The Skirrid, Ysgryd Fawr

I used pictures of bluebells last week partly because they had all vanished around here, just occasional clusters of purple on shaded verges, or north facing woodland slopes. And then we decided to go and climb the first mountain of the year and guess what we found? In late May.

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I’ve got photographs of The Skirrid from various other hills in the Black Mountains and Brecon Beacons but I had never actually climbed it. Sitting apart from the other mountain ranges it looks like a shark’s fin cutting through the lowlands as you approach it from Hereford. It isn’t as high or demanding as many other hills and mountains we have climbed, “an evening stroll” was how Dr J described it and because it took us so long to get organised last week we did indeed come down through dusky woods to find the car park almost empty.

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The Skirrid’s west flank, taken from the car on the way home

The most eye catching object from the car park was a perfect view of the nearby Sugar Loaf showing how it got its name. The initially steep climb through woodland was beautiful, plenty of other people going up and down but the trees were alive with birdsong and constant fleeting feathered movement.

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This was taken in the mountains above Tretower Court last April looking towards the Skirrid, in shadow, from the west; the Sugar Loaf is on the right

I made the classic mistake once we were out on the ridge of thinking we were nearly at the summit, only to climb to a false peak and see the ridge rising on before me, it wasn’t too tiring though as stopping to look up at the skylarks singing out of sight was a constant delight. We had our first picnic break in a sheltered dip on the ridge, looking towards White Castle that we visited three years ago.

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The Skirrid from Whitecastle, looking from the east
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Whitecastle from the Skirrid

This is a fairly small hill by Welsh standards, 1594 feet or 486 metres and it really is a pleasant walk, our seven year old bounded ahead and walked twice as far as she needed to and the three year old didn’t demand a carry until the summit had been reached – although as we found two butterflies of different species chasing each other around the trig point the girls amused themselves in racing after them for a good 15 minutes showing that the walk hadn’t exhausted them nearly enough.

At the top a few scattered stones are all that remains of a medieval chapel and below the peak you can make out the bank and ditch of an Iron Age hillfort. The views in all directions are amazing– you can climb Welsh mountains all year and never be sure of the visibility at the top but we spent a lot of time trying to discern which of the mountains to our west we had climbed before and which we still had to look forward to. To the east May Hill, Bredon Hill and the Malverns were all clear, Clee Hill to the north in Shropshire and some further ridge that we couldn’t name for sure. To the south the Bristol Channel and its islands gleamed in the sun, as did Somerset beyond.

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Looking south to the sea

On the way back we took a short sharp descent that curled around the hill’s northern tip and brought us to a valley between the Skirrid itself and the landslip that occurred in the ice age and gave the mountain its Welsh name, Ysgryd, which means split or shattered. We had the second round of sandwiches here and I could easily spend a day reading or writing in the sheltered grove; the ever shifting light under the trees creating myriad shades of green.

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And then we found the bluebells. I had seen a flash of mauve upon the hill as we drove past at a distance, but thought it could have been grey shale catching the afternoon sun. No. It was a carpet of flowers spreading west towards the Sugar Loaf, although as all my photos were taken into the lowering sun I don’t think I did the views justice.

 

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The mountain itself was stunning – it’s shape, the views for miles in all directions, the perfect weather – then we had the bluebells. And then we had a magical Welsh wood. I’ve posted a few pictures of others that have captivated me – and this one was a total surprise. All my previous favourite Welsh woods have been far further from home in North Wales; to find one a little over an hour from home was astonishing. Sadly by now we were all tired and dusk was falling so we mostly kept marching on with me snapping pictures to all sides and not stopping to ohh and ahhh as much as I would like (okay, yes I was already planning how to get there on my own to fully bask in its beauty sometime, sorry family.)

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This was supposed to have been posted last Thursday and I was going to say “next week is half term so there will be no new blog post as I shall hopefully be out enjoying more family days like this.” In fact my determination to get a good chunk of my latest wip completed before the holiday delayed this post, but I am pleased to say that even with typical British Bank Holiday weather, we have indeed had another wonderful – and wet – walk. I should be back soon with more pictures – and hopefully that sounds more like a promise than a threat.

