us the Health & Safety talk trained as an experimental archaeologist, and the small space displays everything from lime-bast fibres and rope, to flint arrowheads, scrapers, knives, a flint-bladed sickle, and a surprisingly light axe big enough to fell a substantial tree.

L: repro flint axe detail, with 3 knapped, unpolished, spare flint heads / R: repro flint knife with antler handle and sheath

Hard hats on tight, we stepped onto the ladder which disappeared through a trapdoor and down some 9 metres (30 feet) to the excavated floor level. We were lucky; an electrician was rigging up new lights in the radiating chalk galleries and the safety grilles had been removed. We’d been warned only to stick our heads and shoulders inside the gallery openings as turning around in a 1 metre high gallery could prove problematic. Merely backing out proved problematic, and I was grateful for the hard hat on more than one occasion.

L: Husband crouching in front of a gallery entrance, with a second covered by a grille to show size. 
Rubber matting is laid on the excavated floor to help save it from modern foot-fall erosion. 
R: Inside a chalk gallery; bear in mind the size shown in the left image

The galleries, there are six main ones, are up to 15 metres (49 feet) long, twisting, turning and intersecting as the seams of flint were followed. The sections of chalk waste, and the flint nodules, were prised free with antler picks and raised in baskets to the surface to be worked on.

The mine was wondrous to behold, to crouch in the small spaces with bright modern lighting reflecting from the white chalk, and wonder just what those far off ancestors used to light their work. And how many times a rockfall snuffed out a life.

NB: Click on the images to bring up a larger view. All photos (c) Linda Acaster.

1 June 2018

Early Summer eBook Promos #99c / #99p - Part 2

Following on from Part 1 - some of whose promotions may still be live, check before purchasing - here's the current promos I'm involved with. There won't be any more for a while, so take advantage while they're available.

Just finishing (ignore the date) are Speculative Fiction titles from Magic Book Deals SpecFic including sub-genres from Dystopian to Romance, Epic Fantasy to Supernatural Chills. My title is The Paintings.

Open now for Kindle Unlimited Addicts, this time from Magic Book Deals Romance until 5th June. My title is Beneath The Shining Mountains.

And finally, for this coming weekend only, over 60 titles in the Fantasy and Science Fiction genres from the site of prolific author Patty Jansen. My title is Torc of Moonlight, Bk 1.

Enjoy your reading!

26 May 2018

Research: Tomb Chests and Hanging Helms

Church of St Bartholomew, Aldbrough
The moral of this post is never underestimate a small medieval church in a small pre-Doomsday village.

My husband is adding to the genealogy of his family line and, in search of the later more law-abiding contingent, he is keen to visit churches in the locality during open days when parish records, often dating back to the 1700s or earlier, are available to view.

Just such took us to the village of Aldbrough, population currently about 1,000, in the East Riding of Yorkshire, and into the 14th century church of St Bartholomew.

The church stands on a circular mound, thus immediately giving an inkling, not only of an earlier building or succession of buildings, but of a pre-Christian meeting place. I knew there was what some believe to be a Viking-age sundial, but I wasn't prepared to meet Sir John de Melsa, the "Giant of Bewick", who fought alongside Edward, the Black Prince, at the Battle of Crécy (Cressey) in 1346, part of the Hundred Years' War with France.

His effigy, in full armour including chain mail, measures six and a half feet in length. He would probably have been clutching a, if not his, sword down the length of his body. Alas, over the centuries he has also lost his feet, resting on the lion. Note the righthand pic which shows what is hanging above his chest tomb.

This is a copy of the bascinet upon which Sir John's effigy rests its head, except it's not quite. It is the copy of what was left of the original bascinet which hung above his tomb until in 1989 leave was granted by the Diocese of York for it to be sold to the Royal Armouries. It now resides in the Tower of London. Evidently these complete, or almost complete, effigies with a knight's accoutrements are extremely rare - as in there might only be one other in the country with a helm dating from the period.

It is surprising that it survived at all. The north aisle in which this monument stands, originally Saint Mary's Chapel, was used as a school in the early 19th century. According to the church's information leaflet the helm - the original helm - was used as a coal scuttle, doubtless by the same miscreants who carved their names in the lion, though they were hardly the first if that 1673, bottom right, is to be taken at face value.

Methinks I need to delve into the life and times of Sir John de Melsa, Governor of York 1292-96, and the Lords of Bewick. For a start, Melsa is Meaux situated between Aldbrough and Beverley, where a Cistercian abbey had been founded in 1151. So why did he direct that he should be buried in the small village church of Aldbrough? Is there ever enough hours in the day?

The same goes for the Viking-age "sundial" now incorporated into the wall of the south aisle, the image of which Blogger refuses to upload. I shall take that as a sign and give it a post of its own in the future.

Note: All images are copyright: (c) Linda Acaster 2018. Clicking on each will (should) provide a larger view.