Guess where I’ve been?

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Back to Wales and one of my favourite places – well several favourite places – but after Castell y Bere, Tywyn, Ynys-Hir, Pennal and the once-in-a-lifetime experience of Corris in the sunshine, I got back to Dolgoch Falls. (OK, maybe it’s sunny in Corris more often than I think, but I always picture it in mist and/or rain. Or low cloud. Seeing it in under blazing blue skies was weird.)

Last time I posted this glade I tried to tie it in to my writingwriting and the way different people, or different information can cloud, or illuminate something we thought we knew. This time I think I’ll let the pictures and the beauty of the seasons speak for themselves.

Dolgoch falls on 25 March 2008, 22 April 2017 and 28 August 2012.

That’s winter, spring and summer captured. Just to get autumn and snow…

Seen in a different light

Most things are worth a second glance, whether it’s a person, a place or an object. Looking again can reveal hidden beauty, or unexpected faults – and as I type this I realise how much this applies to re-reading one’s writing! I’m in the process of editing a manuscript and every time I open it I find another mistake, or I find a piece of dialogue or imagery that makes me think “did I really write that?” (and not always in horror.)

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Oops, that’s was a very early diversion down tangent alley. I’ll admit now that this blog post started as an excuse to post two photos of the same spot but it evolved in my mind into being more about how characters in our writing see things on a second glance, or more specifically, how they have interpreted phrases that can have a completely different meaning years later when more information, or life, has been accrued.

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These two phots were taken at Dolgoch Falls in Wales, the first in March and the second in August 4 years later. It wasn’t a conscious duplication, just a perfect spot to capture the twisted ancient woodland that enthralled me the first time I visited – to me, those moss covered trunks and corkscrew branches reaching up from a deep ravine full of thundering water are the perfect embodiment of all secret woodlands described in books like the Hobbit, the Narnia Chronicles, Arthurian Legend and of course Susan Cooper whose Grey King is largely set just a few miles from Dolgoch.

Apart from being shocked by the weird coincidence of standing in the same spot over four years later, what else do those pictures make me – or you – think? I long to capture the scene in Autumn, or in snow. They make me want to go back and explore the gorge and the river further, away from the easily marked footpaths; but I also want to just sit in that glade and look closer at the ivy and holly clad trees, I want to see if the grass is as soft as it looks, if some of those fallen branches are still there, or have they rotted back into the earth? And just which picture do I prefer? Logically the autumn one has more colour and depth and life, but it was the stark silvery grey silhouettes of the trees that first captured me and which draw me now more strongly.

Obviously the second glance, or the reassessing look is a common trope in romance – not just the cliché of how beautiful the spinster looks when she takes off her glasses and lets down her hair. I’m thinking of the fish out of water scene that often occurs, or the “this is going to be uncomfortable but actually we’re really turned on by the end of the evening” scene. How often do characters have to attend a ball or dress function, or a family meal with everyone on best behaviour? Or the boss and secretary end up in a casual situation and realise how different each looks out of the usual business suit. These are all familiar scenes or plots because it is often exactly at such moments that we see someone we had a fixed view of in a completely different light and have to reappraise our opinion of them; not just the surface looks, but a deeper understanding of their character. Modern romances are not simple enough to fall into a “clothes make the man/woman” cliché but a change of scene or situation can tell us a lot about both the character being seen in a new light, and the one doing the seeing.

I’ve blogged before with pictures of the same location in different seasons, that time I was trying to explore the way seemingly inconsequential memories can add depth to a character, how backstory can be given in fleeting glimpses rather than an info dump, or how the different things two characters see in a room can tell us about their background and expectations. Where I was planning to go this time was to reflect on my current manuscript where both protagonist have had their lives shaped by a key phrase – and by the end of the book they have come to see, or rather to hear, the words differently.

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This is of course something we writers try to do a lot, straightforward seeming conversations can be imbued with subtext for the other characters or for the reader who may already be party to a secret that one of the protagonists doesn’t yet know. I personally love it when a secret or something from the past is revealed and I go back to an earlier scene to reread it in the light of the new information and see a character’s reactions in a whole new light. It is again a crucial tool in giving insight into plot, conflict or motivation.

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I hope I handle it less clunkily than I am trying to explain it now. In my manuscript learning more about the background to the situation, or the people who said the words that shaped their lives is only the start of my character’s dilemma. How do they take that knowledge? If someone else’s words have been so important in shaping their lives, how will they now reshape themselves? A second glance, or fresh light on a familiar view can be refreshing, or terrifying if it reveals aspects we had no idea were there. Balancing the expected with the new, the known with the subtly altered is tricky enough in everyday life, let alone when it is with characters we have created and whose worlds we are turning upside down. But it is exhilarating and literally life changing for them.

Those last two pictures were taken on the same day, I came across them last week when I was looking for photos to illustrate the precise shade of green that I had been coughing up for weeks. I remember that mossy wall deep in Coed y Brenin forest and how the stones looked as soft and inviting as pillows. These were simply taken with different exposures or with and without flash, but they show two completely different scenes. In one the wall is as emerald as I remember it and the rest of the wood could be dressed in springtime. In the other the wall no longer catches your eye, it is the autumnal golds and russets that leap out at you, and the fairylike sparkles of rain caught in the camera’s glare. Each tells a different story, which would you rather read?

The start of the affair

Three weeks ago I fell in love. It’s been a long time since that happened and I was unprepared for the rush of excitement and passion, the overwhelming sense of “Yes!” of recognition along with the thrill of so many new discoveries to be made. Two weeks later, weeks in which my mind had constantly been drawn to my new object of affection, my partner asked what I would like to do for my birthday and I unhesitatingly said I wanted to return to the spot where I had fallen in love (I didn’t quite phrase it that way) and he kindly agreed. After a two hour drive, mostly through rain, the sky lightened and patches of blue welcomed us back to Dunraven Bay and this:

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A walled garden. By the sea. All that is left of a country house built on a cliff and once known as Dunraven Castle. With the ramparts of an Iron Age Hillfort towering over the garden walls. If I had to create the most perfect place for a story, for inspiration, or to encompass the maximum number of items that I love to explore and write and read about – well I think I would have dismissed all this as just too much.

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And did I mention the beach? Sand for building castles and dams, rock pools in which to hunt for scuttling wildlife and amazing rock strata in the cliffs to explore for fossils. The sunset picture at the top of my last blog post was taken as I tore myself away from the beach three weeks ago; it had been a perfect day and people were heading onto the beach with barbeques and drinks to watch the setting sun, still more had climbed to the banks and ditches of the hillfort to see the sun reflected on the sea and the gleaming sand.

That first visit had been primarily to look for fossils with my dinosaur-obsessed seven year old, we were going to try to find the steps down to the supposedly more secluded beach but I dived straight through the gothic doorway into the gardens – so often on days out we have said “we’ll explore it later” only for darkness to fall or for gates to be locked. That first glimpse of the gardens was more of a forced march but it left me longing for more, as did the view once we had left the garden and climbed through the woods to the other side of the peninsula.

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No steps were obvious so we walked back through the few remains of the castle and on over the hillfort earthworks and back to the beach where a delightful afternoon of swimming, splashing, sandcastle and damn building was enjoyed by all, plus a picnic on the rocks broken up by catching shrimps and my toes being nibbled by a one-clawed crab.

Two weeks and one day later we returned. The school holidays were over and even though the sky became almost as cloudlessly blue, the heat had gone; autumn was in the air – although it didn’t stop us all from paddling in the sea. I’ve never swum on my birthday before. There were more surfers than swimmers this time due to the impressive waves and you could feel the force of the water tugging us towards the Devon coast across the hazy water. (I’ve forgotten to mention where Dunraven is, haven’t I? South Glamorgan, the wonderful Heritage Coast in south Wales. The beach is also known as Southerndown.)

In the weeks since our first visit I searched on line for pictures of the missing castle/house to find out why it had been demolished in the 1960s. There are many beautiful black and white photographs of it but I have no wish to steal someone else’s images.  Here are some, along with the history of the area and in someone else’s fascination with the castle here  However, on this visit we went to the Heritage Centre behind the beach (it had been closed two weeks earlier) and while reading the many panels about the house and grounds and the history, what struck me most was an aerial view showing the circle of the hillfort as it would have been before the cliffs crumbled away and suddenly the effrontery of building a country house inside a two thousand year old hill fort hit me. I don’t know why. I don’t find the village built within the earthworks at Avebury – and using some of its ancient standing stones for building material – shocking. “Baffled and amused at the very British practical vandalism” was how I described it elsewhere on this blog but somehow, a house built for one family’s grandeur seemed wrong as I read about the history of the 500BC hillfort, possible Roman occupation, Saxon raids, its gifting to a Norman Lord after 1066, rumours of Wreckers and the original Tudor Mansion. I’m not saying I’m glad the house has gone, I would have love to have seen it high on that cliff, although given the coastal erosion I wonder how much longer it would have safely lasted? I don’t know why the aerial shots had this effect on me, there are many here on the wonderful website Coflein, an online catalogue of archaeology, buildings, industrial and maritime heritage in Wales with a whole page devoted to Dunraven hillfort. The ones in thick frost make me long to visit in winter and this one with the deep shadows of early morning show the ramparts at their best, you can see how at least a third of the hillfort has been swallowed by the sea. You can also see the long point of the peninsula, called Trwyn-y-Witch or Witches Point, because obviously the place just wasn’t magical enough.

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After lunch I finally made it back to the gardens. I’m sure I can write a whole ‘nother post about the allure of walled gardens, but to have four rising up the gentle valley, to feel the temperature rise by several degrees the minute you step inside the sheltering embrace of the walls, to hear the waves if you listen hard enough, and to have the two and a half thousand year old battlements of a hillfort rising over you makes this place very special. The gardens are being restored, very carefully and unobtrusively, and you are free to roam all over them. That first hot sunny day we arrived at high tide and there was no sandy beach to play on, the families simply decamped to the gardens to picnic under apple trees or on the many benches along the walkways, or to play ball games. The freedom to explore, the higgledy-piggledy growth of the plants, trees and shrubs, the formal lines of the paths and the walls that break the gardens up enticed and enchanted me the first time and did not disappoint on a more leisurely visit. I saw my first quince tree, alongside several figs. There weren’t that many flowering plants but colour was everywhere in countless shades of green, in the stark grey crenelated walls and in the blisteringly blue sky overhead.

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The first garden has a greenhouse, I imagine it once had many, there are the remains of seed beds and the interior walls are almost obscured by climbing plants. A secretive set of mildly treacherous steps led up into the woods and the recent rain cast a fresh scent throughout.

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The second garden had rows of fruit trees, although they seemed as if planted by chance with their low spreading friendly shade.

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The third was wilder, shrubs I didn’t recognise and a wild overgrown hedge. Oh, and some ruins against the wall, because a lost house/castle and the possibility of a separate lost Tudor mansion simply wasn’t charm enough.

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I think it was this garden more than any that made me long to stop and sit. For two weeks I had been spinning tales in my head based on this impossible mix of histories and archaeology and nature; all I longed for was a few hours with a laptop or pen and paper to sit and scribble as fast as I could, to soak up the atmosphere, to capture it’s beauty and mystery in words rather than simply with my camera. I began to fantasise about coming here for a break, staying anywhere nearby and spending entire days writing and plotting and dreaming. I could feel my muse both thirsting and being quenched at the same moment as I explored that tangled paradise.

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And the fourth garden is a mostly level expanse of grass, maybe for tennis? Bowls? It brought to mind a place for jousting, but that may have been the wooden barriers as if to keep back crowds and the pavilion for courtly ladies to sit and watch. Oh, and of course the tower that was built over the ice house. Part folly? Part showing off? Pure plot inspiration.

Then on, through the darkly dappled woods via a squelchy path with the smell of rain on ancient trees refreshing us after the heat trapped within the walled garden. This is where people think the Tudor house could have been – how do you lose a Tudor Mansion? Up to the breath-taking view of the coast towards Cardiff and then doubling back to where Dunraven Castle stood, where its formal gardens and terraces gazed towards England, where the even more impressive and far older bulwarks of the hillfort bar your way. I haven’t explored those ramparts yet, or the Witches peninsula, neither seem too safe with two children under eight who run off the moment you glance away. Sitting on the beach later you could see people enjoying the view, they were probably well back from the cliff edge but from below they seemed in imminent danger of tumbling over.

I know I will go back, I don’t know how soon or if I can sneak some writing time there alone. As it’s our nearest beach I’m hoping for a few trips next summer, although I also long to see the gardens in their winter colours. I’m not sure when a place has grabbed me so totally and refused to let go. There are others that have inspired me and made me long to return and that have rewarded repeat visits – Castel-y-Bere, Longtown, Symi, Dolgoch Falls, Cregennan Lakes, Kingley Vale yew forest – but none that mixed so many elements of history, nature, ruin, loss, myth, archaeology – oh, and outstanding beauty. And fossils. And crabs. And there’s a small shop selling ice cream and tea. Didn’t I say it was perfect? Now to finish the book I am writing and start just one of the many plots this place has inspired.

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This is the look of a woman who does not want to leave. Have any places captured you so totally?

5 reasons not to blog – and 1 reason to do it

I considered calling this post “To blog or not to blog” but it seemed so obvious I thought it must have been done before – and a quick internet search confirmed that. I have very few regular followers of this blog, but far more than I expected it when I started it at the beginning of May. So I shall apologise to anyone who wondered where my weekly posts had gone over the summer. It surprised me as much as you. I had written posts ready on books, writing, reading and ripped-off toe nails – something to look forward to there – but it felt odd to post them when I wasn’t active with other aspects of my writing.

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The reason was simple, school holidays and 2 young children underfoot all the time. This meant lots of day trips – I’ve taken over 1300 photos in 7 weeks so be very afraid of future blogs – and very little time for writing or editing. I’m not a (total) fool and had hardly expected to get much done over these weeks, hence having blog posts ready in advance, but I wasn’t reading other blogs that I follow, or keeping up with twitter. I wasn’t even reading. And that is something new. I usually manage a few chapters in the bath at the very least but I think this summer, I wanted so very badly to be writing that when that proved impossible I switched off from all things that reminded me of what I was missing. Deep down I’m grateful for this; that my writing habits have become so ingrained that their thwarting also stifled other creative outlets and made me focus on this blessed day when school restarted and I could properly get at my laptop again.

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The perfect picnic spot at Grosmont Castle

So again; I am sorry if anyone missed this blog, and I hope no one is sorry to see it return to its usual levels of activity. It has also reminded me of why I started being more interactive with readers, writers and bloggers. Mostly it was selfish reasons, wanting to start building a platform or identity for when I’m trying to catch an editor or agent’s eye, and then for future readers. But it was also to share knowledge and information – not just my own – but all the helpful, wonderful and funny things that have been shared with me over the years and that are still being put out there for free every day. If I’m not commenting on other blogs, heck, if I’m not reading them and thinking and being inspired – or enraged – then why would I even want to put out thoughts of my own? So many writers say they started writing because of wanting to emulate a book that moved them, others were horrified by a book and thought “I can do better than this.” With blogging it was more that I wanted to add my own voice to the mix after whiling away so many tedious hours at work with illicit internet sessions, and also to try and collate some of the valuable writing tips I’ve absorbed over the years.

It’s the same with twitter. I signed up when Harlequin’s So You Think You Can Write competition started having twitter chats, I had no idea what I was doing and before I knew it I had a follower and so I tweeted randomly and followed actors, writers, editors and comedians and retweeted things and drifted away for a bit when I found it sucking up too much of my time. When I started taking my writing seriously and setting up this blog I decided I wouldn’t tweet as well. Sure I’d keep my account and follow all the useful industry people and bloggers, but I wouldn’t communicate back, I’d be an anonymous lurker. And then in one week I retweeted (to my handful of followers) 2 really good articles and it hit me how selfish I would be if I kept taking advice from twitter and never really sharing it.

I know there’s no rule that you have to participate or share or comment. But isn’t it nice when people do read and respond? It was partly feeling hurt very early on on twitter when people didn’t react to a tweet or notice if I replied that I backed away from it, I know it’s a lottery of time and luck if people see some tweets, it’s not personal (I am the sort of person who can obsess very easily over such things.) Oddly enough, once I stopped caring and just retweeted more often with my own comments, I had far more interactions and far more fun. Twitter actually is fun, as long as you don’t follow to many people doing the hard sell or meet too many trolls (which is true for all social media, and indeed the real world.)

All of which is a rambling (I’m out of practice) way of saying why I didn’t blog when I wasn’t fully immersed in the writing word this summer and how happy I am to be back. And why I think sharing, even random pieces of advice or inspiration, can be so important; you can never know what small piece of information, or anecdote, or stunning picture, might be just what someone else needed to see today. You can just be sure that if I find it, I will share it, and will thank you.

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I enjoyed building dams on the beach, even when the children lost interest

And now, according to Dr J with whom I live, I have to write something about wanting to be in a spooky tower, eating cake, waiting for a spy. That, apparently, is what he has gleaned about me from reading this blog. Which is obviously rubbish. Drinking gin in a ruined tower waiting for a spy yes. Not eating cake. Unless it was gin flavoured.

(But seriously, if that’s all he’s taken from previous posts I need to crack on with more posts about writing and books and fewer mentions of alcohol. I’m not cutting back on castle pictures though.)

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Longtown Castle

Oh yes, I promised 5 reasons not to blog – holidays, children, not writing, too busy enjoying a sunset, not wanting to lose the pleasure of blogging. And too much gin some nights, always gin. 6 reasons….

And 1 big reason to blog –it feels like belonging.

If a picture says a thousand words…. I apologise for the size of this blog

Or what we did on our holidays and why there was no blog post last week.

(Only after I posted this did I realise that if you click on any picture you get a slide show, useful when viewing on a phone – only if you’re interested of course :))

First days of sun and beach and gin.

The Roman Steps and shoes that gave up after 25 years.

Rain, waterfalls, misty cobwebs and bogs.

Gales and castles.

Burial Chambers, birds, bridges and beaches at dusk.

Goodbye Wales for another year.

Castles and ruins and interrupted stories

History, archaeology, myth, legend, inspiration and anything else you want them to be. That’s why I love castles. Especially ruined ones. In fact anything ruined. And hillforts or other ancient earthworks. And did I mention standing stones? Or stone circles? Burial sites, graveyards, the remains of abbeys, country houses that date back centuries. Where to stop? (& I won’t even start on the appeal of older men, that’s a whole other ruination…)

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Skenfrith Castle

I think it would be a challenge to find any UK based romantic writer or reader without a picture of a castle, or an ancient monument on their blog or twitter account. They are inspiring, intriguing, mysterious, imposing and unknown  – descriptions that fit many classic heroes. They can be gothic and brooding, or bright and well maintained; small and dangerously crumbly, or massive and easy to get lost in (definitely only talking about castles there.) They are an endless source of inspiration and not just for historical novelists. But my main feeling is always an awareness of a story being unfinished, or interrupted; we can research a castle’s past all we like, but we can’t know a fraction of the lives and stories that have happened within its walls and that thrills and saddens me all at once.

Anyone who tweets a picture of a castle has me at once, (beware of Ailish Sinclair and Louise Marley if you don’t want to lose half a day.) The images and stories capture all of my senses, but it’s much more than my love of the past (which led me to a degree in Ancient and Medieval History,) in fact it’s the opposite of that; the unknown, the things I can never read in a guide book or on a plaque on a crumbling stone wall. It’s the untold story; the tangible awareness of seeing a fragment of a vast story going back in time, and forward as well. How much of these immense edifices will be here long after I’m gone?

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Tintern Abbey

Sure, I love imagining what it must have been like to live there in a castle’s heyday and I’ve stood in roofless banqueting halls or sat in draughty windows and tried to imagine being a lady doing tapestry work by candlelight, or a knight preparing for battle or more likely being a serving wench lugging firewood up three stories of dark uneven stone spiral staircase or mucking out the stables. More than anything, I enjoy finding a quiet corner and just sitting, or standing, and absorbing the place; letting my imagination run riot. Not picturing any particular battle or siege or famous occupant, simply looking at the tiny details as well as the impressive ones. How many thousands of hands have worn that handrail so smooth? Was that hill I can see from this arrow slit wooded centuries ago? Did it always feel this cold? How many generations of swallows have hatched in that nest and where did they roost before this was a ruin?

I would always rather avoid a guided tour in favour of sitting outside with whichever book I am currently reading and letting the noise and presence of the place wash over me. It doesn’t matter what I’m reading, the fiction and the place lull me into a true (for me) appreciation of the past, present and future. People have lived and died – maybe violently – in these paces and somehow by stepping outside of it by reading or just looking and daydreaming it becomes more vivid for me. I suppose I’m trying to capture a fleeting feeling of what it was like to simply live there. Or maybe I’m just enjoying the warmth of sun drenched stones and peace and quiet among other bustling tourists or historians keen to unlock a castle’s secrets. Everyone has different ways to picture or experience the past, I like to sit and remember, both the building’s impermanence, and my own; and to celebrate, just for a moment, being an insignificant part of its ongoing story.

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Castell y Bere with Bird Rock in the distance

The first castles I remember visiting were Caernarfon and Conwy, huge, impressive, easy to get lost in. My main memory is of passageways deep in the walls that were barely wide enough to pass through. Then I visited Chepstow Castle (and Tintern Abbey in the same day) this was all at junior school at must have formed my love of ruins; when I discovered Raglan Castle that was my favourite for years (umm, doesn’t everyone have a favourite castle?) Then there was Castell y Bere; very little of the buildings remain but for location and the immense brooding presence of Bird Rock nearby it can’t be beaten (with the added delight of being where parts of Susan Cooper’s Dark is Rising books were set – I’m so glad I didn’t re read the Grey King before I climbed Cadir Idris in a snow storm.)

Maybe part of why I love the more derelict castles is that sometimes it’s nice to step outside the preconceived notions of historians, archaeologists and other experts and allow ourselves to paint whatever we want onto what is left of the canvas before us. Such an attitude also explains my love of hillforts and stone circles and burial mounds. No one can truly say why they were built, although archaeology helps; but almost anyone who has read enough can make their own informed guess and no one can say they are categorically wrong. It was this (perhaps arrogant) view that made me choose the dark ages as one of my main periods to study.

Ruin is of course a loaded word. “Fallen or wrecked or impaired state,” ruination as a verb means to reduce and ruinous is “dilapidated, bringing ruin, disastrous.” It implies the place has been spoiled, or is decaying. To me it’s still growing, evolving; it may yet flourish anew. I’ve visited and been awed by many cathedrals, but none move me in any spiritual way as much as the remains of Tintern Abbey. If a castle hadn’t been abandoned and left to decay, it might still be occupied and modernised and unrecognisable from its original form.  I’m not trying to be critical, I’ve just puzzled a long time as to why the well preserved castles such as Powis and Conwy don’t enthral me the way the gaping keep at Skenfrith does, or that lonely wall still battling the winds at Dolwyddelan Castle.

 

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Dolwyddelan Castle

Do you have a favourite castle, or ancient site? Or do you prefer a well-kept manor house or country park to visit? Have you written about any, real or fictional? The first two books I wrote featured castles – one ruined, one still lived in. And in my current book the name of a castle looms large, even though everyone has forgotten where it is…